Semantics: A Gentleman’s Approach

My friend started an interesting discussion about being a gentleman today on facebook. I am copying an excerpt of some of the comments for you viewing pleasure. At the time of my writing he already has 8 comments, many of them offering some idea of what being a gentleman means to them.

I thought the response by Braxton was of particular interest because he basically states that gentleman means what it meant in one historical setting or it has no real meaning at all.

In a sense, I think Braxton is right. Not that it can only mean what it meant historically, but that it doesn’t mean anything at all. Instead, it can mean a lot of things but doesn’t necessarily mean any of them. This is what is often called “semantic range.” A dictionary can often help us limit the semantic range of a word. I listed below the first 16 choices from dictionary.com. We know it can’t mean all of these at the same time. Some of them are actually mutually exclusive. For instance, when you call someone a gentleman you probably do not mean he is a smuggler and a man regarded as having qualities of refinement.

So how do we decide what gentlemen means? We allow the author to decide. We have to try and determine what the author means when he uses the term, because if the meaning doesn’t come from the author, Braxton is right, there is no meaning at all. In this case, I am pretty sure that Scott is not referring to the qualities of a smuggler, or a Yeomen, or a valet. So we can start by eliminating certain options from within our semantic range. Further, he references the word gentle, so it is likely that he is speaking of some positive qualities a man has. Perhaps the 2nd or 10th option for gentleman is closest – a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man.

And by the way… since Scott asked for suggestions, perhaps pursuing the 14th option for the meaning of gentleman would be worth aiming for… a man with an independent income who does not work for a living. That is the type of gentleman that I would like to be.

Possible limitations for the semantic range of the word gentleman. From Dictionary.com
1. a man regarded as having qualities of refinement associated with a good family
2. a man who is cultured, courteous, and well-educated
3. a polite name for a man
4. the personal servant of a gentleman (esp in the phrase gentleman’s gentleman)
5. (Brit) history: a man of gentle birth, who was entitled to bear arms, ranking above a yeoman in social position
6. (formerly) a euphemistic word for a: smuggler
7. a man of good family, breeding, or social position.
8. (used as a polite term) a man: Do you know that gentleman over there?
9. gentlemen, (used as a form of address): Gentlemen, please come this way.
10. a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man: He behaved like a true gentleman.
11. a male personal servant, esp. of a man of social position; valet.
12. a male attendant upon a king, queen, or other royal person, who is himself of high birth or rank.
13. a man of good social standing, as a noble or an armigerous commoner.
14. a man with an independent income who does not work for a living.
15. a male member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives: The chair recognizes the gentleman from Massachusetts.
16. History/Historical . a man who is above the rank of yeoman.

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Religious Ignorance

I know this is a little off the subject of this blog, but I saw an interesting article tonight that suggests that while Americans consider themselves religious, they tend to be ignorant concerning religious matters.  The test showed Protestants as more religiously ignorant than atheists, Mormons, and Jewish adherents.

After reading the article I question the validity of the test, nonetheless, it is no doubt true that we tend to be surprisingly ignorant about the subject that we claim is of the utmost importance.  There seems to be a disconnect somewhere.  If our eternal destiny rests on what we believe, it stands to reason that there is no subject of greater importance.

If you are interested in the article it is titled:
On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass
New York Times

Socrates on the Meaning of Meaning

Validity in InterpretationI am currently reading Validity in Interpretation by E.D. Hirsch.  It is probably the definitive work on the author’s intention as being the key to understanding the meaning of a text.  In his book he cites an interesting interaction between Socrates and his imaginary debate partner, Psychologus, which is relevant to our search for meaning.  I will quote it below.

The Psychologus

Characters:  S = Socrates    P = Psychologus

S.  Here he comes now.  Hello, Psychologus.  We were just talking about you.
P.  Well if it isn’t Socrates!  How have you been after all this time?  You are looking well.  Haven’t changed a bit since we last met some months ago-though you really have changed, of course, since everybody does.  Take me, for example.  I’m not the same as I was when we last met.  My feelings and experiences are different, and frankly I’m older.
S.  You are a philosopher, Psychologus.  I hadn’t been thinking of such high things at all.  In fact, I was saying that you were able to perceive the subtlest differences in meaning every time you encountered the same words.  We had been talking about the word “rainbow.”
P.  Absolutely right.  I’m sure you understand that my only interest in making that point is to get the matter straight and help people to get rid of their naive illusions.  Actually, there is a little poem about a rainbow – you know: “My heart leaps up,” and so on – and I can tell you quite frankly, Socrates, that for me it is a different poem every time I read it.
S.  It means something different to you every time?
P.  Precisely.  As I was saying, I’m different myself every time, and I have different associations and responses.  Entre nous, I used to like it but now more often than not it leaves me cold.
S.  It is not now as it hath been of yore?
P.  Ah!  I see you read poetry too.  That’s quite a change for you, Socrates.
S.  Yes, I think that’s your point about people changing.  But I am troubled by something – though I am not sure precisely what it is.  It has to do with your saying that it’s a different poem every time you read it, while I thought I also understood you to say that it was always the same poem that you read.
P.  Socrates, it’s hard to decide sometimes whether you are being sly or just simpleminded.  When we say it’s the same poem, that is just a loose manner of speaking.  The poem isn’t the same at all.  We call it the same for convenience because the words are the same every time even though the meaning isn’t.
S.  You mean the physical signs stay the same, though what they mean changes?
P.  Precisely.
S.  No, I don’t think that’s quite the way to put it, because I’m wondering whether we really ought to call the signs the same.
P.  Why not?
S.  Well, sometimes I might read the poem in another book or even in a manuscript, so the physical signs would be different even though I called the poem the same.  I don’t think it can be the physical signs that are the same.
P.  You do like to stretch things out.  I am trying to explain why the meaning is always different and you are still fretting with the letters and the words.  After all, letters and words are just marks on paper; they are signs.  The physical marks may be different, but the signs are the same.
S.  I see.  We can solve our problem by not talking about physical signs but about physical marks that represent signs?
P.  Frankly, Socrates, you are trying my patience.  If you will forget about the marks, we can go on to talk about meaning.
S.  You must forgive a slow old man, Psychologus.  As you said, we are getting older every minute.  But I was under the impression that we were talking about meaning all the time.
P.  What do you mean?
S.  Psychologus, I admit that I’m thinking of a much simpler kind of meaning than rainbows and hearts leaping up.  Those matters are far too complicated for a person like me to describe.  They are so complicated that I can never quite remember whether they meant the same to me at two different times.  I’ve a very poor memory, you know, which is why I like philosophy.  In a philosopher it can even be an advantage to forget his old ideas.  Now, where were we?
P.  You said we were talking about meaning the whole time.
S.  Well, I think so – if meaning is something that is represented by marks and sounds and the like.
P.  That’s right.
S.  Well, since all those different marks represent signs, I was wondering if what you called the signs and words of that little poem aren’t meanings just as much as rainbows and hearts leaping up?
P.  Of course not
S.  Well then, what name should we give to the sort of thing that is represented by the different physical marks in those different books?
P.  I’ve already said they are signs.  You could call them words or phonemes or whatever you like, so long as you don’t call them meanings.  My friend Seispers calls them “types.”  The different physical marks are “tokens,” and what they represent is a “type.”
S.  And is a type a meaning?
P.  It’s certainly not what I call a meaning.
S.  Well, let us by no means call it that.  But still something troubles me.
P.  About meaning – at last?
S.  Well, about how a type can be the same when the physical marks that represent it can be so different.
P.  What is so strange about that?
S.  I was wondering how I could think a type was the same when each of my experiences of it, my attitudes toward it, my responses to it are so different.  You know, whether I am hungry or sleepy, or happy or in pain, whenever I encounter those different tokens I still think that they represent the same type.
P.  That is precisely what I am getting at.  The words of the poem are always the same, though their meaning is always different.
S.  Ah, thank you, Psychologus.  You have clarified my thoughts on these matters.
P.  Not at all, Socrates.  It is a pleasure to talk to a man who can still continue to learn at such an advanced age.

I think it is interesting that Socrates (really Psychologus) was having trouble with the meaning of meaning the same way we were when we started.  Perhaps categories like meaning as referent, meaning as sense, and meaning as significance would have really helped this conversation along.

The View’s View On Science and the Bible

If you watch the view – they chimed in on the topic I posted about yesterday

I hope that we don’t read about the Red Sea and predominately ask questions about whether or not it truly happened, or how it happened. Certainly it is important to believe that the Bible is true, but to stop there would be to miss the point.  Instead, I hope we respond more like the Psalmist who wrote:

Psalm 106:
 6   We have sinned, even as our fathers did;
       we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
 7   When our fathers were in Egypt,
       they gave no thought to your miracles;
       they did not remember your many kindnesses,
       and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.
 8   Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
       to make his mighty power known.
 9   He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
       he led them through the depths as through a desert.
 10  He saved them from the hand of the foe;
       from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
 11  The waters covered their adversaries;
       not one of them survived.
 12  Then they believed his promises
       and sang his praise.
47  Save us, O LORD our God,
       and gather us from the nations,
       that we may give thanks to your holy name
       and glory in your praise.
 48 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
       from everlasting to everlasting.
       Let all the people say, “Amen!”
       Praise the LORD.

Can Science and History Help?

Good news or bad news?  You tell me.


Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a computer simulator that demonstrates that it is actually physically possible for the Red Sea to be parted if the weather conditions are right.  The scientist says, “What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws.”

The question I am interested in is this, “does this discovery help us interpret this passage in Exodus?”  What it may influence is meaning as value.  Perhaps now, like the scientist says, you may be more likely to believe the story, and therefore the story may begin to mean a little more to you.  What it doesn’t influence is the meaning as sense.  It’s my contention that the most important question in biblical interpretation is “why did the author write this text.”  And unfortunately science, in this case, can not help us there.

Certainly whether or not the text is true is very important, but let’s be careful not to confuse the validity of the historical event that the text describes for the meaning of the text.  Let’s make sure that we are sophisticated enough in our search for meaning so as not to be easily sidetracked or distracted from the most important question in Biblical interpretation – “Why, or to what end, did the author write this?”


I think if we ask that question, we may decide that a purely natural understanding of the parting of the Red Sea is the exact opposite of the author’s intention.

The Big Rocks

The ironic thing about a lot of the time management seminars that I have sat through is that they are typically a waste of my time.  Think about all the things I could be doing with the 8 hours that I spent listening to someone talk about how much they love their daily planner.

There is an exception though.  I remember the very first time I heard about “putting the big rocks in first.”  The speaker set up a few jars in the front of room.  There were glasses of water, glasses of sand, and a hand full of rocks, small and large ones.  The goal was to put all the rocks, sand and water into one jar without it overflowing.  The first try she put the sand in first, then the small rocks, then the big ones.  Predictably, the water flowed right over the top.  The second try she put the big rocks in first, then the smaller ones, then the sand.  This time the water helped everything settle and everything fit in the jar.

For some reason I decided that this was transferable to time management.  If I put the “big rocks” in first, i.e. planned for the big things and let the smaller things fall in place, I would be much more successful.  Now I am going to reapply the illustration, to Biblical interpretation.

If meaning could “mean” five different things, which of the five are the big rocks.  Which ones should I be most concerned about when studying the Bible for myself?  I believe that the general principle we should follow is starting with the author, and then moving out.  So the aspects of meaning which focus on what the author was trying to communicate are the rocks that must go in first.

If I had to fit all the aspects of meaning into a jar, I think this would be my assembly order:

  1. Meaning as Sense 
  2. Meaning as Referent 
  3. Meaning as Significance 
  4. Meaning as Entailment 
  5. Meaning as Value 
What do you think are the “big rocks” for interpreting the Bible?

Full Disclosure

Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for MeaningIn the interest of full disclosure, I thought I should reveal my source for the last post.  I took the five types of meaning out of an article called “The Meaning of Meaning” by Walter Kaiser.  The article is actually the second chapter of a book titled An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: the search for meaning.  I really liked the article and this book.  You might too!