So far, we have seen that the meaning of a word is composed of two parts. First, there is a semantic part which consists of exemplars that seek to set the range of things the word can be applied to. Semantics is part of language as system (“grammar”).
People (in their so-called “mental lexicons”) or in dictionaries can seek to capture the exemplars through images, paradigmatic examples, a list of features, some type of definition, or any combination of these. Even a definition that seems to capture the essence of something does not. Images, features, examples, or definitions can only capture a more or less well-bounded range of possibilities.
For example, while a definition like “a bachelor is an unmarried male” seems pretty definitive, the Pope is an unmarried male, but not often referred to as a “bachelor”. For words like “democracy” and “sausage” all bets are off about their semantics being rigidly definitive in the sense of defining necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a democracy or a sausage.
Second, there are situational meanings. These are the meanings people actually give to a word in situations of use, based on their semantics and the specific demands and features of the situation. By the way, over time, situational meanings can change the range of possible applications for a word and, thus, its semantics.
The principle of sufficient reason determines how people make situational meanings. They have to judge whether a thing or event, in an actual situation of use, is sufficiently like the exemplars in the word’s semantic meaning to merit applying the word. How such judgements are made is a complex issue best left for later.
As we have said, lots of misery and grief comes from all this—witness poor Cain. For an example, consider the word “sausage”. You can readily think of all sorts of exemplars. Or you can just say that sausage is ground up meat parts, together with other ingredients, usually stuffed inside a casing of some sort. This is a semantic meaning for “sausage”.
Now, at the food store you have to confront applications of the word “sausage” on packages, ads, and in your own talk and decisions. And alas there are lots and lots of different things in sausage. All sorts of animal body parts, some of which many people (and some government agencies) don’t consider “meat”. Here are just a few of the things other that can be in sausage: animal fat, rusk, bread crumbs, cereal, water, polyphosphates, soya, colors, preservatives, sulphites, nitrates, antioxidants, flavor enhancers (e.g., monosodium glutamate), and, of course, a wide variety of contaminates.
Government regulations define meat in such a way that pork sausage, for example, can contain up to 30% fat and 25% connective tissue and lots of ingredients that no one thinks are meat and still count both as “meat” and “sausage”. On the other hand, some consumers would beg to disagree.
So, consumers, producers, supermarkets, economic markets, government agencies, courts, health groups, and others discuss, contest, and negotiate over what can be said to be “sausage” in actual situations. Consumers do not want sausage to be so “pure” that it is too expensive to buy. Producers want it not so “impure” that consumers die from eating it (because then they can’t buy it), but not so expensive that they cannot make a good profit. Supermarkets want to keep their customers, but not go broke. Courts are asked things like: “Just how many rat droppings can sausage have in it and not count as sausage any more”? And people from different cooking cultures have different opinions about what can or cannot be in “real” sausage.
It’s all a mess. All sorts of people, institutions, interests, and groups get involved and help move situational meanings in different directions through their talk, arguments, actions, interactions, purchases, and cooking. Semantics settles nothing on its own here. Things change. Some people win and some people lose and this changes, too, across time. Situational meaning is social and cultural and contestable and practical, even if people share the same semantics or language.
As far as I know no one has gone to war over what is in sausage (but somewhere they probably have). However, plenty of people have killed, maimed, and gone to war over what “sacrifice”, “democracy”, “Christianity”, “Islam”, “white”, “black”, “fair”, “just”, “liberal”, “kin”, “family”, “God”, “honor”, “pure”, “male”, “female”, “reason”, “religion”, “science”, and many many other such words—all as messy as sausage—mean at the point of application to the world.
How do people settle arguments over exemplars and sufficient likeness other than through hate, war, intolerance, and withdrawing into meaning-ghettos? Can two people with different exemplars for words and different ideas about what constitutes sufficient likeness really communicate with and understand each other? How does this change across time and societies? How can we, as activists, make things better and not worse (for example, make them worse by imposing our own values and politics on other people, even in the name of what we take to be good and moral and politically correct)? Think about, for instance, the signs on bathroom doors and the fights over what they mean in terms of who can and cannot enter.