Mutation of Meaning

It is fascinating how the meaning of terms can be inverted over time. Take form, for example. Plato and Aristotle’s notions of “form” include something like what Kant and Brandom would call conceptual content. What Kant and Brandom call “form”, on the other hand, while not properly equivalent to Aristotelian logical/semantic matter, seems to belong to that side of things.

Similarly, when medieval authors wrote about something being “merely objective”, they meant superficial or based on mere appearance, i.e., something close to what modern authors would call “merely subjective”. “Subject” had no mental connotations. It meant something more like a grammatical subject.

Such reversals or near-reversals are only the most dramatic examples. Nearly every philosophical term of interest has undergone historic shifts in its general meaning. When these are not taken into account, the result is endless confusion.

It is pointless to argue about what such a term “really means” in the abstract. Meaning is use, so we need to look at concrete contexts of usage, and ask what it means in this context.

I make opinionated remarks about usage, but always relative to a context. (See also Univocity.)

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