New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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4                                       PROBLEMS IN MEANING
when applied, for example, to poetic attitudes and meanings. 'Thus Philip Wheelwright is concerned to defend "fullness of context" and "plastic uses of language" and to oppose as 'Verbal atomism" any tendency to use terms in a restricted and constant sense.1
Now in the first place, those semanticists to whose views I subscribe do not aim to use words in a restricted and constant sense; and in the second place, far from quarreling with poetic meanings which stress "fullness of context" and "plastic uses of language," these semanticists welcome such meanings. For example, I. A. Richards in his latest book, How To Read a Page^ lays particular emphasis upon the "versatility" and "resourcefulness" of words, stressing not only the existence but the efficacy of their varied and multiple meanings. Most semanticists claim, however, that when, as is the case with esthetics and art criticism, adequate understanding and satisfactory communication largely depend upon precision of meaning, then, surely, a leaning toward exactitude rather than toward richness and vagueness of language is preferable. And most semanticists claim, further, that philosophers and philosopher-critics ignore at their peril the basic principles of semanticism set forth in the following pages.2
One may succinctly explain the most important aspects of the relationship between words and things, between linguistic machinery and non-verbal facts, by first distinguishing symbols from signs.
i. See "Poetry and Logic," The Symposium, October, 1930; and "On the Semantics of Poetry," The Kenyon Review, Summer, 1940.
2. It is not really surprising that philosophers tend to be hostile toward the semantic point of view about to be considered; for it is said with reason that a comprehension of this semantics will render much metaphysical speculation futile, since many historic philosophical questions become, in the light of semantic studies, artificial questions to which no true or false answers can be given because their solutions depend, not upon matters of fact, but upon matters of language. An instructive example of this effect of semantics upon philosophy is the compelling argument of A. J. Ayer (The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge [New York, 1940]) that the philosophical "argument from illusion*' is, at bottom, a verbal problem.