Material impact in semantics

I want to introduce a new term I’ve been using lately: material impact. The context is subterfuge in semantics. Sometimes the carving of the ‘semantic landscape’ lasts a little too long for comfort, especially when the term isn’t crucial to the argument. Supposing an argument makes use of 200 terms, and only 4 of those terms are very relevant to the success of that argument, it makes little sense to dwell on the ‘justifications not given’ for the 196 other terms. Assumptions have to be made at some point. There can always be a justification of the justification of the justification until we get back to first principles through ‘principle chaining.’

The idea is that if term X for phenomenon Y is used in argument Z does not materially impact the success of the argument, then there shouldn’t be much reason to dwell on ‘X’ endlessly. We might as well make up a word, or in terms of a phenomenon, we can ‘just-for-the-sake-of-argument’ construct a bogus causal mechanism to more clearly illustrate the phenomenon.

 I’m not being clear, but for now I need to keep the above in very abstract terms, otherwise I’ll lose sight of the insight I’m having here if I use more concrete examples. The principle will get obscured in the irrelevant details of the concrete. It can happen, even if you once had a clear idea of what the principle was in order to construct the concrete properly in the first place.

‘Whatever term you’d like to use, the term itself doesn’t materially impact the argument.’ It’s a signal to move beyond semantics and into mechanism/phenomenon. Interestingly enough, as I noted, sometimes it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the phenomenon without reference to a causal mechanism, but it’s fine to just construct one out of thin air that sounds superficially plausible. That there is a causal mechanism is granted, given the phenomenon, but the exact precise details of the mechanism is irrelevant to the actual existence of the phenomenon itself, so sometimes it’s just helpful to ‘posit a mechanism.’

If I’m trying to explain the differences between X and Y, or I’m trying to account for some phenomenon Z, I don’t want hang-ups around the causal mechanism to obscure the relational differences between X and Y, and I don’t want it to obscure the existence of the phenomenon. If phenomenon Z exists, then there must be a causal mechanism to account for it (at least within the system—I’m going to bracket out discussions about whether the system as a whole needs a causal mechanism, too—I’m just talking about normal, day-to-day events within this physical system).