The following is based on a MCT and Dee Neely discussion about words. 

Dee NeelyPermalink Reply by Dee Neely yesterday

Words don't have meaning on the objective scale. They are symbols which relate to ideas, but they aren't objective. They are subjective. They are subjective depending on condition, on circumstance, on culture, on language...

Take the word power which we are discussing. The English word "power" has 20 different meanings according to

This makes the word very, very subjective. Science and mathematics are the only reliable way to determine meaning.

Your statement than many people have been powerful and not corrupt bears investigation.  I would be interested in seeing who you think qualifies as powerful and not corrupt so we can compare.

MCTPermalink Reply by MCT yesterday

"Words don't have meaning on the objective scale."

-Abject nonsense. The concept of ability is objective, whether we refer to it with the phoneme power or ability. It has necessary characteristics that are real and reducible to perceptual evidence in any language. We remove the unique subjective perceptions when we form concepts, that's what makes them concepts. Your willingness and attempt to defeat the process of definition by essentials cannot invalidate that XBox is an electric gaming system, no matter how you cut it. It is not a relative or subjective concept. It has necessary essentials. It is definitely some things and not others. Words, the phonemes for concepts, having objective meanings is necessary for communication about this one objective reality we all inhabit. Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. This is not a subjective definition, in fact, if it is a definition, it is not subjective. Objectification of our perceptions is necessary for language development. Cortically, this is exactly what is going on. Our cortex examines multiple versions of patterns of perceptual evidence about something that actually exists in reality and after we remove or omit the subjective arbitrary characteristics, such as color and material, in the case of a chair, and retain the objective characteristics, such as shape and purpose, we can hold this in place, attach a phoneme and communicate to others or hold in our awareness for comparing and contrasting other things like and dislike it. This is how we make knowledge. This is very consistent with new successful models of artifical intelligence, most notably Jeff Hawkins' Hierarchical Temporal Memory. Concept formation, which is necessary for rational thought and communication is the objectification of our perceptions. And someone who has the ability to walk, also, objectively has the power to walk.

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When I communicate with my nieces and nephews, they have very subjective meanings of words and concepts. I'd say no objectivity at all.

But when we discuss concepts as adults in groups(non-religious groups) of like minded people, the subjectivity disappears and the meaning of words and concepts become objective. 

But when we are by ourselves, thinking things over in our own mind, are the words and concepts subjective or objective? Or is this just some crazy question going on in my mind only.


objective(of a person or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering 

subjectivebased on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions:

worda single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence

I'd argue neither;  language intersubjective.  As communities and societies we attempt to agree upon the meanings of words, and create standards. But between individuals the meaning of particular words and phrases may vary subtly, or a lot.  

It's not meaningful to say that words are objective.  Languages are invented, and modified over time to suit a group's interests and needs.   

In any rational discussion, it's important for the participants define their terms clearly.  This is how you establish objectivity of meaning, using language.

I suspect that many arguments that I've seen involve people talking past each other, where people are using the same term to define different concepts (Who's on first dilemma).

Hi George,

language intersubjective

I guess we learn something new everyday. At least I have today anyway.

Not much more I could add to this discussion.


I suspect that many arguments that I've seen involve people talking past each other, where people are using the same term to define different concepts (Who's on first dilemma).

This is the source of the problem which MCT and I came to a roadblock with.

He was using the word power, which has 20 different definitions, in an interchangeable way. He then tried to insist that the word power had an objective meaning. It doesn't. The meaning is determined by the words and situations which surround the word.

The argument was that the phrase, "Power Corrupts," was incorrect because he had power and was not corrupted by it. However, he reworked the phrase with the interpretation that 'power' simply meant ability and that ability does not corrupt. 

He was intermixing verb meaning 2. A specific capacity, faculty, or aptitude; with adjective meaning 1. Of or relating to political, social, or economic control. He then claimed that words have objective meanings.

I argued that the only truly objective meaning for the word power was from physics since it described a fundamental process of the universe: 10. Physics The rate at which work is done, expressed as the amount of work per unit time and commonly measured in units such as the watt and horsepower.

IMO, he brought the conversation to a standstill with his dogmatic interpretation of the word objective based on Ayn Rand's ideas. He is insisting that modern cosmology is wrong and that people like Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Neill De Grasse Tyson didn't know what they were talking about while insisting on throwing modern cosmology out the window because it violated his philosophy.

Definitions from: Definitions of power.

Hi Dee,

I posed a question to David below. Any thoughts?

Not really. I think that David has it pegged pretty well.

Though 'words' clearly exist objectively, each word's meaning is not stable, therefore they are to be considered somewhat unreliable (though often subtly so) when used in interpersonal communications. All symbols are largely defined by context, whether they are identified as words, images or other forms of data.

They are also dependent on the user's linguistic skills or abilities (see the famous psychology experiment about witness integrity after seeing a car crash - some described it as a bump, a crash, a smash, a collision, a bang, etc - all of which have different meanings, even though the scene itself was objective.)

The brain applies meaning to fragments of information in an attempt to create new wholes (there are dozens of psychology experiments that demonstrate how the brain can be routinely tricked by exploiting the brain's compulsion to apply 'narratives' to experiences), and this application and any consequent description is dependent on the user's subjective experience of the world. Words merely suggest meanings - they just point to objects and concepts.

Some argue that though objective reality may exist we don't have direct contact with it.

Do people still really take Ayn Rand on-board? Haven't most people dismissed her by now? I mean, isn't she's normally the sort of person one 'gets into' when one is young?

Hi David,

They are also dependent on the user's linguistic skills or abilities

So what does linguistic ability do? Does it make the words we use more objective or subjective? Or neither.


For example:

If a customer asks an apple farmer for an apple, the apple farmer may reply, 'which variety would you like?' if the customer has only ever eaten Jonathans and has Jonathans in his mind but the apple farmer has 10's of varieties of apples in his mind, how would you describe the difference in meaning of apple between 'the word apple' for the customer and 'the word apple' for the apple farmer. Does subjectivity and/or objectivity come into play or not?


Linguistic ability makes the meanings of the words more subjective because, although the dictionary may have a seemingly objective meaning for a word, such as apple, the user may have a slightly different understanding - an experience-specific understanding. In addition, the person then hearing the word apple being spoken has as many experience-specific understandings (and misunderstandings).

The word 'apple' works for both the farmer and the Jonathon-only-eater because apple is an incredibly broad term/symbol (ie, equally it could mean a red soft-ish sweet fruit or a green hard bitter fruit). Even if both parties have slightly different understandings of 'apple', communication is possible. It gets more complex with non-concrete concepts such as faith, power, love, integrity, etc.

Back to the dictionary. You could argue that 'apple' is objective because the dictionary clearly explains what it is and if people don't use the term correctly that's not the fault of objective description; but let's not forget that dictionaries are only observers of how words are used in languages/groups/societies at any particular time - they don't set the standard as such; they are recorders more than they are instructors. This is easily proven by reading etymology. Check the previous publication of any dictionary - even if it's only a few decades old - and you will find subtle (and not so subtle) shifts. The term 'queer' is a stark modern example, but it goes further back. Take 'Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou, Romeo?" To many modern ears this means 'where is Romeo?' but of course it doesn't; it actually means 'why you?' as in 'oh, why does it have to be you?!'. Take the latinate word nice. It originally mean ignorant. Awful meant 'full of awe'.

To bring it around: As you, me and many others have said, words' meanings are contextual but they are also perpetually moving. Perhaps words are like views through a telescope - like the telescope, a word exists objectively, but what we see through the telescope can shift depending on tilt, height of viewer, angle of view, turns of the head etc, etc. So it is with words.
Others says language grows, evolves and changes like a river. Dictionaries just take a snapshot of its development at any given time.

Crucially, word meanings (and even more importantly, what they point to) shift even more when they get translated. Ask any poetry translator and they will tell you that it's virtually impossible to directly/literally translate anything from one modern language to another, never mind from one historical mindset to another, as with the bible. In fact, if anything, literal translations are often further from the author's intended sentiment than if the translator completely reinterpreted/reworded for their own culture and/or language.

People tend to think that historical peoples have always thought and understood things in roughly the same way that we do, but this isn't true at all, so direct translations, while seeming to have meaning to us actually may not have the intended meaning at all - the original meaning has been lost completely because it was subtextual and culture/time specific.


@David Raphael:  "Do people still really take Ayn Rand on-board? Haven't most people dismissed her by now?"

Unfortunately pretty much any large atheist board is going to have its population of Rand followers.



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