Academic Language and the Problem of Meaninglessness

Nathan Robinson:

It’s so easy to lose track of the meaning of words. Say any word enough times and it becomes a mere sound, its semantic content steadily evaporating with each additional usage (“anthill…anthill…anthill…”) Some words, such as “democracy,” “justice,” and “fascism,” can eventually turn into little more than empty praise or pejorative, essentially the equivalent of declaring “Hooray for this thing!” or “Boo to that thing.”

But, and this should go without saying, if people are actually trying to communicate with one another their words need to have meaning, and we need to have relatively fixed and identifiable definitions for concepts and actions. That’s always going to be elusive, because the usages of words will change over time and vary among users, so it will be impossible for any definition to stay truly stable and universally agreed. Yet while their boundaries can be fuzzy and contested, words ultimately need to be something more than meaningless mouth-noises. When nobody agrees on the definition of a word, when it contains so many possible connotations that it’s impossible to know what anyone who uses it actually means by it, the word is no longer able to effectively communicate.

The use of words without fixed or clear meanings is a major part of what makes academic writing so terrible. People often complain that academic writing is “obscure” or overly convoluted and complex. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with either complexity or obscurity in themselves; research papers in the sciences have to be complex and technical, and introducing people to obscure and unfamiliar words or concepts can be a key part of developing human knowledge. The problem largely comes when words are vague and unclear, admitting of many possible interpretations. Infamous academic terms like “phenomenological,” “intersubjectivity,” “embeddedness,” “hermeneutical,” and “discursive” are not bad because they describe complicated concepts, but because it’s often not clear just what an author means by them. It’s not that they’re meaningless, necessarily, but that they could mean lots of things, and people don’t seem to have a very precise shared idea of how to interpret them. (That’s one reason why Current Affairs mostly shies away from using the word “neoliberalism.” It’s not that it has no meaning, it’s that because people mean different things by it, it ends up being somewhat ineffective as a tool for communication.)