Here is another example: the word “event.” Consider the following sentences: “Upcoming events at the Performing Arts Center include . . .”; “Coming to Oxbridge has been one of the greatest events of my life”; “In the event of flooding, seek shelter in an upper storey”; “Astronomical events, such as supernovae and the formation of black holes, are rarely seen from earth”; “Research on the workings of the brain is shedding light on mental events, such as remembering, decision-making, and imagining.” Is the use of the word “event” the same in all of these cases? The last sentence is particularly puzzling, for it seems to cross the boundary of the sensible uses of the word “event”: that is, it doesn’t quite seem right to think of memories, decisions, and imaginings as “events.” But, perhaps, this unseemly feeling might itself be simply another “event”!
In any event, as the author also reminds us, what we need in order to avoid this sort of confusion is a clear presentation of the application of the word; we need the word’s “use in the language”; we need a context. This author has noticed that such confusion is especially prominent in doing philosophy, for it is common to find amongst philosophers a “craving for generality” or a “contemptuous attitude toward the particular case.” That is, rather than looking at the differences between particular uses of these words, the tendency is to want to know what these words mean “in general.”
Now, here are more ticklers from another author (the second Cambridge man):
As everyone knows, words constantly take on new meanings. Since these do not necessarily, nor even usually, obliterate the old ones, we should picture this process not on the analogy of an insect undergoing metamorphoses but rather on that of a tree throwing out new branches, which themselves throw out subordinate branches; in fact, as ramification. The new branches sometimes overshadow and kill the old ones but by no means always. … When we use one word in many different senses we avail ourselves of the results of semantic ramification. [But] we can do this successfully without being aware of them. … Each new speaker learns his native language chiefly by imitation, partly by those hurried scraps of amateur lexicography which his elders produce in answer to the frequent question, ‘What does that mean?’ He does not at first-how should he?-distinguish between different senses of one word and different words. They all have to be learned in the same way. … It is this most important principle that enables speakers to give half a dozen different meanings to a single word with very little danger of confusion. … What seems to me certain is that in ordinary language the sense of a word is governed by the context and this sense normally excludes all others from the mind. … It is of course the insulating power of the context which enables old senses to persist , uncontaminated by newer ones. Thus, train (of a dress) and train (on the railway), or civil (courteous) and civil (not military), or magazine (a store) and magazine (a periodical) do not interfere with one another because they are unlikely to occur in the same context. They live happily by keeping out of each other’s way.
Notice, first of all, the remarkable similarity of this author’s comments with those of the first author. Perhaps you do not find it remarkable. After all, the main point is obvious. (Perhaps this is why it is so often overlooked.) But the similarity goes quite deep. Both authors recognize the distinctively different uses of the same word: there need be no drawn or conscious connection between one use and the other. This implies that there is no single “primary” or “literal” sense of a word: two different uses of the same word might be as distinctive as two different words. Thus, as both authors also recognize, danger lurks when a word is abstracted from its particular context-from its uses in ordinary language-and then investigated for its “meaning.” To do so would be analogous to looking at the hammer, setting in the tool-box, and asking, “Well, what is the function of that hammer now, when it’s not being used for anything? What is it doing when it’s not doing anything?” The danger here is to suppose that this is a sensible question-or, in order to avoid confusion myself, perhaps I should say, to suppose it makes sense as a question. Such abstracting of well known words from their use in particular contexts and then looking for their “meaning” is the source of many so-called “philosophical problems.” And the danger involved in trying to give “solutions” to such problems is the same as what gives rise to them in the first place. For, as our second author says,
When a word has several meanings historical circumstances often make one of them dominant during a particular period. The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author [or in another context] the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses, because they lure us into misreadings.