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[Karl] Popper always held that the search for a criterion of meaning was a mistake. He pointed out that much the most useful knowledge we have, and the biggest body of it, is contained in the natural sciences, yet scientists are not given to debating the meanings of their fundamental terms, terms as widely different in kind as physics, observation, measurement, light, mass, energy—not to mention all the terms involved in the mathematics they use (what is a number?—what is mathematics?). Scientists leave this, for the most part, undiscussed, and get on with doing more science. And, said Popper, they are right. The clinging notion that if we are to have a worthwhile discussion we need first to define our terms is demonstrably self-contradictory. Every time we define a term we have to introduce at least one new term into the definition, otherwise the definition is circular. But then we are under an obligation to define our new term. And so we are launched into an infinite regress. Attempts to clarify all our terms must, and can only, result in discussions of words and meanings to which it is logically impossible that there should ever be a conclusion. So discussion, if it is to take place at all, has no alternative but to make use of undefined terms. And this is at bottom the logical justification for what scientists do in this regard. And as their example makes clear, it is no bar whatsoever to rapid, successful and continuous growth in our knowledge and understanding of the world. The only thing that discussion of the meanings of words extends our understanding of is the meanings of words: it does nothing, or next to nothing, to extend our understanding of non-linguistic reality.

For these as well as other reasons, Popper asserted from the beginning that, both in fact and in logic, for a philosopher to be centrally concerned with the meanings of words was a disastrous error. It precluded him from ever getting down to the discussion of matters of real substance. The very endlessness of the processes in which it involved its participants meant that it could not but be unproductive as regards the primary level of discussion, and in consequence of that, boring to anyone for whom it was not an end in itself. In practice it was bound to lead to interminable word-spinning, logic-chopping, and in the end scholasticism. So not only was he not in search of a criterion of meaningfulness, he perceived that those who were had waded into a quicksand from which they would never emerge unless and until they renounced the search.

Bryan Magee (from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997)

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