Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 77–97 | Cite as

Language as a community of interacting belief systems: A case study involving conduct toward self and others

  • David Sloan Wilson
Article

Abstract

Words such as “selfish” and “altruistic” that describe conduct toward self and others are notoriously ambiguous in everyday language. I argue that the ambiguity is caused, in part, by the coexistence of multiple belief systems that use the same words in different ways. Each belief system is a relatively coherent linguistic entity that provides a guide for human behavior. It is therefore a functional entity with design features that dictate specific word meaning. Since different belief systems guide human behavior in different directions, specific word meanings cannot be maintained across belief systems. Other sources of linguistic ambiguity include i) functional ambiguity that increases the effectiveness of a belief system, ii) ambiguity between belief systems that are functionally identical but historically distinct, and iii) active interference between belief systems. I illustrate these points with a natural history study of the word “selfish” and related words in everyday language. In general, language and the thought that it represents should be studied in the same way that ecologists study multi-species communities.

Key words

Altruism belief systems language selfish sociolinguistics species of thought 

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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Sloan Wilson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesState University of New YorkBinghamtonU.S.A.

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