How Scientific Language Differs From Ordinary Language

Notes on the text.

  • I have denoted important passages, ones to spend extra time reading/rereading, to help identify the claims, arguments, and necessary views for understanding the text. The symbols will be at the beginning and end of the important passages; which is to say, the important text will be between the start and end symbol. Here are the start and end symbols: //start – [important text]  //end –
  • The numbers at the end of each header represent topics, sections, and embedded sub-topics; that is, 1.1 means topic 1, section 1; and 1.1.1 means topic 1, section 1, sub-topic 1.


Science, Philosophy, and Meaning: Semantic Differences Between Common Sense and Scientific Language Within Psychology.

In the study of Psychology, there is a separation between everyday psychological language and scientific language. The difference in these two modes of language stems from the scientific conception of term-meaning and the layperson’s conception of term meaning. Indeed, there is a separation between the two, and many do not realize it because common sense psychology is composed of our natural intuitions about ourselves and others.

Consider how we discuss our everyday experiences with other people. Lay-people describe the minds of other people with intuitive terms like “happy,” “bored,” and, “excited”; much how lay-people describe the motion of objects with terms like “moved,”,” flew,” and so forth. This mode of description is called “folk-psychology,” which is as straightforward as it sounds. Folk-psychology refers to our seemingly innate ability to explain and predict the behaviours of others, all without elaborate scientific research(1): for example,

Jane said: “I think that man is feeling down”.

In that example, Jane attempted to explain someone’s internal emotional state with “feeling down,” and many of us can comprehend her explanation: namely, that the man is feeling sad or depressed. This means, somehow, Jane intuitively knew about the genetic, chemical, and anatomical make-up of the man who was “feeling down”. When Jane uttered that statement, she had done so without mathematical formulas nor observations of neural activity; rather, Jane had appealed to her intuitions about human psychology. Indeed, she lacked explicit knowledge of the man’s biology, yet still accurately characterized the man.

Comparatively, a scientific concept derives its definition through two primary means: namely, mathematical formalism, empirical observation, or a combination of both. A scientist can rely on mathematical measurements derived from either a theoretical model or observation tool; for example, a cognitive scientist can create a diagram which attempts to represent human memory processing, and then find patterned relationships for said diagram via observations of the brain or the computing system of study. In so doing, the scientist can select from an array of imaging tools or psychological tests for data. On the other hand, a scientist can also rely on repeated observations of empirical content, which can then be used for definitions; for example, the bee dance, a form of communication in bees, is defined by the observable behavior of the bee dancing, and so no mathematical formalism is required here. Scientific concepts are never innate or a priori, given they require validation from empirical reality (3).

The difference between to two modes of description are the objects relied upon for term-meaning. Folk-Psychology terms often rely on cultural context for their term-meaning, or loose associations; in example, “happy” is dominantly a western linguistic identifier for the experience of reward, but other cultures may use different identifiers and meanings. Whereas scientific terms, on the other hand, rely on either physical objects or reoccurring mathematical patterns amongst objects; meaning, F = MA has no culture sensitive definition – it means the same thing, universally.

The semantic difference between folk-psychology and scientific language seems harmless enough; however, when folk-psychology terms are used in theories it can cause trouble. Thus, this essay will demonstrate the following: how folk-psychology terms – specifically emotion terms – acquire meaning, and how these terms cause problems when used in scientific theories. Hopefully, by the end, it will be clear why we must avoid crossing scientific and common-sense terms in a whimsical fashion, especially with respect to theories.

Folk-Psychology Terms – 1.0

Emotion & Attitude Terms.1.1

Perhaps the most common Folk-Psychology terms are emotion or attitude terms; for example: “she looks happy,” or, “I think the match was unfair”. In the first instance, the term “happy” attempts to describe the appearance of another individual with an emotion term; contrastingly, the second instance involves the term “unfair,” which allows the user to express an opinion that contains moral emotive content. Though these two types of terms both contain emotional associations, there are some differences with each.

To understand such differences, we must first see how it is that perception influences semantics, and then apply such understanding to emotion and attitude terms.

Perception and Semantics.1.1.1

Although there are many ways in which perception influences semantics, I will focus primarily on deixis. Deixis is the notion that certain words require that the listener(s) know the speaker’s position and environment to understand the meaning of the term (4); that is, deidtic elements rely on context for their referents. For example, “I live in this city” requires the context which “this” was uttered in; otherwise, the statement is ambiguous. So, if the utterance, “I live in this city,” was done within Detroit, then the deidtic element ‘this’ adopts Detroit as its referent; thus, “this” is equivalent to “Detroit” in meaning, though only within the specific instance mentioned – Detroit is a temporary semantic property for the deiditic element “this”. Furthermore, deiditic elements tend to only have temporary semantic partners; that is, they adopt many different referents, many of which lack any quality of permanency. Consider another interesting example: “can you pick that up”. Here, we require even more information from a given context; more specifically, the listener must infer the referents for both “you” and “that”; without the context, the statement is ambiguous. In this instance, “you” and “that” can adopt various objects or people for their referents, and so the sentence not only requires context but also an astute listener. Deidtic elements come in many forms, such as person, place, time, etc., but we won’t go through all of them; the takeaway point is that perceptual information is important for the comprehension of a speaker’s meaning.

//start –

Deixis emerges from an interaction between brain function and awareness of information: it is a function that adopts contextual-referents for linguistic identifiers. We can derive an inference from this relationship: namely, that meaning, though not a physical property of the environment, can be understood via the environment. Therefore, contextual information influences the meaning of terms that describe feelings and sensations. For instance, “I don’t feel so good” has a well-understood meaning when uttered by a recipient of chemotherapy, but alters in meaning when uttered by someone who over-ate at a buffet. The quality or kind of pain which we understand as the referent alters because we infer, from the context, the most likely form of uncomfortable feeling to arise. Put more precisely, “I don’t feel so good” for the chemotherapy recipient is related to his or her treatment; and so, the pain he or she feels is more than stomach issues. Comparatively, “I don’t feel so good” for the over-eater relates strictly to stomach pain. This is not a relationship built upon logical necessity, but rather shared biology and understood probability of medical data.

To further elaborate, on one hand, people understand that over-eating brings about discomfort, as does chemotherapy, and so assume such must be the causation of the negative feeling. We know these things bring about negative feelings because we can call upon our experience of these negative feelings, and then we can project that feeling onto the representation of that person within imagination – that is, ascribe “feeling x” to “Jane Doe”. This means we can understand terms that find referents in ego-centric frames, such as “feel”, because we infer the most likely feeling that would accompany a given context for our shared biology. In other words, because my stomach hurts when I over-eat, I can understand what “I don’t feel so good” means when others, who over-ate, utter it.

Now, on the other hand, there are cause-and-effect relationships that can be understood through probabilities, and thus allow us to understand the most likely referent used for an ego-centric term. For example, for every 10 people that over-eat, 7 of them feel stomach pain; therefore, the probability that the speaker’s ego-centric term “feel” adopts stomach pain as a referent increases. Then, one would have to statistically model contexts or visible physiological representations of stomach pain to further add to the probability of the term “feel” adopting stomach pain as a referent. Of course, this, indeed, is an oversimplification of how such a stochastic a process would operate, but I believe the core-principle of probabilistic semantics can be understood, nonetheless.

//end –

To recap before we move on, we know that deiditic elements such as, “that,”, “this”, “you,” etc., require context for referents; we know that the biological abilities that support deiditic elements also support other terms with regards to meaning, I.e. ego-centric terms such as “feel”; and we also know that there are two ways to arrive at meanings for ego-centric terms: shared biology or probabilistic models. Now we can move on to understand the difference between terms like “happy” and “unfair”.

On the Difference Between Emotion and Attitude Terms1.2

The difference between Emotion and Attitude terms is not so much how they acquire their meaning, but rather how they interact with other phenomena. They both acquire meaning in a fashion similar to the process discussed above. That is, the terms “happy” and “unfair” rely on sensations and conscious experiences for meaning. However, “unfair” is influenced by other cognitive processes.

“Happy” is a term which derives its meaning from arousal; more specifically, when the mesolimbic pathway begins to secrete dopamine, we experience pleasure; after such, we then label that experience with a linguistic identifier: “happy”. Thus, the referent for “happy” is a threshold of mesolimbic activity: physiological arousal. However, this is not the only referent that we can assign to the linguistic identifier “happy”. Sometimes, people use “happy” in remarkably dark, grim, and depressing environments; in such environments, the term could be used for a comedic impact. It is important to remember that not every user relies on physiological arousal to inform their usage of “happy”, people use words in novel ways quite frequently. When these terms are not informed by physiological arousal, the probabilistic model applies.

As for “unfair,” whenever we feel cheated, we experience negative physiological feelings (2); thus, “unfair” indeed has a physiological component for its referent as well. But, there is another component to “unfair”. In addition to negative conscious feelings, we also perceive the violation of an image schema. For instance, if Jane doe had decided to abruptly jump in front of a customer who had been waiting in line to pay, then Jane doe would have violated the rules associated with the culturally conditioned image schema “shopping”; all while others within the store abide by the conventions associated with that image schema. This is not criminal behaviour, but no one will appreciate it; for doing such is unfair, since everyone else is following the rules.

In essence, “unfair” and “happy” can be ego-centric terms that rely on experiences of physiological arousal for their referents, but “unfair” has the caveat of physiological arousal in-conjunction with norm violations – image schemas are the cognitive representations of the behavioural concept “norm”; the concepts “norm” and “image schema” are at different levels of analysis and description, but both have the same physical components enacting the features associated with the concepts. And so, the core difference between the two emotion terms is a matter of extra-cognitive factors like image schemas.

Scientific Psychology and Folk Psychology Terms 2.0

Two immediate problems arise when we cross scientific terms with folk-psychology terms. Folk-Psychology terms have culture dependent referents, and folk-psychology terms have different levels of analysis.

A famous example of culturally bound folk-psychology terms being crossed with scientific theories is the theory of universal emotions. A researcher had wanted to verify the claim that emotions were not only universal but that there were a finite set of emotions. The author did find the basic universal physiology that is involved with the physical expression of inner-experience of “emotional states”; however, the author used folk-psychology terms such as “happy” to indicate the type of physiological expression. This is a problem because emotion terms and physiology are not necessarily correlated; that is, “happiness” and smiling are correlated in western society, but “sadness” and smiling may be correlated in another society. And so, to define smiling through a commonly associated feature like “happiness,” is misleading; only because smiling is regulated by the reward circuits within the brain, not the cultural concept “happiness”.

The second problem is similar to the first; that is, in the first problem people correlate concepts which label forms of experience to human physiology, and the second problem is the much broader issue of correlating emergent experiences to reductive models. The second issue stems from greedy-reductionism; more specifically, there are people who seek to explain the world through reductionism, while ignoring the levels to which a concept relates to; for a perfect example, see my article on free will and determinism: How Philosophical Analysis Creates Useless Problems. Much how people take the experiential label “happiness” and correlate it with the physical components of a smile, they also correlate other Folk-Psychology terms, such as “free will,” with other reduced properties. Folk-Psychology terms pertain to emergent experiences, not the reduced properties found within the experiences; therefore, folk-psychology terms cannot be conflated with reductionism. To do otherwise creates useless problems.

Conclusion 3.0

How a scientific concept acquires meaning is fundamentally different than the way in which a lay-persons term acquires meaning. When these two processes of semantic acquisition are ignored, the consequences are ambiguity, confusion, and misleading research. It is important to ensure that the terms used within a scientific theory have semi-formal methods for meaning and that the theory, especially in emotion research, avoids folk-psychology language. So long as we respect the ontology of concepts, all the problems of greedy-reductionism should be avoidable.


  1. Davies, M., & Stone, T. (1995). Folk psychology: The theory of mind debate. Oxford: Blackwell.
  2. Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (2005). Social neuroscience: Key readings. New York: Psychology Press.
  3. Ayer, A. J. (1952). Language, truth, and logic.
  4. Duchan, J. F., Bruder, G. A., & Hewitt, L. E. (1995). Deixis in narrative: A cognitive science perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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