Technically Exists

Arguing over definitions


I recently got into an argument involving topics like whether water was wet and whether hotdogs were sandwiches. What all the topics had in common was that they were not arguments over facts but rather arguments over definitions. This means there is nothing in observable reality that can be pointed to in order to resolve them. What’s worse is that many arguments will fall into this category by default.

The problem is that until all relevant definitions are agreed upon, an argument will often not be about facts. As long as one definition isn’t agreed upon, the participants can make two different statements using the same exact words, which is terrible for communication. If “a hotdog is a sandwich” is interpreted by one person as “a hotdog is meat on bread” and by another person as “a hotdog is meat between two pieces of bread”, they may both think the other person is crazy. If they realize that the dispute is really over definitions, they may still believe that it is unreasonable to use any definition besides the one they use.

Is there a way to resolve this type of dispute? I would argue that it makes the most sense to debate how practical the definitions are. This includes how observable they are and how useful they are. For example, it’s pretty simple to observe if a hotdog has meat on bread. However, it may be a little harder to tell how many pieces of bread there are, such as when the bun is either split in two or almost split in two. These states are similar enough that observing the difference can take extra effort, penalizing definitions that distinguish between them.

However, what matters more than how difficult the required observations are is how useful those observations are. If distinguishing between one piece of bread and two pieces of bread is important, then it hardly matters if doing so takes a little more effort. However, barring something like cultural significance, this distinction does not seem useful, so the observation difficulty wins out (at least in my opinion). On the other hand, if someone attempted to define the word dignity as a category consisting of rocks, rockets, and cats, their definition would probably be judged as inferior to the standard definition. While it is easier to observe those things than it is to observe an abstract concept like dignity, the standard definition is simply much more useful and thus wins out.

The problem with this approach to resolving definition arguments is that it merely attempts to transform them into factual arguments. If the definitions relevant to determining which definition is more practical are also not agreed upon, you end up with a case of infinite recursion. At the end of the day, language is a fundamentally imprecise tool for communication. It’s very useful and works quite well, but it’s not perfect. As of now, though, it’s the best thing we’ve got.

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