The utter relativism of definitions

I’m always surprised how contentious definitions, can be.  How opinions about what are essentially sounds in language become matters of intense debate.

Charon compared with Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Ha...
Charon compared with Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus, 2007 OR 10 , Quaoar, their moons and Earth. All to scale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the IAU (International Astronomical Union) redefined the word “planet” to exclude Pluto, which came about due to the discovery of Eris, a similarly sized body, many people reacted with intense emotion, igniting a debate that continues today.  Whether or not Pluto and Eris are planets is largely an arbitrary designation.  They are very different bodies than Earth, but rocky worlds such as Earth and Mars are very different bodies than Jupiter or Saturn.  Future societies may have different labels for these objects, and divide the categorizations of them differently than we do.

Politics is an arena rife with definitional issues.  Whether a particular political position is “liberal”, “conservative”, or “libertarian” will often depend on which country you’re in.  For instance, a preference for free markets and low regulation is often considered a conservative or libertarian position in the US, but just as often labeled as liberal in Europe.

I’ve seen long and bitter debates all over the web over the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic”.  Common definitions of “atheist” are lack of belief in God, or confidence in God’s nonexistence, while “agnostic” typically means personally not knowing if God exists, believing it’s forever impossible to know whether he, she, or it exists, or having no definitive beliefs on the matter.

What’s funny about these debates, is that many dictionaries and encyclopedias list all of these definitions, because they all have common usage in literature and society.  When I use these terms, it’s almost always with a qualifier to clarify which meaning I’m using, but I’ve found that even doing that sometimes becomes a matter of debate, which is why I rarely use the Greek a-words.

And, of course, these terms are tangled up with what is often the granddaddy of all definition arguments, the meaning of the word “God.”  God can be anything from a large bearded male sitting in the clouds, to an inscrutable alien intelligence that architected the universe, to the universe itself or even the sum total of the laws it operates under.  Whether someone is an atheist, agnostic, or theist can vary depending on which conception of God is being discussed.

Many intense philosophical debates are just definitional ones in disguise.  Many arguments over free will, for instance, largely hinge on exactly what one means by that term.  What do we mean by “will”?  And what kind of freedom are we talking about?  Freedom from what?  The argument between free will compatibilists and incompatibilists in particular is largely definitional.  Often this is explicitly mentioned, yet the debates continue endlessly, as though there is really anything left to debate.

And a lot of the argument about evolutionary paradigms: kin selection versus group selection, strike me as largely about what the definitions of “selection” and “evolution” are.  If you have a narrow conception of these terms, you’ll probably favor kin selection and its gene centric view.  If you favor a broader definition, you’ll at least be open to the possibility of group selection.

With all that in mind, I have a confession to make.  When it comes to definitions, I am a complete and utter relativist.  Not only that, I think that’s the only coherent way to view them.  Definitions are language, and language is constantly evolving.

It pays to remember that the English used in this post didn’t exist thousands of years ago.  If you tried to read English writing from, say, tenth century England, you’d find it largely incomprehensible, at least unless you were an expert in old English.  Go back 1000 years earlier, and you’d likely have to be an expert in Latin or Koine Greek.  Go back another 1000 years and you’d have to be a archaeological linguist to recognize the rare remotest resemblance to any modern words.

Words often change even across decades and generations.  In the 1930s, if someone in the US called you “square”, it would have been a compliment on your honesty, but by the 50s if would have meant you were boring.  The word “gay” was once a synonym for “happy.”  While that technically remains as one definition of the word, it is increasingly deprecated.  Call someone “gay” in contemporary society, and they will almost certainly not take it as a statement about their mood.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Often, we refer to dictionaries to find the definition of a particular word.  But have you ever wondered where the dictionary editors get the definitions?  There’s no council of elders for definitions, no canvassing of experts, no academic committees.  The editors get it by surveying the word’s contemporary usage in newspapers, books, magazines, and these days, on websites, blogs, social media, and many other sources.  The word’s predominant usage becomes its dictionary definition, at least in quality dictionaries, with older usage often being included but marked as historical or archaic.

Of course, often the surveys show multiple prevailing usages, which typically results in multiple definitions being listed.  Consider the term “a priori.”  In philosophy, the term refers to knowledge acquired through deductive reasoning.  It’s what many would consider the “proper” definition.  But in common usage, “a priori” often is used to refer to presumptive or arbitrary conclusions.  That common usage is prevalent enough that Merriam-Webster lists both definitions.

All of this leads me to conclude that our ability to productively argue about definitions is limited.  We can argue about which definition is the most widely accepted, or which one some official body has endorsed, both of which can usually be resolved fairly quickly these days with a Google search.  More interestingly, we can discuss which definition matches common intuitions, which in some cases isn’t obvious.  Along those lines, we can even discuss the word’s etymology, the history of its usage, to get possible insights into those intuitions.

What we can’t do, is argue about what the one true definition of a word is, because there’s no such thing.  There’s no platonic definition of any sound sequence registered somewhere in reality.  Of course, anyone is free to advocate for a new definition and hope it catches on.  But when they insist that their definition is the only valid one, that all other understandings of the word are necessarily wrong, then all they’re really doing is advocating for their opinion in a self righteous manner.

Personally, I prefer to debate about reality rather than what words should mean.  When it becomes apparent that a debate has become definitional, I usually point it out and try to move forward with different terms.  It doesn’t always work.

32 thoughts on “The utter relativism of definitions

  1. It’s worse than you think. Not only are definitions relative, they are circular. All definitions in a dictionary are made up of words found elsewhere in that dictionary. There are no outside referents other than a few pictures for illustration.

    So, the school child understanding of a dictionary being useless to look up spellings (you have to know the spelling to find a word) leads to an adult understanding that words mean what the Cheshire Cat said. And words don’t mean the same thing over time. I remember when “that child is gay” meant something entirely different than it does now.

    (And I still love dictionaries and have owned many dozen.)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Too true. Eventually language translates into sensory perceptions, or symbolic thought founded on those sensory perceptions. If you’ve never experienced the perception or concept, nor the ones referred to in the definition, the definition itself won’t be helpful.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Not sure I’d agree. An AI could have certain patterns of inputs (memories) pre-programmed into it in a way that a human can’t. If we ever find a way for us to share specific memories with each other, than even humans might eventually be able to do it without direction experience.

          In any case, you could always argue that human brains are simply just manipulating patterns (including symbols) even if some of those patterns come in from the senses.


    1. A case could be made that anyone who accepts the laws of physics, in essence, accepts Spinoza’s God. After all, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, it’s madness to deny the existence of gravity. You could also say that science is, in effect, worship and discovery of that god.

      But many fervent atheists see Spinoza’s God as legerdemain. Personally, I recognize that many people do earnestly accept that conception, but I have trouble understanding what emotional benefits it brings them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Way I’ve always looked at it is that words are handles on ideas. They’re interesting because one idea can have multiple words (“cat” and “feline” for example), and one word can link to multiple ideas (“square” and “gay” for example). And those linkages do change over time, so — as you suggest — any serious discussion requires clarity on usage.

    But the situation isn’t hopeless. Dictionaries do provide current usage, and they generally annotate definitions as current, obsolete, slang, and so forth. As a general rule, it’s the socially used words that mutate most (“square” and “gay” for example, again). Formal usage suffers a lot less because word meanings evolve fairly slowly (“santorum” not withstanding 😮 ), so there is much less confusion in formal writing. Science does even better (necessarily!) with clarity; “silicon dioxide” is a well-defined term not likely to change.

    We need words to discuss the ideas behind the words, so while their meanings may be dynamic over time, it’s crucial to understand their various meanings at any given moment. And I’ve found that is generally possible, although, as you say, sometimes it requires a step back to agree on terms!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agreed across the board. One of the reasons professional literature, such as scientific and scholarly articles, tends to read like Greek to lay people is because of their use of specialized term to make their meaning clear.

      I remember a lawyer on TV saying that, sure, they could put the contract in “straight forward” English, but then it would be subject to endless interpretation, whereas the legal terms all had decades, and in some cases centuries, of hammered out precise meanings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, indeed! Great point about legal language.

        Philosophy is another field with precisely defined language… problem there is a tendency to use “ordinary” terms in specific (and not always obvious) ways, not to mention the tendency of every philosopher to define their own terms.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The philosophy I tend to get impatient with is the type that doesn’t clearly lay out its terms. (Which is, unfortunately, my experience with a lot of Continental Philosophy.) By embracing literary ambiguities, it allows them to imply things that sound profound, but retreat to safer more mundane interpretations when challenged.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Very true about philosophy using ordinary terms in a specific way. It can be really tricky when we’re so used to reading words such as “idea” and “concept” very loosely (which we usually take to mean “thoughts” of any sort).

          Also true about philosophers defining things their own way. What’s frustrating is when they don’t actually lay out their definitions, so you’re forced to figure it out. That happens way too often.

          Liked by 3 people

  3. (As an aside, the Pluto matter has nothing to do with definition. The IAU was totally correct in their definition of “planet” because otherwise we’d have hundreds of the damn things zipping around. But Pluto gets grandfathered in and remains a planet now and forever. This is not open to discussion. One is either on the Right side of the issue or the Wrong side, pure and simple.)

    ((Yeah, I’m totally kidding. I couldn’t really care less what it’s called — I’m just really looking forward to it being “ready for its closeup” very, very soon! XD ))


    1. Me too! Although I’m getting annoyed with the current weekly coverage: “Here’s the latest blob picture; it’s now five pixels wide!” I’ll get excited when New Horizons is snapping pictures from a few hundred thousand kilometers away and we can actually see a dwarf planet.


      1. Ha! I know what you mean. (And me, too. I can’t wait for the close up shots!)

        For fun, ask your friends: What color is Pluto? You’ll find most guess it’s white-ish (from the ice) or blue-ish (ditto). In fact, we think it’s more red-ish brown.

        Here’s a fun fact: May 1st was the 85th anniversary of 11-year-old Venetia Burney coming up with the name “Pluto.”

        49 hours and counting!


        1. LOLS! I wish it was only 49 hours.

          Strangely enough, I’ve always pictured Pluto as being purple or gray. I think that’s because the first children’s book I ever owned on the solar system depicted it as purple. It also portrayed it as the size of Mercury. We’ve learned a lot since circa 1970.


          1. My desktop photo for the last month or so is an image someone made using various moons of Jupiter and Saturn (and possibly some asteroids). The image supposedly shows “Pluto” (Ganymede, I think) and “Charon” (some other moon) and the other four Plutonian moons in scale size.

            “Pluto” and “Charon” really give one a good sense of why they sometimes refer to Pluto as a “double (dwarf) planet.” Their center of rotation is, in fact, between them.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I found this wikipedia piechart informative on relative sizes.

            Charon appears to be bigger than Ceres, the king of the asteroids. The Kuiper belt is more dispersed, but has larger objects.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Nice image.

            On your wallpaper’s accuracy, some of the discrepancy may be due to the fact that the graph I linked to is relative mass. (Sorry, should have mentioned that.) A sphere doesn’t have to be that much smaller to have a much lower mass, or that much larger to have a much higher mass. And maybe Charon’s density comes into it as well (although that’s utter speculation on my part).

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Ah, mass is a different kettle of orbital objects! That would explain it. As you say, density would make a huge difference (consider an extreme case: a balloon and a steel ball bearing).

            Even so, just eyeballing them, the diagram you have at the top of your post, the wiki image showing the spheres, and my wallpaper still seem to show slightly different sizes for Charon. I got curious, so I tried to measure their sizes in pixels and came up with, respectively, 47%, 50%, and 53%, which is pretty close (and subject to my ability to measure the pixel sizes).

            Trying to find that wallpaper image again (I’m using the second one, btw; the one that lines them up in orbital order) I saw something about how we don’t accurately know the sizes of moons, so there is some guesswork involved.

            But still… Charon is (roughly) 50% the size of Pluto (in terms of diameter). That’s a big moon! (Or a dwarfish planet with an ordinary moon! XD )

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article about definitions. I keep grimacing when I hear the word “epic” used to mean “really awesome…dude,” but I suppose I should just roll with it. I heard it on the news the other day. This new use of the word “epic” is not going away. It’s really silly to try to stop the evolution of language in its tracks, to insist on a word’s “true” meaning. Even if someone uses a word in a way that’s not generally acknowledged—something idiomatic—why not be generous to the person, call it a stipulative definition and move on to the heart of the matter?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally agree! And “epic” is a good example of the slow evolution of words (as opposed to neologisms such as “truthiness” or the adoption of “gay”). There definitely is a line from the idea of an “epic” to its modern use as an adjective — a use Wiktionary acknowledges as the #3 (adjective) definition and labels as “colloquial, slang, informal”.

      We can probably blame this one on Hollywood and all those “motion picture epics” — although now they lean towards the utterly meaningless “motion picture event” and actually name movies Epic and Epic Movie. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks. I have to admit to being one of the people who use “epic” in new ways, such as a synonym for “big”: “That was an epic fail.”

      Totally agree with being generous. I recently read somewhere that all speculative philosophy, and much of science, requires some generosity in interpretation. I’m usually willing to work with whatever definitions someone wants to establish for a discussion, as long as they stay consistent, although I may point out how an unusual use of a term may limit the scope of their conclusions.

      Liked by 1 person

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