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