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In a recent discussion with a group of friends, we found ourselves in a situation where we appeared to be using the same word, but it became evident that we held different meanings for it. At that point, I requested a pause in the discussion to clarify the meaning of the word before continuing. However, I was accused of attempting to derail the conversation because it seemed like I was "losing" the debate and trying to shift the subject.

I'm interested in the philosophical perspective on whether my decision to seek a definition for the term, rather than continuing with potentially divergent interpretations, was a reasonable and valid approach to foster clarity and productive discourse. Can philosophy shed light on whether I was in the wrong here, or if such clarification requests are philosophically justified in discourse?

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    It depends on your purpose. If you are seeking a meeting of minds, then it is important to make sure everyone is using words the same way. If you are just getting off on screaming at each other then it helps to leave them undefined. It sounds like the other people in the debate are in the second category. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 6:49
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    Personally I would view a refusal to clarify your position as an indication that it is a rhetorical debate, where the aim is to "win", rather than genuine truth-seeking inquiry. Refusing to clarify your position gives wiggle room later to evade counter-argument. If you are interested in truth, you should be happy to see your position demolished if it is flawed. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 6:58
  • @DavidGudeman: I think that heavily depends on what word OP was asking to define. If the word was "reasonable" (as in "a reasonable person would/would not..."), then OP probably has a point. If the word was "is," then maybe not.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 8:15
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    It is hard to tell without specifics, but even without diversion tactics, clarifying terms may not be as straightforward as it seems. On the one hand, without some "alignment on definitions" debaters end up talking past each other. On the other hand, the debate may concern a subject that is only intuitively grasped by the participants. In such cases, definitions that are best given to the terms used are a legitimate part of the debate, and asking to clarify them may derail it, by putting the cart before the horse. Clarification would have to be the debate's outcome rather than its input.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 11:36
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    You can't have a debate without definitions. But you can't have definitions without a debate. "And so it goes..."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 12:22

2 Answers 2

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You were definitely being reasonable. Half the so-called problems of philosophy build down to vague use of language, and arguments at cross-purpose are the common result of a failure to pay attention to ambiguity of terms.

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As the comments may have made clear, the answer to the question in your title is, “It can be.” So how about the question in the last sentence in the body of your post about philosophical justification for (sincere) attempts to agree on language being used in discourse?

To the extent that discourse involves the exchange of ideas and that the exchange of ideas requires mutual comprehension, agreeing on language is essential to discourse. Without it each participant can be talking about a different topic.

If John asserts that raising houses is key to their neighborhood’s flourishing and Mary responds that razing houses is the exact wrong approach, then whatever they’ve done, it doesn’t amount to exchanging ideas because neither’s idea has made its way into the other’s awareness.

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