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Firstly, I should mention that I am not sure, whether this the right place to ask such a question, but I am trying it anyway. Furthermore, one could say I come from a mathematics background and I am not familiar with common terminology in philosophy or linguistics for that matter. Also my English might be lacking at times, but please bear with me.


I am under the impression, that many words that people use, especially those describing "immaterial objects", like "peace" or "justice", are not universally defined in a way, that everyone accepts. Let me try to explain this with an example:

Once, in our philosophy class in school, the following question was asked:

"How can we achieve world peace?"

I roughly answered:

"Well, one way is to kill all people, then there can be no more war." Of course this was meant mostly as a joke, but I still thought of it as valid answer. However, as expected, (at least some) people disagreed with me, saying that if there are no people left, then this can hardly be called "peace". It raises the question: Is my definition of peace wrong? My belief is, that it is not. I think the problem is just that we have no real definition of what peace is, so people use them same word to describe different things. Those things might have many properties in common (in this case the "absence of war"), but others may differ or one definition is more general then the other. My first question is:

Is this a justified believe to have?

It does not stop here though. As a result of such a "misunderstanding" people sometimes start discussing, what a term "has" to mean. For example, so people would say "Band X is not a true metal band at all, because something something". But how can this be true at all? After all, no one ever defined, what "metal music" is. It feels to me as if one party is simply trying to convince the other party to redefine the words, they are using. My latter question is:

Is there any point in discussing the meaning of words other then avoiding misunderstandings?

  • Kill everyone except one person. Or kill everyone except two very good friends. – gnasher729 Jul 23 '15 at 16:49
  • @gnasher729 I know, there are other options ;) – Stefan Perko Jul 23 '15 at 17:57
  • Kill everyone except the people who agree with you. The problem is that all people disagree about something. – user16869 May 9 '16 at 23:04
  • often i find myself arguing / talking with someone who seems to want to misunderstand what i'm saying. so i suppose you could add "engendering misunderstandings" – user6917 Sep 11 '16 at 3:13
  • Having 'the war to end all wars' has a great history =) – CriglCragl Jun 26 '18 at 0:12
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In many situations there is. Strictly speaking, a definition can never be "wrong", unless it is incoherent or contains a contradiction, like "dry wetness". But it can be awkward, cumbersome, confusing, fruitless, and all other sorts of undesirable. This is why people often talk about misnomers and what definitions "ought" to be. Here is Quine:"Any word worth explicating has some contexts which, as wholes, are clear and precise enough to be useful; and the purpose of explication is to preserve the usage of these favored contexts while sharpening the usage of other contexts". But of course it depends on what contexts one favors, and what makes them useful.

Now to your example. Is zero a natural number? Different textbooks answer differently depending on the author's preference. On the one hand, it is not a number one can count with, so it is "unnatural", on the other, it completes them nicely in an algebraic way, so we might as well count it in. It is a borderline case, and so is the OP definition of "world peace". It is often expedient to include (or to exclude) borderline cases when it makes more statements generally true without exceptions, especially in mathematics. This is why three points on the same line often count as a triangle, but 1 does not count as a prime.

Already Frege formulated the context principle: "never to ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context". Basic concepts of geometry, mechanics, biology, ethics, etc., only acquire their full meaning in relation to other basic concepts, they support each others' meanings by creating contexts for each other. So arguing over definitions is often part of working out a framework of concepts, the "right" concepts, well worth the spent time. Even arguing over the "right" symbolism may be worth it, as Newton-Leibniz notational dispute in calculus shows.

It should come as no surprise that arguments over definitions often mask ideological, philosophical or political disagreements. In 18th century a debate over what gets to be called "quantity of motion" raged for half a century, masking substantive disagreements over foundations of mechanics. More recently debates over the definition of "torture" reflected the differences in moral and legal beliefs.

2

I have one minor thing to add about definitions in general to what Conifold has already said. New definitions, till they become commonplace, are usually mentioned along with coiner's name. Thus, while we talk about Rousseau's concepts of social contract when we generally refer to social contract, a new definition would accompany the new author's name.

In the specific case of world peace you mentioned, while the way you defined peace doesn't lead to absurdities in itself, the question was posed was about world peace, which refers to peace that exists in the world. The meaning of the word world, in a context where one is discussing world peace, must include human issues. If humans are removed from discussion, the whole discussion around world peace is rendered contextless.

  • That's a good point, many issues discussed under "world peace" trivialize in a world of one, unless the person is in conflict with himself :-) – Conifold Jul 22 '15 at 20:48
  • I guess if you cannot get along with anyone including yourself, the simplest solution is to remove yourself from the conflict. Uh... – user16869 May 9 '16 at 23:07
  • Rousseau coined 'social contract' – CriglCragl Jun 26 '18 at 1:45
1

I can recommend Alfred Korzybski and his text "Science and Sanity" for a much deeper investigation into your questions. His work focuses on the subject of General Semantics for which there is an official website and institution. Although I'm not quite certain the state of the institution.

@Conifold has already answered your questions quite clearly so I won't belabor the point. I will point out, however, that his statement regarding the relationship of terms to one another and their context is central to Korzybski's philosophy.

Basic concepts of geometry, mechanics, biology, ethics etc. only acquire their full meaning in relation to other basic concepts, they support each others' meanings by creating contexts for each other.

In essence, language and even knowledge itself (according to Korzybski) are structural and relational. We define all of our terms using other terms (using language itself). Thus eventually we end up circling our tails trying to determine the meaning of any particular term as each word is simply referenced by another. Ultimately, again according to "K" but I also agree, that which is "true" or actually knowable is also unspeakable. The word is not (nor ever can be) the entity in question (here I mean entity to mean physical object or abstract concept such as "world peace", "justice" and the like).

It was Korzbyski who created the expression, "The map is not the territory".

To demonstrate this, Korzbyski created a diagram he called the "Structural Differential" which models how we humans abstract from reality in order to create meaningful structures of our environment, i.e. semantics.

What's significant about all of this is that the thorough and complete understanding that we engage in a process of abstracting, and of having personally affected semantic reactions to various terms and concepts, can lead humanity away from un-sanity and towards a sane understanding of our world and one another.

In my view, language is a symbolic system, just as @Conifold and others have already stated. But I also posit that most humans don't realize this and thus agree with "K" that mistaking words for objects is a major source of un-sanity in our world.

Lastly, and I fully admit I have indeed belabored the point after all, you might be interested to know that Korzybski was a mathematician. He believed it was possible to mathematically and scientifically deal with General Semantics.

  • Below a certain level of cognitive development, it is not possible for people to separate the tools from the work at hand, so to speak, and so they cannot conceive of the very language that they use to communicate (and so in some sense to "think with") as anything but "the way things are". It is a bit like how in the early universe, all matter was charged / polarized, so light could not propagate. – user16869 May 9 '16 at 23:11
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Is there any point in discussing the meaning of words other then avoiding misunderstandings?

No, but that one point is everything. Coming to an agreement of any sort requires some common understanding of what the individual terms mean. Even telling a joke requires the comic and the audience to understand what has been said.

0

Confusion about the meaning of words is a special problem in the political arena (which extends into philosophy), where words are manipulated by propagandists.

In this spirit, I often argue about word meanings when I see a word being misused, either intentionally (by a propagandist) or unintentionally (by someone who has been inadvertently duped by a propagandist).

However, words often have multiple meanings and connotations. I think it's thus important for speakers and writers to let the audience know which definition they're using.

If you don't agree with my definition of the words "liberal" or "socialism," that's fine. But the most important thing is that you understand what I'm trying to communicate.

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