I lack a good background in philosophy and often get stuck while trying to understand it. There is a particular issue that keeps me from understanding or enjoying or appreciating many videos or texts on philosophy. I hope you can help me.

In such cases I feel the discussion is nonsense. Because of this, I do not know if:

  • I have wandered blindly into a philosophical position (under which the discussion is nonsensical) without even realizing it.
  • I do not understand what philosophers are doing or what their goals may be.
  • Or something else.

My problem arises in some, but not all, discussions of the kind: "What is X". For example: What is love? or What is intelligence?

To me words like 'love' cannot have an intrinsic 'meaning to be discovered'. They are just inventions used to represent things (objects, feelings, etc.). As they arise from common people (non-experts in languages nor logicians) and they were used for hundreds or thousands of years with their meanings varying from person to person.

There is however an alternative: that 'love' really has an intrinsic meaning, that is, that 'love' has to mean X. I find this almost insane. Notice that this is different from stating that: 'It is preferable to give "love" the following meaning: ... ' in such a case we would be discussing the convenience of one or another definition for the word 'love'.

Clearly, the latter is not the case which bothers me, because it should have an argument line of the form: In THIS context, defining 'love' as X is advantageous because... which is easily identifiable.

But the talks I am referring to have another structure, for example something like: "According to P1 'love' means X1. But then appeared P2 who noticed that X1 does not include 'love' for animals, so P2 considered that 'love' means X2". Then P3...".

In such talks I find the following kind of problems:

  • Why does 'love' have to include, for example, 'love for animals'? I find that completely arbitrary and nonconstructive if 'love' does not have an intrinsic meaning.

  • In the case that P2 requires 'love for animals' because it is really a need in the context of some system of ideas, such a fact or opinion is completely overlooked when it must be essentially the only thing that matters.

Both problems are avoided if it is argued that what P1, P2, ... are trying to do is find a definition that represents as accurately as possible what people mean by the word 'love' which of course could be significant (useful or not). Again, in such a case another problem arises: This intention is never stated. No data is presented that supports such views (for example, statistical data or surveys). Even more, I doubt it is significant at all within philosophy.

  • What I am missing here?

  • Am I blind to the philosophical conceptions followed in such talks that prevents me from understanding something obvious to others?

  • If in fact there is an issue here, can you briefly comment about what philosophers have said on this?

PD: Although I found a similar question Is there a point to arguing about the meaning of words? I did not find there specific answers to my doubts.

  • I made an edit which you are welcome to roll back or further edit. Would you have an example of a video or text that causes you these problems? That may be one way to narrow down the scope of the question which otherwise might be too broad to answer in a few paragraphs. Jun 25, 2018 at 21:08
  • @FrankHubeny, thank you for your edit and reply. Although I have a few talks on mind they are not in English (as you probably noticed, English is not my native language). But I will search for them. Also, I have not inconvenience with a heavy referenced answer (which makes me follows links and reduce answer length at the same time) Jun 25, 2018 at 21:24
  • Definitions are arbitrary--they are not the subject of philosophy at all. They are a set of choices that must be made in order to begin communication, and therefore philosophy, but they have no philosophical import themselves. Jun 25, 2018 at 22:15
  • All words have been invented in order to describe something physically existing ot something that exists as idea. Yet there are ambiguous words like "love" or "god". Their ambiguosity arises from differences in perceptions.
    – rus9384
    Jun 26, 2018 at 12:23

2 Answers 2


I think you will find that few philosophers nowadays ask 'what is X ?' questions. This style of philosophy instantly reminds one of Socrates and his 'what is piety ?', 'what is knowledge ?', 'what is justice ?' questions. The assumption was that piety, knowledge, justice had nuclear, essentialist meanings which could be revealed by philosophical analysis. Few now make this assumption because all such words, or if you prefer 'concepts', have different shades of meaning or kinds of use in different contexts : and no single meaning is the (proper or true) meaning or use.

Instead of 'What is freedom ?' a philosopher is far more likely to ask 'Should people be free [= exempt from legal restraint] to take Class A drugs ?' or 'Should there be free access [= exemption from payment] to public museums ?' or 'Is someone free [ = exempt from coercive constraint] to refuse a job if the alternative is starvation ?' 'Am I free [exempt from moral criticism] if I break a promise because I believe I have a more important and conflicting moral obligation ?

To take up your example : 'love' doesn't have to but can include love of animals, one's partner, (rarely nowadays) one's country, French cuisine, gardening. 'Love' has different meanings in all these contexts. Abstract 'what is X ?' questions are, most of them, dead and buried.

  • I liked your answer but would suggest that there's a good reason for asking 'What is x?' questions, which is to show that we often have no idea what we're talking about. This may be useful knowledge as it helps us break free of our unreflective linguistic and conceptual habits. Thus in his essay 'Appearance and Reality' Bradley goes thought a list of 'What is x' questions in order to show that our words do not describe metaphysically real things. So I would want to cut your final sentence as it rejects the central question for ontology. .
    – user20253
    Jun 27, 2018 at 12:53
  • @PeterJ. Hello again ! I only said that 'most' what is X ? questions are dead. What do you have in mind by 'the central question for ontology' ? I much admire Bradley btw. Aren't nearly all his what is X questions in A&R destructive ? What is the self ? what is relation ? what is causation ? These questions only serve to introduce the demolition of the relevant concepts. I took the Questioner to suppose philosophy still to be hooked on Socratic what is X ? questions which only demolish interlocutors' replies but the point and coherence of the question - the search for essence - itself. GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 27, 2018 at 14:05
  • Good to meet another Bradley fan! His approach is destructive because it is revealing. It reveals that our concepts are easy to destroy. I feel Socrates (and Zeno) has the same goal, revealing the incoherence of these questions by unmasking the incoherence of our concepts. But we only learn of their incoherence by asking the questions. After all. 'What is X' is the central question for metaphysics. We find by analysis that phenomenon are without essence and this is important knowledge. I suspect we don't disagree but are just coming from different angles.
    – user20253
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:15
  • @PeterJ. I left out a 'not' : Socratic what is X ? questions which only demolish interlocutors' replies but not the point and coherence of the question - the search for essence - itself.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:12
  • Aha. That makes sense.
    – user20253
    Jun 28, 2018 at 11:33

To me words like 'love' cannot have an intrinsic 'meaning to be discovered'. They are just inventions used to represent things (objects, feelings, etc.).

Indeed, they are inventions. All words are inventions. Even such unambiguous words as 'knife' or 'castle' are inventions. But what you are asking is the meaning of ambiguous words. They are not different in any sense of inventing.

So, why do different people ascribe different meanings to the same words?

First, one should understand how people learn words. This typically occurs in early childhood, yet can occur later. But usually old enough people just ask for the name of particular object ot process. So, in childhood one sees that adults call objects having particular shape 'knives'. Then a child learns they are 'knives'. But what happens with such words like 'love'?

A human looks (and in this kind even adult human looks and not just asks about the meaning of the word) at others' behaviour, feelings and context when such word is used. You can also look at such thing as reflex. Typically people get their definitions of words from these mechanisms.

Of course, you can say you have your own understanding of love and others are free to have their own. Or you can try to give an objective definition of love. In former case you just agree that people have (and maybe can have) only subjective perception of some words. In latter case, since words are human inventions and are dependent on reflexes, definition of love must include everyone's understandings of that word.

Whether or not words have intrinsic meaning is a matter of debate, because if they are merely instruments to express our feelings and thoughts, they have none. Or one can argue (real) ideas and conceptions exist outside of human minds. Yet, ideas and conceptions are not words.

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