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Author Topic: Dictionary definitions in philosophical discussions
Michelle
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posted 27 July 2006 12:32 PM      Profile for Michelle   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I have a hard time saying what I mean here, so bear with me. But I have occasionally noticed that people present dictionary definitions of certain terms, as if the dictionary has the last word, in that one short definition, about the entire breadth and scope of a word and all the concepts it encompasses.

The example that inspired this thread is the term "racism", but I don't want to get into a debate here about what "racism" means, I just want to use that word as an example. In another thread, we were having a discussion about what what the word "racism" means - what it encompasses and what it does not. As most of us know, there is an entire body of thought and scholarship and many different schools of thought on the subject of racism and what it means to be racist.

And then, in the midst of the discussion, the dictionary definition of "racism" was posted as kind of the final authority on that word's meaning.

Don't get me wrong, dictionaries have their time and place. If you're looking for a quick definition of a word you haven't heard before, or are looking for a succinct definition when you know what something means but can't put it into a few words, a dictionary is great. But a dictionary definition doesn't give you any analysis about a word that describes a phenomenon or subject of study. That's what discussion, academic or otherwise, is for, especially since our understanding of social and philosophical terms is always changing, and with that change, the meanings change. There's no way that the word "racism" (or say, the word "torture" or any other word whose definition is very subjective and philosophically evolving as society changes and academic thought on the subject progresses) could be defined simply by some one or two sentence dictionary definition. Not to mention that the people who write dictionaries are not the final authorities on what words mean. They are giving us a tiny little glimpse through their short definition, of what the subject might be about. A dictionary definition is supposed to make us say, "Oh, that. Okay, I see." Not to make us say, "Well, now I know everything there is to know about what constitutes 'racism' or 'torture' or 'homosexuality' or 'childhood'."

This has happened lots of other times with lots of other words in other threads, so I'm really not looking to debate any specific words and their meanings here. I'm just saying that throwing a dictionary definition into a philsophical discussion about a certain topic in order to prove people wrong about what they feel a word might encompass is not really a valid argument.

[ 27 July 2006: Message edited by: Michelle ]


From: I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Catchfire
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posted 27 July 2006 12:38 PM      Profile for Catchfire   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Man, that busts my craw too. Like the previous posters in a thread were too stupid to check the OED before some enlightened hero chucks out dictionary.com and solves the crisis in the Middle East. Using the right word is important sure, but I can't think of a single instance where pulling out a specific definition doesn't reek of pretention.

On a brief aside, I also hate speeches that begin with some variation of "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines courage as..." Jesus.


From: On the heather | Registered: Apr 2003  |  IP: Logged
farnival
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posted 27 July 2006 01:04 PM      Profile for farnival     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Catchfire:
Man, that busts my craw too. Like the previous posters in a thread were too stupid to check the OED before some enlightened hero chucks out dictionary.com and solves the crisis in the Middle East. Using the right word is important sure, but I can't think of a single instance where pulling out a specific definition doesn't reek of pretention.

On a brief aside, I also hate speeches that begin with some variation of "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines courage as..." Jesus.


well, i'm that pretentious hero obviously, and i had no idea there was such a wealth of distaste for the dictionary definitions of words.

michelle, all i was meaning, and the link was just to provide a reference to what i meant, was that to me, racism, the word in question, is pretty simple and not at all complicated. I totally understand that words have more meaning than simple definitions, and i would have to be a simpleton to not know that.

to me, racism is ugly and unnaceptable and hurtful. to be dismissed in the anti-racism forum because my point of view comes from that of a white male and then essentially browbeaten with references to angry literary works, is not very fun and kind of hypocritical. I can say the same for conversations on feminism i occasionally have with very good female friends, whom i normally have fantastic discussions/debates with, who dismiss any input on that particular subject from me becasuse i'm male. both are vital and interesting subjects that are very exclusionary in my experience, which makes it very hard to understand them better.

as for anti-dictionary bias, i suppose there is nothing to do about it. dictionaries are quite useful as a reference point, and at no time did i ever intend to use it as a finality or end-of-argument sort of thing, and that was not my intention.


From: where private gain trumps public interest, and apparently that's just dandy. | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
Catchfire
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posted 27 July 2006 01:12 PM      Profile for Catchfire   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Whoa. I didn't intend to attack individual posters. I was responding to the thread topic and didn't even read the thread in question (vaguely referred to as about "racism"). I don't even know you, farnival, nor can recall any of your posts, so I certainly wouldn't call you, personally, pretentious.

I was only venting personal pet peeves in what I thought was a light-hearted thread. Please don't be offended.


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mersh
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posted 27 July 2006 01:15 PM      Profile for mersh     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I think using the dictionary to argue politics is pretty limiting. Especially when one is

quote:
essentially browbeaten with references to angry literary works

in an attempt to talk about the meaning and implications of particular words. "Angry literary works" often speak more directly to the question at hand, and I would think are entirely appropriate on a progressive board.


From: toronto | Registered: Aug 2005  |  IP: Logged
N.Beltov
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posted 27 July 2006 01:20 PM      Profile for N.Beltov   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
1.
quote:
Catchfire: On a brief aside, I also hate speeches that begin with some variation of "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines courage as..." Jesus.

When I see this I expect it to accompany an ahistorical definition of one kind or another. The best definition, especially of a term in dispute or subject to differing interpretations, etc., is one that incorporates some history of how a particular term came about. That way, even those who disagree with the author can derive some benefit from a definition that they dispute or disagree with. Why does the speaker start with this moment in time rather than that moment in time to outline a definition? Seeing how a definition changes over time is very important and a great remedy to the wooden, "dictionary-centred" discussion of a topic. Such definitions are lousy at incorporating change, which happens with all things, and seems to "stop" conversation and thinking, rather than encourage it, as Michelle has noted so well.

2. But I'm a great fan of a really good definition. It helps understanding, encourages creativity, and points the way to new problems to solve and improved versions of itself.

3. Reading about a complicated subject, like aesthetics or history or dialectics in the Hegelian and Marxist tradition often brings a reader up against an author who states something to the effect that the subject can't really be defined without a recapitulation of the entire subject matter [or something like that]. How the author handles things at that point is important; do they try for a preliminary definition, acknowledged as much less than perfect, from which they can develop their subject matter? Or do they, such as E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art, throw their arms up in despair and abandon the effort to understand their subject matter in its breadth, and satisfy themselves with an eclectic hodge-podge of contradictory assertions, ideas and so on?

Edited to add: Rigid insistence on a finished and polished definition, independent of how that definition was worked out, seems peevish and stupid for big complicated subjects like aesthetics, etc.

4. The political tradition that I'm most comfortable with, the Marxist tradition, makes use of terms and concepts quite different from the views that it criticizes. Marxists use, for example, relational concepts, or concepts that only really make sense in a dynamic context, reflecting the complexity of change, things coming into being and passing away, and things or processes that make sense only in the context of "opposites" or other objects or processes that relate to the original thing under examination. Social class is a good example of this. You could fill a book with the ways that Marx uses "capital" in his famous book of the same title - and in fact many teachers of Marx strongly suggest that that is exactly what you do in order to really understand what old Karl is trying to get across, given his Hegelian-like categories and so on.

5. Plato's dialogues, involving his hero Socrates, are wonderful little instructional discourses about words and what they mean. It becomes apparent that the bouncing back and forth, first using one definition and then another, isn't such a bad way to move towards better definitions. But old Socrates was having fun, too, mocking those he questioned by exposing their apparent ignorance.

[ 27 July 2006: Message edited by: N.Beltov ]


From: Vancouver Island | Registered: May 2003  |  IP: Logged
farnival
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posted 27 July 2006 01:26 PM      Profile for farnival     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Catchfire:
Whoa. I didn't intend to attack individual posters. I was responding to the thread topic and didn't even read the thread in question (vaguely referred to as about "racism"). I don't even know you, farnival, nor can recall any of your posts, so I certainly wouldn't call you, personally, pretentious.

I was only venting personal pet peeves in what I thought was a light-hearted thread. Please don't be offended.


thanks Catchfire. you were caught unawares!


From: where private gain trumps public interest, and apparently that's just dandy. | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
Catchfire
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posted 27 July 2006 01:41 PM      Profile for Catchfire   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Don't get me wrong, I love definitions too. The Oxford English Dictionary is like, my favourite book ever: OED, Yeah you know me!

I just don't particularly care for the pedantic conversations that go like this:

Person #1: "You're a bigot, Person # 2"
Person #2: "No I'm not, I said suchandsuch. That doesn't make me a bigot. I resent that, Person # 1"
Person #1: "Resent it all you like, Person # 2, but dictionary.com defines "bigot" as:

quote:
big-ot n/ One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.
So there, Person # 2, you bigot!

And so on.

(As a further irritating aside, Person #1's claim is false. dictionary.com is not a dictionary, it's a collection of dictionaries, so alone, it can't define anything. People like Person # 1 usually pick the definition that suits them, even ignoring other definitions from the same edition to find the claim that suits them.)

[ 27 July 2006: Message edited by: Catchfire ]


From: On the heather | Registered: Apr 2003  |  IP: Logged
mersh
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posted 27 July 2006 01:48 PM      Profile for mersh     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
I'm just saying that throwing a dictionary definition into a philsophical discussion about a certain topic in order to prove people wrong about what they feel a word might encompass is not really a valid argument.

I'd agree with this. Citing the dictionary (or encyclopedia or even -- gasp -- wikipedia) can be a way of calling in an "objective" source. The assumption is these things are more factual & accurate. Sometimes it can be a shorthand way of explaining something, but given the reams of stuff available online, a few minutes of digging can produce much more useful references.


From: toronto | Registered: Aug 2005  |  IP: Logged
farnival
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posted 27 July 2006 01:56 PM      Profile for farnival     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Catchfire:
...dictionary.com is not a dictionary, it's a collection of dictionaries, so alone, it can't define anything...

in my post with the dicitonary.com reference, i did point out that very thing, mentioning there were two different sources cited, which is why i like that website, but obviously that is some sort of faux-pas to use that as a link here on babble based on the distaste it has fomented. often there are quite a few sources cited, some that conflict, and some that quite often surprise me, as i thought i knew the word i had looked up.

my favorite part is the origins of words that are listed. i am currently reading a very good book on Columbus' last voyage, and a mention was made of a certain Mr. Torquemada, head Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. I found it intriguing that a head torturer had "torque" as the root of his name, and wondered if that is where the word came from, but found out that it is much older, so perhaps his name was just a weird coincidence.

i do think it is funny that the word "mullet" was the starting point to the original thread that spawned this one, which as i pointed out is a fish that became a haircut and is now for all practical purposes as noun describing a type of macho dude with an unfortunate lid.

so, i am well aware of the staleness that dictionary definitions can have and the shifting nature and perception of words over time and through usage and discussion, but i still think they are a good point of reference if necessary, in any conversation.


From: where private gain trumps public interest, and apparently that's just dandy. | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
Farces
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posted 27 July 2006 02:26 PM      Profile for Farces   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Wait, how do you define "dictionary" here?
From: 43°41' N79°38' W | Registered: May 2006  |  IP: Logged
farnival
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posted 27 July 2006 02:40 PM      Profile for farnival     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Farces:
Wait, how do you define "dictionary" here?

something that should not be used in a philisophical discussion or debate.


From: where private gain trumps public interest, and apparently that's just dandy. | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
Stephen Gordon
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posted 27 July 2006 02:50 PM      Profile for Stephen Gordon        Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Definitions are neither right or wrong; they are only useful or not. If someone says 'For the purposes of this dicussion, I will define X as blahblahblah,' that's fair game, even if there's another, more widely used definition of X. It puts everyone on the same page.

Of course, if the definition removes all that's interesting and problematic of the subject under discussion, it's not a useful definition. That point can be made by noting that it misses an important distinction, *not* by berating someone for using the 'wrong' definition.


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Catchfire
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posted 27 July 2006 03:02 PM      Profile for Catchfire   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
farnival, again, I am not singling you out. I did not and have not yet read your post where you cited a dictionary definition. This is a general thread about general internet goings-on.
From: On the heather | Registered: Apr 2003  |  IP: Logged
Michelle
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posted 27 July 2006 04:15 PM      Profile for Michelle   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Hey farnival, I probably should have made it more clear in the opening post, but the reason I didn't name any names or link to the other thread is because I didn't want to start a thread about you specifically. I've seen this so many times on babble and believe it or not, I've been meaning to start a thread about this just about forever. Today just happened to be the day I saw an example and had the inclination to sit and compose it.

Anyhow, I just wanted to talk about it without turning it into a gang-up, so that's why I didn't mention names. I figured that way if people check out this thread later on, they won't link it to anyone in particular. Sorry if it felt like an attack, farnival. It wasn't intended that way.


From: I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
farnival
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posted 27 July 2006 06:17 PM      Profile for farnival     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
catchfire....i was agreeing with you. i thought you worded that quite well and was just fleshing it out.

michelle....no worries, i felt a bit put off by the other discussion and while you did disclaim this as a general concept, at the time it was close to home....now i am home and am far more circumspect. thanks for the clarity.

i am a word nerd though and perhaps percieving a dissing one of my favourite books ( wot! they still make those?!?!), the dictionary , perhaps got me a bit testy.

lets all continue with michelle's original intent, shall we.


From: where private gain trumps public interest, and apparently that's just dandy. | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
koan brothers
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posted 27 July 2006 07:36 PM      Profile for koan brothers     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:

i am a word nerd though and perhaps percieving a dissing one of my favourite books ( wot! they still make those?!?!), the dictionary , perhaps got me a bit testy.


nerd also nurd ( P ) Pronunciation Key (nűrd)
n. Slang
A foolish, inept, or unattractive person.
A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.


Farnival, I don't know you but I bet none of the above would accurately describe you.


From: desolation row | Registered: Oct 2002  |  IP: Logged
jrose
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posted 23 May 2007 06:05 AM      Profile for jrose     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Oooh Michelle, download CBC's Editor's Choice podcast from yesterday.


It’s from “And Sometimes Why,” and it looks at controversial dictionary and thesaurus entries. As a self-declared “word nerd” I was fascinated. I didn’t even know that there was a such thing as a lexicographer! Most notably, it looks at the differences in definitions between the American and Canadian dictionary, such as the term “marriage,” and how the two interpret this. It also deciphers the thesaurus entry of the term “have sex.”

The thesaurus entry for “have sex,” includes a number of synonyms, with the most shocking being RAPE. Of course, this stands out from the cluster of lovey terms such as “make love,” and so forth. It looks at the lack of distinction between sex as a crime of violence and sex as a result of lust, rather clustering the two together into one term of have sex. The argument given is there is no such thing as a “true synonym,” and it goes on to discuss this in depth. It’s almost compelled me to pull out the dictionaries from my desk and do my own investigating!


From: Ottawa | Registered: Oct 2006  |  IP: Logged
Catchfire
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posted 23 May 2007 02:07 PM      Profile for Catchfire   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I love "And Sometimes Why." I'm kind of biased, because a friend of mine lives with the producer, but that doesn't mean it's not a wonderful show for language nuts.

I've always thought that it's not the thesaurus's job to give synonyms, because synonyms are redundant. What a thesaurus does is tease out levels of precision so you end up with what you really meant to say. That's how the Roget's original thesaurus is set up, in groups of words and similar categories are side by side. Obviously "fat" means something very different than "obese," even though they are under the same heading in the thesaurus. As any student of Ferdinand de Saussure will tell you, it's all about difference.


From: On the heather | Registered: Apr 2003  |  IP: Logged
jrose
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posted 24 May 2007 11:18 AM      Profile for jrose     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Very true. Words can be fascinating things!

[ 24 May 2007: Message edited by: jrose ]


From: Ottawa | Registered: Oct 2006  |  IP: Logged
Martha (but not Stewart)
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posted 24 May 2007 08:06 PM      Profile for Martha (but not Stewart)     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
"But how do we find that 'bachelor' is defined as 'unmarried man'? Who defined it thus, and when? Are we to appeal to the nearest dictionary, and accept the lexicographer's formulation as law? Clearly this would be to put the cart before the horse. The lexicographer is an empirical scientist, whose business is the recording of antecedent facts; and if he glosses 'bachelor' as 'unmarried man' it is because of his belief that there is a relation of synonymy between these forms, implicit in general or preferred usage prior to his own work. The notion of synonymy presupposed here has still to be clarified, presumably in terms relating to linguistic behavior. Certainly the "definition" which is the lexicographer's report of an observed synonymy cannot be taken as the ground of the synonymy." (From W.V.O. Quine 1951, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" The Philosophical Review 60.)
From: Toronto | Registered: Mar 2006  |  IP: Logged

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