• Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    Regularly on this forum we see topics that seek to define certain concepts with precision and exactitude. Without a precisely-defined vocabulary, we are told, there can be no meaningful philosophical discussion. I disagree, and that's what this topic is about. Oh, and for those of you trapped in binary thinking, I have NOT just written that definitions, or vocabulary, are in any way wrong, or that they should be set aside or otherwise ignored. I argue only that a precisely defined word is sometimes not what we want or need.

    The way we humans look at the world - or at least the way I look at it :wink: - we see many things that (to us) are vague and imprecisely-defined. And sometimes we want to discuss these things. So we need vague and imprecisely-defined words to describe these vague and imprecisely-defined things. Sometimes we want to discuss things in a general context, so we use general terms and generalisations (which are, of course, vague and imprecisely-defined). General terms - those whose definitions are (quite deliberately!) vague and imprecisely defined - are useful, and so we have such words, and we use them.

    If we talk about intelligence, which is more or less defined by the IQ test, we are actually considering an array of mental talents, which we place under the umbrella heading of "intelligence". The word "intelligence" is therefore vague and imprecisely defined, so that we can use it to describe something that is (you guessed!) vague and imprecisely-defined. Some words are vague and imprecisely defined because that's how we want them to be; we need them that way, and we use them that way.

    Recently we saw here a topic that tried to define "wisdom", or maybe that was a sub-topic? Whatever, it was discussed. Attempts were made to give it a precise definition. To me, those attempts seemed to fail. Why? Because wisdom is one of the general terms this topic is about. Like intelligence, wisdom is a multi-faceted thing. It is a general term. What use would it be (in a conversation that sought to use the current general term "wisdom") for it to be given a precise definition? Then you would be unable to refer to all the facets of wisdom at the same time, unless/until you invented a new and general term. For, as well as being general, wisdom includes things we maybe don't have specific terms for, and just includes them with all the other aspects of wisdom. Maybe it includes aspects we hadn't clearly identified before? Vague terms help us think.

    Perhaps it would be good to look at a few of the more notorious general terms. First it has to be Quality, the term that gave Pirsig so much trouble. Pirsig asserted that we all know what Quality is, it's only when we try to write down a precise definition that we get into trouble. Fair enough. But perhaps the problem might only be that Quality is a general term, as I have described them, and so it has no precise definition?

    And then there's wisdom. Again, we think we all know what it means, but we have difficulty writing it down. Like intelligence, wisdom is a general term, which refers to a number of related - at least we consider them related - mental faculties. In general, wisdom directs us toward understanding, rather than just facts. Intelligence can lead us from "e = mc-squared" to a uranium fission bomb, but wisdom can tell us if we should. Having a term for wisdom means that we can discuss it, even if the definition we have is general and imprecisely defined.

    There are other such terms, and I would write about one or two more, but they have flown away from my attention, just as I try to focus on them. Ah, the trials of age, and failing memory! :smile:
  • Frank Apisa
    896
    I have a problem with the personal descriptors used in religious or philosophical discussions, Pattern.

    The word "atheist" for instance, has so many different meanings that it becomes virtually useless in these discussions. Agnostic seems to be heading that same way.

    So I understand whereof you speak.

    In a religious discussion, the words "believe" or "belief" drive me nuts. (Although that probably is more a chip shot than a drive.) And when used as part of "believe in"...I shudder.

    We'll discuss those things as the thread moves on.
  • tim wood
    2.8k
    I've been forced to think of so-called general terms as exactly that, terms that bound a genus without actually being part of the genus. Truth is such a term. In itself it is nothing (that I can find or determine). It is, however, a general name for a quality that a true proposition has in virtue of its being true, at the same time without providing any clue as to the nature of what is true or how it is true.

    That is, general terms are abstract. As abstract they are nothing in themselves and without utility except as code for a specific but not-particularized quality. Ex.: "This proposition in arithmetic is true." "Great, what's it equal?" "Sorry, no clue whatsoever!"
  • T Clark
    3.4k
    Regularly on this forum we see topics that seek to define certain concepts with precision and exactitude. Without a precisely-defined vocabulary, we are told, there can be no meaningful philosophical discussion. I disagree, and that's what this topic is about.Pattern-chaser

    This is a well thought out and well written post. It's also one that I disagree with. For me, the biggest frustration on the forum is long, wandering discussions that never get anywhere because terms are not defined at the beginning. I would say half the threads have this problem.

    When I start a discussion where I think there will be misunderstandings about word meanings, I sometimes go on the web and collect 5 or 6 different definitions for the word and present them at the beginning of the post. That can give a good feel for the range of meanings the word may have - the vagueness you talk about. Then we can talk about the vagueness and decide if we can work with it or if we need to tie things down more.
  • unenlightened
    3.7k
    Here you go chaps, all your difficulties made completely irresolvable.

    http://s-f-walker.org.uk/pubsebooks/pdfs/ogden-richards-meaning-all.pdf

    Pay particular attention to Chapter 9 on the sixteen (yes count them) main philosophical meanings of "meaning". Oh, and it predates all that 'meaning is use' stuff, so better make it seventeen.
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    I think the use of general terms is that they work very well in everyday language, because context makes them clear and precise. The trouble philosophy sometimes encounters is that it takes terms that have a clear meaning in everyday situations, like 'truth' for instance ("is it true that you hit your sister?"), and then try to use them devoid of context, in a philosophical discussion. Sometimes this can be resolved by making a painstakingly precise definition of the word for the purpose of the philosophical discussion. Unfortunately, that is not often done and people just blunder ahead, accusing anybody that asks 'what do you mean by truth' of being deliberately obstructive. But there are cases where it is not even possible to give a satisfactory definition of the notion that is being discussed. I think 'free will' is an example of that.

    It demonstrates the limits of language, which is an important and powerful philosophical concept to grasp. Thus, in the very process of failing in one philosophical endeavour, we get insight into another important philosophical notion.
  • Valentinus
    471

    One way to think about it is the distance between writers and readers.
    The writers strive to make the words their own. Readers compare writers, ever uncertain whether they should be writers too. The writer is seen as a thief. Stealing something of value from readers.

    If meaning is a matter of establishing the coordinates of position on a map everyone somehow has in their possession, then all the patter of disagreement can be put down as some kind of misunderstanding about a place on the map.

    In the midst of all this drama, it is the phenomena that is most up for grabs.
    Either some events are occurring or they are not. The most interesting writing reveals what had gone unnoticed by some readers.
  • Joshs
    712
    I don't think the generality of a term necessarily correlates with vagueness and imprecision unless that general term also happens to be vaguely and imprecisely defined. The basis of philosophy is the attempt to unify and relate disparate meanings within an overarching synthetic general concept. Scientific theories attempt something similar using empirical methods and mathematical measurement to define the theoretical.. Continental philosophy develops general terms by relating and differentiating them within the concepts of an entire historical heritage. Heidegger spent a whole career trying to define 'Being'. Some would suggest he didn't succeed entirely, but the point is he attempted to relate his term to as many other concepts as he could think of in order to flesh it out and give it precision.

    The challenge of a site like the philosophy forum is that often someone uses a term like wisdom and means it in a particular way, assuming that other will understand it in the same way they do. But each of us carries around our own idiosyncratic mental dictionaries in which each term we use is mutually defined by its relation to all other terms in our lexicon. In order to make cleaner to others how we are using a word, we have to show how we understand a host of other words that relate to its context. That is, we have to teach others how we are using our own lexicon when we present general philosophical concepts, and many of us haven't given it that much thought.
    That's not to say that starting with vague and loosely defined concepts doesn't happen a lot around here. That either will lead to a sharpening and defining of the issue or else people will tend to give up in exasperation and move onto a more fully thought out topic.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    The word "atheist" for instance, has so many different meanings that it becomes virtually useless in these discussions. Agnostic seems to be heading that same way.

    So I understand whereof you speak.
    Frank Apisa

    :up: So, instead of being "useless", maybe "atheist" is a general term, with all the vagueness that enables it to do its intended job?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    That is, general terms are abstract. As abstract they are nothing in themselves and without utility except as code for a specific but not-particularized quality.tim wood

    Yes, I think many (most?) such terms are abstract. But "without utility"? I think not. An umbrella term for a number of related things must prove useful in some circumstances, surely? Granted they are without utility in a binary-thinking context, where precision of vocabulary and concepts are paramount. But the search for certainty is mostly wishful thinking, and remaining exclusively in that context restricts the things we can think about and discuss.

    Don't you sometimes want to do what I did all the time as a 17-year-old, batting around general concepts, to see what came out? General discussions, using general terms, have some value, don't they? Note for incurable binary thinkers who may be reading this: no, I do not recommend dropping precision vocabularies in philosophy. I only suggest that adding general discussions to our debating might give us something we don't currently use, maybe something valuable?
  • Frank Apisa
    896
    The word "atheist" for instance, has so many different meanings that it becomes virtually useless in these discussions. Agnostic seems to be heading that same way.

    So I understand whereof you speak. — Frank Apisa


    :up: So, instead of being "useless", maybe "atheist" is a general term, with all the vagueness that enables it to do its intended job?
    Pattern-chaser



    Yeah, I guess if its "intended job" is to confuse and obscure...I imagine it does.

    Not sure why anyone would use it that way, but...
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    This is a well thought out and well written post. It's also one that I disagree with. For me, the biggest frustration on the forum is long, wandering discussions that never get anywhere because terms are not defined at the beginning. I would say half the threads have this problem.T Clark

    I'm almost embarrassed to reply to this, in case anyone thinks I am opposing your views. I find that I agree with both of us! :smile: But I cannot help wondering if some of the problems you describe are down to us choosing general/vague things to discuss, then getting annoyed that there are no more precise terms for us to use? Are we just in denial about vague and general words, and their use/utility? :chin:
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    The word "atheist" for instance, has so many different meanings that it becomes virtually useless in these discussions. Agnostic seems to be heading that same way.

    So I understand whereof you speak. — Frank Apisa


    :up: So, instead of being "useless", maybe "atheist" is a general term, with all the vagueness that enables it to do its intended job? — Pattern-chaser


    ↪Pattern-chaser


    Yeah, I guess if its "intended job" is to confuse and obscure...
    Frank Apisa

    No, if "atheist" is a general term such as we are describing (I'm not 100% convinced it is, which is why I said "maybe"), then its intended job is to describe something that is not precisely defined, so it describes that something imprecisely. Your reference to (intentional) "confuse and obscure" looks like a simple attempt to discredit the idea and the existence of general terms. But I'm sure I misunderstand...?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    I think the use of general terms is that they work very well in everyday language, because context makes them clear and precise. The trouble philosophy sometimes encounters is that it takes terms that have a clear meaning in everyday situations, like 'truth' for instance ("is it true that you hit your sister?"), and then try to use them devoid of context, in a philosophical discussion. Sometimes this can be resolved by making a painstakingly precise definition of the word for the purpose of the philosophical discussion. Unfortunately, that is not often done and people just blunder ahead, accusing anybody that asks 'what do you mean by truth' of being deliberately obstructive. But there are cases where it is not even possible to give a satisfactory definition of the notion that is being discussed. I think 'free will' is an example of that.

    It demonstrates the limits of language, which is an important and powerful philosophical concept to grasp. Thus, in the very process of failing in one philosophical endeavour, we get insight into another important philosophical notion.
    andrewk

    I agree with pretty much all of this. But I think perhaps we might sometimes avoid the problems with poorly-chosen topics and poorly-defined terms by recognising at the start that we are discussing vague and general things, which means we will necessarily use vague and general terms to accurately describe them. [Yes, accurately. It would be inaccurate to describe something vague, and give the impression of a precise description.]

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the many discussions brought to a halt by misunderstanding over the meaning of the terms used might be our fault. That general terms exist is indisputable (unless you know different?). That general things exist for those terms to describe is indisputable (ditto). Are we so inattentive that we cannot see when we are doing this, right at the start, and maybe spend the first part of the discussion deciding how we will handle the intrinsic imprecision?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    If meaning is a matter of establishing the coordinates of position on a map everyone somehow has in their possession, then all the patter of disagreement can be put down as some kind of misunderstanding about a place on the map.Valentinus

    Good analogy. I am saying that those discussions that refer to areas of the map, not pin-pointed places, should be recognised, and treated differently, as is surely and obviously appropriate.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    That's not to say that starting with vague and loosely defined concepts doesn't happen a lot around here. That either will lead to a sharpening and defining of the issue or else people will tend to give up in exasperation and move onto a more fully thought out topic.Joshs

    So you're not sympathetic to the knowing discussion of imprecisely defined things? Is there a reason why?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    Pirsig asserted that we all know what Quality is, it's only when we try to write down a precise definition that we get into trouble. Fair enough. But perhaps the problem might only be that Quality is a general termPattern-chaser

    A clarification: these words might give the impression that I discount Pirsig's thoughts as a simple mistake. This is not so. I just chose my words poorly. I have read his books several times, and always had a soft spot for his Metaphysics of Quality.
  • Frank Apisa
    896
    No, if "atheist" is a general term such as we are describing (I'm not 100% convinced it is, which is why I said "maybe"), then its intended job is to describe something that is not precisely defined, so it describes that something imprecisely. Your reference to (intentional) "confuse and obscure" looks like a simple attempt to discredit the idea and the existence of general terms. But I'm sure I misunderstand...?Pattern-chaser

    Perhaps I am "misunderstanding."

    Why would someone want to have a discussion about anything...and insure that the matter being discussed is obscure?

    If a person identifies as an "atheist" and speaks of "atheistic" positions on an issue...why on Earth would you want those positions to be ill-defined?

    Fact is, the "atheistic" position on the question, "Are there any gods?"...is not clearly defined. So if what one is attempting to obtain in a discussion of the issue is an individuals position...the reply of "I am an atheist" is of no help. (Neither, in fact, is a reply of "I am an agnostic.")

    "I assert that no gods exist anywhere" IS defining...and IS clear. (And is bullshit, but we'll leave that for now.)

    "I assert that I do not know if any gods exist" IS defining...and IS clear.

    So...what is your point...what are you proposing here?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    Why would someone want to have a discussion about anything...and insure that the matter being discussed is obscure?Frank Apisa

    Well, they wouldn't. But if the thing up for discussion is intrinsically ill-defined? Should we just shy away, and not try to talk about it? What about light? It's a stream of particles, or it's a wave, or it's both...? The term is clearly ill-defined. May we not discuss it anyway? Or gravity: we know that it is, but we don't have a clue what it is. And so on.

    If a person identifies as an "atheist" and speaks of "atheistic" positions on an issue...why on Earth would you want those positions to be ill-defined?Frank Apisa

    No-one wants to be in such a position, but (as I said above), what if the thing being discussed, atheism in this example, is intrinsically ill-defined, as you have already said it is?

    So...what is your point...what are you proposing here?Frank Apisa

    First, that we acknowledge the existence of ill-defined or vague terms, and that they exist for good reason (utility), not randomly. Then that we consider how these things might most usefully be discussed, to minimise confusion and misunderstanding. And finally, whether general discussions (which necessarily use general terms) are worthwhile. That'll do for a start. :wink:
  • tim wood
    2.8k
    I agree with you, but the terms themselves used in that way devolve from abstract to vague, or indistinct, or arbitrary - i.e., undefined.

    The test is if you can give a good definition of a general term. For example, truth. What's that? And good luck with this question.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    The test is if you can give a good definition of a general term.tim wood

    Hmm. I've been talking about these terms, terms that deliberately (in some cases) remain imprecise in order to describe something that is itself imprecise. So, if this is the case, a 'good' definition of a general term would be imprecise. A precise definition of an imprecise thing seems unlikely, probably impossible, wouldn't you say?
  • Joshs
    712
    "So you're not sympathetic to the knowing discussion of imprecisely defined things? Is there a reason why?"

    I have a background in philosophy and its much more interesting for me to be engaged in a discussion where there is enough mutual knowledge of historical figures or relevant ideas to start the conversation with a certain coherence. Others with much less background may find just the attempt to raise overarching questions about life to be satisfying. After college, many aren't able to find ways to become involved in such discussions as the mundane obligations of life begin to close in.

    You see both types of discussion on this site, those with vaguely defined terms which attract beginning philosophers,and those that begin with and maintain a high degree of focus and relative precision.
  • Noah Te Stroete
    1.3k
    You see both types of discussion on this site, those with vaguely defined terms which attract beginning philosophers,and those that begin with and maintain a high degree of focus and relative precision.Joshs

    But with vague terms such as “meaning” and “truth” defining them just leads to endless disagreement. I’m not sure this is any “better”.
  • Noah Te Stroete
    1.3k
    As an example, I could define “truth” to mean having the quality of corresponding to fact or reality. Then we would argue not only on this definition; but also of the definitions of “quality”, “correspond”, “fact”, and “reality”. This could go on for months.
  • emancipate
    117
    As an example, I could define “truth” to mean having the quality of corresponding to fact or reality. Then we would argue not only on this definition; but also of the definitions of “quality”, “correspond”, “fact”, and “reality”. This could go on for months.Noah Te Stroete

    What you describe is part of the process that is involved in defining concepts. There is a fleshing out. Defining is a becoming that is never finished or complete.
  • Joshs
    712
    Let me give an example. If i'm involved in a discussion with someone who, like me, is thoroughly versed in , say, Sartre, the our disagreement over Sartre will require each of us to reexamine our own readings of him and his definitions. It can be exasperating and frustrating, but also potentially very instructive. Ive had many such discussions, and I end up learning something new in my own reading of philosophers. That's regardless of whether I come to an agreement in the discussion. On the other hand, I've been involved in debates where I have to spend so much time in superficial background clarification that it never becomes challenging for me.

    There have been many famous ongoing debates in philosophical history, such as those between Gadamer and Habermas, Habermas, Rorty and Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins, etc.
    Such debates never resolve themselves, and yet are highly instructive for both the participants and the audience.

    And then there are non-debate debates where the parties involved were so far apart in their use of terms that the debate was never really able to get started (Derrida vs Gadamer and Derrida vs Searle ).
  • Joshs
    712
    It does often go on for months, but the idea is that the more terms are defined and fleshed out, the more room there is for some general overlap in perspective between the participants. This is the process of teaching each other one's own language.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.5k
    ↪Pattern-chaser
    "So you're not sympathetic to the knowing discussion of imprecisely defined things? Is there a reason why?"

    I have a background in philosophy and its much more interesting for me to be engaged in a discussion where there is enough mutual knowledge of historical figures or relevant ideas to start the conversation with a certain coherence. Others with much less background may find just the attempt to raise overarching questions about life to be satisfying. After college, many aren't able to find ways to become involved in such discussions as the mundane obligations of life begin to close in.

    You see both types of discussion on this site, those with vaguely defined terms which attract beginning philosophers,and those that begin with and maintain a high degree of focus and relative precision.
    Joshs

    Maybe I'm getting the wrong message from this: you'll have to let me know if I have misinterpreted, OK? :up:

    The tone of your words reminds me strongly of the scientists of the 1950s, who were convinced that science (mainly physics) had completed its quest, and described and explained the spacetime universe more or less completely.

    You seem to be saying that a detailed conversation is for the experienced, while a more general discussion is only for amateurs. And, carrying on from my previous paragraph, you seem to be saying that all experienced philosophers do is to engage in discussions where everything can be, and is, defined in detail. This seems to mean that all we can do is to repeat discussions that have already taken place, or examine the minor details of some historic philosopher's major work.

    New understanding starts with general discussion, and becomes clearer and better-defined as time passes. If we must confine ourselves to the detailed discussion you seem to prefer, doesn't this mean no new work, no new understanding(s)? I don't necessarily mean radically-new, revolutionary philosophy, but something a little more everyday.

    If I'm wrong (it's happened before! :wink: ) then what is the point of general terms in our language? They clearly have a use, or the population wouldn't use them, and they would fade away. There is little that is more democratic than language, in this sense.

    So what are general terms for, if not general discussion?
bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal
youtube
tweet
Add a Comment