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New Year argument at Antoine’s

Sometimes it is essential to stop an argument and clarify what a particular word means, if it is being used to mean different things without both parties realising. And sometimes it is essential not to allow an argument about what a word means to derail an argument. Because both of these things are true, many deduce from each truth that the other truth is false. But both are true.

I have tended (following Popper, and probably misunderstanding him) to think that arguments about meaning are pointless, even when they are not. Others err in favour of arguing about meaning, even when they ought not to be arguing about meaning.

Suppose both parties are using the same word in an argument (to describe an important part of what they are arguing about), but are, unknowingly, using this word to mean two different things. (An onlooker may help by pointing this out.) They need to pinpoint this disagreement, and see if, while agreeing to differ about what this word means (or ought to mean) they can agree about the substance of what they are saying. Or not agree. The point is: arguments about meaning can come disguised as something else, and seem more significant than they are. They can seem like arguments of substance. Then, the true nature of the disagreement needs to be identified. If there is no other disagreement, it helps to realise this. Even if there is, ditto.

But if two parties are having an argument, and one party introduces a new word into the argument, clearly meaning by it something that the other person thinks that this word doesn’t mean or shouldn’t mean. They disagree about the meaning of this new word, and they both know it. In those circumstances, getting sidetracked into a different and duller argument about what that word means or ought to mean can divert them from their original, more interesting and significant argument about something of substance.

Or to put it another way, my thanks to Antoine Clarke for his most diverting party yesterday afternoon and evening, where I found myself working all that out.

And a happy new year to all.

31 comments to New Year argument at Antoine’s

  • An onlooker may help by pointing this out.

    I am not sure that you an onlooker pointing it out helped much in this instance though. The argument just continued on.

  • Kim du Toit

    “I have tended to think that arguments about meaning are pointless”

    No, they’re not. Unless you’ve established a common understanding of terminology, any argument or discussion is pointless. In fact, when people insist on words having a different meaning to what you’re suggesting, that’s the signal to stop talking.

    In fact, the greatest victory of the Left has been through their ability to change the terms of discussion, simply by changing the meaning of words. “Affirmative action” is therefore not discriminatory, “spanking” becomes “child abuse”, “morning-after regret” becomes “rape”, and so on.

  • Ah, the Devil’s first rule of philosophy, i.e.

    “The longer a philosophical argument continues, the more likely that it will simply degenerate into a discussion of semantics.”


  • RAB

    Well I was going to ask what the word was, but I’m a bit chairy of that now. ;-)

    I was just reading this funnily enough, if discussions on meaning mean anything anymore.


  • Do you need to have an argument? All you need is to establish what the other person means by the word/term.

  • Good link RAB – thanks.

  • SporkLift Driver

    I’ve been witness to or participant in arguments where one side argued against “capitalism” defined as a system where the wealthy use the power of government to defend their interests from all comers and the other side defended “capitalism” defined as free enterprise, this usually goes badly for the defenders of free enterprise even when the anti-”capitalists” aren’t cynically conflating the pro-”capitalists” position with something it isn’t.

  • Malicious redefinition really gets my goat – a typical example was cited by SporkLift Driver above.

    Also see: “Freedom”.

  • A few more points:

    First, I genuinely can’t remember what “the word” was that the argument was about. Early in the evening, an argument had stopped, established semantic clarification on a key word, and then proceeded on substance. Later, during a different argument, I said something like “please don’t argue about what that word means” (believe a semantic digression to have occurred) and someone said: “semantics are important”. At which point my mind wandered off to the question of which attitude was right and when, and I had the thoughts I described in the posting.

    Second, all those arguing were friends, who like arguing. Not “on the same side” exactly, but friends, in particular all friends of our host.

    Arguing is sometimes peaceful war, with all fighting to win.

    This was people who like arguing in the same way that people get together to play tennis. The purpose of such argument is not really victory; it is illumination (as in learning how you disagree) and pleasure. It is to have a good game.

    I vehemently share Natalie’s loathing of definition juggling as a technique of arguing, used by unscrupulous people who are arguing to win rather than to illuminate. In my opinion this is now a basic collectivist arguing technique, the purpose of which is not to convince us anti-collectivists. It is merely there to get us in a muddle and make us look incoherent in the eyes and ears of third party onlookers. But nobody last night was doing that kind of thing. For one thing, there were no onlookers.

    I’ve just remembered the word that was the focus of the first semantic argument. It was “collectivism”, to mean either (a) cooperation, or (b) imposed “cooperation” (as in only the imposers think that everyone is cooperating), which is the meaning I prefer. Later there was a shorter argument about “tribalism”.

  • PeterT

    Can’t people just get on!

  • The point foor me is that all words are somewhat fuzzy. Most of the time, the (slightly) different interntal representations we have are similar enough that we can convey meaning usefully in sentences, but sadly they sometimes aren’t, and thus great confusion breaks out between discussers (is that a word?) who are each trying to honestly debate, but are in quite different mental landscapes.

    It’s understandable why this happens; every human brain is different. In terms of language and, I would argue, concepts, every new born is a tabula rasa, and has to start from scratch developing a mental model of the world based only on a few primitives it is born with- mainly sensations (“hungry”, “angry”, “want to vomit on mum’s new dress”) and experiences. When we see that a newborn has an instinct to grab the breast and suckle, it does so with no knowledge whatsoever of what a breast is, what milk is, what nourshment is, or indeed what a mother is. It has to learn these things. Every brain will start forming its conceptual map of the world differently. We will thus never have two brains with identical conceptual maps.

    So then, it learns language, and has to map words onto concepts. The mapping will always be fuzzy, because concepts are fuzzy. Complex abstract concepts are particularly fuzzy. “Liberty”, “fraternity”, “equality” and so on. Sometimes, even as adults, we are stumped for how to express a concept, the “well it’s kind of like… but that’s not the right word for it…” moment.

    I’ve found this a lot even when arguing with other libertarians, particularly anarchists. Their concept of what the “state” is is quite different to mine. They say, “then there will be this such-and-such” and I say, “but that’s just the state under another name” and they say “no it isn’t” and then we start hitting each other with frying pans.

  • Kevin B

    Insty linked the other day to a few discussions about anarchy of the kind that shows up at anti globalisation demos, Greek civil service meetings or English student rallies, but the pundits seem to agree that anarchy is actually not about a “bunch of kids running through a big city smashing in shop windows”.

    Yet, thanks to our fine education system and our illuminating media, that is what many people believe anarchy is about.

  • Midwesterner

    I have a simple mnemonic on ‘collective’/'cooperative’.

    ‘Collect’ is an act you do to someone/something else. ‘Cooperate’ is something you do with someone else. ‘Collect’ has two tiers, the actor and the acted upon. ‘Cooperate’, is ‘together-operate’ is action between people at the same level.

    Whether I am using ‘mnemonic’ correctly is a separate debate. :-)

    A major element of communication is that words mean specific things. To this end I find myself spending much more effort stripping off baggage attached to useful words that has made them broad to the point of meaningless. An example of this is ‘fascist’, a valuable word in any discussion of politics but which has become a mere pejorative in common usage and ‘capitalist’ which has picked up so much baggage that ‘capital’ doesn’t seem to have any part of its definition anymore.

  • First, I genuinely can’t remember what “the word” was that the argument was about

    The word was “Collectivism”… which was used to mean “any collective action”… and that definition was what both Adriana and I found completely unacceptable.

  • It’s my experience that most people, including myself probably, though I hope not, try to find definitions of “good” words which include everything they like and exclude everything they dislike, and of bad words which, um, vice versa thingy.

    Collectivism is an interesting one. For instance, I find organisations like the Scouts repellent; in my view they are disgustlngly “collectivist”, and obviously invented to instill collectivist instincts in their hapless young victims. But I remember bringing this up here at least once before and finding myself very much in a minority, because most people thought the Scouts, Womens Guild, Sally Army, etc etc are “good” collectives. Whereas me, I see them as about two steps removed from blut und boden.

    That is, my view of “collectivism” diverges sharply from say Midwesterner’s; I don’t see the compulsion as the defining factor. It’s the submersion of the individual into the group that raises my hackles. Especially if it involves wearing a silly hat. Most of the evil in the world, so far as I can tell, starts with silly hats. Look at the Prussians. Silly hat capital of the world. Spikes, for chrissakes. On a hat!

  • What I’m getting at here is that if somebody invites me along to something, and it’s like, “raise your right hand, and say this and, oh, here’s your hat”, I know it’s time to leave.

  • Semantics (agreeing on a word’s denotation) are important. So are connotations. Personally I dislike the word libertarian, simply because it sounds faddish, like a religious cult (ie it has impeccable denotation, but negative connotations, for me). I prefer to call myself a liberal; but in the USA that word now means the exact opposite of what I mean by it, in the UK it’s often misunderstood as a party adhesion or as something that cries out to be prefixed with “woolly”, and here in Latin America it sometimes does service but the Left are trying as hard as possible to discredit it by insisting it be prefixed with “neo”. (Here, everything bad in the world, from the HIV virus to people who don’t use zebra crossings, is routinely dismissed in government propaganda as neoliberal. I must find out one day what, if anything, this word actually denotes).

    “Anarchy” is another such word: loaded with negative connotations, which don’t demonstrably bear on the real meaning at all.

    I agree with Orwell that “fascist” has become so debased it’s no longer worth using, unless you’re prepared to make a detailed academic argument for its applicability. It’s pretty much a variant of Godwin’s law now.

  • Midwesterner

    What I’m getting at here is that if somebody invites me along to something, and it’s like, “raise your right hand, and say this and, oh, here’s your hat”, I know it’s time to leave.

    And if they let you, then it means that it is still, at least at that point in time, cooperative. Unlike you, I take the presence or absence of compulsion very seriously and therefor in need of different words for otherwise superficially similar groupings.

  • RAB

    Ah but Ian, you had to be collectivised, i.e interested enough to WANT to join such organisations like the Scouts in the first place. Nothing forced you, apart from social and peer pressure.

    I was a Scout and a Cub before that. It was a social thing, what you did with your mates in a drafty hut, in silly clothes ( I was mortified when I discovered that my chosen troop wore Smokey the Bear Park Ranger hats , not coool Che Berets!) before you were half way sensible.

    It soon wore off though, by the age of 14 when O Levels loomed and the lunatic inefficiency of even Bob a Job week palled.

    Nobody it seemed could read a map but me when we went on “exercises” so all the other teams were always somewhere else, and we never saw them. Complete and utter waste of time. So I left.

    That’s the essential see, being allowed to leave. That’s why I go for Mids definition of Collectivism. That one they dont allow you to leave!

    We are communal beings after all, that’s how we’ve got this far. And accurate understanding of communication is essential.

    Words really do matter to the wise ;-)

  • Brad

    It’s funny the longer people argue, and the emotions are defeated and the meaning is exposed as empty rhetoric, the more likely people are to want to crack their opponent over the head and the less sure they are they have the right to do so.

    The understanding of which how I developed a stern anti=Force perspective unless true clear and present dangers have presented themselves.

  • Jim A

    I find that defining “Inflation” at the beginning of any online discussion very important. Because there has been a great divergence over the past decade between the large increase in the money supply and the relatively modest increase in most consumer prices. Some people are quite doctrinaire about using inflation to mean only inflation in the supply of money, while others tend to use the term to refer to the usual result, rising consumer prices.

  • John B

    The problem occurs when coercion becomes a factor? Collective action is fine if that’s what everyone wants to do. Until one person or several people seek to control things in some way.
    The desire to domination and control is our downfall?

  • John B


  • John, the problem for me is that one thing tends to lead to another. No sooner have you formed a voluntary collective than some ass declares “what we need is a steering committee” and then invariably the asses end up on the steering committee, and then you need some kind of enforcement to ensure people obey the orders of said committee, and then they hand out the silly hats, and by then you’re in real trouble.

    That is one way of putting why I see a broader “enemy” than those who narrowly define libertarianism as “anything but the State”. I’m concerned with how to prevent the formation of, um, “hegemonic structures”.

    Like, take science. You start off with some worthy gentlemen fiddling with chemicals in their basements, and writing each other letters, then some ass decides they need an Association, and then the journals, and then “scientist” isn’t defined by what you do any more- fiddling with chemicals in your basement- it’s defined by where you are in the structure and science becomes Science. And then the trouble starts. Besides all else, the formation of voluntary structures invariably leads to hegemonic structures, and then the State gets involved. E.g. you can’t be a “doctor” unless you have a license from the Biggleswade Medical Association, then it’s easy for the State to encode that in laws. See also hegemonic charidees, churches, youf and ladies’ associations, unions, etc etc etc. They all start off “voluntary”.

  • Ian F4

    Have I missed something or has this gone 20+ posts without mentioning Monty Python “if I argue with you I must take a contrary position” etc ?

    Or is there a sort of similar law to Godwin in effect ?

  • Richard Thomas

    I guess I must have had an atypical scouting experience. I seem to recall learning plenty of skills suited towards rugged individualism. Learning how to work in a team may be seen as some way collectivist but I would argue is a useful skill and there was strong inter-patrol rivalry.

    Now, the ATC, which I moved on to, seeing it as “more grown up” than the scouts was more about subverting yourself to the collective. It was also nowhere near as much fun or educational and I never actually got to do any flying.

  • PeterT

    At least ‘liberal’ sort of means what it is supposed to in Europe. But if there is a whif of extremism about your views the ‘neo’ is added, at least in Sweden.

    On Ian B’s point, I think there is a difference between simply doing stuff together and fostering a culture that demands conformism.

    For example, countries like Japan and Korea are nominally fairly free compared to the West. They have relatively low taxes and don’t have as many daft health and safety laws. You can get away with quite a lot of bad behaviour as long as you do it in private.

    However, for many of the locals the culture is oppressive. I am told that the word (or a word) for ‘different’ and ‘bad’ are the same or very similar in Japanese. Many Japanese (women in particular) are desperate to leave the country and of course a popular fact about the country is the large number of suicides (which are in some cases endorsed by the culture).

    I find it a dilemma that as a foreigner I can enjoy the benefits of the conformist culture in these countries.

    1) Crime is very low by Western standards.

    2) Family bonds are strong – this reduces reliance on the welfare state. Not so great if you are the main bread winner in a ‘dependent heavy’ family.

    3) There are fewer busy body laws about smoking, motor cycle helmets, and so on. I think that this is largely due to the fact that since most people keep their behaviour reasonable no need is seen for such laws. Maybe they also lack the puritanital streak that exists in protestant cultures. If somebody proposed such a law it is much more likely to be met by a confused ‘why?’ rather than an argument about liberty.

    4) Work pays. I spent some time in Korea and one observation I have made in addition to those above is that whereas goods are typically not much cheaper than over here in the UK, services are. Taxis are much cheaper, as is getting your clothes repaired, or getting a haircut. I suspect the major reason for this is that labour costs are much lower, both directly and through a much lighter regulatory burden. Anyway, this is a bit of a digression.

    Even if the state was abolished in these countries I am pretty sure that some state equivalents would spring up. Presumably they would finance themselves through rent seeking of some form or another, or maybe corporations would co-operate to raise money for the state equivalent institutions. These new countries may then technically speaking be anarcho capitalist, but I don’t think they would be any more free. My two conclusions are that a) culture matters, and b) the state can theoretically be useful in fighting coercion imposed by other institutions or indeed culture.

    Here is an article that is sort of related. Not sure what I think of it. I think some of the criticism in the comment thread is justified.


  • John B

    Yes Ian, I agree. The problem comes in when someone wants to organise, not really for the benefit of the individuals working together, but for their own sense of importance.
    Richard’s scouts learning rugged individualism, and controlled by a scout master(!) is good because the scout master is not there to fulfil his own need to be a controller so much as to educate kids how to survive and make knots, or whatever.
    The control-desire, the desire to organise everyone else’s life, basically a subdued lust for power(?) is where it goes wrong.

    And, yes, I agree everyone needs to know what everyone else means by their words or it all becomes non-sense.
    It can, of course, lead to lawyers trying to be so specific to overcome the vagueness of language that they use so many qualifying clauses, and it also becomes garbage.

  • Bod

    IanB’s comments about the Scouts seem (feel?) about right, but I can also empathize with John B.

    I think the differentiation comes when you look at the motivation in the leadership of the particular organization. I was only exposed (ooo-arrr missus) to scouting at one troop, and I can honestly say that the leaders there may have handed out hats, but the objective of the collectivism was focussed purely on the benefits of getting a bunch of squabbling adenoidal kids to work as a team.

    A better example for many of our US readers may be Little League. The ‘Win’ is often far more important, and you get to see both flavors of collectivism.

    You see dedicated parents training a team because it’s all about the game and the kids, and you see other parents training a team because it’s all about them.

    Hence in order to critique a collective fully, I think you really need to evaluate its objectives.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t enter into the process with jaded eye and skepticism in your heart, but voluntary collectives can be like fire – a good servant, but a terrible master.

  • Laird

    OK, now that everyone is finished with the actual issue raised by this essay (and taking due note of the category under which it was posted), here’s the important question: where are all the photos of the Samizdata aristocracy’s holiday parties? The tantalizing bill of fare from your elaborate Christmas feast? The images of empty wine bottles and sated revelers? I thought those were annual traditions, but they’re strangly missing this year. Some of us in the hinterlands (i.e., not London) miss our vicarious participation!