Why Word Essentialism Arguments Are Never Correct

Suppose two people, John and Sue, are discussing politics. Sue makes a point to John about how “A democracy, like America, should base its Presidential Elections on a popular vote instead of an electoral college.”

John counters Sue’s argument by saying “Well, that’s where you are wrong. America isn’t a Democracy, it’s a Republic.”

Sue is confused at first. “Yes, of course, it’s a Republic, but a Republic is also a Democracy.”

“Oh no,” Challenges John, “The United State of America is a Republic, not a Democracy. So your argument doesn’t make any sense.”

Sue, more confused now, looks up the word “Republic” and shows John the definition:

  1. Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

John is undeterred. “Yeah, but dictionaries just tell you how people use a word even if they are using it wrong. I realize most people misunderstand the difference between a Republic and a Democracy. This leads to the type of confusion you have where you think the popular vote is a good idea.”

Concepts Matter. Words do Not.

I’ve seen (or partaken in) some version of the above argument many times. It’s uncanny how often people slip into Word Essentialism arguments like this despite their lack of rational merit.

Making a Word Essentialism argument takes the form of feedback or criticism but instead hijacks the conversation away from the concept being discussed by directing it into a debate about only the meaning of words.

There seems to be something powerful about showing that your opponent made an error in their choice of words. It shows that you are smarter than your opponent (thus showing you are an authority compared to them) and it throws your opponent off. It’s a great way to ‘win’ an argument.

But appeals to authority like this are bad epistemology. And while this approach might ‘win you the argument’ does it actually represent a valid criticism?

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that philosophical fallacy of Word Essentialism is correct. Word Essentialism teaches that the goal of rational thought is to define things so precisely that they exhaustively get at the true essence of what a thing really is. Popper explained why this was a false epistemological theory and why it will only lead to failure to make progress (as the discussion between John and Sue will now likely fail to make progress.)

But let’s pretend Popper is wrong and that words really do have “true” definitions that match the essence of a thing and “false” definitions that don’t, as John is implicitly claiming in his argument above.

It’s still unclear how John has made a valid point. So Sue is mistaken in how she used the word. By John’s own admission, most people are. But contextually, it’s fairly obvious that Sue’s point could be easily stated, using John’s own definitions, as follows:

“A Republic, like America, should base its Presidential Elections on a popular vote instead of an electoral college.”

In fact, this changes nothing at all in Sue’s argument. John’s view that her ‘misunderstanding’ of the word is why she is mistaken in her view (about popular votes vs electoral colleges) is entirely irrelevant.

Her argument for the superiority of a popular vote may be wrong (or right) but it simply doesn’t matter if she ‘rightly’ called America a Republic or ‘wrongly’ a Democracy. The only thing that matters was what she intended, not what John decided the word ‘really’ means.

This is why Popper was so staunch in his view that he was not “the least interested in definitions or in the linguistic analysis of words or concepts.” (Objective Knowledge, p. 78) (See my post on Word Essentialism for Popper’s full views on this.)

Defining terms ‘rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ will never play an important role in any rational argument under Popperian epistemology.

So John’s criticism was not only an appeal to his authority (i.e. epistemologically incorrect) but also wasn’t even a valid criticism against Sue’s argument. To engage Sue’s argument, it’s up to John to decide to engage her actual ideas and concepts she is expressing. He has failed to do this. Arguing over which definitions are correct or incorrect can never help you do this.

Is John Correct?

But is John at least correct that the United States is a Republic and not a Democracy?

Popper’s theory of Word Nominalism gives us an answer: No, John is also incorrect about the United States ‘being a Republic instead of a Democracy’. There simply is no way to hang such precise definitions on a word. That is not how real words are used in real languages by real people. As Popper argues, “…statements we make should never depend upon the meaning of our terms.” (Open Society 2, p. 19) Popper points out that in a rational argument “all definitions can be omitted without loss to the information imparted.” (Open Society 2, p. 18) In this example, Sue is the Word Nominalist. Her argument doesn’t depend on if America is or isn’t a Republic or a Democracy. It just doesn’t matter. John is a Word Essentialist. He (wrongly) believes his argument is valid depending on if a word has a specific ‘correct’ meaning or not. Popper’s epistemology tells us that John is the one that is wrong.

But let’s think about this practically. Let’s pretend that way back in the time of Greece that the word “democracy” had one and only one meaning and it was that the people directly voting on each issue. Now we know that as time went on people noted that there was something analogous about how the Roman Republic voted on leaders and how Greece voted on issues. So the word “democracy” came to now include Republics as well as direct democracies. (I’m ignoring the obvious here – that neither Greek nor Romans speak English. But see below.)

Now it’s been a few thousand years since then. Just how long does a word have to be in use by real people before we stop insisting as John does, that this new creative use of the word ‘democracy’ is “wrong” and only “metaphorical” and accept that now the word really does include both direct democracies and representative democracies?

What makes this all even more problematic is that we are speaking English and the Greeks and Romans did not. They invented these new ideas and noticed the analogies between them before there even was an English word for them. So most likely the actual English word “democracy” simply never had any time in history where it only meant “direct democracy.”

So John is actually wrong on every single count. He is wrongly appealing to his authority. He is wrong that the USA is a “Republic and not a Democracy.” He is wrong that he knows more than Sue about what the words actually mean. He is wrong that he made a valid criticism against Sue’s argument.

What John has successfully done is he managed to end the entire conversation by going ‘meta’ while making his ‘opponent’ (falsely) ‘look bad.’ This is the overlooked value of using Word Essentialism in arguments.

The Need for Charity of Interpretation

This all brings us to the idea of “charity of interpretation.” Because all words are somewhat vague (see Popper’s argument) there is always a way to choose to read in something more than a person intended. This puts Word Essentialism arguments into the same category as ad hoc arguments. They can be had for the asking and so are easy-to-vary.

This is why arguing over definitions is always a bad argument. Any sincere attempt to move a conversation forward will require that we choose to interpret others as charitably as possible and then ask for clarification to make their meaning more precise, if necessary. It will never be necessary to argue over if a word’s “true” definition includes or doesn’t include something.

How Do You Come Back From the Brink?

Once a conversation has been hijacked by Word Essentialism, what do you do about it? I confess I’ve never found a solution. Nothing I’ve tried has ever worked. Looking the word up in a dictionary and pointing out that I used the word correctly (as Sue does) has never once worked. Starting a discussion about how Word Essentialism hijacks conversations doesn’t work either. My experience is that a real-life John will double down on his view that “Democracy” and “Republic” simply have no overlapping meanings and anyone that thinks otherwise (including the dictionary) is wrong.

I think the problem with my above approaches is that they move the conversation deeper into the “meta-discussion” territory Word Essentialism initially departs into. So they are, in some sense, the wrong direction and lead to more and more meta-discussion. Can anyone think of a better way to handle a conversation hijack into word essentialism? Suggestions welcome. Please discuss.

6 Replies to “Why Word Essentialism Arguments Are Never Correct”

  1. It is interesting to note that Sue is not asking questions about John’s theory/ conception. She is trying to attack John’s theory with another one of her own. That’s typically hard to do.

    Trying to improve John’s theory implies working on … John’s theory … NOT trying to push it aside with another one of your own.
    When you ask questions you can focus on John’s theory (even if that is a theory about meanings of words and how to try to mutually understand the same thing with those words). Also, by asking questions, you can focus on trying to improve 1 theory together, (instead of forcing a merge between 2 very different theories).

    This also makes it much harder for John: he is supposed to answer your questions (if he is convinced of his theory) and is deprived of the option of counterattacking the other theory (as that one is not presented in the discussion).

    Progress is more easily made by eliminating errors in John’s theory (or deciding between ever improving versions of John’s base theory) … without you adding a different theory as well in the debate.

    It’s hard to do! (We prefer talking about our own theories instead of asking questions) But it improves the chances for error-correction on John’s theory.

    1. It does seem to me that people typically simply offer two competing accounts rather than concentrate on trying to improve each other’s theories. And I think you’re right that this generally leads to the conversation shutting down or failing to move forward.

      1. For error-correction to work, it’s important to select only 1 (and not 2 theories at the same time) that you are going to try to error-correct. Error-correction requires focus on 1 theory (without the distraction of another one at the same time).

        I can be learnt and practised in teams, in fact effective error-correction (of 1 theory each time) is a key attribute of real cooperation in a team.

        The choice of “which theory we’ll start error-correcting” is not even that important: the starting basis is never key, because you can error-correct any (really) bad theory into any (really) good theory. That’s the beauty of error-correction: the emergent improved theories are almost independent of whathever the theory was at the start.

        1. We ended up discussing this on the podcast. But my main concern was that Popper’s epistemology seems to be about conflicting theories. But you pointed out that even in this case, the side developing their theory must still use the kind of error correction that you are advocating for to improve the idea. This certainly seems correct to me.

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