The Importance of Seeking Concepts

In a past post, I demonstrated how Word Essentialism arguments are always incorrect. In this post, I anticipate some possible objections to my argument and explain how the argument is still sound despite these objections.

In the previous post, I used the example of Sue and John arguing over if America was a Republic or Democracy and how John, who started the argument about definitions, was the one who was confused.

However, let’s change up the situation and make it so that Sue actually is confused. Suppose Sue says to John “It doesn’t matter what the Senator thinks because America is a Democracy.”

What does Sue mean? One possible meaning is that Sue has a mistaken understanding of how the American political system works. Maybe she really does believe America is a direct democracy instead of a representative democracy. And so maybe she’s confused over the fact that a Senator’s opinion does matter in America because he is the one that gets to vote on the laws, not her.

Would John’s argument now make sense? Let’s imagine John responding at this point to Sue by saying: “Well, that’s where you are wrong. America isn’t a Democracy, it’s a Republic.”

Under this convoluted example, it’s tempting to claim that John is now correct. But that isn’t the case. For one thing, if Sue thinks America is a direct democracy, it’s doubtful she’s going to happen to have the very same misunderstanding John happens to have over the difference in how the words “Republic” and “Democracy” are really used. So likely his response (based on a false understanding of how “Republic” and “Democracy” are commonly used) is just going to make things worse. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for John to instead ask:

“Wait, do you think America is a direct democracy instead of a representative democracy? Are you not aware that we elect Senators and then they make the laws on our behalf?”

So John’s first response, insisting that America is not a Democracy, is still a poor way of responding to Sue even when she is confused.

Understanding that the word “Democracy” has multiple usages and then encouraging Sue to explain what she intended is always the superior rational response. If the goal of the conversation is to get at the truth instead of ‘winning the argument’ then John still needs to pay attention to what Sue means (what she has in mind) and not to what a word does or doesn’t mean.

In fact, this is true even if Sue really is entirely using the word uniquely. Let’s say that Sue is a redneck and she wasn’t paying much attention back in the 3rd grade and so she thought she once heard that the word “democracy” means “an anarcho-capitalist paradise.”

If John wants to actually move the conversation forward, he will need to start asking questions of what Sue means by “democracy” until he understands her intent. It does not matter that she is using the term in a way that has no common usage outside of her own skull.

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