The Key Words of a Discussion

I participate in quite a lot of forum discussions, and I really enjoy them. People there have (I think) got used to me going on about having clear definitions of key words in the discussion. Anyway, I make no apology for doing this. I'm a philosopher (or anyway, a trainee philosopher) so it's what I do.

Let me explain to you what I mean about defining terms. Let's say you and I decide to have a discussion about oak trees. Now you know what an oak tree is, you have seen them before, you know a lot about them. Now, on the other hand, when I was very young, my parents took me to see an apple tree, and they said, "There, you see that? It's an oak tree." (I don't blame them for this, by the way, they didn't know any better.)

Now our discussion might go like this:

You: Ah the oak is the most majestic of trees!
Me: What? No, it's quite a small tree really.
You: No, you're quite mistaken, it's very tall.
Me: Oh well anyway, it's nice to have an oak in the garden. And the fruit is so good to eat.
You: What?? You actually eat acorns?
Me: Of course I do. Doesn't everyone?
You: No certainly not, what a disgusting idea!
Me: Well everyone I know eats them, they're delicious. You really should try them, you know.
You: Ugh, what a strange person you are. Nothing would induce me to try them! Acorns would make you ill.
Me: It's you that's strange! We make them into pies mmmmm! And there's a tasty drink you can make from them too.
You: Aaaargh!

And so on. Eventually, we might come to blows, or go off and form some armies and fight a war over this issue. Or we might realise we're talking about a different meaning of the key word of our discussion, and then we might start to agree.

You see what I mean? Often, people have discussions in which words like truth, beauty, goodness, knowledge, existence, proof, reality, God are used. These words are all highly charged with meaning and association. It's only to be expected that they will have different associations for different people. But people don't seem to take this into account, and they argue with each other. The arguments are often a waste of time and energy and stress, because, like the two people arguing about the oak tree, they are using the same word but meaning different things.

That's why I always want to have the important terms of the discussion clearly and exactly defined before joining the discussion. I think if everyone did that, then we could really get somewhere.


V. Archana said...

hey,this was a useful one :)

Sofia said...

Thanks x

Vivi-Mari Carpelan said...

I have been trying to get this semantic issue into people's heads too but to little avail... Especially on spiritual sites people are pretty stuck on what they want to beleive. I've got a blog about it too but I'm not sure it's on my present site.

harvey said...

I think you call that one equivocity, and is the reason why different schools of philosophy cannot communicate. One could say the original meanings have been corrupted.

Nice post.