I’m a philosopher, working in logic and related issues. This means that I spend a lot of my time working with words and arguments. And sometimes, when I’m not feeling so good about things, it can seem like it doesn’t matter, that it’s all just words.
Arguments about ethics, about issues in metaphysics or epistemology—on a bad day, at least—can seem to be nothing more than pointless hot air. Here’s an illustration of the point, due to the American Pragmatist philosopher William James.
Here’s the scene—a man walks rapidly around a tree, while a squirrel moves on the tree trunk. Both the man and the squirrel face the tree at all times, but the tree trunk stays between them.
Here’s the argument—a group of people are arguing over this question: Does the man go round the squirrel or not?
The moral of the story, for William James, is that there’s nothing substantial at issue in this argument. He says this:
Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him… Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. — William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907
And clearly, he’s right. Nothing much hangs on how we use these words, and it’s up to us what we mean by “going round.” If we mean one thing, the man counts as going round the squirrel. If we mean another, he doesn’t. That’s all we need to know, and there’s nothing left to argue about. The issue has evaporated.
This move—where we end a debate by paying careful attention to what we mean when we use words—is a powerful tool in philosophy. You can shed a lot of light on an issue by stepping back and asking what we mean. When we argue about whether it’s good to always keep your promises, it helps to clarify different things we might mean by “good.”
Different understandings of that word will lead to different answers of the original question, and clarifying the different things we can mean by a word goes a long way to help clear up confusion and shed light on disagreement. Careful attention to our concepts is at the heart of philosophy.
So far, so good. Clear thinking and attention to the different things we can mean by our words is always good advice. However, I can’t help thinking that if this is all there is to philosophy, it doesn’t come out well for us philosophers. The moral of the story of the people arguing about the man and the squirrel, for James, was that the “metaphysical” debate, over whether the man was really going round the squirrel or not, was pointless.
Doesn’t the observation that clarifying meanings is at the heart of philosophical practice threaten to make philosophy rather cheap? Doesn’t this make the answer to every philosophical question start with the rather trite words “well, it depends what you mean by…”?
I don’t think this follows, and understanding why helps us understand why debate and discussion are important, why clarifying meanings isn’t always easy or straightforward, and why even “verbal” disputes and “mere semantics” can actually involve substantial and important issues.
To the example of our current debate over the meaning of the term “marriage.” On one side, we have the traditionalists who reserve the term for marriage between people of the opposite sex. On the other, we have progressives who take it that some same sex partnerships ought to be recognised as marriages. This is a significant and substantial debate—and no-one thinks that everything is resolved by the philosopher wading into the discussion and magisterially saying something like this: “There are two things you could mean by ‘marriage’. Let’s call opposite-sex marriage ‘marriage1’ and let’s call marriage between partners regardless of sex ‘marriage2’. It follows that same sex couples can be married2 but they can’t be married1.” That wouldn’t help at all. Introducing talk of marriage1 and marriage2 doesn’t end the debate, because which couples we count as “married” (with no subscript) matters to us, in the law, in our habits, in our conventions, and in so many different ways. Our language is a social phenomenon, with a history and a future.
The debate over marriage—and what we might mean when we call a couple “married”—is significant and contested, in the way that the debate over “going round” isn’t. This is because using the concept and the word “marriage” is tied up with our concerns and our practices in many important different ways. Our debate over what it is to mean in the future is contested because we don’t all agree on what is important, what is to be valued and encouraged and what is to discouraged.
Debates like these aren’t easy, and we need all the help we can get. This is one reason why conversation and discussion from different perspectives has such value. It’s in the presence of dialogue and disagreement that we can get our ideas out on the table and we can learn what we think, where we might be confused, how our ideas hang together, and how they might be clarified or improved.
This is why sites like The Conversation are important, too. Here we can see people “showing their work”—not only saying what they think, but explaining why. This helps us explore how ideas hang together, and what reasons we have for our views. Conversation, dialogue and the give-and-take of argumentation helps us see the connections between our concepts, and can help us sharpen up those ideas and clarify our thinking. That won’t solve all of our problems, but when it’s done well, it’s a beautiful thing.