Arguing over definitions

If you have spent even a modest amount of time on internet forums, you will have found people having arguments about questions like whether golf is a sport, whether bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme or whether a tomato is a vegetable.

What these arguments have in common is that the actual properties of golf, bitcoin or a tomato are not in dispute. Rather the issue is whether these objects are properly seen as belonging to a certain category, like sport, Ponzi schemes or vegetables.

The frustrating thing about these arguments is that the (usually unacknowledged) root cause of the disagreement is simply that the participants are using different definitions of the categories. One person has in mind a definition of 'sport' that includes the criterion that the activity must require significant exertion whereas the other doesn't. One person is using a definition of 'Ponzi scheme' that requires that a single person benefit and one isn't. And so on.

The key to resolving these arguments is to recognize that definitions of words are essentially arbitrary. Words are just labels that we come up with so we can talk with each other about things in the world. It is to be expected that there will be mild discrepancies between people about what precisely a given label covers.

If we want to have very clear communication, a useful device is a 'stipulative definition', where we say explicitly what we are using a given word to mean.

Please post any comments on the forum