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Can a word be used incorrectly and still be 'useful'?

Can a word be used incorrectly and still be 'useful'? I've heard that pragmatists define true statements as those that are useful in predicting future empirical outcomes, to quote Wikipedia. However, I have heard of words being used incorrectly that can still be 'useful' despite being incorrect. The words 'subjective' and 'objective' are often used in everyday language to divide and distingiush things that are 'a matter of opinion' from things that are 'a matter of fact', respectively. Although this is an oversimplified and incorrect use of the words, you can't deny that people still find them useful in labelling 'facts', as distinguished from 'opinions'. It seems that just because a term is 'useful', doesn't make its usage correct. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks.

Interesting question, thanks!

A word used in a deviant way would only have meaning if those who listen or read understand it. For example, I sometimes get confused in casual conversation and come out with a spoonerism -- a mixed up word. Usually, though, my wife understands what I mean anyway, by interpolating from a shared context. A new word, or a new meaning of a word, might gradually come to be accepted usage more widely. Slang words, in particular, tend to get picked up rapidly in this way.

Let us say that the 'correct' meaning and usage of a word is determined by the dictionaries. But a modern dictionary is itself only a reflection of broad usage by speakers and writers. We have to go back quite a way in time to find a dictionary that sets out to adjudicate meanings, rather than simply record or describe them. So, the 'official' meaning of word comes about because of common usage. If enough people use a slang word, it ends up in the dictionary. Dictionaries tend to be a conservative force in language, a kind of brake if you will, but they do not bring fix the language in place. I'm rather fond of old dictionaries, for just this reason: as a guide to how language appeared for this or that historical writer.

This is true of 'subjective' and 'objective' -- in fact, the dictionary that happens to be on my desk right now (Collins) comes very close to listing the incorrect meanings you identify as possible meanings of the words, without qualification (I mean, without describing the meaning as 'casual' or 'informal').

The danger here is that subjective and objective are words loaded with philosophical meaning. If a word like 'funk' -- which originally referred to the smell of enclosed spaces, especially of cigarette smoke; the cubbyholes along the sides of WW1 trenches where the rank and file of soldiers ate, slept and smoked were 'funk holes' -- comes to describe a genre of music and even an attitude, then there is a net gain in the resources of language. However, if subjective and objective become used to simply mean characterised as opinion and fact, then something has been lost. For instance, it becomes literally impossible to employ these words to argue about epistemological realism, without further comment. That is why, in philosophical writing, it is important to define your terms up front -- to do in miniature what a prescriptive dictionary would do. I just finished teaching Heidegger's Basic Problems of Phenomenology this semester, and one of the things he talks about there is the way that this loss of meaning of subjective and objective makes it difficult to articulate the intentional structure of human consciousness (which would have to be described as both subjective and objective).

I'm still puzzled by the answers to question 5792, on whether it is true that

I'm still puzzled by the answers to question 5792, on whether it is true that Mary won all the games of chess she played, when Mary never played any game of chess. Both respondents said that it is true. But is it meaningful to say "I won all the games I played, and I never played any game."? It seems to me that someone saying this would be contradicting himself.

I think you're right to at least this extent. If I say to someone "I won all the games of chess I played," the normal rules of conversation (in particular, the "pragmatics" of speech) make it reasonable for the other person to infer that I have actually played at least one game. Whether my statement literally implies this, however, is trickier.

Think about statements of the form "All P are Q." Although it may take a bit of reflection to see it, this seems to be equivalent to saying that nothing is simultaneously a P and a non-Q. We can labor the point a bit further by turning to something closer to the lingo of logic: there does not exist an x such that x is a P and also a non-Q. For example: all dogs are mammals. That is, there does not exist a dog that is a non-mammal.

Now go back go the games. If Mary says "All games I played are games I won," then by the little exercise we just went through, this becomes "There does not exist a game that I played and lost." But if Mary played no games at all, then that's true. No game is a game she played and lost because no game is a game she played.

It turns out that avoiding this conclusion isn't as easy as it might seem. We usually agree that "No X are Y" and "No Y are X" amount to the same thing. We can also agree that no animals are unicorns, because there aren't any unicorns at all. But if no animals are unicorns, then the principle we just noted entails that no unicorns are animals. which is already starting to sound awkward. Worse, we also usually agree that "No X are Y" amounts to "All X are non-Y," and so we get "All unicorns are non-animals."

There are approaches to logic that find ways around this sort of thing. But the carpet will have to bulge somewhere. Either the rules of inference will be a bit more complicated or we'll have to give up principles that seem appealing or we'll end up with some cases of "correct" inferences that seem peculiar. Different people will see the costs and benefits differently. My own view, which would not win me friends in certain circles, is that there's nothing deeply deep here. But not everyone agrees.

Suppose I have never played a game of chess. If I now make the claim that I've

Suppose I have never played a game of chess. If I now make the claim that I've won all the games of chess I've ever played, is that claim true, false, or undefined? A group of friends had an argument over this, and I figured that philosophers are deeply logical thinkers that can give us the answer and also to get a proper understanding of why the answer is what it is.

It would, of course, be equally true that you've lost every game of chess you've ever played. Bad news to go with the good.

Just what is a definition? Are definitions ever proved or are they all man made?

Just what is a definition? Are definitions ever proved or are they all man made? If they are man made, what good are they?

Just what is a definition?

To answer your first question, I looked up "definition" (in the linguistic sense of the word) and got this: "define: to explain the meaning of (a word, phrase, etc.)." If that definition is accurate, then a definition is an explanation of the meaning of a word, phrase, etc.

Are definitions ever proved?

The definitions in dictionaries are attempts to explain the actual meanings of terms as those terms are used by the community of language-users. As such, definitions can be more accurate or less accurate, depending on how well they capture the actual way terms are used. I wouldn't say that such definitions are ever "proved," but as a matter of empirical fact some definitions are more accurate than others.

Another kind of definition, not found in dictionaries, is a stipulative definition: it's just a speaker's proposal to use a word in a particular way or else the speaker's declaration that he/she will be using the word in that way. Stipulative definitions aren't meant to report the actual use of the word by the community of language-users; instead, they're proposed or declared in order to have a shorthand way of saying something.

Are definitions all man-made?

Yes, in the sense that all definitions are invented by language-users rather than arising independently of language-users.

If they are man-made, what good are they?

As far as I know, all explanations (on Earth, anyway) are made by humans. Being explanations, dictionary definitions are useful in the way that explanations in general are useful. Stipulative definitions are useful as shorthand ways of saying something.

The standard way of thinking about 'mental disorders' goes like this:

The standard way of thinking about 'mental disorders' goes like this: Take some phenomena and think of a name that stands for all phenomena together. So far nothing wrong. But then it happens, the given name is being crowned as cause of the phenomena... as in the expression; "depression causes low self esteem, a sense of emptiness,..." while depression is just a given name for all those phenomena. To me that seems as an insult to the laws of logic. Can someone state a logical proof that this way of thinking is against logical laws?

If a mental disorder referred simply to a collection of symptoms, then it could not be a cause of those symptoms. You are exactly right about this. A cause must be distinct from its effect. That is why we cannot say that my slamming the door was a cause of my shutting the door (where "slamming the door" is nothing more than shutting the door with some force).

However, it is not at all obvious that the name of a mental disorder is simply the name for a collection of symptoms. On the contrary, the mental disorder's name might refer to a certain kind of cause of those symptoms -- perhaps a cause that is not yet identified at the time that the mental disorder was named. Then when the cause is later discovered, it is understood what the name of the mental disorder was referring to all along. Thus, a mental disorder can be a cause of some phenomena because it is distinct from those phenomena.

The very same idea applies to the names of somatic (i.e., non-mental) disorders. A new illness (such as phenylketonuria) is discovered and named when a distinctive symptom (or syndrome) exhibited by a group of patients is identified (such as a certain amino acid in the urine). But the term for the disease need not be taken as referring simply to the symptom. It can be understood as referring to the distinctive cause of that symptom. So phenylketonuria was discovered to consist of a certain deficiency in a certain enzyme, which causes the symptom.

My reductionist friend argues that rice noodles are not noodles since the very

My reductionist friend argues that rice noodles are not noodles since the very first noodles ever made and the noodles most commonly eaten around the world are made from wheat by definition. That is to say, the term "rice noodles" is an oxymoron, much like "vodka martini" so just how valid is it to argue about features of rice noodles such as length, taste, and texture in order to conclude that noodles made from a different ingredient really are noodles?

I would question your friend's claim that "the very first noodles ever made and the noodles most commonly eaten around the world are made from wheat by definition." I don't see the justification for the final two words in that claim. Even if the first noodles happen to have been made from wheat, I don't see how being made from wheat becomes part of the definition of 'noodle'. The first boats weren't made of fiberglass, but surely that doesn't preclude the existence of fiberglass boats or make 'fiberglass boat' a contradiction in terms.

The question comes out of an thought experiment which goes like this:

The question comes out of an thought experiment which goes like this: Suppose i ask you to choose a random word from English dictionary. And I tell you to find its definition. Now the definition of the word will also contains some set of words. I ask you to find the definition of all words taking one at a time. The definition of this second word will also contain some set of words, so you have to repeat this definition finding until you reach a word which has already been defined. Now you take the second word from the definition of the very first word you chose and keep repeating this process. As there are finite number of words in English dictionary, you will reach a point where there is nothing to define. Hence, if a set of definitions(in this case the English dictionary) there are finite definitions for each unknown. Accordingly, if our laws of universe are finite, then there will be finite answers to explain the entire universe. Or we can say existence of each physical process can be satisfactorily...

This is a first-rate question, if a little complicated, and deserves a longer (first-rate) answer. But it's Thanksgiving so I have to be brief! First your point about the dictionary is quite fascinating. I'm pretty sure Wittgenstein (and maybe Augustine) made roughly similar or closely related observations -- but partly in service of recognizing that ultimately for language/meaning to work we must connect (some) words not merely to other words but to 'reality' (or at least our perceptions thereof) -- we have some 'ostensive' definitions whereby we assign the meaning of a word by relating it directly to some object or object of perception ... (Not that that is problem-free itself, but it attempts to break the cycle of words-words definitions). Second, I'm not entirely clear on the analogy you make between the definition case and that of physical laws (and not clear whether the point I just made about ostensive definitions would apply in some analogous way to the laws). But apart from the analogy I can say you also have your finger on a very deep issue about explanation etc. -- and one response might be to point out that while perhaps we can explain various particular events by reference to the physical laws constitutiong the framework, that general strategy won't explain the laws themselves -- that at some point explanation of the system itself requires going outside the system (perhaps there's the analogy to ostensive definition) -- I think the great medieval thinker Maimonides made a point similar to this -- ultimately using it either as part of an argument to believe in the existence of God (as something outside the physical system that could explain the physical system), or at least to recognize that you can't apply the normal model of explanation of normal events back to explain the 'beginning' of the universe, creation ex nihilo .... Does this mean a 'theory of everything' isn't possible? Well, of course, better ask the physicists that. Pretty clearly such a theory would also have to explain itself ... (or else perhaps could a Theory of Everything include God etc.)? .... Anyway much more to say here, but many deep points are raised in your question ....

hope this is useful!


What is the essential relationship between rules of grammar and a living

What is the essential relationship between rules of grammar and a living language? Is it primarily descriptive or prescriptive? I am fluent in 3 languages, and it seems to me that native speakers, especially in Chinese, rarely know much about the "rules". Native speakers, instead, are confident. They don't worry that what they say is "wrong", and they're also inventive and creative. American kids are fond of saying about someone that "so-and-so is boss". It seems to me there are many instances now of nouns being converted to adjectives: so-and-so might also be "legend", for instance. Native speakers don't fear that they are "wrong". Does grammar play catch up, like law with technology, or does grammar just unctuously go on insisting that such statements are "wrong"?

It is possible to have a view in which a grammar has some description, and a bit of prescription. If someone speaking English used only "sentences" without verbs, then a bit of prescription might be in order, and the response that "grammar is descriptive not prescriptive" would or should fall on very deaf ears. For the language at the moment does have verbs. And the same is true if someone confuses "infer" and "imply", for example. On the other hand in American English "insure" has replaced "ensure", so "insure" in US parlance now has two meanings, and one of them ("to make sure that") may be in the process of being forgotten. I find this hard to take, myself, but a descriptivist has a case here too. It is obvious that most living languages do change over the years by shifts like this one. But the basic structure of the sentence is fairly stable over a long time. I do not think that English could suffer the loss of all its verbs and remain in any reasonable sense the same language. About changes over time: Shakespeare was the first to use "ruin" as a noun, for a fallen-down building. That took some imagination and some time, from e.g. "the ruin of my house"; was the usage wrong when it came to mean "my castle falling down"? Certainly not for us; we use the word "ruin" of the stones and other materials left over from a building that has collapsed all the time, and perhaps also of the process, the ruining. 'The ruin of Widdershins Castle took place over a whole century.'

Reading Wikipedia and a bit of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I learn

Reading Wikipedia and a bit of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I learn that, for most philosophers today, the distinction betweem analytic and synthetic truths or falsities is no longer acceptable. For them, there are no analytic truths. This rejection originates in Quine. I wonder if that is really so. Is there anything synthetic in mathematics? Is there anything synthetic in the thought that all birds are birds, or that all brown balls are brown things? How do philosophers argue that these truths are synthetic?

It's a good idea to consult the SEP for discussion of these questions and for citations to various published answers. Continue to do so. I'd question, however, whether "most philosophers today" reject the analytic/synthetic distinction. According to the recent PhilPapers survey, 64.9% of "target faculty" either "accept or lean toward" accepting the distinction (see this link). Reports of its demise would appear to be exaggerated.

I guess some people call almost everything "a language". Is music a language? Is

I guess some people call almost everything "a language". Is music a language? Is mathematics a language? I really think they aren't, but have no idea on how to explain it. Thank you.

I wonder why you disapprove of the description, since they are clearly languages, it seems to me. They have a syntax and a semantics, a structure of meaning and rules that are meant to be followed but can be varied in particular instances. Just like a language.