Saturday, October 04, 2014

Names Are Conventional

It is strange how often people are confused on this point. Let us start out with a couple of examples that are not likely to generate too much heat, in order to fully understand the point being made.

Example 1: Is Pluto a planet?

Pluto itself simply is what it is, and does what it does, regardless of what we call it. The question "Is Pluto really a planet?" is confused: The real question is, "Is our classification system more helpful to us if we classify Pluto as a planet, or if we do not?"

Astronomers recently decided that the right answer is: "Not." Given I am not an astronomer, I trust them, and suspect they made the right decision. But the question is completely different from one such as, "Does Pluto have an iron core?" or "What is the period of Pluto's orbit of the sun?" The latter two questions are about Pluto; the former question is about how we want to structure our language to make it the most useful to us.

Example 2: Is one a prime number?

The fact is, if we count one as a prime, then every number is not the product of a unique multiplication of primes. As such, modern mathematicians have decided not to include one among the primes. But various earlier mathematicians did so include it. They were not "wrong": they fully understood the unique factorization issue. The question is not about the nature of the number one, but about the most useful definition of the word "prime."

Now, let us proceed to a case that did generate some heat: I read a post by someone who contended that Pope Francis was completely muddled to talk about capitalism as a social system that included all sorts of favoritism to large corporations, rich political donors, and so on. Capitalism, he argued, means a system of pure market competition, where no such favoritism is possible.

I asked him why, granting that we can conceive of a social system like the one he described, he is entitled to demand that the word "capitalism" be used only to designate such a conceptual construct, and could not possibly be used to talk about an actual social system we find around us?

He seemed completely unable to grasp that I was talking about the conventional use of words, and answered with talk of Aristotelian essences and what not. He simply could not understand that I was willing to grant him, for the sake of discussion, the achievement of having arrived at some unique Aristotelian essence, and was just asking why he had exclusive rights to the word "capitalism" as applying to that essence.

It is interesting to note that when Ludwig von Mises devised a similar conceptual construct, he referred to it as "the imaginary construction of the pure market economy." He chose to call a social system "capitalist" whenever it had a stock market.

I have to say that I think Mises's usage is more helpful. But in any case, what was really amazing to me was that my correspondent seemed clueless about the fact that names are conventional, and that having grasped some useful conceptual abstraction grants one no right to dictate how the words of our language shall be used.


  1. The way libertarians define "free market" has always rankled me because they essentially use it to mean "not-government", trying to come up with ways to say their scenarios involve no government. But I'm curious: doesn't this kind of render questions like "Are all rights really property rights?" or "Is marriage really a contract?" meaningless semantics games?

  2. This is not a joke or a shot. Was your interlocutor an ancap or Austrian? I ask in all seriousness because I believe one of their most common habits of mind, is thorough-going prevarication, to which they seem utterly blind. (I have a theory why but it will keep.) i have had similar discussions around terms like free market, law, force.

  3. The thing is, even if we if we accepted his idiosyncratic definition of cree market capitalism, it still wouldn't cover complaints about crappy wages, dangerous products, pollution, monopolies, discrimination, etc. For the record, I don't think/consider laissez faire to be incompatible with taxation at all, or social welfare for that matter.

  4. Would I be correct in guessing that this Austrian's writing was pretty much word salad?


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