Defining by opposites

In Ta­boo your words Eliezer talks about how con­fu­sion oc­curs when peo­ple are us­ing the same word to mean some­thing differ­ent. Re­fus­ing to use the word in ques­tion can help with the dis­cus­sion. He mainly fo­cusses on philo­soph­i­cal de­bate but it’s a tech­nique which works in ev­ery­day life too.

I came across an ex­am­ple of this. Alex claims that he makes de­ci­sions log­i­cally. Bob dis­agrees.

I’m fairly sure they were talk­ing about two differ­ent things but I couldn’t think of a way of ex­plain­ing this quickly enough. I re­al­ised af­ter­wards I should have thought about defin­ing their al­ter­na­tive per­cep­tions of “log­i­cally” with their op­po­sites.

I think for Alex the op­po­site would have been “hap­haz­ardly” and for Bob the op­po­site would have been “emo­tion­ally”.

“Log­i­cally” is loaded up with good karma and I think that this was the main cause of the ar­gu­ment. Alex feels Bob is un­fairly rob­bing him of all the good karma. Bob thinks Alex is un­fairly claiming all the good karma. In re­al­ity Bob is just try­ing to stop Alex claiming one bit of good karma (be­ing able to make de­ci­sions un­emo­tion­ally).

Now had Alex and Bob re­al­ised this I’m not sure it would have dis­solved the dis­agree­ment but they would have been ar­gu­ing about the same thing. If they had figured this out (or I had ex­plained it to them) the ar­gu­ment may have got worse—use the tech­nique with cau­tion.


Ta­boo­ing your words takes effort. I sub­mit a sub-tool to help if you’re in a hurry – try to think of the op­po­site of what you mean.

This won’t always help. In the clas­sic tree fal­ling in the woods ar­gu­ment I can’t think of op­po­sites for the con­cept of “sound” which would help. How­ever, in more day-to-day ex­pe­riences I sus­pect the rich­ness of lan­guage would be more likely to bear fruit.

It is prob­a­bly most helpful when you have to think fast in con­ver­sa­tions where the par­ti­ci­pants are less likely to be will­ing to take the time to use the full taboo your words tech­nique.

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