Enforcing Type Distinction

The phrase “En­forc­ing Type Distinc­tion” was men­tioned and fleshed out here 12 years ago, but only ap­peared ex­actly once and that ex­act phras­ing didn’t catch on.

I think “En­forc­ing Type Distinc­tion” has value as a con­cept (to think more clearly), as a phrase (to dis­cuss the thing), and po­ten­tially as a com­mu­nity norm (some­thing we could all agree should hap­pen more of­ten, an­a­lyze when and where it does not hap­pen in gen­eral dis­course, and po­litely en­courage each other be more mind­ful of).

For con­text, I got there by re-read­ing Try­ing to Try:

The first el­e­men­tary tech­nique of episte­mol­ogy—it’s not deep, but it’s cheap—is to dis­t­in­guish the quo­ta­tion from the refer­ent. Talk­ing about snow is not the same as talk­ing about “snow”. When I use the word “snow”, with­out quotes, I mean to talk about snow; and when I use the word “”snow”″, with quotes, I mean to talk about the word “snow”.

Which led to The Quo­ta­tion is not the Refer­ent:

The prob­lem, in my view, stems from the failure to en­force the type dis­tinc­tion be­tween be­liefs and things. [...] It is im­mensely helpful, when one is first learn­ing physics, to learn to keep track of one’s units—it may seem like a bother to keep writ­ing down ‘cm’ and ‘kg’ and so on, un­til you no­tice that (a) your an­swer seems to be the wrong or­der of mag­ni­tude and (b) it is ex­pressed in sec­onds per square gram. Similarly, be­liefs are differ­ent things than planets. If we’re talk­ing about hu­man be­liefs, at least, then: Beliefs live in brains, planets live in space. Beliefs weigh a few micro­grams, planets weigh a lot more. Planets are larger than be­liefs… but you get the idea.

After read­ing those two posts, you get to a fa­mil­iar con­cept — words aren’t things; a lot of con­fu­sion are about words and not things, etc.

Also dis­cussed in Disput­ing Defi­ni­tions:

“If a tree falls in the for­est, does it make a sound?”


“”Do you think that ‘sound’ should be defined to re­quire both acous­tic vibra­tions (pres­sure waves in air) and also au­di­tory ex­pe­riences (some­one to listen to the sound), or should ‘sound’ be defined as mean­ing only acous­tic vibra­tions, or only au­di­tory ex­pe­rience?”

Tom Bret­ton’s com­ment on TQINTR, from 12 years ago, seems like it’s worth an­other look:

The prob­lem is that iden­tity has been treated as if it were ab­solute, as if when two things are iden­ti­cal in one sys­tem, they are iden­ti­cal for all pur­poses.

That seems cor­rect, but this whole class of er­ror seems rather sneaky.

Take a some­what re­lated point — a man might mea­sure 170 cen­time­ters tall in both Oslo and Manila, but he might be “short” in one place and “tall” in an­other. Thus, very coun­ter­in­tu­itively, “short”/​”tall” and mea­sured height in cen­time­ters are ac­tu­ally differ­ent types.

One is a math­e­mat­i­cal mea­sure­ment; the other is a clas­sifi­ca­tion rel­a­tive to what is nor­mal or ex­pected within a given group, so­ciety, or pro­fes­sion.

(A “short” pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball player might be in the 99th per­centile of mea­sured height of all peo­ple al­ive.)

This con­cept gets talked around and an­a­lyzed here plenty of differ­ent ways, but “en­forc­ing type dis­tinc­tion” might be a use­ful phrase to add to both one’s men­tal and ver­bal toolboxes.