I was chasing links a few days ago and ran into Disputing Definitions from the sequences (again), and was thinking about the idea of having definition-argument participants expand their definition of a word to dissolve the dispute. And I thought, I’ve tried it a couple of times, and I don’t think it has ever actually worked.
I think something else is going on here: People arguing about the “true” definition of a word are trying to lay social claim to its connotations by dictating its denotation.
Consider an atheist gay-rights supporter and a Christian gay-rights opponent. The former says “homosexuality is not immoral” the latter says “homosexuality is immoral.”
Expand on “immoral.” Perhaps the atheist considers an act immoral if it harms someone else without their consent, while the Christian considers an act immoral if it goes against the teachings of the Bible.
The expanded forms look like:
A: “Homosexuality does not harm anyone without their consent.
B: “Homosexuality goes against the teachings of the Bible.
The atheist is unlikely to disagree with B; Leviticus 18:22 is pretty straightforward. He won’t *care* that homosexuality is against biblical teachings, but he won’t disagree that it does. The Christian may disagree with A, but assume for the sake of argument that he doesn’t.
It would seem the factual disagreement has been dissolved; they aren’t actually contradicting each other, they are making *entirely orthogonal statements.*
Present the above analysis to both sides, though, and I suspect that instead of acknowledging the dissolution, they would fall to arguing over the *correct* definition of the *label* “immoral.” Even after the expansion is presented. This has happened to me a couple of times.
Question: If they’re not arguing about the biblical status or harm status of homosexuality, and they acknowledge that they mean entirely different things by the label “immoral,” what are they actually contesting when they argue the proper denotation of that label?
This seems to me to be the reversed version of sneaking in connotations. For that someone applies a word to a case for which it is denotationally true but connotation-ally questionable, as when referring to Martin Luther King, Jr as a criminal.
Arging over definitions, though, strikes me as trying to *lay claim* to connotations rather than sneak them in. If you can dictate the denotation of a commonly-used but disputed word, then you succeed in applying its connotations to all cases that match that denotation. “Homosexuality is a larommi act” does not have the same impact as “Homosexuality is an immoral act,” even if the two words are given the same literal definition.