Dec 232002

Steven Den Beste says that, no matter what words you use, the concept eventually reasserts itself, which is a cheerful thought:

The reality is that words follow concepts and not the other way around. If you force someone to use a different term for something, then the meaning of that term will eventually modify in normal use to embody the same concept that the original word meant, which is why certain members of the civil rights movement again searched for a new new term to replace the new term which had failed to eradicate the underlying belief in white racial superiority. When the bigots began to use “Black” without abandoning their bigotry, we got “Afro-American”, and when that didn’t work we got “African-American”. Bigotry in the US is in decline (thankfully) but this did not contribute to the process and may even have impeded it.

Julian Sanchez disagrees:

There’s a more general problem here I’ve noted before of what you might call linguistic hypnosis. We have a healthy enough tendency to think about “human life” in a certain way, but then we overextend our attitude towards “lives” in the sense of “how’s your life?” to the technical, biological sense of “organism with human DNA.” Then we might go back and rationalize our attitude, but the initial reaction is conditioned by the application of the same word to quite different underlying things. I think plenty of libertarians hit the same stumbling block with “intellectual property.” The Constitution, of course, never uses that phrase — it talks about “exclusive rights,” which is to say, monopoly rights that the government may grant. But we’re accustomed to calling it “property,” and libertarians are all for “property” and “markets,” so a lot of us reflexively defend these monopoly rights before we stop and ask: “well, is this really like property in, say, land? if there are differences, what are they, and how might they make a difference?” Or recall the sudden flight from the term “privatization” as applied to Social Security, which in some circles seems to have been replaced by the contentless “modernization.” Will Saletan gave a great talk about this at the San Diego seminar I attended a while back… Among the examples he cited were “affirmative action” (what the hell does that have to do with race preferences?), and “campaign finance reform” (“reform” is always an improvement, right? are you against “reform”?).

It’s a question of how widely the description varies from the thing. The fatuous cases are quickly exposed: nobody believes “people’s republics” are anything of the kind, or that the Europeans are truly interested in “multilateralism” or being our “ally.” Some of Sanchez’s examples are nearly as crude. “Affirmative action” is already on the outs and “campaign finance reform” won’t last long either. But words do influence thought, many subtle misnomers are disguised analogies, and some of them, like “intellectual property,” can dog us for centuries.

  One Response to “Nominalism”

  1. Fantastic.

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