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Prescription for Descriptionists

Ilkka Pättiniemi

One can take (at least) two attitudes when it comes to the meaning of words (or concepts, phrases etc.). One can be a prescriptivist, that is one can hold to the idea that words have a real meaning that is determined by some, possibly metaphysical, facts about the world outside of their use. The other option is to be a descriptivist, that is to hold a view that the meaning of words is determined by their use. For the prescriptivist, dictionaries try to capture the real definitions of words, while for us descriptivists dictionaries describe the use of words. 

The attractiveness of the prescriptivist position can be easily seen. It allows for a strong normativity when it comes to language. People can now be wrong by definition! When someone uses the phrase “that begs the question” to mean “that raises the question” they are simply wrong. For the prescriptivist ‘science’ simply means the natural sciences, ‘marriage’ means a union between a man and a woman, ‘man’ means someone with XY-chromosomes, and not as a matter of argument, but by the virtue of these being their real meanings. People trying to change such meanings are making a mistake. But how could the prescriptivist know that these, and not something else, are the real meanings? After all, if meaning is divorced from use, then how can we know that our current – or past – use reflects the real meaning of words or phrases? So, much for the prescriptivist.

The descriptivist is better off when it comes to the meaning of words. After all, she can just look at how words are being used. The price is, of course, that she can no longer make such strong normative (prescriptivist) statements. So, using “that begs the question” to mean “that raises the question” will be quite fine, if that ends up how the phrase is actually used, our sensibilities about correct use be damned. But shouldn’t us descriptivists, us supporters of a use theory of meaning, still wish to be normative about language? In a word, yes. But how to go about doing that, since we can not appeal to the “correct meaning of words”?

The solution is simple: we appeal to our (possibly shared) preferences, and to the consequences of adopting a different use than the one currently in play. This has largely already happened when it comes to ‘marriage’. Marriage is now largely seen as a union between any couple, regardless of their respective genders. The impetus for this has been the dawning of the idea that all couples deserve equal standing under the law, should they so choose. That ‘marriage’ (at some time) used to mean a union between a man and a woman should not constrain us, if equality is our goal. Similarly with the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’: It might be the case that common usage is tied to (though I struggle to see how) sex chromosomes, or even more biologically minded, to the question of who produces the ovum and who the sperm. But that should not stop us from amending the use of the terms to include the variety of gender identities that exist under the concepts ‘man‘ and ‘woman‘, if that is seen to have desirable outcomes. (Which it does.) So, we can have good reasons to prescribe the meaning of words, but those reasons will in general have little to do with (metaphysically) correct meanings. They have to do with our goals and preferences, but those are reasons enough.

Finally, I will turn to science. In the English language ‘science’ is commonly used to mean the natural sciences. Thus, attempts to broaden the use might be seen as problematic. For instance, sociology has very little in common with, say, quantum physics, and not only in subject matter, but also in methodology. There are, however, two reasons to not view such a broadening of use as a problem. First, the natural sciences are not methodologically uniform. Methods in biology and astrophysics are quite distinct. And indeed archeology (not a natural science) has much methodologically common with paleontology (a natural science). So, an argument from methodological unity/diversity will not work. Second, many languages – German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, just to name a few – do not have a similar connotation of natural science for their words for science: Wissenschaft, wetenschap, vetenskap, and tiede. As far as I can see, this causes no more confusion than the situation with English. And if, as we at the Circle argue, there is a methodological core to things that Wissenschaft encompasses, namely, they all share some criteria of proper argumentation or epistemic justification, then there is a good positive reason to broaden the use of ‘science’.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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