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The argument from definition

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John Corvino:

Early in our collaboration Maggie Gallagher e-mailed me with the following challenge, “What’s your definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask the average person to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch him stammer. Then try words like “law,” “opinion,” “religion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite common to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate its definition.

Okay, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely I have some definition to offer? Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a single definition.

As already noted, marriage is multifaceted. It can be variously understood as a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on. Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. So my rejection of a single, final definition stems not from the fact that I don’t know what marriage is, as critics will doubtless allege, but from the fact that I do. As one writer helpfully puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

The post is well done and worth reading in its entirety. I pass this along because it’s an excellent demolition of the argument by definition strategy, which is always an exercise in sophistry when dealing with a concept that has a complex social history and is both an empirical and normative capacity. I can’t say I’m a fan of the project from which this post is drawn, however: Oxford University Press is among the most prestigious academic presses in the world; from what I’ve seen of the quality of Maggie Gallagher’s arguments regarding marriage equality (let alone her problems getting her facts straight) they don’t come close to what I understand the standards of that press to be. I’m not prepared to join the call to boycott engaging with her; for better or worse she’s a major spokesperson for the anti-marriage equality position and should be treated as such. But unless she’s managed to up her game substantially, the book won’t meet what I’ve come to understand OUP’s standards to be. I don’t think she’s worth it.

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  • Mudge

    Maggie Gallagher wants to use a definition to limit what marriage means, to her (she presumes) benefit. Corvino isn’t biting. Good for him.

    I am sure she also has a very specific definition of life. One that serves her purpose.

  • R. Porrofatto

    IMO, this is a sucker’s “debate” with anyone, but especially with a small-minded bigot like Maggie Gallagher. It leads to “the Bible says” or “traditionally…” or “for centuries marriage has been defined as…” kinds of debate-ending sophistry and sheer bullshit. For the purposes of our painfully slow human progress, why should marriage need to be “defined” as anything but a purely legal contract between any two adult people willing to enter into it, sanctioned by the state, with all the equally protected rights and responsibilities this entails regarding property, children, etc.? Just as the law isn’t (or isn’t any longer) allowed to consider the race of the two parties involved, it shouldn’t be allowed to consider their gender. End of story. Why on earth would anyone want to debate this with Gallagher?

    Hell also has many definitions. For me, being married to Maggie Gallagher would be one of them.

    • DrDick

      I think just having to be in the same room with her would qualify as Hell.

    • Not only are the arguments sophistry, but the people making them are usually wrong on the basic facts. They don’t know what the Bible actually says, and their knowledge of tradtion and history are deficient.

      Not that it really matters to them.

    • watts

      you should be careful trying to mix a rebuttal to someone else’s logic with an attack on them personally.
      It leaves your rebuttal of the actual argument open to be discredited on the basis of it being tinged with prejudice. And can also be shown to fall into the ad-hominem fallacy category.
      And then your following statement “It leads to “the Bible says” or “traditionally…” or “for centuries marriage has been defined as…” kinds of debate-ending sophistry and sheer bullshit.” you use/have nothing to back this up. its a personal opinion. and yet you put it in there as if it’s a defining factor, or a good back-up for the rest of your post. But in reality its a free standing thought, and actually could be labelled with a number of different fallacies depending on how a person chooses to look at it.

      I acknowledge that using a fallacy does not automatically mean that your conclusion is false. In fact I feel that your statement regarding “why should marriage need to be “defined” as anything but a purely legal contract between any two adult people willing to enter into it, sanctioned by the state, with all the equally protected rights and responsibilities this entails regarding property, children, etc.?” Is a very legitimate question, and it would be interesting to see someone try and respond to it.

      However the intro to your post accomplished nothing for you, and could serve as a detriment. Just thought you should consider avoiding that tactic next time, so as to make your overall post more sound. Focus on good arguments and facts, instead of just bashing the other side.

      http://changingminds.org/disciplines/argument/fallacies/fallacies_alpha.htm
      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prejudice

  • John Protevi

    He said a lot of crazy things, and a lot of crazy smart things, and this one by Nietzsche falls into the latter category: “onlyh that which has no history can be defined.” Genealogy of Morals, 2.1:.

    • gmack

      Funny, I was just about to cite the same passage. Also interesting is that it is mostly the crazy things Nietzsche said that have actually been absorbed into the culture….

  • After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask the average person to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch him stammer. Then try words like “law,” “opinion,” “religion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite common to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate its definition.

    There’s actually a name for this phenomenon in cognitive science: the illusion of explanatory depth.

  • Ralph Nakko

    Exact language should always be encouraged if your goal is to communicate effectively and shared definitions of terms used are certainly a part of that goal.

    That being said, I don’t believe the goal here is to communicate effectively. Instead, the political goal demands that definitions be fluid so that they can be stretched to fit the political goal as needed.

    • DrDick

      True. You have absolutely no interest in communicating effectively, but rather only in scoring political points.

    • Malaclypse

      Okay, define breakfast.

      • MAJeff

        Bacon.

        • Malaclypse

          So are you excluding the union of eggs and bacon? More importantly, where the hell is the coffee?

          • There should be a form of logic where if something is neither necessary nor sufficient to satisfy a condition, but is sufficiently delicious, then the condition is satisfied.

          • MAJeff

            I’m on my fourth triple espresso this morning. Gonna be one of those days (got up at 3 to grade).

    • For Gallagher? Yes, I’d say that’s about right, as evidenced by the plain fact that she wants to define “marriage” not by what it is, but rather by who can engage in it. Would you find “something people 16 years of age and over do” to be a suitable or illuminating definition of “driving?”

    • djw

      Exact language should always be encouraged

      in this case, a definition of marriage creates an illusion of exactness and false authority for that particular illusion. A definition of marriage isn’t useless for all purposes; it’d be useful for communicating to a Martian what we mean when we use this word, but not for figuring out whether we ought to recognize same sex marriage or not.

  • DrDick

    As a cultural anthropologist, I can give a general definition of marriage which covers all known forms.

    Marriage is a near universal and highly variable social institution which creates important social bonds between two or more people establishing a unique constellation of reciprocal rights and privileges, primarily assigning legal rights in property and children.

    • Anonymous

      Which is hedge city. Not that I blame you, but it is still highly hedged.

      • DrDick

        That is a version of the standard anthropological definition. It is “hedged” because the institution of marriage is so highly variable that this is as close as you can come to a universal definition that fits all its forms. Which of course destroys the arguments of conservatard bigots, such as yourself, who insist that there is only one narrow definition of marriage. Also, it is everywhere, including here, primarily a legal institution and not a religious one.

        • Malaclypse

          I think this Anonymous is not JenBob, but one of the good ones.

          • DrDick

            All legitimate commenters need to get a nym to reduce the confusion and tendency to assume the worst of anyone posting as “Anonymous.”

            • mpowell

              Sometimes people just forget to add their name before they hit submit. You see that a lot.

          • Honorable…BOB

            No, it was me.

            You’re still a dumbass(apparently)…

            • Malaclypse

              I’m still better at keeping track of you sock puppets than you are, Jennie. You still have a dumbprint that can be seen from space.

              • DrDick

                Without a telescope and it would appear that I was able to spot it.

                • Malaclypse

                  I bow to your greater wisdom.

  • Woodrowfan

    One wonders if the editors at Oxford had a drawing and whoever drew the short straw has to edit Maggie’s contribution. (Two out of three? Come on guys, pleaseeee.)

  • dave

    Well, traditionally, for many centuries, marriage was the exchange of one’s female children for material or political advantage. From the household’s point of view, which was the one that counted. Though I suspect some of the religious right both know that, and long for its return.

  • rea

    Arguments about the definition of the word, “marriage,” would be all very well if the debate was about the meaning of the word,”marriage.”

    That’s not what the debate is about. The debate is about whether gays shoulod be allowed to participate in society’s institutions on an equal basis. To argue that issue by pointing to definitions is perfectly circular

    • Lefty68

      Exactly. This debate is not and has never been about the “definition” of the word marriage. If two men or two women marry, everyone knows exactly what that means. Marriage equality is about legal and civil rights, not lexicography. Framing the debate as one about the “definition” of marriage is a rhetorical strategy, unfortunately a very successful one so far. Good to see some pushback against it.

    • Stag Party Palin

      +1. However, it does us no good to refuse to define our terms. That lets the other side define them for us, and accuse us of being against (fill in the blank) – in this case, “marriage”. If we are talking about the legal union of people of any sex, let’s talk about “civil union”.

      • DrDick

        No, let’s talk about marriage, which is a civil and legal institution and NOT a religious one. Marriage exists to regulate the assignment of particular legal rights, particularly those in property and children. Do NOT cede the high ground to these illiterate mouth breathers.

        • Malaclypse

          Also, let’s not let NOM define religion. Some religions were on the right side of this back in the 1980s.

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