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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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