It's the very definition of

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I tend to think of dumb things to write about when I have a huge stack of grading to do, and here's yet another one (actually I think about them all the time, but I write about them when I have stuff to put off doing). Arianna Huffington was on NPR today. One thing she said caught my attention. It's a common enough saying, but it struck me today how odd it is. She was describing President Bush's response to the dead and very slowly rising economy after 9-11 by cutting taxes. She said that this response is the very definition of insanity. Leaving aside the tendentious nature of the proposition she was trying to express with this sentence, let's consider how the sentence is supposed to express that proposition to begin with. After all, how can his action be the very definition of anything? My first thought was simply that she must not be thinking about what a definition is. It's not an action. An action can illustrate a definition as a clear case, but it's not itself a definition.

My second thought was to remember something I once read by Kuhn. To make a short story long, one of his earlier papers (I think) had a fascinating discussion of exemplars as the constituents of definitions. This is right in the line of Locke and Hume also, though he said it far more clearly and worked it into a complex theory about the rationality of scientific theory change. I wonder if the linguistic practice Huffington was engaged in assumes something like this about definitions. The original Lockean/Humean idea, if I'm remembering it correctly, was that we come to learn the meanings of words through seeing exemplars of them and then eventually tying together what's common to all those exemplars as the definition of the term. Kuhn went on and discussed definitions in science in terms of this, with exemplars serving as part of the epistemic framework of a scientific theory, one of the things that need to change one bit as a time, with some rational support for each change, if a theory changes is to change with rational basis (something he later rejected, if I'm remembering the sequence right). None of this really helped. If what Huffington was doing was assuming we have no concept of insanity apart from its examples and allowing one obvious case of insanity to stand as the definition, since that's all a definition really is, then every person who utters this sort of statement has to be assuming something like that, and there's no way that's true.

So it must be just a bad stand-in for "that's a really good example of insanity", with some elements of being an intensifier (much in the way 'literally' can stand as an intensifier in statements like 'When he gets down into the red zone, he literally explodes!') Both cases, I think, involve people not thinking very much about how they're using language and invite philosophers to laugh at the people saying such things, even if philosophers of language and linguists have perfectly good explanations of how these locutions are supposed to function in the language. It's still silly to hear someone say it. That's something that bothers me. It's so fun to make fun of stupid ways people say things, and yet descriptive linguistics will tell us to analyze it without any such normative judgments. Doesn't that take the fun out of it?

2 Comments

"Doesn't that take the fun out of it?"

Yeah, you know, that is literally the very definition of "party-pooper". ;)

I too find the whole "That's the very definition of..." saying to be annoying in the extreme. I understand it, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't irk me.

Mark comments over at OrangePhilosophy. He's not sure if it's stupid or silly, but it's annoying. I would have thought it was annoying because it's stupid or silly. He suggests that it's annoying because it's supposed to be funny but isn't.

Check out his list of stock phrases among media news personnel. Most of these have gotten to me too, though I actually haven't heard a few of them.

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