Ask a teacher: a paper that settles an issue with a dictionary definition is a bad paper. Definitions in dictionaries did not, after all, fall down from God, and few are the issues that can be settled by their rough descriptions of how we now use English terms.
The demand for definitions can be good, but it can go wrong in (at least!) three ways. First, it can substitute for dealing with “real world” issues and bog down action with no real benefit gained. Second, it can produce an attitude that cares more about the “category” of a thing or action, than the thing or the value of the action. Finally, and worst of all, is the error of believing what must be able to define what an object is to know what it is.
I have sometimes, though always with a bit of a guilty thought, called certain Republicans “RINOs.” This description, Republicans in Name Only, is fatal to the Presidential aspirations of a Republican if it sticks. Since elected officials or party workers are a bit like church softball league players in their secret aspirations to the highest league of play, though few are confident enough to express their feelings that they could play in the majors, the phrase RINO is brutal if believed.
And yet I have come to believe that it is useless in the way I have used it. RINO is appropriate to the hypocrite, the man or woman with no convictions who attaches self to party intent on denying the general platform of the Party, but such people are more rare in politics that might be believed, especially in the GOP. To be remain a Republican through college, graduate, or professional school is to isolate oneself from the people one most admires.
Few college mentors are Republican and if one aspires to wealth in an urban area, say New York City, the GOP brand is deeply tainted.
Now there are Republicans who disagree with important parts of the Party platform, I do myself, but surely that does not make them a RINO. There must be few people indeed who can agree with the cobbled together, vague, platitudes, coupled with fire-breathing sentiment that is the product of any Party Convention and their numbers are not counted amongst the thinking elements of society.
If a candidate has a good voting record, save on one issue (immigration for example), and has run as a Republican in a competitive state or district, then it seems useless to call him a RINO. In fact, “Republican” by nature is a term that is vague, though meaningful.
How much time has been spent “defining the true Republican?” How much better to get in the arena of politics as a conservative and attempt to govern! If a voter wishes for a better candidate, primaries are available where the issues can be discussed. If a man’s views on immigration are bad, then these can be discussed.
There is no use, however, in setting up purges of the GOP based on definitions. Party platforms change with the times. McKinley beat Bryan in part as the candidate for high tariffs, a position the GOP now repudiates in a different world. Arguing a particular issue between an old-school McKinley Republican (such as Pat Buchanan) and a Reagan Republican (such as Paul Ryan) has value: chucking one or the other out of the Party does not.
Rare, rare as an intuitive Windows OS, is addition to a Party by subtraction.
The quest to define a term or movement has value when it brings clarity, but it forgets a basic lesson of philosophy if it goes too far. Terms in a language, at least in English, are rarely able to be defined with full rigor and clarity. We can know a “quarterback” when we see one as fans without being able to define with analytic robustness the term. Packer’s fans know that with Rodgers on the bench we have quarterbacks, but not good quarterbacks.
Delightfully, fans can enjoy hours of fun debating what makes a good quarterback. Is it winning? Flutie in an earlier era and Tebow today won, but it is hard to call them good. Is it a merely numbers? But surely though Starr hung up less gaudy numbers than Favre, he was the better game manager?
I have led many a discussion class where the endless “clarification” of a term such as justice allowed the lightly read to escape showing their ignorance. “What do you mean by that term?” the lightly read student says, knowing that if the bait is taken his own shallow understanding of the bigger issue will never be revealed. The general sense of what a term means is sufficient for most cases, but the human tendency to care more for labels (“for us,” “against us) is hard to shake.
In Mark 8, we read of Jesus:
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,[f] and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
Here the Christ is more interested in what a man does than how he defines himself (“following us”). A politician who does good works in the name of the Republican Party may not be in our sect of Republicans (Tea Party, Main Street, Social Conservatives, Platonist who loves Star Trek), but if he names the name Republican we should welcome him where we can.
Better a man who calls himself a Scrooge, but gives you a meal, than a philanthropist that fills your ears with charitable words on the nature of giving and leaves you hungry. If a man acts in the name of Christ, as Christ would act, then we should accept this man as at least a prospect for the Faith.
If a man acts as a Republican generally, then we should applaud him, hoping that we will take the name eventually. If this is important in politics, then it is vital in discussions of religion or philosophy.
Definitions matter, but not as much as the lightly educated believe. If you know enough to say that someone is wrong, then you understand what he is saying decently enough. Clarity of terms is useful if people use words too loosely. If a man says he does not believe in “god,” but has in mind super-humans such as Zeus and then goes on to attack the God of the philosophers: he is confused and some clarification will help. However, the clarification can only go so far and can quickly cease to be useful.
The God of the philosophers, the Creator God, is not superhuman, but “other.” There is some use in defining the difference, at least by reference one means “that” (mentally pointing) and not “this.” But there is a danger here: the risk that we get bogged down defining the term “God” instead of talking about God. You can after all know what a thing is (enough to discuss it, eat it, drink it, touch it, feel it, or vote for it) without being able to define it.
Children do it, voters do it, even philosophers do it.
Fortunately, logicians have recognized the fallacious nature of thinking that you cannot “refer” to a thing without being able to define it. This is called the “Socratic fallacy,” since in many of the dialogues of Plato, the hero Socrates seems to err in just this way. Now I do not think Socrates actually is guilty of this fallacy, instead he is examining men who say they can define a term to see if they can, but the description of the fallacy (Socratic fallacy) has stuck.
A sophist says he can define a term when he cannot, but simply attacking the definition of a term will be of little use. A pious man may talk to God without getting the “definition” of God right. Many a person loves a spouse without being able to define “love,” “spouse,” or “person” with precision. In fact, such precision is rarely available for important terms. Some terms can be defined: all unmarried men are bachelors, that is a good definition, but an adequate definition of “person” is elusive.
This is particularly important in discussions of religion.
A sensible man knows (roughly) what “God” means in English (that and not this) and proceeds to discuss Him. Obviously having a word for a thing does not mean it exists . . . “unicorn” is a term that refers to nothing in the “real” world, but we would know a unicorn if we saw one. Both theists and atheists must be sure to define the “God” they mean (the God of the philosophers or the more particular God of the Bible?) generally, but this definition need only point out what sort of being is discussed.
If a man denies God exists (whether defined as the God of the Bible, the God of Classical Deism, Aristotle’s God, the God of Timaeus), then it would be enough to show him likely wrong, if it were likely that any version of such Gods exist. It would be enough for the theist to point (“there”) in an argument and not necessary (with precision) to describe this God: it would be enough if this God was picked out in a way that the God could not exist and atheism be true.
Philosophers can do good work clarifying terms (“omnipotent,” “omniscient,” “being), but we can go on using those words while the work is being done. In fact, after a certain point, the precision may be useless in all but the most rarified situations.
The “Socratic fallacy” has become a lazy way to avoid issues: we can define terms instead of discussing what we generally know. If there is no good reason to believe that any God exists (that “other” we feel looking at a beautiful object), then discussing whether He is “omnipotent” is of only abstract interest. How heavy is a unicorn? Why ask?
Similarly, if the most reasonable explanation for the diverse experience of Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu people is a “head trip” with no object external to the mind of the believer, then the attributes of that Being are non-existent.
This is even more true in terms such as “Republican” that refer to a class of people and not to a person. There is only limited value in “defining a Republican” and generally such time would better be spent deciding the best option on the issues of the day. “Republican” like most terms has no “final” definition. If a candidate is pro-abortion, that candidate will not get my vote (as a pro-life voter), but not because I know he or she is RINO.
He may be a Republican, but he is wrong, seriously wrong.
There is a time to define, but definitions are not as vital as we sometimes think. We know more than we can define!