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ninjacolin's avatar

Defining and using terms in debate and discussion: What are the best practices?

Asked by ninjacolin (14233points) January 10th, 2010

Myself, I love the challenge of puzzling together successful and worthwhile logical concepts for the sake of consensus by means of discussion, debate and arguing. I’ve found that failure to specify a definition for key terms results too often in ambiguous communication. I’ve noticed at times participants inadvertently carrying on two separate conversations as a result of their understanding separate definitions for key terms in the dialog.

As a very simple example:
Bob: “Pass me that tool, Jim.”
Jim hands a wrench to Bob.
Bob: “Sorry, not the wrench. I meant the hammer.”
Explanation: Communication fails at first because Jim assumed that “tool” referred to a wrench. The difference in Jim’s behavior between passing Bob a “wrench” or a “hammer” was exactly the difference between Bob’s and Jim’s definition of the word “tool.”

In the same way, consider the scenario where two people are having a discussion or debate about whether atheism is a religion. Without defining the term “Religion” or “Atheist” how can the speaker’s opinion be verified and validated by his audience when he makes a claim such as: “Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.” (Don Hirschberg) With this phrase the way it is, there is no way to verify whether the key terms “atheism” and “religion” are congruent or not. All we see is the author’s opinion but not the reason for his opinion since the two key terms are lacking definition. Without those definitions, the statement lacks the evidence of incongruity that would provide weight for the opinion.

The problem I have with Common Definitions
There is such a thing as common or popular definitions as defined in the various dictionaries. These function as a sort of default for conversation when the definition is not specifically set by the speaker. They also serve to set the definitions for all the non-key terms. However, the problem with relying on these fall-back definitions for key terms is that sometimes dictionary definitions differ from one to the next. In any case, the speaker may have a slightly different understanding of the term rendering the common definitions useless. The speaker may not even realize that his definition is divergent from the majority. It seems clear, then, that there is no absolute definition or meaning for a term besides that which the author intends.

So, I have an idea I would like to suggest and hear your thoughts on: Let the speaker define all his key terms. Let the audience, assess the arguments validity and soundness based on those definitions provided. This way, there doesn’t need to be any debate on whether his usage of the term satisfies the whim of the audience or anything else. Instead, the argument being made can be evaluated for internal consistency according to the set definition without any ambiguity as to whether the term is being used in a more or less broad way than was specified.

Love to know your thoughts on this and other concepts in setting and using definitions in discussions and debate. Whatever helps the masses to get along!

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16 Answers

HTDC's avatar

You think too much. ; )

oratio's avatar

You have a good point. I recall several discussions that derailed because of different bases and starting points, where different understanding of key definitions made the whole discussion moot.

Cruiser's avatar

I always debate and discuss under the Queensbury rules….

1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24-foot ring, or as near that size as practicable.
2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.
3. The rounds to be of three minutes duration, and one minute’s time between rounds.
4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, 10 seconds to be allowed him to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the 10 seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.
5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so that the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
9. Should a glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee’s satisfaction.
10. A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
11. That no shoes or boots with spikes or sprigs be allowed. [1]
12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by revised London Prize Ring Rules.

Trillian's avatar

I agree, and there are several here who I believe can agree to abide by these rules, but you’re probably not going to make this a universal standard. I’ll try to remember this, but communication itself is ambiguous and difficult to define due to the individuality of experience of all participants. I’m happy to get to the bottom of the thread without bloodshed sometimes.

the100thmonkey's avatar

It’s good practice in a debate or otherwise academic context to define your terms clearly, either at the beginning or as the terms are introduced.

In a conversational context, meaning is negotiated. The example you gave of Bob and Jim miscommunicating is so common (and natural) that it is pissing in the wind to attempt to treat it – the communicative event was eventually successful anyway. Moreover, in general conversation, people often don’t know exactly what their interlocutors mean, and again it is necessary to negotiate a shared meaning. This can also be referred to as co-construction of text.

However, I would also suggest – in a context like Fluther, forum websites and even in academic publishing – that text is constantly negotiated. Furthermore, what does one do if the problem with someone’s post is in their understanding of the terms they employ? They may make an entirely logically consistent post, yet still be hopelessly wrong!

marinelife's avatar

I find it unlikely that your idea will come to fruition. Because it is a clunky practice to define all of one’s definitions in advance.

lloydbird's avatar

You seem to have a good (As in – potentially useful) point. But doesn’t most of what you are suggesting go without saying?
Perhaps Fluther could introduce a basic guideline or set of ground rules for debates and discussions *, to avoid confusions over definitions. Maybe the Mods could be encouraged to interject in threads where ambiguous definitions are proving to be problematic.

* Something like this already exists (I think) but is not very prominent.

benjaminlevi's avatar

This helps a lot when people exclaim things like “OMG Obama is a Marxist/Socialist/Fascist/Communist!!1!” without bothering to describe what that term means and how it fits him (usually because they cant)

wonderingwhy's avatar

“Language is often imprecise and its use more frequently careless.” the problem with defining all your terms before stating your argument is you will have started off by summarily disregarding all those who disagree with your definitions. And if someone disagrees with your definition of a core term or phrase it will almost certainly invalidate your argument (at least to them) before you even begin.

Using your example of is atheism a religion…
If I say it is and you say it isn’t, the debate, at it’s core is about our respective definitions of either atheism, religion, or both. A singular statement such as the “hair color” one you provided is potentially useful as a (oh my bad pun time…) “color comment” but that’s about all, it’s a set up for a definition because without some substance it’s catchy but meaningless.

By virtue of the debate you will attach definitions to your words and statements because with each statement you make your opponent will either accept it (common/accepted definition between the parties) or reject it (either because they find fault with your definition in word, phrase, or concept).

One of the old standby’s “I believe in God you should too”... to defend that position with any reasonable success you will have to define “god” and “belief”, two things that are often hotly debated themselves because so many people have such diverse definitions of each word, before you can properly defend (provide the reasoning behind) your statement.

Oh and just for reference, the people who don’t, through their arguments, define their statements, or when asked to do so simply restate themselves in a similar but equally obtuse way, I typically call them “politicians”.

Sonnerr's avatar

The common issues that I face are as such and the misunderstanding, I have found, deals with a lack of understanding for the common words that are being used. I have found that finding the root words for phrases have a lot of power if you know how to use them right. If there was no misconception, I wouldn’t have to repeat a lot of the words that I say. But then again, the people that I know don’t read as often as I do. They are full of nonsense when they speak, and I am often criticized for “spell-checking” other’s diction.

But I find no fault in that, if you are going to speak, let alone argue or debate, please don’t utter nonsense.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Marina I’ll try to show how easy it can be in a moment.
@lloydbird I can’t imagine (as yet) how that could be implemented into a website like this. for now, i assume it’s something the users have to manage (or fail at, haha) on their own.
@benjaminlevi exactly!

@Trillian said: “communication itself is ambiguous and difficult to define due to the individuality of experience of all participants” and @wonderingwhy said: “the problem with defining all your terms before stating your argument is you will have started off by summarily disregarding all those who disagree with your definitions.”

Yes, and I think that’s a good thing because if you aren’t interested in each other’s definitions, which is essentially the topic of their post, there’s no point in trying to have a conversation. If you’re not into their topic, then you’re merely suggesting another one without addressing their beliefs and concerns. (somehow this could be stated better, but i’m having trouble saying what i’m thinking. Maybe you’ll see more what I’m suggesting in a moment)

@the100thmonkey said: “what does one do if the problem with someone‚Äôs post is in their understanding of the terms they employ?”

This treatment of specifying your personal definitions is intended to make the conversation more specific. If a person provides a definition that isn’t common, that’s okay. I’ll try to make a set of examples:

Murdock the happy poster says: All politicians are obtuse and since George is the president of this country you know there’s no point in trying to reason with him. This argument is valid. The definition for politician was set as “Someone who is obtuse.” The definition for George was set as: “President, Politician.” Given those definitions, Murdock’s concluding statement seems appropriate.

What I’m suggesting is that the proper etiquette that for responding to something like this, with a view towards maximizing conversational progress, would be to acknowledge the validity of the argument: “Yes, Murdock. If all politicians really are obtuse, then it would seem trying to reason with George would be a waste of time…” Next you would want to challenge his definitions as you see fit: “However, what about Bob the Senator. He is known for listening to reason, you even said so yourself in an earlier comment. Clearly, all politicians are not obtuse as you just here suggested.” And with that, the validity of Murdock’s argument goes down the drain until he can show better what he means.

You’ll notice that this response has cleanly arguable definitions set as well: Bob is defined as a Politician, Sentaor. Bob is defined again as being someone who listens to reason. So, his conclusion seems appropriate.

Murdock can cleanly respond to these definitions as he sees fit: “Bob certainly isn’t obtuse, however he certainly has been fired as of last week leaving only George and his lap dogs. So, unfortunately now “all” politicians are obtuse.”

And so the discussion can carry forward, testing for the validity of each premise by verifying provided definitions as you go.

Failing Conversation

There are two ways (at least) for a conversation to go bad. The first is by the speaker failing to set a definition in the first place and the second is by the responder failing to address definitions as they were set by the speaker. I’ll provide an example of each:

1) If the discussion began by Murdock: “There’s no point in talking to George. He’s a politician!” There’s nothing to argue because there’s no definition provided for Politician. The assumed definition “someone who there is no point to talk to” is too weak and untenable for serious consideration since someone can easily recall: “Um, I just spoke with my local official the other day and it gave me great results.”

2) Another way this conversation could fail miserably is if the responder to Murdock began this way: “Politicians are not so much obtuse as they are difficult to coerce. They have so much information coming their way, they hardly find the time to consider the faint cries of the lowly people. For that reason, it’s best for the lowly ones to get together to scream at the same time, so their voices will surely be heard over.”

The problem with such a response is that it bypasses the original argument and definitions all together. It’s essentially starting a new conversation with new terms and new conclusions. It spends little or no time addressing the validity of Murdock’s reasoning. It’s a spin off. It’s not a critique of Murdock’s logic. It’s a side-step and a change of direction. A wrench instead of a hammer.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Sonnerr “The common issues that I face are as such and the misunderstanding, I have found, deals with a lack of understanding for the common words that are being used. I have found that finding the root words for phrases have a lot of power if you know how to use them right.”

This is exactly what I’m hoping we can treat by adopting a habit of providing definitions as we go. The idea being that if a person isn’t familiar with a term you are using, you will have set a definition for them to work with while they evaluate the consistency of your argument.

In a sense, I’m suggesting more sympathy as listeners and more specificity in conversation as speakers. That way, we’re helping the speaker to clarify his own beliefs and verify his own internal logic rather than suggesting entirely new paradigms to replace them. Especially when you’re dealing with people who aren’t as familiar with language as you are. It’s important to meet them on their level and help them to understand the full ramifications of their understandings.

the100thmonkey's avatar

You have a rather… fixed view of “conversation” (see, I’m messing with your premisses already).

I suspect that what you propose wouldn’t work – you’re ignoring the cognitive overhead that being as specific as you would have us be places on the interlocutor. Sympathy is all very well when the schemata we use as speakers/interlocutors is similar, but my experience suggests to me that our schemata are not necessarily as similar as all that – I had to explain to my wife the significance of saying “now, have you been a good girl this year? What can Santa bring you then?” when she sat on my lap earlier tonight.

“Conversational progress” has less to do with how specific you are when talking than it does with how hard you work to achieve meaning.

I’ll define my point in one sentence: Meaning is not given; it is negotiated.

ninjacolin's avatar

@the100thmonkey in an attempt to practice what i’m preaching here, instead of disagreeing with you outright, what i’m going to have to do first is figure out some of the your definitions to the key words that you’ve neglected to offer. First though, I have to recognize that I failed to define a key term just now: “Sympathy.”

When I say “Sympathy” what I mean is.. well, in this case with you, my goal is to figure out whether your critique is appropriate. That is, I want to know whether your opinion makes sense in and of itself. Once I know how your internal logic works together to form it’s conclusions, and once I’m sure that your opinions aren’t fallaciously derived, then I can concern myself with how I might apply it. (by the way, normally we wouldn’t state all this stuff. It would be assumed. This is a tour version of a response) My first goal, then, is to sorta get into your head and see things the way you do regardless of my own definitions and understandings. So, I’ll ask you simply:

@the100thmonkey said: “Meaning is not given; it is negotiated.”

What do you mean by “negotiated?”
What do you mean by “meaning?”

In essence, I’m asking you to prove your conclusion, which i’ve quoted above.

the100thmonkey's avatar

I see.

To put it another way, then:

Meaning is negotiated inasmuch as we are talking about what we mean, right now – there are gaps in our understanding of each others’ perspectives, and we need to talk to each other, correct or explain when necessary and agree on what we mean. This is what I mean by ‘negotiated meaning’.

I neglect to offer definitions of ‘key’ words (although I thought the article I linked to above gave a brief, concise account of the meaning of the term I am using, and with which I agree) because 99% of the time it is unnecessary in conversation, or more efficient to just plough on – we will come to agree on what we mean as we go along, if we are prepared to meet each other halfway and talk about it.

I’m basically saying that communication is not just conceptual competence and assuming a lack of it in our interlocutors (which is what your position seems to imply to me) – there are discursive, grammatical, lexical and social competences too; its our social competence that keeps us from annotating every utterance with pre-emptive clarification. We wait until it becomes necessary to clarify what we say until after we say it.


It may not be possible to prove my conclusion – arguably, it’s impossible to prove any a posteriori conclusions at all.

ninjacolin's avatar

perfect! i think this example worked out really well.

i’ve learned now that what i’m suggesting is a different approach to discussion than what you are suggesting. (i’m still not perfectly certain what you mean by the term “interlocutors” by the way. I’ve looked it up but i still don’t fully understand what it means.)

“Conversation,” it seems, can have different goals. The goal that I’m suggesting is where we use conversation as a means to sharpen eachother’s rational abilities. The long term goal is to have a society of communicators who err less while thinking on their own.

The traditional goal of conversation is as you’ve described: To democratically arrive at conclusion with our conversation partners. We sort of toss in a few ideas and we campaign them against eachother, changing platforms and everything, until some idea materializes that everyone can agree on. Negotiation, just like haggling down a price.

I think both of these approaches to conversation have their merits and one way may be better than the other depending on the circumstance. Somehow I think my suggestion is born out of the therapists principal (which i’m still trying to understand) of not trying to compete with your clients for what they should do, but rather, helping them to learn how to come to “good” conclusions on their own.

This is to say that sometimes it may be important to focus just on conceptual competence. Maybe the time for that would be during debate specifically.

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