Sep 20, 2017, 3:31 PM

The problem of definitions, part 1 

  Essays » Social, Phylosophy, Citizen, Personal
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1. The problem of definitions

There is an issue that arises in almost every serious conversation – the divergent meanings of terms. This is an especially pernicious issue in philosophical discourse – so many schools of thought, so many different frameworks, axioms, metaphysics and epistemologies. Far too many conversations are not truly a dialogue, but two monologues sliding past each other, only occasionally finding common ground. Do not confuse this statement with an appeal to consensus – this lies in stark opposition with my views of the value of speech.


2. How Socrates attempted to solve it

Perhaps a sufficient starting position would be Socrates’ means of philosophical conversation – in particular, his method of asking probing and incisive questions upon someone with a strong claim (i.e. a judge proclaiming to know the nature of justice or a poet knowing the nature of beauty), which has been thoroughly demonstrated in Plato’s many Dialogues. In order to avoid confusion, Socrates does not make claims with his interlocutors, he poses questions, to which he does not give answers (perhaps you can consider his later questions a sort of answer to his previous ones, but they are ultimately contingent on the response of his interlocutor.) In this line of thought, it can be stated that Socrates did not intend to dominate the dialogue and turn it into more of a philosophical monologue portraying his own thoughts – no, he seemed to be far more inquisitive than that. Proclaiming that he knew nothing (perhaps a play on words of the fact of the seemingly infinite amount of knowledge available and unavailable to human beings), his goal was to find out whether particular strong claims about the nature of certain ontological categories – Beauty, Justice, Piety, Love, etc. – held strong in the face of rigorous questioning.

Even though his method of discourse is particularly powerful, especially at revealing inherent flaws and contradictions (perhaps a lack of thought and mere blind faith or acceptance), there is a flaw in this method that undermines its validity as a universal tool for truth-seeking. For now, I shall not define what my epistemology is and what conception of truth I define as most valid, for that would take many long pages and would be far from exhaustive. Let us presume a classical theory of truth – seeking to uncover the universal structure of the world and human beings – and continue with that in mind. So, the flaw in Socrates’ method of dialogue is the fact that any single position on any subject can be questioned in a way as to render it useless (that is, if we permit all possible questions, which I do not believe Socrates did). In a world where the philosophy of deconstruction holds as much sway as it does, it stands to reason that using its methods in a Socratic way renders all possible claims null and void, for that is what deconstruction intends to do and is designed to do – remove the meaning, coherence and logical necessity of any claim or set of claims. It proposes no metaphysics and an epistemology so broad that it might as well be chaos itself.


3. The axiomatic level of belief

So, in order to make the method useful despite that, we need a guideline or proper limitations to the types of questions to be used. If we aim to speak in a highly technical and precise matter on fine details, be it in science, art or philosophy (hell, even politics, but that’s as Utopian as Plato’s Republic at this point), we have to start by asking our interlocutor “What are the core axioms of your thinking?” It is far too often that people use the same terms in conversation, yet misunderstand each other gravely, because of their different core axioms. For example, one necessarily accepts free will as true and valid axiomatically, while another rejects it in the same manner – those two may talk for hours using exactly the same terms without this distinction ever becoming clear. What is most pernicious and dangerous about this example is the fact that they will believe they understand each other’s positions and yet they are radically different – each has defined and arranged the whole conversation in alignment of their own axiomatic (or metaphysical) structure without even being aware of this subtle difference.

This problem illustrates the fact that there are multiple layers to modes of thought and even among philosophers, the question of their core axiomatic structure at the very foundation of their thought comes up far too rarely. Perhaps far too many people subscribe to a particular school of philosophy and converse with those with close enough foundations of thought as to render this distinction unnecessary. That, even though technically solving this problem, poses a larger one, which I call philosophical stagnation or echo-chamber effects, though that is most prevalent in political ideologies and cults, very rarely among philosophers.


4. The danger to the psyche and the possibility of projection

However, the solution of probing the axiomatic structure of one’s beliefs is a dangerous one, for it often is one of the pillars that holds a person’s sanity relatively intact. Haphazardly tinkering with it can lead to catastrophic results if done poorly or it can backfire, leading to the unraveling of the metaphysics of the questioner himself. So, this solution is akin to bringing a nuclear warhead to a knife fight in almost every conversation. However, if done in the spirit of honesty, in a mature, respectful and gradual way, it can have amazing results of personality transformation the way Carl Jung describes it in his work.

There is a way to get a glimpse of a person’s core axiomatic/metaphysical structure, though it requires a deep understanding of psychology, human behavior, evolution and even symbolic and archetypal representations of the human psyche or spirit. The actions and behavior of a person carry within them, implicitly and inseparably, valuable information about what it is that the person believes. This approach carries within it great danger as well, particularly of projection – that is, in the attempt to describe what structure could possible lie at the core of someone’s behavior can be easily tainted and warped by the interpreter’s idiosyncratic perceptions, biases, ignorance or even pride and a sense of supremacy.


5 .The axiomatic structure of mathematics

In mathematics, particularly in Linear Algebra and Analytic Geometry, there is nothing more fundamental than the axioms which are presumed, such as, pertaining to numbers, A plus B is equivalent to B plus A, or that A plus zero is equivalent to A. Without the accepting of these core claims, no further claims or operations could be done in Algebra or Geometry at all. However, I need to admit my limited knowledge of the subject, for there is probably a branch of mathematics which attempts to escape the axiomatic structure at its core. Coherency and usefulness could not logically follow from that, though and such is one of the core limitations of mathematics itself – the need to start from a particular set of claims in order to be able to do anything.

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Why people talk past each other and potential ways to solve this issue. Part 2 coming soon.

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