Word Crimes

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-12 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

I've been on a Karl Popper kick lately, re-reading his body of work and also tackling fresh many volumes of his I hadn't cracked before (e.g., The World of Parmenides). Many strands of his thought are worth unpacking in blog posts, but the first one I want to tackle is how Popper stood out from other philosophers for me because he was avowedly not interested in arguments about the meanings of words.

For Popper, questions like "What is time?" or "What is space?" were problematic at best, because they tended to devolve into arguments about definitions of things, and those in turn just devolve into circuses of people beating each other over the head with dictionaries. He was unconvinced that any arguments about the meanings of words could expand our understanding of our world in any significant way. The most it could ever do reduce vagueness, and that was something most scientists did as a matter of course by simply using a common language. Physicists have no arguments with each other over what they mean by a "proton".

The kinds of questions Popper were interested in were what he called problem-questions: "Why does time behave differently in fields of intense gravity?" or "How does gravity cause the curvature of space, exactly?" To him there were no fields of study as such, just the posing of problems and the attempts to solve them, loosely organized around taxonomic topics. Biologists and chemists and physicists all had a lot more to say to each other than they realized (something we are finding is more true every day). Finding answers to such questions was the better route to the growth of our knowledge than arguments about terminology.

I found all this refreshing after wading through too much philosophy that amounted to arguing about the meaning of the word "is", or substituting speculation for actual investigation. All of this stuff seemed mostly to exist to give people something to fight over, not to help us come to any functionally larger understanding of our world. I hated the way too much of philosophy seemed obsessed with things like gotcha questions tarted up as pseudo-profound moral quandaries (e.g., the trolley problem), and not concerned enough with actual processes for making the world better.

Popper had constructive suggestions for how to accomplish such things — not just ways to talk about our problems in more elaborate language, but ideas for how we might go about solving them, or learning more about what those problems really amounted to. And from all of that sprung his vigorous defenses of democracy, something we are now getting a harsh re-education with. More on that in another post.

Tags: Karl Popper philosophy science