Thursday, August 1, 2013

Absolute and Relative

It seems to me that a good deal of philosophizing goes into trying to answer questions without relating the concepts that compose the questions to anything outside the question. That is, making questions absolute and then trying to come to an answer.

Suppose I ask who is smarter: John or James, how would we go about answering that question? How could we ever answer it? The concept "smart" has no definition in this scenario. It does not really mean anything.

If I were a sports reporter and John and James were athletes and I asked this question, we would be able to define "smart" in terms of regularly making decisions that further a winning gameplay strategy. John is smarter than James if his actions on the field further a winning gameplay strategy more often than James' actions do.

If I were a teacher and John and James were my students, then it is not clear precisely what I mean by "smart," but the definition can be narrowed down. Perhaps I mean, "performs better on tests," perhaps I mean, "gets better grades," or perhaps I mean, "asks more insightful questions and makes more insightful statements," or even, "makes statements that display greater lateral thinking."

If I am a High-IQ fetishist and John and James are two Mensa prospects, then it is clear immediately what I mean by "smart." It means "scores higher on standardized tests."

But now if it is just I and I just ask who is smarter between John and James, we are lost. We know that "smart" pertains to intellect by virtue of the fact that I am an English speaker. Once we try to narrow it past that we begin making arbitrary leaps. Some would say that the absolute meaning of "smart" refers to IQ, others would say success in society, others would say displays of calculation and creativity. We might pour our energies into trying to make such absolute definitions, but we cannot reach any definition that is not easily brushed aside given just a little context.

When a debate becomes a battle of semantics, perhaps we would do well to ask if there is enough context to
even have a discussion. If there is not, then maybe we would do well to ask if silence might not be the best course of action.

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