Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cutting Through The Handwringing Rhetorical Fog

John C. Wright:

The Definition of Marriage

Reading many of the comments in two recent posts on the topic of matrimony, I was disappointed and surprised to see the number of comments which called into question the definition of marriage; yet not a single post I saw made reference either to a dictionary (to discover the common meaning), or to a law dictionary (to discover the legal definition). Perhaps there was a post there that I missed.

If you don't know what a word means, you don't make it up, you look it up.

If you want to invent a new word, or use an old word in a specific way for the sake of argument, then you use the phrase, "Let us for the sake of argument take the word x to mean y" or something to that effect. That phrase tells unwary readers you are not using the real word, but merely making an invention of your own, in order to pursue clarity, or, if your motives are less than pure, to achieve a rhetorical advantage over your opposition.

Not a single post I saw introduced a new and more precise definition of marriage for the sake of argument. Perhaps there was a post there that I missed.

I am not sure how to explain this oddity.

One possibility is asking the definition of marriage was what we might call a "substitute question" where the questioner asks one question but really means another.

The other possibility is that the questioner holds to a subjectivist epistemology, and tacitly assumes that any "definition" that does not compel universal assent is invalid; and such a view might also tacitly assume that there are no grounds, aside from personal preference, or whim, for assenting to a definition, so that in effect, asking "what is the definition?" is a rhetorical question, actually a statement that there is and can be no definition, because definitions do not exist.

My suspicions are provoked only because I cannot imagine such a discussion centered around asking the definition of a contract, for example, or the definition of negligence, or tort, or reality, or will, or trespass. These all have common or have legal definitions.

The words mean what their definitions, their bounds, say they mean, and the words do not mean the opposite of what they mean, or everything, or nothing, or what-you-please.

Some words are ambiguous, because we use the same word for several different meanings (I both cleave to my wife and cleave with my cutlass, for example) but this is mere puns (what used to be called "quibbles") and it behooves us if we fear ambiguity to say which of several meanings is meant. But this does not mean words mean nothing at all, or everything, or nonsense, or what-you-please. Perhaps the suspicions are narrow souled of me --- I can understand why an innocent young scholar might be deceived by a dishonest philosophy, and even if I think the young one honest, I cannot call the philosophy honest.

This is speculation on my part. I really don't understand the course of the conversation. The word "marriage" when used in English means when the context of the English language (and therefore of the English law and custom and culture) has always taken it to mean.

What does marriage mean? Allow me to quote at length from Bouvier's INSTITUTES OF AMERICAN LAW starting at page 59.

[lengthy quote]

THAT is marriage. That is the definition. This is not a matter of opinion: it is settled.

Those of you are who competent to have an opinion as to whether Bouvier constitutes an authority may judge for yourself; those of you who are not must trust those who are. Alien as it may sound in our egalitarian age, not all opinions are created equal, for the creator of opinions is mortal, and prone to error.

Those who reject the authority of this jurist, or of the law he cites, must give grounds for the rejection. Your mere opinion or preference is not enough.

Now, those who would like to revise the definition have to give some warrant for the change, and say by what authority the change can be made.

Merely pretending that marriage does not exist, has no definition, has never existed, or is surrounded by an indissoluble fog of confusion is a weak argument.

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