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February 21, 2010

Scholars typically offer stipulative definitions for critical terms they use. And others often upbraid them: “that’s not how people typically use that word ….”

I’m generally unsympathetic to this sort of objection.

The purpose of making stipulative definitions is to make a term practically useful for a particular analytic or critical project. Stipulative definitions are required precisely because the normal, everyday uses of various terms are not generally sophisticated enough for analytical or critical purposes.

I cannot very well collect taxes while exempting the poor if I use an everyday use of the word “poor”; for the project of collecting taxes I’ll have to set a stipulative definition for what counts as “poor” or “poverty” or whatever.

Of course the stipulative definition won’t match the everyday use. However, that’s precisely the point—it is not supposed to match the colloquial use!

Collecting and formalizing colloquial uses of words is a project for Webster, not scholars.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 7:51 pm

    That’s my pet peeve with the way ‘liberal/ism’ gets used in the USA, applied to everyone from moderate Republicans who recycle their cans to Maoist cults. Still, it would be interesting if scholars did fall on their swords and adopt ‘common sense’ meanings of words. You could use Obama’s memoirs in teaching about Islam, for example…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 21, 2010 8:17 pm

    “You could use Obama’s memoirs in teaching about Islam, for example”

    That’s friggin’ hilarious.

  3. February 22, 2010 4:41 am

    Whatever you say, man. You’re the one living in a country run by a Muslim socialist. Glad you can laugh about it.

  4. February 22, 2010 11:16 am

    Well put!

    e.g., in activist projects, power + prejudice = -ism

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 22, 2010 1:17 pm


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