Envisioning Nouns: Science

Elementary grammar teaches us that nouns fall into two groups:  Concrete Nouns vs. Abstract Nouns.  But the line between these categories is not as fixed as we are told.  We divide up the world for practical reasons but our categories are rarely as fixed (concrete) as we imagine.  “Fruit”, for instance, when used in a botanical sense includes: walnuts, tomatoes, avocados and even wheat.  But for many folks, fruit is suppose to be sweet — like sugar cane?  Yet many of today’s cultivated succulently sweet apples come from ancestors that were amazingly  sour.

As another example, here are some “tables”:

 3 legs  2 legs or 4 legs  1 leg / pedestal
 1 leg or 3 legs  Japanese Kotatsu  legs or layers

Who’d guess that table’s definition could be a little fuzzy — I mean, how much more concrete can you get than a table?  Fortunately when we move on to something like “love” or “faith”, people will admit that the definitions get a little fuzzy.  But take a word like “science”, and many folks want to concretize it again.  These folks want that word’s definition locked up in a castle, while others are comfortable realizing it is nebulous and defined variously in different contexts and in different circles of people.


Some folks want to shout out and tell people what a word really means — they are prescriptionists or word-nazis.  And some folks want to wrestle for the meaning hoping that the victor takes all.


Some folks, however, actually work out agreements with other folks so that their words share enough meaning and fit well enough together that they can use the words meaningfully and get things done.  These folks look at words as contracts which, even if temporary, allow groups to form, tools to be made, behaviors to change and all the other things language is used for.  These contractualists aren’t deceived that words live in Plato’s heaven and that we must merely discover their true meaning.  They aren’t deceived to feel words have locked, clearly defined meanings (see: Myth of Definitions).  They understand the nebulous nature of language and that is is our creation which we use to facilitate communication.  Words change, we change with them.  Understanding how words work can help us learn flexibility when trying to share words.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Envisioning Nouns: Science

  1. Tim

    The examples used to illustrate your point(s) are ( to me) relevant in different ways and for different reasons and seem to cover a wide gamut of linguistic usage. It is as language users after all that language ‘issues’ arise. This point was well made by your post as a whole.
    The fruit and the table, on the concrete side of the noun typology, illustrate first how a things very inner constitution (sweet), or conversely a things function (table), can be latched upon as an aid to communication about that thing. The two ways in which this usually occurs can indeed be captured by appeal to either a prescriptionist or conceptualist model. The difference in range of application instantiated by your examples can be shown by way of a scenario.
    The principle of what a thing is for can be applied to the table example in ways that really stretch the concept of table to what some would consider to be unacceptable limits. I have personally used tree stumps, truck beds and steps as ‘tables’ if we agree that a table is that which functions as a place to position ones food for consumption. If I decided to sell my truck, however, I would not advertise the fact that it had a lined table, but rather a lined bed. Now we enter into equivocation; is it the bed on a truck or the bed we sleep upon that is the ‘real’ bed? The fact of the matter is that it is a bad question.
    Sadly we cannot get off the hook by appeal to a things inner constitution either. Is it the Macintosh apple that I eat or the 100% apple (juice) that I drink that is, dare one say, 100% apple? We multiply conundrums unnecessarily searching for ‘the’ ‘real’ object. A degree of strict stipulation seems mandatory for even minor communication, but as this stipulation itself can be applied variously by function and/or constitution ( among other ways I’m sure) we wonder how it is we communicate. The debate continues in domains that are described in yet more words: philosophy of language, science, religion, linguistics. Any imagined complete dictionary is in the end a paradigm instance of circular reasoning. We are mired in a hermeneutic circle from which convention may be the only escape.

  2. JSA

    TOFSpot had an excellent post on the same topic a few days ago: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2011/09/finality-vs-efficiency.html

  3. this is why English rules, it’s dynamic and new words and new meanings for words are created all the time

    when you have to have a committee to oversee language, like in France and Iceland

    that language is dead

    language: the original wiki

  4. @ Tim
    Thanks, I think. I guess you were just agreeing with me and rephrasing.

    @ JSA
    Interesting post. Little different focus than my post. I could have put any ‘abstract’ word in those pics and the post would have said the same thing.

    @ Random Ntrygg
    Indeed – didn’t know Iceland had language cops too. Thanx

  5. JSA

    Well, I don’t think it would work as well for a word like “love”. But, yeah, it’s applicable to other abstract words like “politics”, “progress”, etc.

  6. CRL

    I’m a bit surprised that you put “two” on the concrete end of the spectrum. My understanding of concrete and abstract nouns is that concrete refers to more tangible words, not more easily defined words, and two is certainly not tangible, or, at least, certainly not more tangible than a table.

  7. Earnest

    @CRL: however, there are many examples of the concept of “two” in our sensorium. We can easily and succinctly describe the state of two or not-two with very simple rules. I admit that it is hard to define “two” without tangible objects, perhaps that was your point.

    Sabio I’m curious where you would put “friendship” on this spectrum. If I am trying to define my friendship with you, for example, this is toward the abstract end of the spectrum. However, the tit-for-tat program in game theory has a concept of “friendship/not-friendship” that seems fairly concrete.

    Or perhaps in the tit-for-tat example it is more proper to use “ally/enemy”?

    Electrons have features of waves and particles. Perhaps “friendship” has abstract and concrete features.

  8. Great post S. I really like the label of ‘contractualist’ although I think I might personally be a ‘contract-negotiator’ when it comes to some words.

    So, in a sense then, is a contractualist (temporarily) adopting the myth? Not as (capitalized) Truth but as a truth-in-the-hand as you suggest?

    Reminds me of a lesson from golf – hold the club firmly in your hands like it’s a live bird. You don’t want to crush the bird. That’ll kill it and wreck your game. But you don’t want it to get loose and fly away either.


  9. CRL

    Earnest, I absolutely love your analogy between friendship and electrons 😀

    My problem with, “two,” or any number, for that matter, being considered a concrete noun, is that, when you have (*looking at overcrowded desk for an example*) “two calculators,” the two is acting as an adjective. Yes, that was incredibly grammar nazi-ish. Also, what happens when you’re talking about infinity, or zero?

  10. @ CRL
    Hmmmm, “2”. You may be right. I put that together pretty quickly and I think you caught a weak spot. As Earnest pointed out, I was thinking af 2 beads on an abacus or 2 stones in a pile — that “two”. But it still may not be a good choice, for above, those are adjectives. I may have to change that. What would be a good alternative?

    @ Earnest & JSA
    If a word is left with all its various definitions/uses, it has an even fuzzier (cloudier, more nebulous) feel. Should you give a word an agreed upon operational definition (that is with concrete signals to test), then it becomes less abstract. Thus my “spectrum” is more for illustration of the principle than it is to actually categorize words. “Friendship” and “Love” are such examples. If I am understanding both of your points.

    @ Andrew
    A contracturalist can “temporarily adopt the myth” or treat the language as a game and not play seriously. They play, because it is useful.
    I love the golf analogy!

  11. rautakyy

    Sabio Lantz, once again a solid good post.

    Random Ntrygg, we have a comittee here in Finland. It is founded to preserve our cultural language identity, but it mostly serves as a bureaucratic system to give new words the commonly understood meaning and to change the official language. As we are a small nation divided by quite great dialect differencies (in some parts of the world our dialects would propably be seen as separate languages, for example the word “I” in western dialects is “mä”, in eastern dialects its “mie” and in official Finnish “minä”), it is good that we have some mediating office to give a common language to us.

    Coming from a minor language I constantly run into translation difficulties as a word may have one similar meaning in two languages, but a variety of different meanings that are not the same at all.

    Meaning and definition of a word changes all the time. In medieval times theology was a synonym for sience as no other forms of sience even existed, but by todays definitions of the noun science it is questionable wether theology is even science.

    The most important thing for us to understand each other is to accept the different meanings other people give to different words. It is not easy, but who ever claimed life is easy.

    2+2=5 if the “twos” have a high value of two.

  12. Dan L.

    Hey there, Sabio, you linked me from Greta’s blog. Nice little post on the fuzziness of language.

    The thought experiment I mentioned to you goes roughly like this: take two tables, roughly identical, each composed of a top and four legs. Disassemble them, throw the pieces in a back of a truck, drive somewhere, reassemble.

    Same tables? Maybe, maybe not?

    Suppose we have a chair made of two each of two different types of components (interchangeable back and seat and two interchangeable legs, say). Take two of the chairs, mix up the parts, reassemble. Same chairs?

    Nothing particularly special about the chairs or tables here, you can do this with anything defined by the composition of parts. This trick doesn’t necessarily work with biological phenomena: a dolphin is a tetrapod not by virtue of having four legs but because it is descended from an ancestral tetrapod. That is, a “tetrapod” in biology isn’t an abstract creature with four legs but a particular clump of branches in a larger family tree of life.

  13. Iceland, being geographically distant from the other Scandiwhovian nations, has developed a unique language, so they have a committee to preserve and protect it

    they decide what new English words get added and so forth.

    I tried to learn Icelandic when I was a kid, but summer always had more interesting things to do.

    So, on my list of regrets, not learning Icelandic from my Amma (Dad’s mom) or yodelling from my Grandma (Mom’s mom)

  14. It all sounds suspiciously Wittgensteinian. When we are able to play “language games,” in the Wittgensteinian sense, we are able to break free of the essentialism which seems to be a target of your post.

  15. JSA

    I was in Iceland in July, and was intrigued to learn that they’re a mix of Gaul and Viking, much as the Parisii (where I also visited in July) were a mix of Gaul and German. Coincidence that they both have language preservation ministries? I think not…

  16. @ Anyone still tuned in :
    On another site someone felt my clip-art (even if I did photoshop it), was too much and distracted from the article. I’d love to hear opinions.

    @ rautakyy :
    Thank you. That was fascinating about Finnish.

    @ Dan L :
    Thanks for dropping in. A classic Hindu question: light candle A, use it to light candle B. Blow out candle A and now use candle B to light candle C. Keep this going. When you get to candle R, is it the same flame?
    OK, maybe the question only related in a very stretched fashion. But I like the table, chair, tetrapod examples!

    @ Rondom Ntrygg :

    @ Chris :
    Though I have had books on Wittgenstein, hit on his work in some intro philosophy courses, used his names a few time, I will not let my shallow depths deceive me! Smile (see this post). I not really familiar with his philosophy of language. But if it steers us away from essentialism, I am all for it! It would be nice to think I did a fair lay person’s cartoon sketch of a smart guy’s ideas (without even reading him)!

    @ JSA :
    You’ve got Gaul gall making those ethnic slurs! 😀

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