“One of the reasons why terminology sometimes looms large in Taking Children Seriously discussions is that prevailing terminology systematically (and pathologically) glosses over the most important distinctions—not in concepts, but in reality!—that we want to make.”
– David Deutsch
From the archives: Posted on 24th December 2002
“I’d like to understand what you mean by ‘active’ and ‘enacted’.
Does ‘active’ mean the theory is in the holder’s mind? Does it mean more than that???? If so, what does it mean? Does ‘enacted’ mean like taking action?
Could you explain what you mean by your post, David Deutsch? I’m not real good at science and know nothing of computers. Please somebody help me here!”
Different people mean different things by everyday terms like “mind”, “action”, “in” and even (as President Clinton once pointed out) “is”. Often quite radically different things. And the same person typically means different things by them on different occasions.
That is one reason why one cannot get anywhere by endlessly refining definitions, or by starting a discussion or an explanation with a definition.
One often hears the maxim “first, define your terms”, and the argument that no discussion can get anywhere unless the parties first agree on what terms mean. It is a very bad maxim. Feynman once pointed out that it is bad even in theoretical physics—the field in which, aside from logic and pure mathematics, definitions are the most useful. In general, agreeing on (or understanding) what terms mean happens either at the same time as, or sometimes after, agreeing about (or understanding) the substance of what is being discussed. Definitions can then be useful as a way of summarising the already-understood concepts, making them more precise, more connected with related concepts in other areas, and perhaps most important, abstracting away the content, making it implicit in the language one is using, so that one can move on to other, not-yet-agreed issues without having to re-hash agreed ones in every sentence.
One of the reasons why terminology sometimes looms large in Taking Children Seriously discussions is that prevailing terminology systematically (and pathologically) glosses over the most important distinctions—not in concepts, but in reality!—that we want to make. I’ll quote an old post of mine on the same subject: What does “active” mean if not “preferred”?
- Kids Are Worth it, by Barbara Coloroso: a book review
- Imposing rules so children feel secure?
- Clarification of what I mean by ‘coercion’