Of maps and territories 2: Right and wrong maps

[Part 1 is here]

In everyday situations of disagreement or confusion about the meaning of specific terms (which features of the territory they correspond to), people are usually quick to pull up everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia or a dictionary website (or even reach for an actual, physical dictionary, if they’re old-fashioned that way) to resolve the matter. It’s the adult equivalent of asking a teacher: consulting an entity widely accepted to have some kind of expertise on the issue at hand.

For questions pertaining to language, it’s dictionaries: written and edited by people who devoted years and decades to learning about the rules of grammar, etymologies, and common usage. (Sometimes, this works well. Others not so much.) If the dictionary says both “focused” and “focussed” are acceptable spellings, that’s how it is.
Interestingly, dictionaries follow the people as well as the other way around: if a word gets misspelled or a phrase misused often enough, the new usage will eventually make its way into the dictionary.

There’s a certain tragedy to this mechanism – it’s a perfect way for the origins of certain words and phrases to get lost, and whole words become obsolete everyday and are eventually removed. (For example, the phrase “rein in” is slowly but inevitably turning into “reign in”, obscuring its origin in the phrase “to rein in a horse”.) But it’s undeniably necessary for dictionaries to stay relevant and to create space for new words and phrases that have become common – whether it’s “on fleek”, “smartphone”, or “mouse” as a word for a mechanical device used to move a cursor and click rather than a small rodent.

Some words have different meanings (even drastically different at times) within different contexts. Tomatoes are famously botanically speaking fruit and culinary vegetables: they are berries by botanical criteria, but they are used in savory meals rather than served as part of dessert.

The vast majority of people interacts with tomatoes in everyday life when grocery-shopping or cooking. For both of these activities, the culinary category of tomatoes is much more relevant than the botanical one: no ready-made fruit salad has tomatoes, but plenty of vegetable mixes do, and no store I’ve ever seen stocks them with the fruit rather than the vegetables. While I don’t know any botanists personally, I’d bet that even they have more contact with tomatoes as vegetables than tomatoes as fruit.

In 1893, the matter came before the U.S. Supreme Court in the context of taxation rules. Definitions of “fruit” and “vegetables” as well as various individual vegetables (or, you know, botanical fruit and culinary vegetables) from three different dictionaries were read, and expert witnesses were questioned as to whether these words held any other meaning than that given in the dictionaries in trade. In response, the court acknowledged that tomatoes were botanically speaking fruit, but declared them vegetables rather than fruit regarding the matter at hand.

The botanical definitions and the nature of tomatoes remain unchanged, and in the latter case completely oblivious of how people choose to call and categorize them. But the taxation law in question did not aim at botanical criteria, but at the common use and trade of tomatoes, and therefore the court prioritized these factors in its decision.

Ultimately, the right map – like the best one – is the map that takes you where you want to be.

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato reportedly gave a definition of humans as “featherless biped”. (He ascribed the definition to Socrates, although that is somewhat dubious.) It basically blew people’s minds: such an elegant, efficient definition, so few words to capture the whole category of humanity!
Until Diogenes (fellow philosopher, Cynic, and noteworthy person in general) brought a plucked chicken into Plato’s Academy, saying: “Behold! I’ve brought you a man.”
In response, Plato amended his definition: a featherless biped “with broad flat nails”.

What Plato wanted was a map to capture the category “human” as efficiently as possible, including all humans and excluding all non-humans. Diogenes took the map he created, followed it to its logical conclusion, and confronted Plato with the map’s shortcomings in the most hilarious way possible. He knew exactly where Plato wanted to end up, and he knew exactly that this destination was not a featherless chicken. (He could have taken the matter further, too: Plato presumably would have considered legless people human, yet they are clearly not bipeds.)

This example illustrates the second way to challenge, test, and refine maps, especially as they pertain to common categories: find out which places it leads to where you (or the person you’re talking to) don’t actually want to go.

The obvious avenue of failure here is that sometimes, different people have different destinations in mind, or are willing to accept different flaws in their maps. For example, take the question of what soup is: pretty much everyone would claim to know what soup is, and feel comfortable declaring new meals soup or not-soup, yet finding a definition that includes all known elements of the soup category is quite difficult, and the more inclusive the definition, the higher the chance that it includes elements that many people would not put into the soup category, such as cereal. And people vary in how they react to following their map to the place labelled “soup” and finding cereal: some retract their support for the definition, others declare cereal soup (with reluctance, puzzlement, fascination, or outright amusement).

Ultimately, there’s no authority on soup-ness that can decide whether cereal is soup or not. I suspect that the U.S. Supreme Court would declare it non-soup on basis of the fact that most people don’t believe it to be soup, but as shown in the tomato example, the U.S. Supreme Court might not be the entity most stringent about official (even scientific!) definitions – and to complicate matters even further, people might simply disagree with the court’s decision and keep cereal in their personal map of soup.

Indeed, this is the case in all matters: who is to say that an encyclopedia is right about everything (especially an open-access encyclopedia, like Wiki)? Its writers might be (and probably are) influenced by various cultural biases, their knowledge might have gaps and blind spots, their information might be incomplete or outdated. Grammar and spellings deemed wrong by textbooks or dictionaries might be part of a regional, cultural, or contextual dialect or jargon. Words found in no dictionary might be perfectly fine descriptors of phenomena existing only within certain realms of fiction. Did you know that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary doesn’t contain the word jedi? And yet many people – perhaps even most – would understand it perfectly well, and consider it an English word with a defined correct spelling (“jedi” rather than, say, “jedie” or “jedy” or “jeddi”).

A friend once proposed zucchini pizza as dinner. They were not talking about regular pizza with zucchini on top, but about zucchini slices covered with tomato sauce and cheese. I was appalled and declared it blasphemy to even call such abominations pizza.
I did not and still do not have any idea whether there is an official definition of pizza, or if so, what it is and whether it contains zucchini “pizza” as described above. All I know is that when I hear pizza, I want to end up in a delicious place, and this particular way of mapping the territory very much hampers this endeavor. (They understood. I don’t remember what we ended up having for dinner, but it certainly was not zucchini “pizza”.)

In conclusion: there may be correct and incorrect ways to map a territory, but correctness does not exist independently of standards to measure it by. Different people can use different standards to judge a given map by, and while there is usually much common ground, arguments on the matter often benefit from defining clearly where you want to go.
(And if your destination differs greatly from the other person’s, you might never be able to agree on a correct map: while all ethicists might want the best for everyone, different ethical systems have different ideas of what the best even is, let alone how to achieve it.)


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