The All True Scotsman Fallacy

As my readers know, one of my personal bêtes noires is the complete ignorance of most of the people who charge others with committing a material fallacy of the fact that a material fallacy is, in fact, a material fallacy, rather than a formal fallacy.  If a material fallacy were a fallacy by virtue of its form alone, it wouldn’t be a material fallacy, but a formal one.

What I call the All True Scotsman fallacy occurs when someone mistakenly attempts to use the No True Scotsman fallacy, a material fallacy, as a formal fallacy.  The All True Scotsman fallacy looks like this:

  1. Any statement of the form “X is not a true Y” is a No True Scotsman fallacy.
  2. Therefore, all Xs are true Ys, always and necessarily, for any values of X and Y.

More concretely, this takes the form of saying that since any denial that anyone ever is a true Scotsman is a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, it follows that everyone always is necessarily a Scotsman, no matter what. There are literally no circumstances under which any person could fail to be a Scotsman.

It is logically impossible for anyone not to be a Scotsman.


“Of all people, the atheist is the most unfortunate”


St. Nektarios of Ægina

Of all people, the atheist is the most misfortunate person because he has been deprived of the only good thing upon the earth: faith—the one true guide toward the truth and happiness. The atheist is a most misfortunate person because he is deprived of hope: the essential staff needed to journey through life’s lengthy path. The atheist is a most misfortunate person because he is deprived of human love, which caresses the aching heart. The atheist is a most misfortunate person because he has been deprived of the divine beauty of the Creator’s image, which the Divine Artist has etched within man and which faith unveils.

The eye of the atheist sees in creation nothing other than the operation of natural processes. The brilliance and magnificent beauty of the Divine Creator’s image remain hidden and undetectable to him. As he glances aimlessly at creation, nowhere does he discover the beauty of God’s wisdom, nowhere does he see God’s omnipotence, nowhere does he observe God’s goodness and providence, nowhere does he discern the Creator’s righteousness and love for creation. His mind is neither capable of ascending higher than the visible world nor reaching beyond the boundaries of physical matter. His heart remains anesthetized and indifferent before God’s ever-present divine wisdom and power. Within it, not even the slightest desire to worship the Lord exists. His lips remain closed, his mouth silent, and his tongue frozen. His soul voices no hymn, doxology, or praise as an expression of gratefulness to God.

The peace of the soul and the serenity of the heart have been removed by disbelief; instead, mourning has inundated the depth of his being. The delight, which the faithful person experiences from executing God’s divine commandments, and the great pleasure that he enjoys from an ethical way of life are unknown feelings for the atheist. The elation which faith bestows to the believer has never been felt by the atheist’s heart. The assurance that arises from faith in God’s providence, which relieves man from the anxiety of life’s worries, is a power unknown to him.


The joy poured upon the entire universe has abandoned the heart of the atheist because God has fled from his heart. The ensuing void has instead been filled by sadness, dejection, and anxiety. The atheist lives in a dispirited state; listlessness has taken hold of his soul. He wanders astray in the lightless and expansive night of this present life without even one ray of light to illumine his crooked paths. There is no one to lead him or guide his footsteps. All alone, he passes through the arena of life with no hope of a better future. He walks amidst many traps, but there is no one to free him from them. He is caught within these snares and crushed by their weight. In times of difficulty and sorrow, there is no one to alleviate or console him.

Feelings of love and gratitude remain unknown mysteries for the atheist. The atheist, having appointed matter as his principal governor, limited man’s true happiness within the narrow confines of temporary pleasures. Consequently, he constantly seeks to enjoy these pleasures and is ceaselessly concerned and preoccupied with them. The beauty of virtue is completely foreign to him. The atheist has not tasted the sweetness and grace of virtue. The atheist is oblivious to the source of true happiness and has raced toward the fountains of bitterness. He has been filled to satiety by ephemeral pleasures; satiety in turn has induced in him disgust; disgust has resulted in ennui; ennui has given rise to affliction; affliction has developed into pain; and, finally, pain has led to hopelessness. All the pleasures have lost their glitter and beauty because all of the world’s pleasures are transient, and, as such, are incapable of rendering the atheist fortunate.

Man’s heart was created to be filled by the greatest good; therefore, only when it enjoys this good does it leap and rejoice—because this good is God. God, however, has fled from the heart of the atheist. The human heart has infinite desires because it was created to embrace the infinite God. However, since the atheist’s heart is not filled with the infinite God, it can never be filled or satisfied with anything—even though it perpetually groans, seeks, and desires to do so. The pleasures of the world are incapable of filling the heart’s emptiness. The pleasures and delights of this world quickly evaporate, leaving within the heart dregs of bitterness. Similarly, vain honor and praise are accompanied by sorrows.


The atheist is unaware that man’s happiness is found not within the enjoyment of earthly pleasures but in the love of God—Who is the greatest and eternal good. He who denies God denies his own happiness and eternal bliss. The poor atheist struggles through life’s hard and toilsome journey, fearfully walking toward the end of his life without hope, headed for the grave that happily waits for him. The sweet waters of joy and happiness flow beneath his feet, while he, as another condemned Tantalus,1 is incapable of quenching his thirst and watering his tongue that has been dried and withered by atheism—for the waters flowing from the life-giving spring of faith recede from his lips.

The atheist has become a misfortunate slave subjugated to a harsh tyrant! How was your happiness stolen? How was your treasure seized? You lost your faith, you denied your God, you denied His revelation, and you rejected the abundant wealth of His divine grace.

How wretched is his life! It consists of a series of torments. His eyes see nothing joyful in nature. The natural world seems to him sterile and barren. It neither provides him with joy nor generates within him feelings of delight. None of God’s works smile at him. A mournful blanket covers the grace and beauty of the creation, which no longer contains anything attractive. His life has become an unbearable burden and a perpetual, unendurable misery.

Despair already stands before him as an executioner, and a merciless tyrant tortures this fearful man. Disbelief has corrupted the ethical powers of his soul; he has run out of courage and is now too week to resist. He is led, like a helpless being, by disbelief and handed over to the frightful bonds of despair. Unmerciful and uncompassionate despair, in turn, violently and harshly severs the thread of his pitiful life, and hurls him into the depths of perdition and darkness, from where he will resurface only when the voice of his divine Creator—Whom he denied—calls him to give an account of his disbelief, at which point he will be condemned and sent to the eternal fire.


Χριστὸς ἀνέστη

The Spiritual Disorder of Atheism: St. Nektarios



St. Nektarios of Ægina

Atheism is a mental disorder: it is a terrible ailment of the soul that is difficult to cure. Atheism is a passion that severely oppresses whomever it seizes. It holds in store many misfortunes for its captive, and becomes harmful not only for him but also for others who come into contact with him.

Atheism denies the existence of God. It denies that there is a divine Creator of the universe. It denies God’s providence, His wisdom, His goodness, and, in general, His divine qualities. Atheism teaches a falsehood to its followers and contrives false theories concerning the creation of the universe. It professes, as Pythia upon a tripod, that the creation is an outcome of chance, that it is perpetuated and preserved through purposeless, random interactions, that its splendor transpired spontaneously over time, and that the harmony, grace, and beauty witnessed in nature are inherent attributes of natural laws. Atheism detracts from God, Whom it has denied, His divine characteristics, and, instead, bestows them and His creative power to lifeless and feeble matter. Atheism freely proclaims matter to be the cause of all things, and it deifies matter in order to deny the existence of a superior Being, of a supreme, creative Spirit Who cares for and sustains all things.

On account of disbelief, matter becomes the only true entity; whereas the spirit becomes non-existent. For atheism, the spirit and the soul are egotistical inventions of man, concocted to satisfy his vainglory. Atheism denies man’s spiritual nature. It drags man down from the lofty height where he has been placed by the Creator’s power and grace, and lowers him amongst the rank of irrational animals, which he accepts as ancestors of his distinguished and noble lineage. Atheism does all this in order to bear witness to the words of the Psalm: “Man, being in honor, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless animals, and is become like unto them” (Ps. 48:20).

Atheism detracts faith, hope, and love from the world, these life-giving sources of true happiness for man, it expels God’s righteousness from the world, and denies the existence of God’s providence and succor.

Atheism accepts the laws that exist in nature, yet denies Him Who has appointed these laws. Atheism seeks to lead man to an imaginary happiness; however, it abandons and deserts him in the middle of nowhere, in the valley of lamentation, barren of all heavenly goods, void of consolation from above, empty of spiritual strength, bereft of the power of moral virtue, and stripped of the only indispensable provisions upon the earth: faith, hope, and love.

Atheism condemns poor man to perdition and leaves him standing alone as prey amidst life’s difficulties. Having removed love from within man, atheism subsequently deprives him of the love from others, and it isolates him from family, relatives, and friends. Atheism displaces any hope of a better future and replaces it with despair.

Atheism is awful! It is the worst of all spiritual illnesses!


Agrippa’s Trilemma aka Münchausen’s Trilemma

Whenever a proposition is asserted to be true, we can ask “how do we know this proposition is true?”

Agrippa’s Trilemma is one of the most ancient philosophical problems.  If one is challenged on the truth of a given assertion, one may attempt to demonstrate or prove one’s assertion to be true.  But any demonstration or proof which is given will make use of premises of which it may again be asked “Are they true?”  This generates a problem of proving one’s proofs or demonstrating one’s demonstrations, and results in the following trilemma, called Agrippa’s Trilemma:

  1. There is an infinite regress in which every demonstration requires a demonstration of its own, with the result that this never comes to an end, and so no demonstration is ever accomplished, nothing is demonstrated, and one merely arbitrarily stops at some point; or
  2. A circular demonstration is given in which something is ‘demonstrated’ to be true on the basis of its own truth or the assumption that it is true; or
  3. Demonstration comes to an end in one or more undemonstrated and indemonstrable axioms or first principles, the truth of which, because it is undemonstrated and indemonstrable, remains unknown, thus undermining the warrant of any demonstration made on the basis of such axioms or first principles.

Agrippa’s Trilemma is also sometimes called Münchausen’s Trilemma, after the legendary Baron Münchausen, who was able to free himself and his horse from a swamp in which they had become mired, by the expedient of pulling himself and his horse up and out by lifting himself by his own hair:


This technique, often called “bootstrapping” in English (from the idea of lifting oneself up by pulling on one’s own bootlaces), seems most akin to number 2 of Agrippa’s Trilemma, the circular demonstration, insofar as Baron Münchausen is both the lifter and the one being lifted at the same time.

The essential problem is that an infinite regress seems to undermine the possibility of any demonstration, a circular demonstration seems fallacious by its very nature, and any appeal to axioms or ἀρχαί (first principles) can be interpreted as arbitrary, because the legitimacy of the appeal cannot be demonstrated.

Is Agrippa’s Trilemma inescapable?

As with so many cases in philosophy, this is one of those limits of λόγος or discursive reason that thinking will run up against if pressed far enough. The best answer to it seems to be the kind of refutation that Aristotle calls retortion, which means “to turn something back on itself.” In this case, the poser of the Agrippa’s Trilemma seems to be assuming that demonstration or discursive proof is the standard of all truth-warrant, or even that “it is the case that we are caught in Agrippa’s Trilemma.”  But how does he know this to be true?

It seems entirely reasonable not to accept Agrippa’s Trilemma until it is demonstrated that it is a correct representation of our epistemological situation.  But how exactly does the proponent of the Agrippa’s Trilemma propose to demonstrate its validity as a representation of our epistemological situation without himself falling prey to it?

Either he can, or he cannot.

If he can, then Agrippa’s Trilemma is defeated by whatever means the proponent of Agrippa’s Trilemma uses to demonstrate it, which did not fall prey to it. But this cannot happen, since the Trilemma purports to show that all demonstration is impossible; thus a demonstration of the validity of the Trilemma would defeat itself (insofar is it would necessarily require a fourth method of demonstration, thus defeating the trilemma).

On the other hand, if the proponent of Agrippa’s Trilemma cannot demonstrate that it is a correct account of our epistemological situation, then we are justified in simply refusing to accept it, as something undemonstrated.  And so again, the Trilemma is defeated.

The classical answer, besides the argument to retortion showing that the Trilemma is self-defeating, is to hold that it reduces truth-warrant to demonstration, whereas there are other ways in which truth is warranted besides demonstration. As Aristotle puts it, “it is a sign of lack of education not to know of what one ought to seek a demonstration and what not”:


The classical answer, to which I adhere, is that in addition to λόγος or discursive reason, human beings also have the cognitive power of νοῦς or νόησις (Latin: intellectus) which is a kind of direct mental “seeing” of certain basic truths, which are self-evident.  “Self-evident” means something which to understand it and to understand that it is true are one and the same.  Note that self-evident does not mean “obvious.”  A thing might be difficult to understand and so not obvious immediately or to everyone, but still be such that, once understood, it is seen to be necessarily true (e.g. that the sum of the angles of a Euclidean triangle is equal to two right angles is self-evident, but not obvious).

Despite our possession of νοῦς, human cognition is nevertheless essentially discursive. The human νοῦς, according to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, is essentially connected to or entangled in λόγος or discursivity (and so to language and linear, temporal thinking-through or διάνοια), such that the human νοῦς ought to be regarded as much inferior to that of God.  Aristotle in de Anima calls the human νοῦς, “the so-called νοῦς,” as if it were almost not worthy of the name.  It is also worth noting that the Christian philosophical tradition holds that the human νοῦς is not merely finite or limited as compared to that of God, but has also been darkened or impaired or damaged by the Fall of Man; although it has not been erased or obliterated entirely.  Saint Paul’s expression at 1st Corinthians 13:12 is usually taken as a characterization of the human noetic condition

For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.

We see through a glass, darkly” seems not only a beautiful expression, but a true one. Human cognition is neither perfect nor blind. We are creatures that both by nature and our fallen state are “in-between” perfect knowledge and complete ignorance.

As Pascal says of humanity, “We know too much to be skeptics, and we know too little to be dogmatists.”


It seems, as always, all roads of merely human wisdom lead back to Socrates, whose human wisdom was the wisdom to know what he did not know, and the resultant endless search for the wisdom he did not have called philosophy.


Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time

As some of you know I have been involved in an argument on Twitter with one DrJ (@DrJ_WasTaken) concerning the usage of the term “fish.”  It began when he asserted that Geoffrey Chaucer was using the word “fish” (or “fissh”) wrongly, because Chaucer includes whales under the term “fish.”

I pointed out something I took to be something very obvious, that correctness and incorrectness in word usage is conventional, and is therefore contextual and relative to the community of language speakers of which one is a part.  The fact that many modern English speakers would not use the word “fish” in such a way as to include whales merely reflects a change in usage, where popular language has tended somewhat to conform to usage in science, in which whales, being mammals, would not be regarded as “fish.”

Although it is not actually clear that biologists use the word “fish” in any formal sense—”fish” is, at most, a paraphyletic classification, similar to “lizard” and “reptile.” That is to say, it based on phylogenetic ancestry, but includes a couple of arbitrary exclusions.  For example, here is a chart of the paraphyletic group Reptilia:


Reptilia (green field) is a paraphyletic group comprising all amniotes (Amniota) except for two subgroups Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds); therefore, Reptilia is not a clade. In contrast, Amniota itself is a clade, which is a monophyletic group.

In other words, “reptiles” seem to be defined as “all animals which are descended from the Amniota, with the (semi-)arbitrary exclusion of mammals and birds.”

There was once a Class Pisces, but this is no longer recognized as a valid biological class.  Nowadays, the biological use of “fish” seems to refer to three classes: Superclass Agnatha (jawless “fish”; e.g. lampreys and hagfish), Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous “fish”; e.g. rays, sharks, skates, chimaeras), and Class Osteichthyes (bony “fish”), but excluding Class Amphibia, Class Sauropsida, and Class Synapsida, although these all belong to the same clade.  So “fish”, like “reptile” is a paraphyletic classification. It includes some members of a clade but just leaves some other members out.  Here’s a chart:


I think this element of arbitrariness in the biological taxonomic classification of fish is important, and goes to substantiating my point about the flexibility of the usage of the word “fish.” In this case, the point is: the term “fish” even as used in contemporary biology is essentially arbitrary.  It involves drawing a line around certain kinds of living beings and saying “These are fish.”

The issue is that DrJ holds the position that, for any given English word, such as “fish,” there is one and only one absolutely correct usage of this word, that this correct usage is completely independent both of all historical context and of actual usage, and that any other usage of the word is, in some absolute way, INCORRECT or WRONG.

Thus, he maintains, that English speakers in Chaucer’s day, including Chaucer, were using the word “fish” wrongly, because they do not use it as modern scientists use it, which is the one, single, eternally correct way—even though, as I mention above, this modern “scientific” usage is essentially an arbitrary paraphyletic grouping.

This position generates what I take to be a number of absurdities, more than sufficient to refute the position by a reductio ad absurdum.  For example, it entails that in many cases, and definitely in the case of the word “fish,” whatever English speakers first coined the word “fish,” used the word they had created WRONGLY, the very instant they used it at all.  They had just now made a new word to name something, but they were ignorant of the fact that the word which they had just now created, really names something else—their intentions in creating the word notwithstanding.

Now, there are many natural facts about animals, e.g. that whales give live birth and so are mammals.  But “the correct name of this animal or animal kind in English” is not a natural fact.  I would have said that it is a social fact or a convention (which still seems correct to me).  But DrJ denies this.  He maintains that there are facts about the correctness of word usage which are neither natural facts nor conventions.

As a Platonist, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are such facts, non-natural facts,  for example, facts of logic or mathematics.  Logical facts and mathematical facts are neither natural or physical, because they are about things which are immaterial, nor are they conventional or social, since they are entirely objective.  I would not, however, have thought that English word meanings were the sorts of things about which there could be transcendent metaphysical facts outside time and space, not subject to the actual usage and conventions of English speakers. I had always taken it to be obvious that word usage was a convention or social fact.

I have spoken of DrJ’s belief in PLATONIC WORD-MEANING HEAVEN. I intended this term to show (what I take to be) the absurdity of his position, but I want to stress that it is LOGICALLY NECESSARY that he believe in something like this. If the CORRECT meaning of words is determined neither by nature nor by convention, it MUST necessarily have some kind of eternal, transcendent ground beyond convention and outside of nature—if not God, then at least something like Platonic Word-Meaning Heaven. I don’t care what he calls this transcendent ground beyond nature which determines eternal correct word meaning—all that matters to me is that he must believe in such a thing, because whatever it is (and perhaps he knows the one, true, eternally correct name for it?), this is what he is appealing to when he holds there is a standard of correctness for words which is non-conventional and above nature.  He cannot be, for example, appealing to the usage of modern biologists, because his claim JUST IS that this usage is eternally correct, and—he has been very clear on this point—it was correct in Chaucer’s day, before any actual English speaker used the word “fish” in this way—which is what enables him to say that Chaucer’s use of “fish” is incorrect, and that the use of “fish” by whichever English speakers who first used the word “fish” was equally incorrect.

We are not debating about HOW the word “fish” is used by modern biologists (although that might be interesting—it’s paraphyletic nature seems to add an ad hoc, arbitrary element, which makes his case that it is the one, true, eternally correct use even more suspect.)—we are discussing the grounds of DrJ’s claim that ONLY the use of the word “fish” by modern biologists is or can be CORRECT, and that any and all other uses, past, present, or future, are, necessarily, INCORRECT or WRONG.  It is very clear DrJ is maintaining that correctness in word-usage is in some way an eternal truth comparable to the truths of mathematics and logic.  I remain unconvinced by this claim, and have yet to see any good evidence offered for it, beyond a dogmatic insistence that it is so, ad nauseam.  But I want to know what his actual arguments are for this Platonic position on word-usage.  I am a Platonist, so he’s already got my concession that there are such things as eternal, non-physical, not-temporal standards (e.g. of math, logic, ethics, etc.).  I’m just not convinced that word usage is like that. Given the way that words vary among languages and the way they change meaning over time, it seems absurd to me to class word-meanings among the eternal objects—although of course we are forced to speak of eternal entities by means of temporal words, but that’s another story.

My suspicion is that he is continually confusing the USAGE OF A WORD TO REFER to some truth about the world with the REFERENT BEING REFERRED TO IN THE USAGE.  That is to say, I think he is doing the equivalent of confusing the natural fact that snow is white with the English sentence “snow is white.”  The fact of the color of snow is what it is, regardless of how that fact is EXPRESSED in English.  The very same fact can be expressed in German as “Schnee ist weiss.”  But the WORDS USAGE which expresses the fact is CONVENTIONAL.  Nothing in the fact of snow’s being white in any way entails that the stuff has to be called “snow” or the color called “white.”  These are arbitrary sounds that convention has linked with the frozen precipitate that falls from the sky and the color or tint which is a quality of said precipitate.

Plato’s Cratylus is devoted to the question of whether or not there are “true names” for things, or whether names are conventional.  Cratylus says there are true names, and Hermogenes holds they are conventional.  For SOME MAD REASON the two call upon Socrates to decide the matter—Socrates then proceeds to refute Cratylus and argues him into conceding that words are conventional, and before Hermogenes has time to gloat, Socrates turns on him, refutes him, and argues him into the position that there are true names for things.  And with the opponents having switched sides, and the question still unanswered, Socrates leaves. RULE OF LIFE: DO NOT ASK SOCRATES TO “SETTLE” AN ARGUMENT.

Anyway, I have a number of questions for DrJ that still remain unanswered, to wit:

1. What are the reasons for your belief in a transcendent ground which determines CORRECT word usage over and above actual historical usage? Can you demonstrate that such a Platonic realm of word meanings exists? Or that there are transcendent facts about word meaning in the same way or in a similar way that there are transcendent truths about mathematical entities and logical entities?

2. How do you access this transcendent place wherein the one true eternal correct word meanings of English are stored? I would like to know the true, eternally correct meanings of words, so I can use them properly.  How do I check which definition is the one, true, eternally correct one?  What sort of argument would demonstrate that usage X of a word is the ‘one, true, eternally correct’ one and usage Y is not?

3. If your thesis is true, why don’t linguists, who study language, recognize that it is true? Or if any linguists do maintain that there is one and only one eternally correct usage for any given English word, can you please give me their names?  And can you point me to their arguments as to why they think this is true?

4. If your thesis is true, why don’t lexicographers recognize it to be true? Why do dictionaries, at least every one I am familiar with, give more than one definition for some words? Are lexicographers unaware that there is and can be only one true correct meaning for each word? For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says of itself

The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry.

Why does the OED focus on “the varied and changing ways in which [a word] has been used” instead of on the “one, true, eternally correct meaning” of a word? Shouldn’t the one, true, correct meaning be regarded as more important than all the historically incorrect usages? Why does the OED speak as if multiple senses of one word are all valid, if this is (as you say) false? Or again, the OED says

What’s the difference between the OED and Oxford Dictionaries?

The OED and the dictionaries in ODO are themselves very different. While ODO focuses on the current language and practical usage, the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time.

Why does the OED think that word meanings change over time, when they are, in fact, static and fixed by your transcendent standard of correctness? Why do all dictionaries think this? Why have you not corrected the OED and the various other dictionaries on this extremely important point? Surely, if it is worth taking the time to explain to me on Twitter that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, it is worth explaining this to the OED and other dictionaries, so they can change their priorities.  Or can you point me to a dictionary whose policy is to give ONLY the one, true, eternally correct definition of each word?

5. If every English word has one, true, eternally correct meaning, does this go in reverse? Does every eternal meaning have only one true word to which in corresponds? Or do you hold that although there is only one, true, eternally correct meaning for each word, there can be arbitrarily many words (e.g. in other languages) that express this meaning?  In other words, is “fish” the one, true, eternally correct word to express the one, true eternally correct meaning of “fish,” so that all other languages are wrong to not use the English word “fish”? Is Chaucer’s “fissh” wrong? Is the German “Fisch” wrong? Are they “less wrong” than the French “poisson”? Is it always English words that are correct, so that all speakers of non-English languages are always using all words wrongly, just because they are not speaking the one, true, eternally correct language, English? Or are the true, eternally correct words divided among the various languages of the world?

It brief:

  1. What is your argument that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, such that all other uses are wrong?
  2. How do you access whatever supernatural eternal ground of word meanings there is wherein you find these eternal standards of correct word use?
  3. If you are correct, why don’t linguists acknowledge that you are correct?
  4. If you are correct, why don’t lexicographers acknowledge that you are correct?
  5. Are you saying that not only does every English word have one, true eternally correct meaning, but that every meaning has one, true, eternally correct word that expresses it?

Why the Dictionary Definition of Feminism Fails

Definitions depend on usage.  For example, anyone is free to stipulate the definition of any word.  One could, if one wanted to, define feminism as ‘the doctrine that women are fundamentally inferior to men and should serve them.’  This would certainly create an odd sort of ‘feminist,’ which is the main reason we try not to do that with important words.  Definitions are meant to make something clear.  Dictionary definitions are meant to make clear how a given word or term is actually used or has been used in a given language.

There are of course many dictionaries, and thus many “dictionary definitions” of feminism (and everything else), but this is the go-to one used in most public discourse on the internet, the one given by Google when you type “define feminism” into it:


Definition is something people do for a reason.  It is an action that has an end, namely,  to make clear the meaning or usage of the term being defined.  It is thus possible to fail in giving a definition, by failing to capture the actual usage of a term.  And like other human activities that aim at a definite end, definition has rules or guidelines; these rules are not compulsory rules, in the sense that “you morally ought to obey them,” but are similar to logical rules, in the sense that “if you violate these rules you will fail at your task”—whether that task be “making a valid argument” or “making a term clear in its usage.”

Briefly, the criteria of sound definition are

  1. A definition must be coextensive. It must catch every instance and exclude no instance of what is being defined.
  2. A definition must be unambiguous.  Ambiguous terms in a definition cause the meaning to be unclear.
  3. A definition must be concise, not lengthy.
  4. A definition must be positive, not negative.
  5. A definition must be literal, not metaphorical.
  6. A definition must be non-circular.

I grant that, as far as I can see, the “dictionary definition” of feminism meets criteria 3-6.

Where it fails are 1 and 2.

The first point is fairly clear, and it is why most people get very annoyed when feminists appeal to the dictionary definition of feminism.  It is annoying because they are very clearly NOT trying to explain what feminism IS, but trying to SELL IT to you by creating a false equivalence with something that sounds (and is) much better than feminism, viz. egalitarianism, as applied to the sexes.

This point  is so stupidly simple, it can be put in the form of a diagram that even a child can understand. I apologize for insulting your intelligence, but it really IS necessary to hammer this point home with this lack of subtlety—because the people who cite the dictionary definition aren’t even trying to be honest, it is necessary to rub their faces in how wrong they are:


This is the basic problem. The sets of “feminists” and “people who advocate for women’s rights on the basis of social, political, and economic equality with men” are just not coextensive.  Yes, they overlap somewhat, but there are very many feminists who do not advocate for equality, and very many people who do advocate for the equality of the sexes (and I am one of them) who are not feminists.  And the reason that so many of us advocates of women’s equality are NOT feminists, is precisely because so many feminists are NOT advocates of equality.

Since feminism (femin-ISM) is an ideology, and ideologies are belief-systems, no one can force anyone else to subscribe to an ideology against their will.  And yet, this is what those who cite the dictionary definition of feminism are trying to do: they are trying to FORCE you to self-identify as a feminist, on the basis of some of your beliefs, and they are trying to do it with a FALSE definition of feminism.  And one thing that is, or at least should be, anathema in a pluralistic liberal democracy is attempts to FORCE others to believe as you want them to believe.  In a free and democratic society,  we use PERSUASION rather than FORCE, and ideally, RATIONAL PERSUASION, which is different from COERCIVE PERSUASION and MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION.

To be clear, I was using “force you to identify as a feminists” in the looser sense of “coercively and manipulatively persuade you to.”  There have only been a few attempts to use genuine force (so far), as when a member of the E.U. Parliament attempted to make it a CRIME to criticize feminism.  And of course, governmental FORCE was what Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn were asking for when they went before the UN, asking that the UN put pressure on national governments to implement feminist ideology by law.  However benighted and ridiculous Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign was, at least she wasn’t advocating that the UN take steps to see her ideology implemented by force of law.

So, while most feminists would LOVE to use actual FORCE to punish anyone who dissents from their ideology, they usually don’t have the power to do this, except in limited areas.  Rejecting feminism will indeed get you fired as a matter of course at many colleges and universities in the United States, where feminist ideologues essentially control those institutions.

But let me explain why this is DISHONEST PERSUASION: it is (1) COERCIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists will do whatever is in their power to harm you if you do not agree with them, and it is (2) MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists deliberately distort the truth in order to sell and push their ideology.  The basic move in the appeal to the dictionary definition is an appeal to shame. In a highly egalitarian society such as ours, people are very vulnerable to being socially shamed if they hold anti-egalitarian views.  Feminists, by simply equating feminism with the egalitarian view in regard to the sexes, attempt to socially shame and stigmatize anyone who does not identify as a feminist or accept feminist ideology as being an anti-egalitarian or sexist.

This tactic is of course not limited to appeals to the dictionary; many feminists as a matter of course label anyone who disagrees with their ideological position as “sexist” or even “misogynist.” This is DISHONEST because it isn’t true.  Most people in the modern West are egalitarians with respect to the sexes—ironically, the largest group in the modern West of non-egalitarians with regard to the sexes are certain kinds of feminists, who are female supremacists.  So, a feminist tells a LIE (manipulative persuasion) by saying feminism and egalitarianism of the sexes are the same, and attempts on the basis of this lie to SHAME and STIGMATIZE you (coercive persuasion) for not being a feminist on the false basis that not being a feminist is equivalent to not being an egalitarian regarding the sexes, or worse, is being a sexist, or still worse, is being a misogynist.

All this seems pretty obvious.  I’m only bothering to spell it out because I enjoy laying things out clearly.

The SECOND reason the dictionary definition of feminism fails is that it is not unambiguous. The problem turns on the word “equality.”  As the philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, there is hardly a more important word in modern political discourse that is so entirely resistant to clear definition:


Almost everyone in the modern West is “for equality,” but at the same time is completely unable to say what it is, how we would get it, and why it’s so desirable in the first place.  Almost no one, in the West or anywhere else, thinks that people should be treated “equally” in every respect. Nor is it clear exactly what it even MEANS to “treat people equally” in many cases.

Which brings us back to the problem with using such an unclear term in a definition.  There are simply too many ways to take “equality” for the definition to actually make clear what it is talking about.  Let me give just two examples of why this is bad:

(1) Since one kind of equality is identity or sameness, a stupid person who desires “equality” will tend to desire what we could call exactly-the-same-ness.  The problem with this is the context of the sexes, is that men and women are NOT the same, but rather different in fundamental ways.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that they should be treated unequally in the sense of unfairly, but remember, this is the stupid person’s reasoning we are going through.  “The only way to achieve equality is by sameness,” the stupid person reasons, “so equality requires that men and women be treated the same, and even more, that they be made the same. And since it is a moral imperative that they be made the same, they must really be the same, metaphysically. So we must ignore any evidence of natural difference, for example, biology, and indeed more than ignore it, condemn it as sexist.”

Since stupid people tend to equate equality with sameness, they also tend to equate difference with inequality, and so a great deal of modern feminism, as an ideology, advocates biological denialism. MOST PEOPLE who are principled egalitarians and want to see justice between the sexes (which is most people) are NOT signing up for an ideology that requires them to deny biology and other inconvenient parts of reality.  The dictionary definition of feminism does nothing to rule out the interpretation of equality as exactly-the-same-ness, which entails biology denialism specifically and more generally reality denialism.

(2) This one is also fairly obvious, given that it has been a point of contention in the West at least since Rousseau and the French Revolution, although it is probably more associated in the popular mind with Marx and Marxism.  I am of course talking about the distinction between equality of opportunity, which holds there ought to be a “level playing field” in which no one “begins the game” with any unearned or unfair advantages or disadvantages, and that, so long as the game isn’t rigged, and the players play fairly, justice has been satisfied, even if the outcomes of the players may be widely different; and equality of outcome, which holds that the game must be rigged to ensure that no one wins or loses, and indeed, no matter what the players do or fail to do, they obtain exactly the same results in the game.

The trouble with the Marxist understanding of equality is that it is antithetical to the other primary modern Western value, freedom or liberty.  The classical-liberal view accepts inequality of outcome, because it values both equality and liberty. So once again, the dictionary definition of feminism fails to tell us whether a feminist is interested in preserving freedom and liberty, especially and including women’s freedom, or whether a feminist, in Marxist fashion, is an authoritarian or totalitarian who hates liberty because it results in a kind of inequality which is deemed unacceptable.  Most people in the modern West place a high value on liberty, and would not sign up for an ideology that is anti-liberty.  However, there is also a rather sizable and vocal feminist minority (perhaps even a majority, certainly a plurality) who are more than happy to sacrifice liberty for the sake of their (Marxist) vision of equality—most of them are delusional or catastrophically naïve, and advocate the suppression of liberty on the assumption that it will only be the liberties of others which will be restricted.

I’m sure that if Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn got the censorship laws they advocate put in place, they would expect not ever to be subject to them—but that isn’t how things work, when you give the state broad powers to censor and control.  For example, consider a case from the history of feminism itself: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, thwarted time and again in their attempts to implement censorship laws in the United States (they were repeated blocked by the First Amendment) eventually turned their efforts to Canada, which has no equivalent of the US’s First Amendment.  And they partially succeeded!  It became part of Canadian law that certain kinds of books could not be imported into Canada nor sold in Canadian bookstores. Really, they should have seen it coming.  Now, since the laws banned books that contain thing X, and MacKinnon and Dworkin write books about how awful a thing thing X is, it naturally follows that their books contain thing X—yes, it is there only in order to be condemned, but the law makes no distinction between various uses of thing X.  So, to their surprise and horror, MacKinnon and Dworkin found that they had succeeded in banning their own books in Canada and among the most affected by the new censorship laws were feminist bookstores and publishers, who found they could no longer publish or sell feminist books thanks to the new feminist censorship law. Feminism had gotten what it had asked for, and it had succeeded in censoring itself!

In sum, the dictionary definition of feminism fails as a useful definition because it asserts something false to actual usage, namely, the identity of feminism and egalitarianism regarding the sexes—and it does this dishonestly, as a technique to coerce and manipulate by means of appeals to shame made on the basis of this conflation; furthermore, it fails to sufficiently make clear what “feminism” even means, with the result that entire point of giving a definition, to make the meaning of a word clear, is not achieved.

I could talk about some other things, such as the inherent sexism involved in term itself,


but that is more of a meta-criticism of the term “feminism” than the failure of the dictionary definition of it.  So let this be enough for now.

I’ll leave you with a link to Satoshi Kanazawa’s article Why Modern Feminism is Illogical, Unnecessary, and Evil.  Read it and think it over.

The Hymn of Cleanthes the Stoic

Cleanthes of Assos (331-233 B.C.) was the disciple and successor of Zeno as head of the Stoic school.

Most glorious of immortals, Zeus
The many named, almighty evermore,
Nature’s great Sovereign, ruling all by law
Hail to thee! On thee ’tis meet and right
That mortals everywhere should call.
From thee was our begetting; ours alone
Of all that live and move upon the earth
The lot to bear God’s likeness.
Thee will I ever chant, thy power praise!

For thee this whole vast cosmos, wheeling round
The earth, obeys, and where thou leadest
It follows, ruled willingly by thee.
In thy unconquerable hands thou holdest fast,
Ready prepared, that two-timed flaming blast,
The ever-living thunderbolt:
Nature’s own stroke brings all things to their end.
By it thou guidest aright the sense instinct
Which spreads through all things, mingled even
With stars in heaven, the great and small—
Thou who art King supreme for evermore!

Naught upon earth is wrought in thy despite, 0 God.
Nor in the ethereal sphere aloft which ever winds
About its pole, nor in the sea—save only what
The wicked work, in their strange madness,
Yet even so, thou knowest to make the crooked straight.
Prune all excess, give order to the orderless,
For unto thee the unloved still is lovely—
And thus in one all things are harmonized.
The evil with the good, that so one Word
Should be in all things everlastingly.
One Word—which evermore the wicked flee!
Ill-fated, hungering to possess the good
They have no vision of God’s universal law,
Nor will they hear, though if obedient in mind
They might obtain a noble life, true wealth.
Instead they rush unthinking after ill:
Some with a shameless zeal for fame,
Others pursuing gain, disorderly;
Still others folly, or pleasures of the flesh.
[But evils are their lot] and other times
Bring other harvests, all unsought—
For all their great desire, its opposite!

But, Zeus, thou giver of every gift,
Who dwellest within the dark clouds, wielding still
The flashing stroke of lightning, save, we pray,
Thy children from this boundless misery.
Scatter, 0 Father, the darkness from their souls,
Grant them to find true understanding
On which relying thou justly rulest all—
While we, thus honoured, in turn will honour thee,
Hymning thy works forever, as is meet
For mortals while no greater right
Belongs even to the gods than evermore
Justly to praise the universal law!

The Rationality of Christian Faith

Contemporary atheists are fond of defining faith as “belief without evidence.”

This is not the Christian understanding of the concept, and I don’t know of any other religion that makes faith central in the way Christianity does, so it isn’t clear what their target is.  Islam perhaps?

As an argument, it is roughly on a par with defining mathematics as “absurd,” defining empirical observation as “utterly unreliable,” and going on to deduce that the scientific method is based on absurd and utterly unreliable things, and (the argument continues) anyone who trusts in science as a source of knowledge must be a very foolish person, since he places his trust in a method based completely on things which are absurd and utterly unreliable. Let us all laugh at such a fool.

The Christian understanding of faith is expressed directly, if somewhat cryptically, in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων·

This is one of the fairly rare passages where the King James Version seems to be really the best translation into English.

I want to note in particular the word ἔλεγχος which is here translated as evidence. This is an entirely legitimate translation of ἔλεγχος—which means “proof” or more precisely, “that whereby something is proven.” ἔλεγχος is what Socrates engages in.  It is what happens in courts of law during a trial (a trying; a testing).  ἔλεγχος is submitting something to a process of rigorous testing and examination.

In short, the Christian understanding of faith is so far from the stock atheistic trope of “belief without evidence,” or “belief completely without any rational foundation” that it has a word which means both evidence and rigorous testing and examination built into it.

It is a very odd modern superstition which modern atheists are especially prone to (and I have found atheists to be among the most superstitious of human beings) that human beings in ancient times were somehow extraordinarily, even inhumanly, credulous, and would more or less believe anything they were told.  Not only is there no evidence for such a belief, there is plenty of evidence that human beings in ancient times were no more or less credulous than human beings today.

David Hume, that incorrigible skeptic, writes in a justly famous passage in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter.

To think the ancients more credulous than human beings are today is unfounded and absurd.  Yes, some of them were credulous and went in for belief in absurd cults and fad ideas—phenomena we see around us all the time today.  I note, as an example, that a significant portion of the GDP of Nigeria comes from the so-called 419 scams, in which Westerners are emailed a notice claiming they have inherited millions of dollars, and all they need do to become rich is send their back account number to the “lawyer” sending the email—people fall for this obvious scam by the thousands; you yourself have almost certainly gotten multiple versions of these emails. Tell me again how “modern Westerners” are no longer gullible thanks to science or the Enlightenment?

And some of the ancients, the educated, were extremely skeptical and critical (“skeptical” and “critical” both being Greek words and concepts, after all).  They were certainly well aware that when one man or group says “This is so” and another man or group says “It is not so,” that it is necessary to test the claims of each, to rigorously examine them, and only then make a judgment about who is speaking truly.  This is what an ἔλεγχος IS.

Now it is true that Christians are called upon to believe in things which are not testable or verifiable by any ordinary means at the disposal of human beings.  Some matters concerning the nature of God and matters concerning, for example, the future state of things, exceed our human powers to know or to test directly.

But consider the following:

  1. I know that God exists; indeed more than exists, God is existence itself;
  2. I know that God is all-good; indeed more than all-good, God is goodness itself;
  3. I know that God is loving; indeed more than loving, God is love itself;
  4. I know that God is all-knowing; indeed more than all-knowing, God is truth itself.
  5. I know that God is all-trustworthy; indeed more than trustworthy, God is fidelity itself.
  6. God has revealed certain things (πράγματα) to human beings as true things, which I have no independent way to test or verify, since they exceed the cognitive powers of human beings.

These things, in number 6, are the matters to which faith pertains when it plays a cognitive role. Faith, as a supernatural virtue, particularly means an attitude or stance or comportment towards God—the best term would really be the German Verhältnis, which has only the disadvantage being a German, and not an English, word. Faith, first and foremost, is NOT a cognitive word synonymous with belief.  This is made very clear in the Epistle of James 2:19:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble.

σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι εἷς ἐστιν ὁ θεός; καλῶς ποιεῖς· καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσιν καὶ φρίσσουσιν.

Faith, πίστις, is however a word in the same linguistic ballpark as “belief”, πιστεύειν—but it is something more than mere belief.  As we are told by St. James, even the demons believe in God.  We can put it more strongly: the demons know that God exists, but they certainly do not have faith in God. Faith, therefore, is not primarily something that has to do with knowing or believing.

While it is necessary to emphasize that Christian faith, πίστις, is not primarily a cognitive word, it is not without a cognitive dimension.  It is, in one of its aspects, a holding something to be true, an assenting of the will to certain things as true, on the basis of one’s trust in God’s revelation of these things.

Knowledge is warranted true belief.  Suppose I come to believe certain divinely revealed truths to be true just on the basis of this revelation.  The basic question is: am I warranted in forming and holding such beliefs?

In ordinary human circumstances, report or testimony is at least partially warrant-conferring. We believe much of what we do about the past, for instance, on the basis of indirect testimony of those who were alive and present at the time.  We admit the testimony of witnesses as a basic kind of evidence used in trials of law.  Almost all of our scientific knowledge is something we take on trust of our science teachers—we are not in a position, after all, to directly verify such things ourselves via our own observation and experiment.  Just to take an obvious example, how many of the ~8 billion human beings has access to make use of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which one would need to “verify” some of the basic claims of particle physics? Do the scientists who do have access to it have the engineering skills or knowledge to “verify” that it has been designed properly? It is very obvious that the great majority of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is taken on trust—and if one wish to answer “But such knowledge can be verified in principle!”—well, unless you have in fact verified it all, that too is something you take on trust.

At the same time, common human prudence cautions us against taking all human testimony at face value. Why? Human beings are known by us sometimes to be mistaken, sometimes to lie, or for some other reason, give false reports and false testimony.  So it is wise and prudent to take testimony and report as not fully warrant-conferring—although it would be foolish to dismiss testimony and report as if they could never be warrant-conferring.  As an analogy to testimony, we regularly warrant many beliefs on the basis of our senses, such as sight, while being aware we are subject to various sorts of optical illusions, hallucinations, distortions, varying environmental and lighting conditions, blind spots, and so on. It would be manifestly foolish to hold that sense perception can never be warrant-conferring on a belief, on the grounds that sense perception is not infallible.

In this light, consider my six points above.  Is a report or revelation from God warrant-conferring? Am I rationally warranted in believing such a report or revelation? Is a divine revelation truth-warranting for a belief?

I cannot honestly see how I am not rationally warranted in forming and holding beliefs on this basis.

The normal objections which would make a report from another not fully warrant-conferring, that he might be mistaken or deceptive or ignorant of the full picture, etc., can none of them apply to God.  Since God is all-knowing and all-truthful and all-trustworthy, what reason could be adduced that belief in something revealed by God is rationally unwarranted?  To believe the word of a being who is all-knowing, all-truthful, and all-trustworthy is, as far as I can tell, the best and strongest kinds of warrant for belief one could have.

An atheist will of course say that I do not know propositions 1-5, which I claim that I do know. But that is really immaterial in this context.  The point remains that IF I know 1-5 (which is really the same as knowing 1 only, since 2-5 follow from it), THEN faith or πίστις as Christians understand that term IS properly cognitively warrant-conferring.  An atheist, as I have noted elsewhere, would have to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that there is no God, to show that God is an insufficient basis for knowledge.

And since knowledge just is warranted true belief, and faith is properly warrant-conferring, faith is a source not merely of belief, but of knowledge.

This is as far from “blind belief without evidence” as it is possible to get. It is the opposite, the antipodes, of that.

Far from being irrational belief without evidence, Christian faith constitutes fully rationally warranted knowledge.  The charge that Christian belief is irrational is true only in the following limited and specific sense: Christians know some things which are in themselves above reason, and so beyond the power of human reason to directly ascertain or verify, but in which they are fully rationally warranted in believing.   The charge that Christian belief is irrational in the sense of being rationally unwarranted belief is simply false

At most, an atheist would be able to claim something to the effect that “Nothing can be warrant-conferring that human cognition is unable to verify for itself,”—but this will leave the atheist in the impossible position of having to verify this principle, something that cannot be done.  Christians need not be impressed or concerned when the only objections advanced against them are unwarranted and self-defeating claims.

Again, I am aware that an atheist will attempt to challenge the warrant-conditions of faith, but—and this point is crucial—he cannot do so in a non-question-begging way, unless and until he has established that there is no God.  That is, until he has demonstrated the truth of atheism in the traditional sense of belief in the proposition that there is no God.  This is so because the existence or non-existence of God is not a matter which leaves the epistemic landscape unchanged; the very nature of warrant will differ depending on this question, so it cannot be prescinded from in favor of purely epistemological arguments which, for now, table the ontological question of the existence of God.  I write this paragraph merely as a reminder of this, because it is such an important point; I have discussed this point elsewhere in Atheists Cannot Evade the Existence Question, which I invite you to read if you haven’t.

EXCERPT: G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man

G. K. Chesterton’s prose and quick intellect never fail to move me.  This is an excerpt from his The Everlasting Man, a book that I understand was instrumental in C. S. Lewis’ conversion.  Chesterton’s writing is so powerful it almost makes ME want to convert to Christianity—even though I already did!


All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.

In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst. That is what really shows us the world at its worst. It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization. Rome, the legend, founded upon fallen Troy and triumphant over fallen Carthage, had stood for a heroism which was the nearest that any pagan ever came to chivalry. Rome had defended the household gods and the human decencies against the ogres of Africa and the hermaphrodite monstrosities of Greece. But in the lightning flash of this incident, we see great Rome, the imperial republic, going downward under her Lucretian doom. Skepticism has eaten away even the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world. He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask: ‘What is truth?’ So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role. Rome was almost another name for responsibility. Yet he stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible. Man could do no more. Even the practical had become the impracticable. Standing between the pillars of his own judgement-seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world.

There too were the priests of that pure and original truth that was behind all the mythologies like the sky behind the clouds. It was the most important truth in the world; and even that could not save the world. Perhaps there is something overpowering in pure personal theism; like seeing the sun and moon and sky come together to form one staring face. Perhaps the truth is too tremendous when not broken by some intermediaries divine or human; perhaps it is merely too pure and far away. Anyhow it could not save the world; it could not even conquer the world. There were philosophers who held it in its highest and noblest form; but they not only could not convert the world, but they never tried. You could no more fight the jungle of popular mythology with a private opinion than you could clear away a forest with a pocket-knife.

The Jewish priests had guarded it jealously in the good and the bad sense. They had kept it as a gigantic secret. As savage heroes might have kept the sun in a box, they kept the Everlasting in the tabernacle. They were proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity; and they did not know that they had themselves gone blind. Since that day their representatives have been like blind men in broad daylight, striking to right and left with their staffs, and cursing the darkness. But there has been that in their monumental monotheism that it has at least remained like a monument, the last thing of its kind, and in a sense motionless in the more restless world which it cannot satisfy. For it is certain that for some reason it cannot satisfy. Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.

And as it was with these powers that were good, or at least had once been good, so it was with the element which was perhaps the best, or which Christ himself seems certainly to have felt as the best. The poor to whom he preached the good news, the common people who heard him gladly, the populace that had made so many popular heroes and demigods in the old pagan world, showed also the weaknesses that were dissolving the world. They suffered the evils often seen in the mob of the city, and especially the mob of the capital, during the decline of a society. The same thing that makes the rural population live on tradition makes the urban population live on rumor. Just as its myths at the best had been irrational, so its likes and dislikes are easily changed by baseless assertion that is arbitrary without being authoritative. Some brigand or other was artificially turned into a picturesque and popular figure and run as a kind of candidate against Christ. In all this we recognize the urban population that we know, with its newspaper scares and scoops. But there was present in this ancient population an evil more peculiar to the ancient world. We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned. It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing. The cry of this spirit also was heard in that hour, ‘It is well that one man die for the people.’ Yet this spirit in antiquity of devotion to the city and to the state had also been in itself and in its time a noble spirit. It had its poets and its martyrs; men still to be honored for ever. It was failing through its weakness in not seeing the separate soul of a man, the shrine of all mysticism; but it was only failing as everything else was failing. The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself

Last night, I had the distinct displeasure of having one of the stupidest arguments I have ever had on Twitter.

It concern Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of the word “fish.” Or more precisely, fissh, as in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales:

An housholdere, and that a greet, was he;
Seint Julian was he in his contree.
His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon,
A bettre envyned man was nowher noon.
Withoute bake mete was nevere his hous
Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentevous,
It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke,
Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke.
After the sondry sesons of the yeer,
So chaunged he his mete and his soper.
Ful many a fat partrich hadde he in muwe,
And many a breem and many a luce in stuwe.
Wo was his cook, but if his sauce were
Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his geere.
His table dormant in his halle alway
Stood redy covered al the longe day.

You see, in Chaucer’s usage, the word “fish” (or “fissh”) includes the animals that we and he call “whales,” as when the Summoner in the The Summoner’s Tale says

My thynketh they been lyk Jovinyan,
Fat as a whale, and walkynge as a swan…

Chaucer was quite aware that whales are very big animals.  “Fat as a whale” is such an obvious trope that no one should be surprised to find it in Chaucer—and I’m sure it was already old in his Middle English.

The argument was on this point: My opponents contended that Chaucer’s used of the word “fish” was WRONG.

They kept making endless version of the point that whales are a very different kind of animal than the aquatic, cold-blooded, gill-having, vertebrates that contemporary biologists today call “fish.”  And these are all obvious points with which I have no quarrel.

My quarrel was that this somehow entails that Chaucer was using the word “fish” incorrectly by applying it to whales.

Almost all natural languages develop, for obvious reasons, a word that means “animal,” and also words than mean, roughly, “aquatic animal,” “terrestrial animal,” and “avian or flying animal.”  For example, in Hebrew, these would be dag, behema, and oit, respectively.

In English, these would be roughly “fish,” “beast,” and “bird.”  This is why, incidentally, some English translations of the Hebrew scriptures include bats in a list of “birds.” Because the word is actually oit and oit means “flying animal,” and bats certainly are appropriately put on a list of flying animals.  Anyone thinking that there is some sort of classification error here, because “bats aren’t birds” is a bit dim, apparently thinking that “bird” has one and only one meaning, inscribed in some Platonic heaven of English Word Meanings or that, somehow, “animals that can fly” is not a real category that is really true of some animals and not others. (In the American South, where I have lived, mosquitos are sometimes called “birds” for instance. And in British English, a woman is “a bird.”  Weird, right? How the British call chicks “birds”?)

The point here, of course, is that “aquatic animals” is a perfectly reasonable categorization, and the word “fish” does that work nicely.  If, as has happened, a certain community, say of biologists, want to change the meaning of the word to mean only “aquatic animals that are cold-blooded, gill-having vertebrates,” they may certainly do so.  But while such a reclassification of animals and a redefinition of a word may be useful, there  is no sense in saying that it is RIGHT and that the old use was WRONG.

One can invite a person to accept the new definition and to start using the word the new way and stop using the old way, but one cannot MAKE people do this, especially not on the grounds that the old—and therefore established by actual usage—way of using a word is WRONG.  This is absurd.  There is simply no court of appeal concerning the RIGHT or WRONG usage of words BESIDES actual usage.

Lexicographers know this.  When one writes a dictionary, one looks at all the meanings the a given word actually has in usage (as well as those it formerly had, if one is being thorough) and then writes them down.  That’s all.  Dictionaries are RECORDS OF USAGE, and nothing else.

Take, for example, the word “lit”, used as an adjective. What does it mean to call something “lit”?

As an academic, I have free access to the O.E.D., so here it is


So, “lit” means either “illuminated” or “intoxicated.” Note that the meaning of “drunk” or “intoxicated” started only around 1914.  Wouldn’t someone be a bit of an idiot to go around screaming that “lit” DOESN’T MEAN “intoxicated”, that THIS USAGE IS WRONG, that it means ONLY “illuminated” and that everyone has to STOP USING THE WORD TO MEAN “intoxicated”?  A similar or the same idiot might do the same thing with the word “gay,” screaming himself hoarse about how the word “gay” doesn’t MEAN “homosexual” but “merry” and that anyone using the word “gay” to mean “homosexual” is USING THE WORD WRONG.

Of course, the O.E.D, stodgy and British as it is, is behind the times.  “Lit” has been extended past “intoxicated,” (although it still means that ) to meaning something like “really cool” or “fucking amazing.” But let’s go to the Urban Dictionary, which has the advantage of being “real time”: of the top 4 definitions of “lit”, two are “intoxicated” and here are the other two:



There we go. If something is “fucking amazing in any sense” you can call it “lit.”

Those of my generation will remember “radical” and “rad.” Go back a bit and you’ll find “groovy.” Those of my parent’s generation will remember “cool” (which is still with us).  Before that, “hip,” which has made a semi-comeback in term “hipster.”

Pretty much every generation has several words that mean this.  Sometimes the word lasts, sometimes it doesn’t.

The 1920’s gave us “nifty”, “swell,” and “Jake” for awesome. “Jake” seems gone. “Nifty” is still around, but seems much weaker. (I don’t think something merely “nifty” would count today as “lit”).

The 1920’s also gave us “knocked up” as a term for “pregnant,” so that we Americans now usually laugh when we read in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the sentence

The first division of their journey occupied a long day, and brought them, almost knocked up, to Oxford.

In British English, “knocked up” means “exhausted” not “pregnant.” I think it morphed into the slang term “knackered,” but I’m not 100% on that one.

Then there is my other favorite sentence of this kind from Jane Austen.  In Emma, we read

To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her.

“Making violent love to her”? WTF? Does Jane Austen have RAPE SCENE? No, obviously not. “Violently” here means “with great passion” and “make love” means “profess his feelings for her.”

The point of all these is the same: “knocked up” can mean either “pregnant” or “exhausted.” There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.  “Make love” can mean “have sex” or it can mean “express one’s feelings of love.”  There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.  “Lit” can mean “illuminated,” “on fire,” “intoxicated” or “fucking amazing.” There is no ONE TRUE MEANING.


Naturally this goes for the word “fish” as well, or “fissh” as the case may be.  There is simply no logical path from

(1) Some or most people today use this word to mean X.

(2) Therefore, anyone who ever did or does use the word to mean Y is WRONG.

The most “wrong” can ever mean in the context of usage is “unconventional,” and if the conventions change, if the new use catches on, it won’t be “wrong” even in that sense.  No one (to my knowledge) still uses the word “gay” to mean “merry” except in some fixed phrases in hold songs like “we’ll have a gay old time.”  “Gay” means either “homosexual” or “a male homosexual” (knock yourself out if you want to argue over whether or not lesbians are “gay”) or “lame.”  Of course, the PC police go into ecstasies of indignation at anyone who uses the word “gay” to mean “lame” or “something that sucks,” but PC speech police can go fuck themselves.

And the same applies to Sperg language police, as I shall call these autistic morons who believe in PLATONIC WORD HEAVEN were words have only ONE TRUE MEANING (which is always the meaning they like, somehow, just like the PC speech police).   They can also go fuck themselves, as far as I’m concerned.

If they want to fuck off somewhere they might learn something about language, I suggest reading section one of Scott Alexander’s THE CATEGORIES WERE MADE FOR MAN, NOT MAN FOR THE CATEGORIES.  If they don’t want to learn anything, it makes no difference to me, so long as they do fuck off.