Monday, July 27, 2015

Writers and the Power of Definition II


Donn Taylor

            In the first blog I wrote about definition I concluded that "in these days of hostility toward Christianity, Christian writers must guard against accepting definitions from the popular culture, lest they lose the cultural battle before they begin." In this follow-up blog I'll discuss one instance of this happening as well as suggesting a solution to that problem.

            Blogging for NY Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer explained "Why Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts" ( He traced the problem to two definitions from Common Core educational materials used in his son's second grade class. (He found that the same definitions pervaded other Common Core materials.) These definitions are:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

            McBrayer explained that some things may be true (e.g., life on other planets) without anyone's being able to prove them, and that many things regarded as "proved" have turned out to be false. He concludes that "It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives)." Worse than that, though, students are taught that the two categories are mutually exclusive. When McBrayer's son said it was a fact that George Washington was the first U.S. president, McBrayer puzzled him by asking if it became an opinion if he believed it. In Common Core on-line worksheets, McBrayer found that statements like "All men are created equal" and "Copying homework assignments is wrong" were categorized as opinions, with the explanation that "all value statements are opinions."
            His overall point is that those definitions deny that there are any moral facts. Consequently, statements like the Ten Commandments are merely opinions. I personally would go yet further: That definition of fact makes all statements about love, art, and religion mere matters of opinion. For example, there is no absolute test to prove that your spouse loves you. Yet many if not most married persons find that particular love the most basic fact of their lives.

            Other definitions are more accurate and more useful.

            Some years ago, semanticist (and later Senator) S.I. Hayakawa categorized statements in an essay titled "Reports, Inferences, Judgments." He defines a "report" as any statement that can be verified, such as "Victoria Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world." The statement is verifiable, though we may not have the means to verify it. Further, a "report" can be false: "The boiling point of water at sea level is 180 degrees Fahrenheit." (As we all know, it is actually 212 degrees.)
            Hayakawa's categories avoid the Common Core's ultimately propagandistic dichotomy of fact vs. opinion. The important thing to Hayakawa is to recognize a statement as verifiable or not verifiable. He goes on to distinguish the "report" from an "inference," which is "a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known." His examples include inferring a man's occupation by the calluses on his hands. Inferences may be useful or not, depending on the qualifications of the person making the inference. My personal inferences about the stock market would be useless, while those about light aircraft would be fairly accurate.

            Hayakawa defines "judgments" as statements that include approval or disapproval. Stating "It's a wonderful car" is a judgment, but stating the miles driven without requiring repairs is a report. He summarizes by saying that "the language of reports…enables us to get work done," and it is therefore necessary to distinguish reports from inferences and judgments.
            In using Hayakawa's categories for decades, especially in evaluating political statements, I have found them to be not only useful, but vital to genuine understanding. (They are also a mental challenge, guaranteed to sharpen one's appreciation of language.)
            What does all this mean to writers? Definition is power. McBrayer's discussion showed how an inadequate definition made it impossible to accept the possibility that moral facts exist. In contrast, Hayakawa's definitions (especially that of "reports") allow moral facts to exist, and they provide reasonable ways of discussing and evaluating them.
            As I said in Part I, Christian writers must "in these days of hostility toward Christianity…guard against accepting definitions from the popular culture, lest they lose the cultural battle before they begin."

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