“The reason that you can currently make toast without doing great damage is just that your toaster is stupid.”

“Can ‘stupid’ be correctly applied to toasters?”


“What if I say no?”

“Well, if you have a conception of stupidity that can’t be applied to toasters, and one that can, why would you choose the one that can’t?”

“But I don’t have two—I’m talking about the actual concept”

“There isn’t an actual concept, there are a bajillion concepts, and you can use whichever one you want.”

“There’s one that people mean”

“Not really—each person has a slightly different usage, and probably hasn’t pinned it down. For instance if you ask them if toasters are stupid, they might be unsure.”

“Yes! They are unsure because they are trying to guess what the real concept is, from their limited collection of exposures to it. If it were about making one up, why would they be uncertain?”

“They might be uncertain which one they want to make up”

“You’re saying when people say words, they are ascribing meanings to them that they just made up, according to which definition they like most?”

“Well, they like definitions that fit with other people’s usage a lot more than other ones.”

“I think they are just guessing what the real meaning is”

“There isn’t a real meaning”

“Ok, what the consensus meaning is”

“There isn’t a consensus”

“Yeah but they believe there is one”

“You’re like a word meaning nihilist—you want only these ‘real’ word meanings or at least these word meanings of consensus, yet you know they don’t exist. That seems sad.”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And also, I was talking about what other people do.”

“What does it matter what other people do? You can use whatever meanings you want.”

“That seems unfriendly somehow”

“What if you do it in a friendly way? For instance, where a meaning is ambiguous, if you choose the best one. For instance, if you say toasters can be stupid?”

“It’s more a vibe of do-it-alone responsibility for everything, thinking of others as machinery that happens to be near you, that rings my alarm bells. Leaving the common experience of word usage to stand outside the system, as it were, and push the common stock of concepts in the way that you calculate best. At least it seems somehow lonely and cold”

“That’s a bit dramatic - I think the odd nudge in a good direction is well within the normal human experience of word usage. Plus, often people clearly redefine words somewhat in the context of a specific conversation. Would it be so strange if within our conversation we deemed ‘stupid’ applicable to toasters? Not doing so seems like it will only limit our discussion and edge us toward taking up some further concept like shmoopid to fill the gap.”

“It’s not clear at all to me that that is the only bad consequence at stake. For instance, words have all kinds of connotations besides what you explicitly think of them as about. If you just declare that stupid applies to toasters, then try to use it, you’ll doubtless be saying all kinds of things about toasters that you don’t mean. For instance, that that they are mildly reprehensible, and that you don’t like them.”

“I don’t know if I would have used it if I didn’t implicitly accept the associations, and this is a risk one seems to always run in using words, even when you would deem them to apply.”

“Hmm. Ok, maybe. This sounds like a lot of work though, and I have done ok not thinking about using my influence over words until this day.”

“You think you have done ok, but word meanings are a giant tragedy of the commons. You might have done untold damage. We know that interesting concepts are endlessly watered down by exaggerators and attention seekers choosing incrementally wider categories at every ambiguity. That kind of thing might be going on all over the place. Maybe we just don’t know what words could be, if we were trying to do them well, instead of everyone being out to advance their own utterings.”