By Any Other Name? The Manipulative Metaphysics of Redefinition

“Redefining” is a very modern term. One can read hundreds of articles about how things are being redefined, marriage being the hottest button issue of them all. But what does redefining something mean? What does it imply?

In the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, Juliet utters that famous remark, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Yes, if we were to call a rose by another name, it would still be what it is. But what if we were also to group, under the name “rose,” other things?

What if what we now call “ragweed” were also to be called “rose”? Then we would have essentially redefined “rose,” not merely renamed it. Its definition would have to be rewritten; its essential traits would be reclassified.

Yes, if Romeo’s surname were Capulet, Juliet would still love him. But what if the name “Romeo” designated both what it formerly did and also Juliet’s nurse? That’s another matter.


Renaming vs. Redefining

Redefinition is a dangerous game. A rose by another name may smell as sweet. But sweetness is not automatically a trait of anything we redefine to be a “rose.”

There is a very important difference between renaming something and redefining it. In the first case, one merely changes a label. A few years back, the “Brooklyn-Queens Expressway” became the “Jackie Robinson Expressway” by mayoral decree and for the cost of signage. That’s it (though I think such a great player deserves to be honored with a much safer road and fewer potholes).

But redefining is something else. As the word’s etymology (finis = border) suggests, the borders are redrawn. The confines are widened or narrowed. It implies that what a word denotes either expands or contracts. Like a modern insurance policy, what the word’s premium covers is in flux and can be renegotiated at whim.

Speaking of insurance, a recent article claims that “Health and Human Services Secretary [Kathleen Sebelius] doesn’t understand what insurance is.” But the article’s real beef is not a lack of understanding of insurance, but its redefinition. “Catastrophic coverage is ‘true insurance.’ Coverage of routine, predictable services is not insurance at all; it’s a spectacularly inefficient prepayment plan.”

The author’s real contention is not that Sebelius grasps at straws when confronted with the concept of insurance, but that she uses the word in a much wider understanding than the author believes is accurate.

But this shows the immense power that redefining a term has. There is a sort of eminent domain that can occur when we allow a word to expand its territory beyond what it has covered in the past.


Redefinition Implies Dominion and Ownership

It can be downright confusing — like if we were to group any milk-plus-flavoring beverage under the term “chocolate milk” — but it can also be downright manipulative. By exerting the power of redefinition, we assert our power to control something. It implies a type of dominion and ownership.

In the Book of Genesis, Adam named the animals. This has traditionally been seen as a way of showing his dominion over them. In the film Major League II, when Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” character is about to throw his best pitch, he says, “Here comes the ‘Terminator.’ If you get a piece of it, you can rename it.”

A real question, when faced with redefinition, is whether we truly have the power to redefine. Nabisco owns Oreos. The powers that be at Nabisco can decide whether the name covers Double Stuf Oreos, traditional Oreos or whatever else they choose. Their main concern would only be public perception and not to confuse their brand through marketing. It could hurt sales for them to suddenly name all of their cookies “Oreos.”

But when Iraq, back in the ’90s, redefined its borders as including what most other people called the sovereign state of Kuwait, there was a war questioning whether that was a valid claim.


Redefinition and Metaphysics

And yet, in today’s hot-button issues like abortion (does the term “a human life” include a fetus?) and marriage (should the word be expanded to include same-sex couples?) what is at stake goes even further beyond the power to redefine. What is ultimately at issue is if there is any underlying reality at all.

In order for you to understand this article, the words need to mean the same thing for you who read and for me who writes. Speaking the same language means that people who share “our language” should be able to understand our words. The words, therefore, are universal for anyone of our language.

But why does “dog” mean the same for you and for me? Is it just because we have been handed down a word or because we both have the experience of the same reality, in which we both call a furry pet that isn’t a cat a “dog”? Philosophers have spoken a lot about this issue, and (leaving Plato and his followers to one side for a bit) there are basically two big camps. They differ in their metaphysics (their philosophy of what is real).

“Realists” would say that there is something universal about the reality of a dog: that you and I and someone 200 years ago have the same mental experience when we understand that a dog is in front of us, whether we call it a “dog” or a “perro” or a “hund.” The universality, so to speak, is in the thing.

“Nominalists” would say that what is universal is the name, not the thing. We just agree to call it a “dog,” but nothing beyond the name is guaranteed common to our experience. For all I know, you may see what I call a “rabbit,” but we both call it “dog,” and somehow life works.

What I am getting at, in an admittedly roundabout fashion, is that redefinition implies a nominalist way of seeing the world. We give ourselves the power to redefine things when we basically say that there is no underlying reality that forces its own borders on us. We have the power to move the stakes wherever we want. Reality is whatever we say it is. We can manipulate it at will.

I can call “chocolate milk” whatever I like. If you call it “café latte,” so be it. I can call it whatever I like.

If you’re a nominalist, you just have to be good at marketing, and your battle is making everyone use the term you use.


Redefinition and Respect

Personally, I am a realist, and I think the nominalist solution causes more problems than it solves. Okay, I’m being too nice. I think its nuts. I think there is such a thing as a dog, and I think that there is a reality that my thoughts and words reflect, not merely one they create. And I, for one, think that reality should be respected.

So when we deal with life or marriage or insurance, we should think deeply about things and not merely manipulate and play name games.

What is a rose, anyway? What makes it what it is? It’s a red flower — so could I redefine it so that “rose” includes red carnations and Mokara orchids? Or must I look deeper into reality and figure out the truth of what I am defining?

What is being lost in a lot of these debates today is respect for reality. We assert our power and dominion and run roughshod over reality.

Redefinition is dangerous. We had better be very, very sure before we redraw the borders on a minefield.

Any redefinition should, ideally, reflect a better understanding of reality — and not a manipulative desire to change reality or, worse, to pretend it isn’t there.