Module: Meaning analysis
Quote of the page
The ultimate court of appeal is observation and experiment ... not authority.
- Thomas Henry Huxley
Consider the following dialogue:
So who is right and who is wrong? In a way, both teachers are correct because they seem to be operating with two different definitions of 'the best students'. For teacher A, the best student is the one with the highest average grade. For teacher B, the best student is someone who has the highest number of A grades. Obviously, the student who satisfies the first definition need not be the same as the student who satisfies the second definition. This is an example of what we might call a purely verbal dispute, where the apparent disagreement is not due to disagreement with regard to the facts, but it has to do with the different understanding of the meaning of a key term or concept.
Verbal disputes are often contrasted with factual disputes, where disagreements have to do with different opinions about facts and not meaning. If someone thinks Sydney is the capital of Australia and others disagree, then the disagreement is a factual one.
There are two main ways to resolve a purely verbal dispute once the different meanings of a key term is pointed out. First, the different parties might agree to disagree with regard to the usage of the term. Thus, teachers A and B might agree that they have provided two different precising definitions of 'the best student', and that both are legitimate, and they can agree that Cindy is the best student under one interpretation, and that Betty is the best student under a different interpretation.
However, there are situations in which the parties involved have to pick one particular interpretation. For example, perhaps there is just one prize to be given to the best student, and so there is a need to choose between the two definitions in order to decide whether Cindy or Betty should get the prize. So this is the second way in which a verbal dispute involving two definitions might be resolved - we choose to adopt a particular definition by considering very carefully the function that it is supposed to serve. In the example under discussion, if you have to choose between the definitions offered by teachers A and B, whose definition will you pick and why?
Can you give your own examples of factual and verbal disputes?