Playing “Fast and Loose” with Terms

One of the things I’m interested in in philosophical methodology is the “loose” use of terms. Such terms are used as argumentative shorthand. I want to explore terms that have attained metaphorical status and delineate them more precisely. I define playing “fast and loose” with a term as:

  • (FAL): A term r is used imprecisely when the argumentative weight r must carry within the argument is disproportionate to the actual weight presented for the term either within the argument itself or within one’s peer community.

(FAL) might cover using terms out-of-context and misusing terms against their actual (or disputed) use within one’s peer community.

Objection: Isn’t this is what analysis is—the percise use of concepts and language? Why not just say people are doing bad analysis when they use terms loosely?

Answer: People are doing poor analysis, but (FAL) helps focus on the poor use of terms within the broader analytical apparatus.

An example of (FAL) in action is a recent blog post by Kvanvig. In his post Kvanvig used the term “reflective equilibrium” loosely. I raised this to his attention in reply #7 found here. He clarified his use of reflective equilibrium as not a method of justification but as shorthand for the result of achieving consistency between general and particular judgements. However, reflective equilibrium is a method of (moral) justification. It is a further misappropriation to use it in the epistemic sense; or, at a minimum, it is a poor choice to use it epistemically because it “takes on” an insurmountable number of deficiencies (i.e. problems within no known solution in belief revision, objections to coherentist methodology and problems with intuitions). Reflective equilibrium is not the result of consistency between general and particular judgments. This blurs the distinction between judgments and principles and wide and narrow versions of the method. There are more problems with his use of the term, but my question is this: Why didn’t he just say he was talking about prodding his students toward a search for consistent beliefs?

Answer: Because Kvanvig was using the term to carry weight in his argument that was disproportionate to its actual weight or value. 

(FAL) is a tempting technique because it’s an easy way to add force to your argument without much work. When this occurs over time, such terms become the bloated technology stocks of the late 1990’s. And, like the stock market, one’s peer community can buy into the hype and perpetuate the false perception. There are probably a host of justifications for the habitual use of (FAL) terms: why raise such “minor” issues, everyone seems OK with using it loosely, and so on.

Ironically, (FAL) must itself be revised because a term within the definition is another term used loosely by the analytic community (i.e. weight). When I get back from the upcoming workshop I plan on exploring “weight”. It is used in many different contexts across a spectrum of sub-disciplines within philosophy. What is going on when people use the term “weight” as something that carries argumentative force? What does it mean to say that X outweighs Y? What does the use of this term presuppose? Does the use of the term vary across philosophical concepts (e.g. intuitions, beliefs, desires, reasons, judgments, principles, and so on)? Those are a few of the questions that might be worth exploring.

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