I was teaching about concepts and essentialism today–social constructivism and all that–and giving a Marxian “we make the world, but not in circumstances of our own choosing” gloss on it.
And then, on my way home, I stopped by my local grocer. And I saw “fat free” half & half on the shelf.
I am dismayed.
Half what and half what? I always thought half & half was half cream and half milk. That is what half & half is. It just is. That is what it means. Or so I thought. I guess I am an essentialist after all.
I looked at the ingredients. They include: nonfat milk, corn syrup, cream, artificial color, sodium citrate, dipotassium phosphate, mono and diglycerides, carrageenan, vitamin A palmitate.
Which of these is in each half? Are there more than two halves?
Can we make concepts mean whatever we want them to?
With apologies to Lewis Carroll, this conversation played in my head:
“When I use a word,” Land o Lakes said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said jdw, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Land o Lakes, “which is to be master — that’s all…. [but still], when I make a word do a lot of work like that, … I always pay it extra.”
“Oh!” said jdw. He was too much puzzled to make any other remark.