about the consequences of seemingly arbitrary distinctions

A philosopher enters a zoo

On a recent trip to the zoo, we admired the zebras for a while. Inevitably we fell into the age-old question: Are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

(The two-year-old didn’t have much to say. Her wisdom is subverbal.)

Anyway, it feels silly. A language game. Makes no difference, does it?

Not so. The Scientific Truth: Zebras are black with white stripes. We can say this for two reasons. First, her skin under her hair is black (not white). Second, when it comes to development in the uterus, black comes first, followed by white.

If you are just looking to look at these fascinating test pattern beasts, the distinction is meaningless. But if you want to understand them – their structure, their origins, their kinship with NFL referees – you need to address a question that you may previously have dismissed as a silly philosopher’s game.

Philosophers 1, Norms 0.

And if you don’t like this judgment, you can address the referees with the flowing black manes.

A philosopher drives a car

Douglas Magowan comments on my post on alternatives to daylight saving time, pointing out the strange fact that “standard time” is less than half the year and “daylight saving time” is more than half.

Doesn’t that change our sense of what “standard” is?

In this case, “standard” is of course about which came first. Summer time is more frequent, but newer and therefore “not standardized”.

Another case like this: “Standard” vs. “Automatic” transmission. With the vast majority of automobiles on US roads now automatic, the manual transmission isn’t anything “standard” … other than the fact that it was once the standard, and managed to keep the name.

Imagine a zebra whose hair is 90% white and 10% black. If you look at the hornless newspaper unicorn, you could call it a “white horse with a few black stripes”. But from another perspective, it’s a black horse whose body happens to be covered in white stripes.

A philosopher learns German

Here is another example that has stayed with me forever. Steven Pinker – then as a psychologist studying language rather than a general academic studying how many humanities departments he can alienate – noted that only about 3% of German words are “normal”. The other 97% are irregular. In fact, some of the irregular conjugations are more common than the regular conjugation.

To what extent is the “regular” conjugation actually regular?

When you coin a new verb, German speakers will spontaneously and naturally conjugate it according to the “regular” pattern.

With that in mind, it really is the default, even though 97% of the cases are exceptions.

In “Standard Time” and “Standard Transmission”, the word “Standard” is about the past. The old remains “standard”, even if the new is becoming more and more common. But in German, a “regular verb” is about the future. The “standard” is what a new verb that goes into the language wants to do. This type of “standard” is not about history, it is about potential.

A philosopher gets a COVID vaccine

I will be fully vaccinated by the end of May and I am excited for life to return to something like normal. My wife is also eager, but more careful. She knows it will make many activities safer, but she doesn’t really see it as a return to normal.

Which is it?

Usually we invite our friends. We browse bookstores. We will travel to visit family. We will get haircuts. We will open a grocery store with glee and devotion, like the Soviets who see supermarkets for the first time.

But on the abnormal side, we’ll avoid large crowds. We will hesitate to eat in restaurants or work in cafes. We will still wear masks in public buildings. We’ll still be overwhelmed with bland social media arguments about whether to wear masks in public buildings.

So am I right or is she? Will we go back to normal life with a few restrictions and exceptions? Or, with a few blessed interjections of normality, will life remain fundamentally abnormal? And when it’s time to rate a new activity – conjugating a new verb, so to speak – is it allowed by default or not allowed by default? Is regular conjugation defined by the pre-pandemic baseline or the newer pandemic pattern?

I’ve never wanted to know so badly whether the zebra is black with white stripes or white with black.


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