Perusing Dictionary Definitions


Suverans2's picture

Just because Noah Webster (c.1828), for example, defined anarchy as, "Want of government; a state of society, when there is no law or supreme power, or when the laws are not efficient, and individuals do what they please with impunity; political confusion," doesn't make these wrong definitions, right definitions, or the only definitions; it makes them some definitions. It is up to each author to choose one of these, or go to other sources, or to provide his own reasonable definitions for words (s)he is using, just as Kent did, in his article, so that his readers will understand the concept he is trying to convey.

If you tell your reader what your intended meaning of a word is, (s)he can't provide one that you don't want, and thus pervert your idea(s). What (s)he might do, however, is to point out that, in his or her opinion, 99% of your listeners/readers don't envision that particular meaning when they hear, or read, that word, and thus let you know you are fighting an uphill battle, or perhaps even an unnecessary battle.

mhstahl's picture

I agree, Suverans2, there are no right or wrong definitions. Reading is always an interpretive exercise to some degree or another. I have often seen, even when a definition is provided, writers contort the meaning of words through context either incidentally or purposely. To me, it is context that provides the most reliable communication. There is a perfectly logical reason for this; language developed as a supplement to non-verbal communication, and while writing can only use words those words are rarely sufficient to convey the full and complete intent of the writer. The best example of this that I can think is the oft lamented lack of a "sarcasm tag" in internet communications.

In some arenas, such as law, the very meaning of a statement can only be defined after its writing by a third party that acts on its own authority(backed up by naked violence or its threat)-in such a case the only "definition" that matters is the one proclaimed by the current authority interpreting it, not the writer or even a past reader, unless one is willing to dare the consequences of defiance. The words used may provide an obstacle, but they are hardly insurmountable.

Would you agree?

Suverans2's picture

G'day mhstahl,

If we are to fully understand, (as much as is possible), the concept(s) an author is wishing to convey to his reader(s), (especially in arenas such as the law), the only "definitions" that matter are the ones proclaimed by the author. That is not to say that I might not feign agreement with a perverted definition in the face of "naked violence or its threat", but, to be honest, his "definition" does not, even in the least, truly matter to me.

Are we in agreement?

mhstahl's picture

To be honest, Suverans, I cannot think of a way that we could possibly be in more profound disagreement. Happily, it is a fine point and one that need not result in much practical difference.

It is my understanding, as a student of English history, that the "common law" was developed both to generate a monopoly on force for William the Conqueror, and to permit his current and future magistrates the ability to interpret and concoct their own law in order to maintain that monopoly. That tyrannical system of law has persevered-but for a few bumps-ever since, and while Jefferson and Washington overthrew King George, they consecrated King William's vicious system in this country.

The "interpretation" of law is one of the keystones of this system, and there is no escape clause-once a decision is made about the "definition" of a law, it then IS the law... until it is redefined. That is itself "the law."

I think it is important to remember that the law system in the US is a direct result of conquest and the implementation of tyranny:there is no salvation to be found within it. All the law has ever been is a means of exerting control and limiting the chance of rebellion. It was imposed upon a defeated population by a foreigner brutal enough to forever be remembered as "The Conqueror."

Therefore, while I contest the legitimacy of the system itself-and there I think we do agree- I see no point in disputing the findings of its practitioners-they are simply acting within the structure of a warped and perverted system.

After all, what is law but violence, no matter how you define the particulars?

Glock27's picture

Cheers mhsthal,

"After all, what is law but violence, no matter how you define the particulars?" Does this then mean that under any organized structure politically (anarchism, libertarian, voluntarist and etc) the premises you propose there remains the same regardless? Does this also mean that "Natural Law" is violent also. That's pretty much what I am gathering from the statement, then too I have read this out of the entire context of the communication.


mhstahl's picture

Hello Glock,

When I asked, "what is law but violence" I was referring to the written law used by governments, but honestly I can't think of a "law" or social custom that does not rely on violence but perhaps for purely passive measures such as the "shunning" done by the Amish. 

I would say first that "natural law" is to my mind an antiquated concept, but, yes, it is most certainly violent:it sanctions both self-defense and retaliation against those who violate it. That said, yes any society, whether it has political structure or not is going to have violence-or the treat of it- to some extent: or perhaps it is better to say that so far this has always been the case, and that there is no reason to expect it to change.

Violence itself is not necessarily a problem in a society: when a small clique within society manages to attain overwhelming force-such as a government-then violence quickly becomes a tool of oppression.

Thanks for the comment.


Suverans2's picture

You speak about "law" as if there is only one law, mhstahl. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my opinion. Basically there is man-made positive law[1] and there is natural law. Since I do not consent to be a member of any man-made state, or government, my law is the natural law.

[1] So-called common law is, in my opinion, just another man-made law, and on that it appears we agree.

mhstahl's picture


Indeed, I do believe that the "common law" is just another man-made law-we do agree on that.

I happen to think the same of "natural law."

As a quick example, in the piece by van Dun you linked to define "Natural Law", he claims that both theft or other violation of physical "property" AND intellectual property are violations of "natural law" and "justify" violent retaliation. It defines a certain type of society, posits some very concrete rules, and wraps its positive moral proclaimations in the presumption of infallibility and necessity-since it is "natural." This is despite the assertion of "positive rights" such as intellectual property. This is why I consider a "higher power" sine qua non for "natural law"-who determines the specifics, like the "justice" of violent reprisal for "unilaterally take(ing) another's work and make it appear that it was our own."? The authority is "nature" which might mean "God" but need not: I suspect that in this case "nature" really means van Dun. Or Spooner. Or Aquinas. Or Rand. Or Rothbard. Or Locke.

In all cases, "natural" is still an appeal to authority, and a logical fallacy.

This has become a fascinating conversation, I will have a response to your other post as time permits.



Suverans2's picture

G'day Mike,

Thank you for your polite reply.

I find it very curious that you happen to believe that the natural law of humans is man-made, rather than discovered, and that its authority comes from "nature", rather than the "nature of man", or from Frank van Dun, or Lysander Spooner, or Thomas Aquinas, or Murray N. Rothbard, or John Locke. As Frank wrote, "the basic principles of justice...any person with a modicum of common sense can discover for himself". And, Thomas Mackenzie took the position, (which I strongly favor), that natural law is "recognized by reason alone, without the aid of revelation".

I can see no reason, for those who desire power, to even acknowledge a law, let alone create one, which gives them absolutely no advantage over other men.

    Quod ad jus naturale attinet, omnes homenes aequales sunt. All men are equal before* the natural law. Dig. 50, 17, 32. ~ Maxim of law – Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1990), page 899

* Note: "before" as opposed to "under".

Also, I may be overlooking it, but nowhere in Frank's dissertation on Natural Law, which I linked to, could I find any mention of "intellectual property", so if you would be so kind as to pinpoint that for me, I'd certainly appreciate it.

mhstahl's picture


The mention of "intellectual property" occurs in the 5th paragraph under the subheading "The Natural Law of the Human World", in the fourth line:

"It happens when we unilaterally take another's work and make it appear that it was our own."

Indeed in re-reading the essay, it becomes very clear that he is basing his "natural law" not on the initiation of force at all but rather deception-or the disruption of "our" "Moral compass" and "disorder." the paragraph that includes the offense of "taking another's work" also includes such "crimes" as "obsfucat(ing) our true identity" with the intent to make others believe someone else is the originator(para 5, line 2.)

"Such actions are rightly called unlawful and also injustices, because they deny or aim to deny to another what is rightly his -- in particular, of course, his existence and identity as a person. Indeed, the two main kinds of injustices are, first, treating a person as not a person at all and, second, treating him as if he were someone else. "

And, for those behaving "justly", respect for intellectual property, and avoidance of "obfuscation" is the watch-word:

"No person is mistaken for a mere thing or animal; no person is mistaken for another. Then, we make sure that we can attribute every word, every action, every product to its true author or owner. In doing that, we are acting justly."

I must admit-I've never read natural law described in quite this way, and I'm tempted to wonder if there is not a mis-translation. His driving point seems pretty clear, however.

As far as "nature" vs. the "nature of man," and "discovery" vs. individual conception, I really think that the curious formulation of "natural law" in van Dun's piece makes my case for me. He ascribes all manner of non-violent activities to unlawfulness that justifies violent retribution because they make it difficult to make morality judgments on matters of positive law (such as a "debtor" to "creditor" relationship-something defined totally by positive "contract" law and which in no case involves initiation of force.)

Morality in a universal sense(one morality)-even the nonaggression axiom- can never be said to be "natural" or a part of the "nature of man" since deviations from the prescribed "compass" would result in the biological impossibility of an un-natural man incapable of maintaining a stable society. This is based on the simple fact that there exists massive variation in systems of morality among individuals and even more among societies-yet despite the wild variation, these societies manage stability.

If you wish, I suppose you could say that having a moral system of some sort is necessary for a stable society, and that is therefore "natural"...but then there is no meaning attached since the concept has become pointlessly broad.

For myself, I've settled upon the actual use of force-violence-as the basis of my morality. I believe morality to be a totally subjective belief system based in personal experience and social influence, however and I'm aware that most people do not share my views and I have no problem with that-morality exists to guide MY actions as I relate to others, not the other way around. Fortunately, most other people with whom I interact are peaceable.  Frankly, the "natural law" described by van Dun is almost perfectly at odds with the notion of non-aggression-at least as I read it and as it was translated-and as such appears immoral to me.

I'm enjoying the conversation.




mhstahl's picture


I did some additional research on van Dun last night, largely because most of the "unlawful" acts I listed above I do not generally see associated with the term "natural law."

I found that he was apparently involved in the writing of the late Michael van Notten's(also a Dutchman, apparently from the same University) wonderful book "Law of the Somalis" which I highly recommend. Indeed, the largest fault I found in that book was in the closing chapters, where after successfuly describing several varieties of internally peaceful and stable societies in rural Africa living under customary unwritten law(the author married into one of the tribes in rural Somalia, and spent some time in rural Ethiopia as I recall) the author proposes several chapters of "fixes"...still a wonderful book, and fully on topic.

I also came across a rebuttal to van Dun by Walter Block that you might find interesting. I don't agree with Block on many, many things-he's an anarcho-capitalist, a combination that I have come to find unrealistic, to be blunt-but he is a great thinker, and an absolute bulldog when it comes to finding inconsistencies within arguements and holding to (his) principle. It would seem from this that I'm not alone in noticing many oddities in van Dun's formulation of "natural law":



Edited unclear first line 11/05/2012 12:36 EST

Suverans2's picture

G'day mhstahl,

You ask "...what is law but violence..."?

Frédéric Bastiat answers your question this way; "What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense." Of course, he is talking about natural law here, and not man-made positive law.

mhstahl's picture

But we are discussing written law, are we not Suverans? And it is an instruction manual for administering violence without reprisal, is it not?

That said, I would challenge the notion of "rights", "natural law", and the notion of "lawful defense."

All of these ideas are predicated on the existence of some sort of "higher power"-either "god" or a state with overwhelming force, and act as a validation of both. "Natural law" as it is used today is tied up in the concept of "natural rights" and both concepts have their root in medieval political philosophy which was written almost exclusively by clerics who had a strong bias toward creating a check on the growing power of kings(itself facilitated by clerics...) In other words, all three concepts only have meaning within the construct of the "positive law" system.

Look at it this way: do animals behave according to "natural law?" No, they do not. At all.

Do human beings behave according to "Natural law?" No, they do not; if they did, government would have no need to generate laws to enforce "natural law."

"Right" means only that conceptual bauble that the government promises not to least today. While it may provide some happy shelter from the brutality of government, that shelter is wholly dependent upon "positive law"...if it were not, "nature" would become most irate when "rights" are rescinded. I've yet to hear her complain, have you?

That said, animals with a social bend and humans DO in fact manage to organize themselves into stable societies when left to their own devices. There are contemporary examples of really quite complex human societies that get along quite well without an organized government. These exist in rural Africa and South America. They, along with historical examples, are fascinating to study. There is no transferable set of rules amongst cultures: but all of them are retaliatory as far as I'm aware, meaning (simply put) that members restrain themselves out of fear of reprisal from their victim-or victim's family. This is the "Peace in the Feud" concept, coined by Max Gluckman in the '50's, that I've written about before.

It seems to be how people actually live without(or with very simple)government-and it has nothing at all to do with "natural law."

Suverans2's picture

Thank you for your thoughtful reply, mhstahl.

You ask: do animals behave according to "natural law?"

Generally speaking they do. If, for example, a rabbit should act according to the natural law of lions, or the natural law of eagles, he wouldn't last very long. And, the more that mankind fails to respect the natural law of humans, the more self-destructive he becomes. We have but to look around us to "hear her complain".

As far as the antiquated notion of, "All of these ideas ["natural rights", "natural law", and the notion of "lawful defense"] are predicated on the existence of some sort of "higher power"-either "god" or a state with overwhelming force, and act as a validation of both;" you might want to read Natural Law by Frank Van Dun, Ph.D., Dr.Jur. - Senior lecturer Philosophy of Law

    The positivists' caricature of natural law

    Regrettably, students nowadays get most of their information about natural law from positivists, whose understanding of it is virtually nil. For the positivists, as we have seen, 'law' denotes a set of legal rules and associated juridical verdicts and administrative decisions. Positive law, for them, is such a set -- namely, one that is currently effectively 'posited' (imposed, adhered to by the rulers and their followers in a given society). Consequently, positivists can only think of natural law as another set of rules, verdicts and decisions -- namely, one that is not 'posited' by the authorities in a given society but by some mythical, supernatural or impersonal imagined authority (God, Nature, Reason, or what have you).

    Thus, the positivists think of natural law as an alternative system of rules, verdicts and decisions that supposedly applies to, or regulates, the same things as does the positive law. This is a serious mistake.

Regarding that mistaken notion that the natural law of humans is, "predicated on the existence of some sort of 'higher power'", you might also want to read Introduction to Natural Law by Murray N. Rothbard

    "In the controversy over man's nature, and over the broader and more controversial concept of "natural law," both sides have repeatedly proclaimed that natural law and theology are inextricably intertwined. As a result, many champions of natural law, in scientific or philosophic circles, have gravely weakened their case by implying that rational, philosophical methods alone cannot establish such law: that theological faith is necessary to maintain the concept. On the other hand, the opponents of natural law have gleefully agreed; since faith in the supernatural is deemed necessary to belief in natural law, the latter concept must be tossed out of scientific, secular discourse, and be consigned to the arcane sphere of the divine studies. In consequence, the idea of a natural law founded on reason and rational inquiry has been virtually lost."

The only way man can live without (or with very simple) government is by Natural Law or the Science of Justice.

    It is the science which alone can tell any man what he can, and cannot, do; what he can, and cannot, have; what he can, and cannot, say, without infringing the rights of any other person.

    It is the science of peace; and the only science of peace; since it is the science which alone can tell us on what conditions mankind can live in peace, or ought to live in peace, with each other. ~ Excerpted from A Treatise on Natural Law, Natural Justice, Natural Rights, Natural Liberty, and Natural Society; Showing That All Legislation Whatsoever is an Absurdity, a Usurpation, and a Crime by Lysander Spooner (1882)

Furthermore, we might want to diligently decide which side we are helping when arbitrarily disparaging the natural law.

    "The natural law is, in essence, a profoundly “radical” ethic, for it holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason. In the realm of politics or State action, the natural law presents man with a set of norms which may well be radically critical of existing positive law imposed by the State. At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom [common law/judicial decisions] or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus [statute law/positive law].

    ...The reaction of the State to this theoretical development was horror...". ~ The Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard [Emphasis added]

Suverans2's picture

Look what Online Etymology Dictionary did with the word anarchy.

    1530s, from Fr. anarchie or directly from M.L. anarchia, from Gk. anarkhia "lack of a leader, the state of people without a government" (in Athens, used of the Year of Thirty Tyrants, 404 B.C., when there was no archon), noun of state from anarkhos "rulerless," from an- "without" (see an- (1)) + arkhos "leader" (see archon).

This authority conflates "ruler" and "leader" in this etymology, but when we go to archon, as directed, we find only "ruler".

    one of the nine chief magistrates of ancient Athens, 1650s, from Gk. arkhon "ruler," noun use of prp. of arkhein "to rule," from PIE *arkhein- "to begin, rule, command," a "Gk. verb of unknown origin, but showing archaic Indo-European features ... with derivatives arkhe, 'rule, beginning,' and arkhos, 'ruler' " [Watkins].

Oh, and the reason that we see "begin" and "beginning" associated with arkhon is because of the maxim, "What one creates, one controls", or at least, "has the right to control".

And if we translate from English to Greek the words ruler and leader, respectively, we get this.

    ruler - χάρακας

    leader - ηγέτης

One doesn't even have to read Greek to see that they are not synonymous.

Kent McManigal's picture

Jim Klein just posted this on the blog post:
"The error is that most people think dictionaries are PREscriptive---that a word means what the dictionary says. But of course, since meaning can only arise in an individual mind, dictionaries are only DEscriptive---a good one will summarize common historical meanings."
Read his whole comment here.