It seems to me that a lot of basic philosophy is about definitions of abstract words. So, Plato might have asked what courage or love are, Enlightenment philosophers might have been interested in what freedom is, more modern philosophers might inquire what science is. I guess I'd like to ask a two-part question. The first is what the difference is between the sort of definition a philosopher might give and the sort of definition a lexicographer might give. What are philosophers doing that lexicographers aren't? The second is, if it's fair to say that philosophers are interested in defining abstract words, well, is the task inevitably culturally and temporally specific? I mean, does the Latin word "pulchritudo" really mean the same thing as the English word "beauty"? Does the Greek "aletheia" really mean the same thing as "truth"? And couldn't the meaning of a word like "freedom" change over time?

Think about water. When a lexicographer asks what the word "water" means, s/he is asking how the word is used. It's an empirical question about people's actual linguistic behavior. If it turned out that enough people use the word "water" to refer to vodka, then "vodka" would be one of the meanings of the word "water." But when a chemist answers the question "What is water?", s/he's not telling us how the word is used. On the contrary, s/he will assume that that's settled. The question isn't about the word; it's about the stuff that we use the word to refer to. What is it? And, at least close enough for present purposes, the substance that we refer to by using the word "water" is the liquid composed (mostly) of molecules of H2O.

The chemist's answer can be quite different from the lexicographer's. A lexicographer could have come up with a perfectly acceptable account of the meaning-in-use of the word "water" before we knew what water is. Many people who use the word "water" correctly don't know anything about chemistry. This would be even clearer in cases where the chemist's answer wasn't part of most people's basic education. I think I count as a competent user of the words "rubbing alcohol," but don't ask me to tell you anything about the chemical formula.

So far we haven't talked about what philosophers do, but I hope the point is clear that asking what something is isn't the same as asking for the meaning in the lexicographer's sense of the word we use to refer to the thing.

On to philosophy. Philosophers don't just ignore how people use words, but a philosopher who is trying to give a theory of isn't simply trying to tell us how people use the word "justice." S/he assumes that there's something that tends to tie together the things most of us would call just. S/he assumes that there's an underlying more-or-less unified concept here, and that concept might be (almost certainly is) a lot richer and more subtle than the dictionary definition of the word "justice" would reveal.

Related: sometimes people use words mistakenly. They're confused or misinformed about how most people use the word. We can settle matters of usage by checking a good dictionary. But sometimes people who are perfectly competent users of the language disagree about the substance of the matter. In particular, they may disagree about whether certain ways of treating people are just. In those cases, looking up the dictionary definition won't help, even if there's a much better case to be made for one person's view than the other's. However, a philosophical account of what justice actually is might help. The same goes for similar philosophical questions. If two people disagree about whether our actions are free, chances are that this isn't a merely verbal dispute. It's a disagreement among competent speakers about what things would have to be like in the world for an action to count as free. If the parties to the disagreement aren't just verbally confused, the dictionary isn't going to help.

I hope this makes clear that philosophers aren't in the business of defining words. They may offer definitions along the way as a means of getting their arguments across without ambiguity, but when it comes to the philosophical questions themselves, they are neither trying to do the lexicographer's job, nor simply stipulating how they will use words.

Still, facts about how people use words can sometimes be helpful. There can be wisdom hidden in the kinds of distinctions we make and the ways we tend to talk. Such things might offer helpful clues in coming up with a philosophical analysis of a concept like justice or science or freedom. But the philosophical questions aren't just empirical questions.

This raises an obvious issue: if philosophers aren't just making stipulations, and aren't just lexicographers, and aren't digging up physical or chemical or psychological or other such facts that science can settle, then what are they doing and what does it mean for them to get it right? That's a good question, but not an easy one. Philosophy is an interpretive activity. It's not so very different from what a lawyer or a judge does in trying to come up with a coherent view of a legal question or a legal concept. It's also not so very different from what a critic does when she tries to come up with a reading that does justice to a poem like Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or a novel like Henry James's What Maisie Knew. The philosopher is trying to come up with a way of looking at a question or a concept or an issue that makes persuasive sense of it. But this answer has already gone on too long, and so mercifully, I'm off the hook for saying more.

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