Guarded definition

A guarded defi­ni­tion is one where at least one po­si­tion sus­pects there will be pres­sure to stretch a con­cept and make it cover more than it ought to, and so they set aside a term meant to re­fer nar­rowly to the things in­side the con­cept. Thus, if a term has been des­ig­nated as a ‘guarded defi­ni­tion’, stretch­ing it to cover new and non-cen­tral mem­bers that are not very clearly part of the defi­ni­tion, and agreed to be so by those who wanted to des­ig­nate it as guarded, is an un­usu­ally strong dis­cour­tesy. If the term was origi­nated (or its spe­cial mean­ing was origi­nated) speci­fi­cally in or­der to set it aside as a nar­row and guarded term, then it is a dis­course norm to re­spect that nar­row mean­ing and not try to ex­tend it.

Ex­am­ple: Sup­pose that Alice and Bob are hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. Alice points out that since ev­ery­thing oc­curs within Na­ture, all se­lec­tion, in­clud­ing hu­man agri­cul­tural breed­ing and ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing, seems to her like ‘nat­u­ral se­lec­tion’, and she also ar­gues that con­sumer choice in su­per­mar­kets is an in­stance of ‘nat­u­ral se­lec­tion’ since peo­ple are nat­u­ral ob­jects and they’re se­lect­ing which foods to buy, and thus her pa­per on watch­ing peo­ple buy food in su­per­mar­kets ought to be funded by a pro­gram on evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy. If Bob and his re­searchers then be­gin us­ing the term ‘ecolog­i­cally nat­u­ral se­lec­tion’ be­cause they think it’s im­por­tant to have a nar­row term to re­fer to just birds breed­ing in the wild and not con­sumer choice in su­per­mar­kets, it is an ex­treme dis­cour­tesy (and a vi­o­la­tion of what we lo­cally take to be dis­course norms) for Alice to start ar­gu­ing that re­ally su­per­mar­kets are in­stances of ecolog­i­cally nat­u­ral se­lec­tion too.

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