Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Utopian Argumentation

This Ads Without Products post reminded me of a something I often see in magazine articles or newspaper profiles about a group with idealistic aims (note how I avoided that other word [see above]).

The trope is as follows: these idealistic people are striving for utopia. But wait - "utopia" means "no place" in the Greek, so therefore, clearly, the ideals of this group or person will never come to pass. Because "utopia" means "no place".

Or maybe you've seen this one: Group X's utopian ideals are misplaced, because there is no such thing as a utopia, because "utopia" means "no place".

There is some interesting interplay between use and definition. Prior to the defining moment, "utopia" or "utopian" is employed as a pejorative, used to mean "pie in the sky", or "fanciful". But inevitably, these pie in the sky ideas, like helping the poor or opposing torture, are refuted via etymology.

So implicit in the common use of the word "utopia" is to make explicit one's belief that a word's etymology governs reality, that etymology functions as a natural law to which we all must submit.

Which is nonsense, isn't it? Maybe I'm being utopian...

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