The trouble with ‘What is X?’ questions

I’ve just solved a problem which has bothered me for two years, and in my excitement want to share the solution with the world.

The problem, in short, is: ‘What is X?’ questions (‘What is law?’, ‘What is religion?’, ‘What is mind?) are in English necessarily ambiguous in at least one sense. They can be questions about both:
1) the delineation of the scope of the inquiry (out of all the phenomena in the universe {x1, x2, x3, …, xn}, which phenomena are to be denoted by the term ‘X’ in a particular inquiry); and
2) the insight into the object of inquiry (having agreed that ‘X’ means {x3, x17, x56 and x875}, how is one to understand that phenomenon).
This seems obvious, but scholars surprisingly often get that mixed, and in consequence talk past each other (details below).
Why? Because English language does not differentiate between cases.

Now, my problem was the inability to communicate that, in other words, if you have not understood what I’ve just written, don’t worry, it’s my fault.

Further, this problem would not have occurred in any language with a robust system of noun declination, and by robust I mean one that uses the instrumental case, like Czech, Russian or Polish. In the last one, ‘what is law?’ question would be translated as ‘Co jest prawem?’ in the first meaning (delineation) and ‘Czym jest prawo?’ in the second (insight). Giving an answer to one while asking another would just feel obviously illogical due to the grammatical structure of the sentence. Hence, whenever talking about the problem above to someone speaking a slavic language, I got this ‘aaaaaaaaaahhhhh!’ when just translating the sentence.

Unfortunately, none of the Western languages that even use cases (German or Latin), so none of the languages that I could have expected majority of my interlocutors to understand, use the instrumental case. So I couldn’t express what I mean.

And now I got it. Two different meanings of ‘what is X?’ question can be exposed in English via the sentence structure of a negation of the question, as in:

  1. what is not law? (negative delineation) – Co nie jest prawem?
  2. what is law not? (negative insight) Czym nie jest prawo?

So, if you agree that these questions are not the same, you can see how a non-negated question ‘What is X?’ can always mean at least two different things.

I am super excited, I don’t now how about you.

Why would that matter? Take the 25-centuries-old, unsolved question: what is law?

I would claim that the trouble with this question lies not only with the object (‘law’), but also with the method(s) and with the question itself; one of the problems with the question being the one explained above.

Take H.L.A. Hart, who in the most overrated law book of the 20th century, The Concept of Law, starts by identifying the diversity of answers:
1) What officials do about disputes is … the law itself (Llewellyn)
2) The prophecies of what the courts will do . . . are what I mean by the law (Holmes)
3) Law is the primary norm which stipulates the sanction (Kelsen)
Clearly, ‘officials’ actions’ are not ‘prophecies’ and are not ‘norms’. The three answers above are answers to the first meaning of the question, just delineations of scope, different ones.

Hart however, to a great surprise of a reader, just skips this problem and implicitly answers the first question by limiting ‘law’ to norms, and then proceeds to the second one, to which he gives the famous answer about the union of the primary and secondary rules.
How come?! I seriously think he just didn’t notice, because he was writing in English.

So, to finish, let us negate a few more questions, just to get the feeling:

  1. What is religion?
    1. what is not religion?
    2. what is religion not?
  2. What is mind?
    1. what is not mind?
    2. what is mind not?
  3. What is love?
    1. what is not love?
    2. what is love not?

CREDITS: Great thanks go to Józef Życiński, over whose book Elementy filozofii nauki I got the idea. The book is in Polish, I was taking notes in English, and the hesitation over the sentence structure of ‘What is not a scientific theory?’ was the eureka moment for me.
Special thanks go to Bartosz Marciniak, who spend a significant amount of time and characters to show me how to translate the two into Latin, finally explaining to me why this could not be expressed in Latin the way I wanted to do it.
Additionally, huge thanks go to Liam McHugh-Russell, who quickly spotted a problem that could have ruined the whole post, now fixed already.

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