Bruno Leoni writes about problems with definitions-

“Freedom” is first of all a word. I would not go so far as to say that it is only a word, as several representatives of the contemporary analytical school, in their self-styled philosophical revolution, might maintain. Thinkers who begin by asserting that something is simply a word and conclude that it is nothing but a word remind me of the saying that one must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

But the very fact that “freedom” is first of all a word calls, I think, for some preliminary linguistic remarks.

Linguistic analysis has received increasing attention in certain quarters, especially after the Second World War, but it is not yet very popular. Many people do not like it or do not bother about it. Learned men not devoted to philosophical or philological matters are more or less inclined to think of it as, an idle occupation. Neither can we receive much encouragement from the example of the contemporary analytical school of philosophers. After having focused their attention on linguistic problems and made the latter the center of their research, they seem more inclined, instead of analyzing, to destroy altogether the very meaning of the words belonging to the vocabulary of politics. Moreover, linguistic analysis is not easy. But I would suggest that it is particularly necessary in these times of semantic confusion.

When we try to define or simply to name what is generally called a “material” thing, we find it rather easy to be understood by our listeners. Should uncertainty arise about the meaning of our words, it would be sufficient, in order to eliminate the misunderstanding, simply to point to the thing we are naming or defining. Thus, two different words referring to the same thing and used respectively by us and by our listener would prove equivalent. We could substitute one word for the other, whether we speak the same language as our listener (as we do in the case of synonyms) or different languages (as we do in the case of translations).

This simple method of pointing out material things is the basis of all conversation among people who speak different languages or among people who speak a language and those who do not yet speak it—e.g., children. It was this that made it possible for early European explorers to make themselves understood by the inhabitants of other parts of the world and that still makes it possible for thousands of contemporary American tourists to spend their holidays, say, in Italy without knowing a word of Italian. In spite of this ignorance on their part they are understood perfectly for many practical purposes by Italian waiters, taxi drivers, and porters. The common factor in conversation is the possibility of pointing to material things like food, luggage, and so on. Of course, it is not always possible to point out the material things we refer to by our words. But whenever two different words refer to material things, they prove easily interchangeable. Natural scientists agree quite easily about the use of words designating newly discovered phenomena. Usually they choose Greek or Latin words, and their method is successful, since uncertainty can be avoided by pointing out which phenomena are designated by these words.

This calls to mind the wisdom of the reply made by an old Confucian pedagogue to his heavenly disciple, a very young Chinese emperor who had been asked by his teacher the name of some animals they met while taking a walk through the countryside. The young emperor replied, “They are sheep.”

“The Son of Heaven is perfectly right,” the pedagogue said politely. “I must add only that these kinds of sheep are usually called pigs.”

Unfortunately, much greater difficulty arises if we try to define things that are not material and if our listener does not know the meaning of the word we are using. In such a case we cannot point out to him any material object. Our way of understanding each other is completely different, and it is necessary to resort to altogether different ways of discovering a common factor, if any, between our language and his. Banal and self-evident as it appears, this fact is probably not noticed, or at least it is not emphasized sufficiently, when we consider the use of our language. We are so accustomed to our vocabularies that we forget the importance we attached to pointing out things at the beginning of our learning process. We are inclined to think of our linguistic achievements mainly in terms of definitions simply read in a book. On the other hand, as many of these definitions refer to material things, we often behave as if nonmaterial things were simply “there” and as if it were only a question of attaching to them a verbal definition.

This explains certain metaphysical trends among those ancient Greek philosophers who treated nonmaterial things—justice, for example—as if they were similar to visible, material things. It also explains more recent attempts to define the “law” or the “state” as if they were entities like the sun or the moon. As Professor Glanville Williams points out in his recent essay (1945) on the controversy concerning the word “law,” the English jurist John Austin, the celebrated founder of jurisprudence, maintained that his definition of “law” corresponded to “law properly defined,” without having the least doubt that there exists such a thing as “the law properly defined.” In our day a view rather similar to that of Austin has been advanced by the well-known Professor Hans Kelsen, who boasted in his General Theory of Law and the State (1947) and still boasts of discovering that what is “properly called” the “State” is nothing but the legal order.

The naive belief that nonmaterial things can easily be defined comes to an abrupt end as soon as we try to translate, for instance into Italian or French, legal terms like “trust,” “equity,” or “common law.” In all these cases not only are we unable to point to any material thing that would permit an Italian or a Frenchman or a German to understand what we mean, but we can find no Italian, French, or German dictionary that will give us the corresponding words in these languages. Thus, we feel that something has been lost in passing from one language to the other. As a matter of fact, nothing has been lost. The problem is that neither the French nor the Italians nor the Germans have exactly such concepts as those denoted by the English words “trust,” “equity,” and “common law.” In a certain sense, “trust,” “equity,” and “common law” are entities, but as neither the Americans nor the English can simply point them out to the French or to the Italians, it is difficult for the former to be understood by the latter in this respect.


All that I have said on this topic applies as well to the word “freedom” and to its Latin synonym “liberty,” and to certain derivative terms such as “liberal” and “liberalism.”

It is not possible to point to a material “thing” when we refer to “freedom” in ordinary language or in the technical languages of economics and of politics to which this word belongs. Moreover, this word has different meanings according to the historical environments in which it has been used in both ordinary language and the technical languages of politics and of economics. We cannot understand, for example, the meaning of the Latin term libertas without making reference to such technical terms of the Roman language of politics as res publica or jus civitatis or to some other technical terms like manus (which designated the power of the patres familias over their wives, children, slaves, land, chattels, and so on) or manumissio which designated the legal act—or rather the legal ceremony—by which a slave changed his status and became libertus. On the other hand, we cannot understand the meaning of “freedom” in the language of politics of modern England without referring to such other technical terms as habeas corpus or the rule of law which have never been translated, so far as I know, into exactly corresponding words in other languages.


“Freedom,” then, as a term designating a general political principle, may have only apparently similar meanings for different political systems. It must be pointed out also that this word may have different meanings and different implications at different times in the history of the same legal system, and, what is even more striking, it may have different meanings at the same time in the same system under different circumstances and for different people.

An example of the first case is provided by the history of military conscription in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Until comparatively recent times, military conscription, at least in time of peace, was considered both by the English and by the American people as incompatible with political freedom. On the other hand, Continental Europeans such as the French or the Germans (or the Italians since the second half of the nineteenth century) considered it almost self-evident that they had to accept military conscription as a necessary feature of their political systems without even wondering whether the latter could still therefore be called “free.” My father—who was Italian—used to tell me that when he went to England for the first time in 1912, he asked his English friends why they had no military conscription, confronted as they were with the fact that Germany had become a redoubtable military power. He always received the same proud reply: “Because we are a free people.” If my father could visit the English or the Americans again, the man in the street would not say to him that because there is military conscription these countries are no longer “free.” The meaning of political freedom in these nations has simply changed in the meantime. Because of these changes, connections which were taken for granted before are now lost, and contradictions appear which are strange enough to the technicians, but which other people accept unconsciously or even willingly as natural ingredients of their political or economic system.


All the difficulties to which I have referred warn us that we cannot use the word “freedom” and be rightly understood without first defining clearly the meaning we attach to that word. The realistic approach to defining “freedom” cannot be successful. There is no such thing as “freedom” independent of the people who speak of it. In other words, we cannot define “freedom” in the same manner as we define a material object that everyone can point to.

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