/ Ideas

Words, words, words.

Words, words, words.

Contemporary society literally surrounds us with a semantic mess when it comes to the way human interactions are to be “managed.” On the one hand, we are bombarded with terms such as collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and collective action, usually on the grounds that they are “goods” to be pursued; on the other hand, there is competition, confrontation, and conflict, which tend to be regarded as “evils.” How do we differentiate all these terms from each other? Do they really allow us to better understand the way we interact? How do we evaluate whether one or the other is in fact good or bad?


This is the first of a three-part essay. I will focus on two central concepts, namely competition and cooperation. Choosing to write of “cooperation” instead of “collaboration,” or “competition” rather than “rivalry,” may appear somewhat arbitrary. Yet ultimately, what matters isn’t really what terms we use, but rather what they refer to. Hang on to your philosophical hat.


Terms such as competition and cooperation are social constructs. The very idea of something being “competition” or “cooperation” presupposes a collective agreement on what counts as competition and cooperation. And yet, there are many different interpretations as to what exactly competition and cooperation are. For instance, some define competition with respect to concepts such as markets, self-interest and equilibrium, while others define it as related to ideas such as individual rivalry, escalation, and exclusivity of outcomes. The same kind of divergence is true of cooperation. I guess one could speak of ideological or paradigmatic differences.


It is my belief that in order to use a word to successfully refer to a phenomenon, one does not necessarily need to know about a uniquely identifying description of that phenomenon; all that is necessary is that the use of the word be caused by some event that makes us name the phenomenon in question. Such a causal theory of reference (1) allows for an explanation of how different scholars can refer to the same entity despite fundamentally different beliefs about this entity; it also implies that a word’s meaning evolves over time and can only be understood in historical context (2).


Hence the focus of my essay is not about words and definitions, but rather about the beliefs surrounding these words, as well as the things that the words are actually held to refer to. On the one hand, the concepts of competition and cooperation are social constructs, the existence of which depends on the shared beliefs of individuals. On the other hand, they also refer to real interactions that happen in a physical world (3). It is the link between these “shared imaginations” and “real interactions” that I wish to examine.


The next two parts of my essay will expose, and critically engage, the most common interpretations surrounding competition and cooperation. The list of definitions and mechanisms elaborated in these subsequent parts is not exhaustive and does not aspire to be so. However, I believe that they will provide a further step toward a clear and useful portrait of the way we think about the most fundamental aspects of human interaction.



[1] Kripke (1980), Putnam (1975).

[2] Brigandt (2010).

[3] Thomasson (2003: 606).



BRIGANDT, Ingo (2010). “The epistemic goal of a concept: accounting for the rationality of semantic change and variation”, Synthese, Vol. 177, Issue 1, pp. 19-40.

KRIPKE, Saul (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.

PUTNAM, Hilary (1975). Mind, Language and Reality. Philosophical Papers, Volume 2. Cambridge University Press.

THOMASSON, Amie L. (2003). “Realism and Human Kinds”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 580-609.


Photo : Triptych, by Dave W. [Source].


comments powered by Disqus