Category debates

One favorite stomping ground of the holders of the Pedant Pendant badge (among others) is the category debate. Is a van a truck? What is a sandwich? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

These sorts of debates are fun (or rather, “fun”), and, I would argue, almost never in good faith. Either the participants don’t all agree on what the purpose of the debate is (to define a category by example? to determine boundaries?), or the premise of the debate is fundamentally flawed, or someone is trafficking in technical definitions in a nontechnical (or different technical) setting, where the technical definition in question isn’t relevant.

Anyway, I wanted to make this topic as an all-purpose venue for category debates – either shunted over from #boing or other topics, or just to bring them up. Those of us who love undertaking these debates can have good-natured arguments, and those of us who like to try to bring such debates down to earth can do that.

I do genuinely hope that it’ll be fun. For someone, at least.

[edit – make words better]


This gives me a chance to deploy one of my favorite phrases: Radical sandwich anarchy



I’ll kick off the formal arguments with my frustrated analysis of one of the most famous category debates:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

First, let’s set something aside: if we take the question at face value, then obviously the egg came first. Whatever you take the term “egg” to mean, unless you’re talking specifically about chicken eggs, then the fossil record makes it abundantly clear that eggs came first. But that would be kind of boring. So.

Which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?

Ok, now things get interesting. People frame this question as a philosophical debate, but I would argue that it's purely linguistic -- perhaps not even arising to the level of "philosophy of language".

What is a chicken egg? There are two choices: it’s either an egg that produces a chicken, or it’s an egg that comes out of a chicken. Once you’ve decided what a chicken egg is, the question is ipso facto answered. And the definitional question of “what is a chicken egg” is easily answered through observation.

When we go to a grocery store, we see eggs that came out of chickens. We call them chicken eggs.

Most of these eggs will never (could never) produce a chicken. We still call them chicken eggs.

If a chicken laid an egg, and a duck later hatched out of it, people would say, “Wow, a duck came out of that chicken egg,” not “That wasn’t a chicken egg; it was a duck egg.”

The evidence abounds, in our common use of the concept of eggs in natural human language (in English, at least), that eggs are categorized by the animal that produced them, not the animal that comes out of them – and for that matter, I’d wager that most eggs (almost certainly most chicken eggs) don’t have any animals that come out of them at all.

Thus, a “chicken egg” is an egg laid by a chicken. Therefore, a chicken must exist before a chicken egg is laid. Thus, the chicken precedes the egg, Q.E.D.

InB4 “proto-chicken” argument: see the above. By common language reckoning, an egg that came out of a proto-chicken would be a proto-chicken egg. This is true if a chicken comes out, or a clicken, or a jicken, or if the egg got eaten by a proto-raccoon before it had a chance to hatch.


I thought that the sandwich question had been settled by this universal theory of food envelopment:


Chicken sandwich or egg sandwich came first?


I love the “sandwich debate” and profess radical ideas of “sandwichness”.
that said, if I spread peanut butter on one flour tortilla, some congealed fruit concoction (jam, jelly, marmalade, preserves) on another (thus settling the "between two pieces of ‘bread’ stipulation that keeps Neanderthals from accepting hot dog ‘buns’ as sandwich bread), then upon placing these two be-scmeered ‘slices’ together, cut away the rounded edges to reveal a perfectly square section of PB&J - ensconced in a starchy, flour-based envelope, cut diagonally into equal triangular morsels…
do I now have a PB&J…
yes, yes I do. the squaring of the circle is merely performance, it was always a sandwich as it would be if I had rolled it in itself.

I align chaotic evil on the sandwich alignment chart.


First of all: define “pedant”.


That is perhaps the single most chilling post I have ever read on the BBS.

You, sir, are an heresiarch, a wrongthinker and an all round bad egg. (sputters incoherently…)

Slightly more seriously, does the sandwich chart not provide interesting evidence for the platonic theory of forms?

The sandwich is a rare instance of something where we at least approach having actual evidence for the “form” of something.

There was presumably at some stage the actual first “sandwich”. The actual two bits of bread with something stuffed between brought to the Earl of Sandwich at the card table or whatever.

We can take that as the “form” of the sandwich which all things “sandwichy” either approach or deviate from.

But in all cases, there is an essential essence of “sandwichness” which these things share to a greater or lesser degree. Deviate too far and you cease to have a sandwich but rather a calzone or a quesadilla or whatever horrible monstrosity FloridaManJefe has unleashed on the world today.


double down





1 Like

The thing about the sandwich game is that it’s a false debate. The concept “sandwich” embodies a whole bunch of related but distinct concepts, and to try to make a unified theory of sandwichness based on examples of things we call sandwiches is an absurdity. Is an ice cream sandwich a sandwich? Yeah, it’s right there in the name. Is it a sandwich in the same way that a peanut butter sandwich is? Not quite. Is a sub a sandwich even though it has bread on three sides? Yes. Does that mean that a taco is a sandwich? Eh, probably not. These aren’t contradictions; it’s the way that definining a category by example works.

This tension is what makes the Sandwich Game fun, of course, but it also makes it bad lexicography. (That said, I dont think most of the people playing the Sandwich Game are taking it seriously.)

Of course, some people do need a parametric, mutually exclusive, and total definition of “sandwich” vs “not sandwich”, for instance for the purposes of laws and the like. That doesn’t mean that this definition applies to discourse in general, though.



So, does this define whether a van is a truck: can it run a 24v sandwich toaster?

Is it only a true sandwich if it can fit in a sandwich toaster?

I believe this may be so. It is only a sandwich if it consists of sliced bread. Stuff between two halves of a bun? A stuffed bun. Ditto, baguette. Ditto any other wheat or other grain-based baked good. Other uses are largely metaphorical.


I’m not 100% sure but I think you may be makin’ fun of me.


Oh, you can be entirely sure of it. :wink: (Though you were not a target specifically.)

The whole point of the sandwich (or van) debate is not to resolve the question, it is to have FUN in the process.


I think it’s possible for both the people who enjoy category debates and the people who enjoy pointing out the absurdity of category debates to have fun!


I am of the former, for their own sake and for the fun of it. If having fun is an absurd thing then I admit to also being of the latter.

(There is an argument that human ‘fun’ is an absurd thing in the grand scheme of things, but so much about humans is indeed absurd.)



@HopingMatthew trek q is cereal soup

runs away, laughing