Contrast sets

Contrast sets have multiple functions depending on the contexts in which they are used. For instance, in the case of theories about some phenomena, they can be used to test the robustness of the theories: why do unsupported objects on earth fall downwards instead of floating? Why did the Primitive Man invent ‘religion’ instead of doing any number of other things he could have done? And so on. In such cases, one might be looking for reasons to accept an explanation temporarily or one might even be comparing rival explanations.

We can also use contrast sets in the process of delimiting the meanings of certain words. For instance, does ‘hobo’ mean something different from, say, ‘vagabond’? Or, again, is ‘faithfulness’ the antonym for ‘adultery’?  And so on. Here, we try to grasp the meaning of a word by contrasting them to other words that are either synonyms or antonyms. Or, as in my case, the exercise could even consist of trying to discover which words carry the opposite meaning.

The use of contrast sets is a heuristic device that often helps us decide. That is why I suggested that we use the contrast sets in our discussion about ‘prostitutes’: there was an overlap in our discussion about the word between the properties of modern prostitution, the multiple meanings of an English word, a social institution, and an ethical characterization.

When we use the English word ‘prostitution’, we are, it is true, governed by the linguistic intuitions regarding the use of the word. However, we are not entirely governed by such a linguistic intuition or the theology behind it. This thread about Apsaras is a case in point: while none of us have problems in calling some women in the red-light district in Bombay as ‘prostitutes’, we do not agree all with whether or not Apsaras are also prostitutes. Perhaps, some among them might be willing to call them ‘Veshyas’, while refusing to translate it as ‘prostitutes’; yet others, perhaps, would not even go that far. You seem to raise issues about whether we should say that a ‘patni’ is a ‘wife’, or whether the very use of the word ‘wife’ (because its meaning is partly defined by its antonyms) involves subscribing to Christian theology. I do not have a firm advice to give on this score. Yet, here is what I have been doing: I use whatever I have been using (the English language, in this case) as though the rest is unproblematic while focusing on some problems that the use of this language confronts us with. It is like repairing a boat while sailing on it.  Whenever I face a problem, I focus only on it and keep the rest of the background stable and unchanged. I do not know how else one could solve a problem.

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