6.28.2006

a tomato is a vegetable

such a vegetable, in fact, that people frequently have to remind each other that it's 'actually' a fruit. these are often the same people who like to correct grammar mistakes in conversation:
Me and Bob are going to add some tomatoes and other vegetables to the pasta.

You know tomato is actually a fruit. And I think you mean 'Bob and I.'

Oh, then you must not have meant to start a sentence with a conjunction just now...

anyway. we can tell that the tomato IS a vegetable because that fact organizes things physically in the world. for example:
1. the produce aisle.
2. the garden patch.
3. the hamburger. ask a friend: "have you ever tried fruit on your hamburger? it's actually great..."
4. it tastes like a vegetable, whatever that means.
and so on.

that is, the 'technical' definitions of a fruit ('the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food') and a vegetable ('edible part of a plant cultivated for food', thank you dictionary.com) are useful in some speech communities: scientific, botanical; but are incomplete and unable to explain certain facts about the physical tomato (it goes in the vegetable section of the supermarket). nevermind for the moment that 'vegetable' seems to include 'fruit' under these definitions. i'm fairly sure that in most speech settings they're a binary. enough to make the point, at least.

Scott gets credit for the observation that 'fruit' is by far the privileged side of the 'fruit'/'vegetable' binary. consider calling a person a 'fruit;' this is either a derrogative term for a homosexual man (but not nearly as offensive as some other words) or just a goofy person. calling someone a 'vegetable,' on the other hand, is an offensive way of saying that they are literally comatose or brain-dead, or a very offensive way of saying that they are a 'couch potato.' consider the brave tomato, following its instincts in spite of confusion from humans and jeers from the other fruits.

the Essentialist school of philosophy (and philosophy of language), which claims that any specific type of entity can be defined as a class such that every member of that class must share some finite list of characteristics (thank you wikipedia), would have a hard time with the tomato. poor confused tomato. it seems trivial, but figures like the tomato, which straddle two or more categories, have major implications in certain fields: the weeks-old fetus - human or not? the transgendered person - male or female? meaning - inside or outside of language? the answers to these questions are essentially decided by the usage of the terms, which can never be completely controlled by dictionaries, laws or experimentation.

calling 'a tomato is a vegetable' a category error means several things. it means you rely on a certain scientific and physical definition to determine the 'actual' 'real' 'true' category of an object. it also means you believe much of the world is often making errors by not adhering to that standard definition. it might also mean you think that everything definitively fits in one category or the other, and that this category can be determined (a transsexual IS actually male or female, a fetus actually begins living at a particular instant) as long as you have enough physical evidence.

and, while that isn't necessarily bad, it does, like the questioning tomato, make me slightly uncomfortable.

8 comments:

Marc André Bélanger said...

What about the cucumber?

Cristi said...

cucumbers (surprisingly!) don't make me uncomfortable. they do contain their seeds, though... don't tell me the cucumber is another cross-over!?

Seb said...

Sorry to be AWOL for a lot of interesting discussion. I've been hammering out Javascript 8 hours a day and its hurting my wrists.

This is one of those cases where we can agree though, so I thought I'd put in my vote of confidence.

Claiming that the 'true' definition of tomato is the scientific definition is dumb. People form sloppy concepts--this is old news, and the Old Guard has to deal.

That said, though, essentialism--in concept formation talk; I'm not sure about philosophy of language--is far from killed by the tomato. I'm not a huge fan of it myself just aesthetically, but there is a lot of evidence to support something like it to a limited degree. What's key though is that the 'essential' properties of an object aren't ones that some authority tells us--cognitive scientists, unlike you crazy poststructuralists, don't think anybody tells us what to think, or at least we don't like to talk about it. But there might be features of tomatos that really are ones that we as individual conceptualizers hold to be essential to tomatos.

For example, having tomato genes. Or coming from a tomato plant.

So I think the moral of the story isn't that tomatos don't have essential properties, but that they don't need any "experts" to push them around and tell them what they are.

Language Guy said...

Yesterday evening I made a sauce of fresh tomato (from my garden), canned red peppers, onion, garlic, olive oil, basil, and oregano and it tastes as sweet as cake icing. Very stunning. Green beens, cauliflower, squash, lettuce, etc. never do that.

I think Wittgenstein had the last word on this topic -- the things of the world exhibit family resemblances rather than forming nice neat groups specifiable by a list of predicates.

Cristi said...

thanks to all posters!

seb - i really meant to say that the tomato is a problem for the category of 'fruit' and 'vegetable' - that those categories don't have defining predicates. but as long as we're on the subject of what a tomato is (linguistically speaking, as always, which i might argue IS category formation, but i know you'll disagree) a thing properly called 'tomato' doesn't necessarily come from a tomato plant. we have metaphorical usages of the term (a bad review is a 'rotten tomato'), we can properly call a picture of a tomato a 'tomato', and we can do wacky things like, say, substitute something else into a recipe (although, as language guy points out, there's not much like a tomato in the culinary sense) and then refer to that thing as the 'tomato.'

this is a much bigger problem for philosophy of language, which tries to explain why such utterances are 'true,' than it is for the fields you're concerned with, i think.

language guy - thanks for your comments! this will not be the first time on Invented Usage i've had to admit to not having read Wittgenstein. that said, i agree wholeheartedly with the statement you posted. but as i pointed out above, the notion of 'family resemblances' is not enough to explain the usage of a term, even if it were enough to explain the way we form categories of objects in the world.

Seb said...

Good point about the 'fruit' 'vegetable' essentialism. Of course that's what you meant.

As far as the philosophy of language problem goes, I think that yes, it's a bigger issue for language than it is for, say, thought, because language's syntax rules (among other things) constrain the kind of communicated representations in a way that thoughts aren't necessarily constrained.

So, while I might use "tomato" in a metaphorical sense, I have no choice in communication except to use the morpheme itself. But maybe in thought I have some way of identifying to myself that I mean "tomato, non-literally in this context." It also allows me to have a concept of "rotten tomato," with all of its connotations of being associated with images of Fozzy the Bear, that's not reducible to either "rotten" or "tomato" ('rottenness' actually plays almost no role in the thing that "rotten tomato" brings to mind for me--Fozzy plays a huge role. "rotten tomatos" are not tomatos that are rotten, but tomatos that are thrown at Fozzy and similarly maligned performers.)

Anonymous said...

To some extent, if we do not try to categorize, our ability to efficiently percieve and therefore concieve and also our ability to have language is greatly hindered if not impossible. And if categories are not generally agreed upon, language becomes quite useless as a communication tool. So perhaps it isn't so bad then that there are people out there that want tomatos to be recognized as fruit, perhaps just so the word "vegetable" doesn't lose all useful meaning. Although, I admit, that is an extreme and somewhat devil's-advocatish point of view.

iamthewalrus said...

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