What is Definitional Retreat?

A definitional retreat takes place when someone changes the meaning of the words in order to deal with an objection raised against the original wording. By changing the meaning, he turns it into a different statement.


‘He’s never once been abroad’

‘As a matter of fact, he has been to Boulogne.’

‘You cannot call visiting Boulogne going abroad!’

(What can you call it then? How about calling it ‘sitting on a deckchair at Blackpool?’)


Words are used with conventional meanings. If we are allowed to deal with objections to what we say by claiming that they mean something totally unusual, rational discourse breaks down altogether.

The fallacy in a definitional retreat lies in its surreptitious substitution of one concept for another, under the guise of explaining what the words really mean. The support advanced for the one position might not apply to its substitute. (‘When I said I hadn’t been drinking, officer; I meant that I hadn’t had more than I get through in a normal social evening.’)

The definitional retreat allows someone beaten in an argument to save face by claiming that he was really putting forward a totally different view. It also allows for a possible exception to be eliminated by a more restrictive interpretation.


‘You have no experience of dealing with terrorism.’

‘Well, I did act as anti-terrorist adviser to the governments of Malaysia and Singapore, and i spent four years at the US anti-terrorist academy.’

‘I meant you have no experience of dealing with terrorists in England.’

(He should have made it Scunthorpe, to be even safer.)


‘When I said that we were ruled by tyrants, I was naturally referring to the tax-collectors and administrators, rather than to Your Majesty.’


Definitional retreat is a favourite recourse of philosophers. Their proposed definitions of Virtue’, ‘the good’, and even of ‘meaning’ itself, are set up like wickets for their colleagues to bowl at. When the occasional googly scatters the stumps, instead of walking back gracefully to the pavilion, the philosopher is more likely to re-erect the stumps in a slightly different place and show that the ball would not have hit them in that position.

A passage from Lewis Carroll sums it up:


‘There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” ‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”, Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (London: Macmillan, 1927), pp. 124-5.


The UK’s finance ministers are no less skilled. They have vast numbers of Treasury officials whose sole purpose is to redefine words like ‘growth’, ‘investment’, ‘spending’ and ‘business cycle’.

When you marshal your own arguments into a timely definitional retreat, it is advisable to claim a meaning for the words which is at least plausible. It should have some authority behind the usage. One good way is to slip into a technical vocabulary when you started out using ordinary speech.


Of course, / was using ‘expectation’ as statisticians do> multiplying the probability of the returns by their size. I didn’t mean it in the sense that we expected anything to happen.

(Except, perhaps, for a fish wriggling artfully off a hook.)


A useful device to provide covering fire for a definitional retreat is the presumption that everyone understood your

second meaning all along, and only your critic has been so finicky as to ignore it:


Everybody knows that when we talk of trains being punctual, we use the railway definition of being within ten minutes of the timetable.

(They do now, anyway.)


The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!