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Formal Operations, Abstraction, and Meaning

A Tract Book Essay

By

Anthony J. Fejfar, J.D., Esq., Coif

© Copyright 2007 by Anthony J. Fejfar

I have an interesting argument to make. I argue that some people

simply cannot conceptualize the idea that an individual word can have more

than one meaning. This is a sort of cognitive fundamentalism. Let us

take an example. Consider these two words “black cat.” Now, the

fundamentalist will assume, naively, that “black cat” is simply a four legged

small animal with dark fur. However, there is at least one other meaning,

and that is “fireworks.” In some parts of America, on the Fourth of July,

inch and a half firecrackers called “black cat” are sold and used. So, if I,

on the Fourth of July said to my buddy, “hey give me a black cat,” I most

likely will be give a firecracker and not a small dark animal. I argue that

the ability to understand that one word can simultaneously have more than

one meaning is a type a abstraction which involves a kind of formal

operations, cognitively. People who cannot abstract using formal

operations should not be lawyers, judges, law professors, or legislators.

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There is another type of abstraction that is also important. If I see tall

“plant” 25 feet tall with a trunk, branches, and leaves, then this is most

likely a “tree.” However, in Spanish it would be an “arbol.” Similarly, as

I have argued previously, a small plant with branches and leaves could be

called a shrub, or a bush, or some scrub. Once again, for some people it is

impossible for them to understand that a given object might have more than

one word which describes it. This is, again, a type of cognitive

fundamentalism. Those with formal operations can see that one object

might simultaneously be a bush and a shrub.

Now, this is a serious matter because in law, the same word or words

can have different meanings in different contexts. So, for example, the

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a “Concealed Weapons” criminal

statute. Without reading the statute one might think that if I carried a

hunting knife or a lock blade knife under my shirt I would be violating the

statute and could go to jail. However, if one were to read the definition of

“Concealed Weapon” actually found in the statute, one would find that the

only type of knife prohibited for a person to carry by the statute is a “switch

blade knife.” Obviously the statutory definition and the “commonsense”

definition are not the same. The commonsense definition is wrong. Once

again, if one cannot understand the difference between a commonsense

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definition and a statutory definition, then one should not be a lawyer, a

judge, a law professor, or a legislator.