Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Hypocrite”

Hypocrite (n.): a word that means that the truth of its application is doubtful.

(That recovering alcoholic publicly preached tea-totaling while privately hitting the bottle.  What a hypocrite. )

The word “hypocrite” is one of those funny words coming out of the Greek that could just as easily have developed etymologically along either of two very different paths.   The word “hypocritecould have developed as a combination of the Greek word for judgment (υποκρίνομαι or hypokrinomai) and the Greek word for critics (κριτική or kritiki). This etymological combination is plausible because an actor (hypokrites) performing a dramatic text according to a his judgment or interpretation of the script. On the other hand, the word could have developed as an amalgam of the Greek prefix for under (υπο or hypo) and the Greek verb for decision (krinein).  In this case the original meaning must have implied a deficiency in the ability to work through a decision process.

Whether the word was originally constituted to describe the process by which an actor judged or critically read his script or to name a decision-making deficiency hypokrites or hypocrites came to refer to play-acting or assuming a counterfeit persona for the purposes of misleading an audience.  However, it is at this point I must also pause to make an important distinction: a hypocrite is a person who publicly purports to have virtues or hold moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc. that he or she privately does not actually have or hold.  Thus, an a gambling addict who preached against the evils of gambling while occasionally falling into his or her old addictions would not be a hypocrite so long as that gambler’s mental convictions squared with what the message they proclaimed.

To put the distinction another way, what is required for a person to be a hypocrite is not merely a disjunction between their purported beliefs and their actions–that person might be self-deluded or merely occasionally inconsistent–there must be an intention to publicly play the part of a virtuous person while secretly rejecting those virtues.  The hypocrite is an actor that play-acts at virtuousness for the purpose of appearing to be something they are not.  While this distinction is not often made in contemporary use of the word “hypocrite,” a prescriptive linguists like Noah Webster would insist upon it.

As clearly and simply as possible, a hypocrite is a person who:

1) Has mental state A (where A is a belief or conviction)

2) Purports to believe B (where B is contrary to A)

3) Acts in public so as to reinforce the purported belief B

4) Acts in private according to actual belief A

From this formulation the challenge that the word “hypocrite” has undertaken begins to come into focus.  For the word “hypocrite” to be legitimately applied to any person (Bill) the judge (Bob) must have access to that person’s mental state so that they can observe–not just a disjunction between Bill’s public actions and Bill’s private actions–but the disjunction between Bill’s internal thought world and what Bill says they are.  Since no one other than Bill has access to Bill’s mental states, only Bill could be justified in calling himself a hypocrite.  While people do occasionally call themselves “hypocrites” any such person would already have ceased to be a “hypocrite” by that admission–as they would have failed to be an exemplar of premise (3).  Therefore, no judge without access to another person’s mind could be justified in calling another person a hypocrite and a person with access to their own mind who admitted to hypocrisy would already have ceased to be a hypocrite.  Thus, the word “hypocrite” means a person who fulfills a series of premises, but the nature of those premises is such that the first can never with–any certainty–be evaluated suggesting that the truth of the label is always merely accidental.

Now, the most obvious rebuttal to this argument would be to suggest that my analysis of “hypocrite” might be applied to any word that depends for its truth on the presence of a non-verifiable/non-falsifiable premise.  However, I’ve struggled to come up with any other words of this type whose premise(s) cannot be validated by at least one someone–and thus be justifiably applied to some referent–without falsifying another necessary premise by that application.  Other words that rely on unknowable mental states can still be applied by at least the owner of that mind–Love is a mental state that cannot be externally verified, but I at least can still say “I love my wife” and know that the use of the word “love” is justified.

Another, particularly bright bulb might argue along the line of the philosophical school of functionalism that because no human being ever has direct access to another’s mind people could be justified in calling another person a hypocrite based only on premises (2), (3), and (4).  Since mental states can only be deduced from actions, pragmatically it would not matter if a person’s mental states differed so long as their actions fulfilled the necessary premises.  However, I would have to disagree.  For the analytic philosophers among, us allow me to conduct a thought experiment.  For the continental philosophers, let me tell you a story.

(Imagine that) or (There once was) a man (who) drew a sizable salary from a company because his now deceased father had been the owner.  As a condition of his yearly stipend the man visited the board of directs of this company once a year and sign at the bottom of many, many pages of legal fine print.  The man tried every year to read what he signed, but could never discover what the company produced or in what capacity he was involved.  However, the stipend allowed the man to pursue his one true love: political action and lobbying for the abolition of the production and consumption of alcohol.  Imagine the man’s surprise when one day a newspaper expose pasted his picture on the front page under the headline “Hypocrite: Brewer’s Son makes Millions while Decrying Booze.”

Now, on the functionalist reading, it makes no difference whether the man in the story knew where his money came from or not–his mental state is not part of the equation.  The man purported to be against alcohol production, but secretly profited from it.  Functionally, the newspaper’s headline is accurate.  However, I think most of us would say that the man can not be a hypocrite as he was unaware of the implicit connection that he had with the production and distribution of alcohol–he didn’t know that his signatures every year rubber-stamped the decisions of the board of directors of the brewery to buy more hops, bottles, and advertising time in direct contradiction to his public efforts to shut that company down.  From this general perspective it seems as though what the man knew–what information his mental states did or did not include–makes all the difference with regard to the accuracy of the newspaper’s headline.

If I’m right–and maybe I’m not–the word “Hypocrite” might mean something, but the nature of its meaning–the four premises above–is such that the legitimacy of its application is not just occasionally, but necessarily in doubt every time it is used.  Now, an actual referent is not a necessary condition for a word to be meaningful–the word unicorn has no referent in the world, but I doubt that people think that the word “hypocrite” refers to an imaginary creature.

I think there is a way out of this snag–but I’ve already gone on for too long.  Tell me what you think in the comments!

We’ll be taking a break from the Lexicon series tomorrow while I have a surprise guest-blogger take the reigns tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to it, and so should you!


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