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Aristotle’s sandwich

A front page story by Jenn Abelson in the Boston Globe today covers the great sandwich controversy. It seems that a Panera’s in Worcester sued the shopping center its in for allowing a Qdoba (sic) burrito shop to open. Panera claimed its lease forbids any other sandwich shops from opening in the shopping center. The case went to court, and after the testimony of sandwich experts, the judge ruled against Panera. A burrito is not a sandwich.

This would have been a great example for my book of the absurdity of Aristotelian definition, and also its occasional necessity. (Unfortunately, I’ve turned in the final, copy-edited version.) The afffadavit of Judith A. Quick, former deputy director of the Standards and Labeling Division of the USDA said that the USDA definition of a sandwich is that it “consists of two distinct pieces of bread (or the top and bottom sections of a sliced roll or bun) with some kind of filling that contains meat or poultry.” Chris Schlesinger, chef and owner of All Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge said in his affadacity that “A sandwich is of European roots and is generally recognized in our industry as two pieces of leavened bread with something in between, typically slices of meat and/or slices of cheese…A sandwich is typically served cold.”

Now, we could argue with these definitions. On the old Seinfeld I happened to see last night, Jerry says to Elaine, “You know, the whole concept of lunch is based on tuna.” So, clearly Quick’s definition fails. Quick’s would also rule out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Schlesinger’s is better, although it disrespects grilled cheese. And did he really have to bring in the ethnic note? Sure, sandwiches originated in Europe, but if you cut a Brazilian barbecued beef sandwich, does it not ooze?

While quibbling can make a definition better, it can’t make it perfect. But that’s ok. Definitions are almost always after the fact. Meaning does not originate in definitions. For example, we quibble with Quick and Schlesinger because we already have a sense of what a sandwich is. If Quick’s definition doesn’t allow PB&J, then that definition is simply wrong. This pre-existing sense of how the world is sliced is what enables us to come up with definitions. But the world’s slices aren’t as clean and neat as those made by the machine in the deli. So, while a tuna sandwich is the sort of example you could point at if someone wanted to know what sandwich is, an ice cream sandwich is not. Neither is the matzoh and haroset “sandwich” we eat at the Passover meal. Neither is two slices of pizza put face to face and turned into a “pizza sandwich” by your teenage son. These are all sandwiches in some sense, but are not good examples of sandwiches.

Eleanor Rosch, at UC Berkeley, would call a tuna sandwich a prototype sandwich. We organize experience around such prototypes, so that some sandwiches are clearly sandwiches (because they’re so like the prototype sandwiches) and others are sort-of, kind-of sandwiches. Prototypes, unlike definitions, are loose edged. We may be able to extract the features of a prototype to which we compare the rest of experience, but those features may not be consistent (e.g., Wittgenstein’s “game,” an example of a family resemblance in which there is no single feature shared by every member of the category) and certainly are not binary: A two-slice, face-to-face pizza slice sandwich is not a “real” sandwich, but it’s more of a sandwich than is a bucket of sand or a bee’s chin whisker.

But along comes a law suit and a judge has to draw a line where there is none in our infrastructure of meaning. Is a burrito a sandwich? Haul out the experts. Except, in this case, I would trust a linguistic expert more than a chef or regulator. In any case, the definitions we adduce are likely to be shaped by the things we’ve already decided—well, “decided” makes it sound as if it’s an act of reason instead of a groping of the features of our environment—should be covered by the definition.

So, we are in the odd position of thinking that definitions define things when in fact they often impose arbitrary divisions that obscure their real meaning.

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