The Problem with “Problematic”

On Barbell Logic Podcast episode #224 we answer a listener question about bidets.  In the question the listener used the word problematic. Listen here.  I said:

The word problematic is utter bullshit. Either something is a problem or it is not. You could think that something might possibly be a problem, but then you would say, this could be a problem. This could be a problem that when you say “problematic”, you impart some nature upon the thing that it may not in fact have.

In response a listener emailed me this:

Hey guys, love the show but wanted to point out that your last rant against the word “problematic” was (ironically) a problem in and of itself. When you set a binary distinction between “is” and “is not” a problem, you are missing the space between where something may or may not be a problem. 

That’s postmodernism for you, and it’s wrong and evil.  There can ONLY be a binary distinction between “is” and “is not.”  Something is either a problem, or it is not a problem.  Confusion as to whether something is a problem or not doesn’t change it’s true nature.  Whether you fully understand something, that thing is either a) a problem, or b) not a problem.  For anything A, everything is either A or not A. There is no A-ish. The law of excluded middle (the third law of logic) shows us that.  It states, “Everything must either be or not be.” There is no missing space between problems and not-problems.

Sure, you can say something might be a problem, but there’s nothing incorrect about using the word problematic. 

My interlocutor missed the point.  I’m not arguing about grammar. I know the word “problematic” can be used as an adjective.  It can also be used as a noun. I know it can be used in a grammatically correct sentence. The sentence, “Fish are purple airplanes.” is grammatically correct, but it’s bullshit. Everyone knows it’s nonsense because they know something about fish and airplanes.   Our nonsense sentence about fish also takes the form of a genus-differentia definition but we’re safe because it set off our BS detector and we discarded it.  

What happens when someone uses some terms we don’t know, but have a rhetorical ring to them?  “Whiteness is problematic.” This takes the form of a definition. What does “whiteness” mean?  What does “problematic” mean. Most folks don’t know, but they take it away as fact, just as they do a genus differential definition like “Squareness is rectangular.”

Most people don’t know a lot about metaphysics or logic so slipping a weasel word like “problematic” into the sentence forever breaks truth in the mind of the passive audience. The word runs afoul rules of logic.  It’s nonsense and any sentence with the word problematic in it is bullshit too.   

He goes on to write:

The first use of the word was 1609, so it’s been around for a while, even though it seems like the common usage has increased in recent years.

I don’t care if someone has been using a sneaky word for 400 years.  That only means that it has been confusing people about issues of right and wrong for centuries.     

“PROBLEMATIC applies especially to things whose existence, meaning, fulfillment, or realization is highly uncertain. // whether the project will ever be finished is problematic.”

My disputant cherry picked definitions.  Labeling something as problematic used to mark it for further exploration and categorization.  It was an admission that a thing was not understood. Problematicism has recently been used to stand in for a proper metaphysical category.  This new faux category, the problematic, is often used to describe behaviors and sociological phenomena. The stuff in this new category is not the same as stuff that “might be a problem”.  

Here’s the first definition from the Oxford English Dictionary.  

Of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty

Oxford English Dictionary,

Huh.  We’re back to the Excluded Middle problem again.  Is the goddammed thing at hand a problem or not. Can things have the nature of a problem and not be one?  How about this, can something have the nature of a human and not be a human? No. Neither can something have the nature of a problem without being a problem.  Can a thing constitute or present a problem or difficulty without in fact being a problem? Again, no. If something in its being constitutes or presents a problem, it takes on the nature of problems and is, in fact, a problem. 

“Problematicism” is metaphysical poison and a tool of the Enemy.  Don’t use the word and don’t allow it to be used. The next time someone uses the idea in your presence, nail them down.  Ask them, “is it a problem or not?” Make them label it. If they say it is a problem, make them explain to you how it is a problem.  

Everytime you let them use this word they stigmatize the non-problem.  Or, even worse, they downgrade a REAL problem to “problematic.” Don’t let them!

TL;DR  The use of the word “problematic” is a problem and the word should never, ever be used unless you are damnable sneak.

4 thoughts on “The Problem with “Problematic””

    1. Nope. It can be both A and B, but not have the nature of one and not be it. Something can be a dog and a pet. Or just be a dog, or just be a pet. Objects can belong to more than one category.

  1. Thanks for writing this. As the one who posed the bidet question and was lambasted for using the word, I do certainly appreciate further explanation of your perspective. I found the whole segment hilarious, and was surprised you did read my question “on air” I had only hoped to perhaps give you both a chuckle.

    I had no idea the word problematic carried any ambiguity with it. I’ve always thought it was like a synonym for problems – or rather an adjective form of a noun. I think I see your point, referring to the nature of the thing (adjective), rather than the thing itself (noun).

    Matt wondered if I was a tiny person who could fall into a toilet. I am 6’4”, 265lbs. I suppose I will look forward to first hand experience with a bidet someday, then perhaps my concerns will be addressed. Now Matt has me wondering if he’s aware of the two standard sizes of toilet seats used in North America. One being tiny, the other being larger and somewhat egg shaped. I agree with you that it sounds suspiciously like he has never learned to use toilet paper.

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