Saturday, October 9, 2010


I've been making myself more of a nuisance than usual. I've been asking people whether ice and steam are water. Does it matter? Well, if ice or steam isn't water, then water is not just H2O. And that is good to know. But the question sort of grew on me, as questions often do.

The result of my informal survey is that there is simply no consensus on the question. A number of people told me that ice that is frozen water, and hence it's water. On the other hand, my five-year-old son thought that ice is frozen water, and hence it's not water. At issue here, I suppose, is whether "frozen" is an alienans adjective like "fake" in "fake silk" (fake silk isn't silk). After all, as a colleague pointed out, a vaporized human isn't a human. The best argument I heard for the "ice isn't water" position was that if someone gives you a glass of just ice, and you say "I'd like some water in it", nobody will say "There already is water in it." But, still, there is no consensus.

So this is interesting. The case of water and ice is not a far-fetched case, like many cases in metaphysics. It's an entirely familiar, day-to-day case. And yet, as far as I can tell, our use underdetermines our meaning. Scary. If that's what happens with water, what about substance and simultaneity?

My linguistic intuitions are so polluted that they're barely worth asking about. But my inclination is to say that "water" is ambiguous in the way "man" is: there is water in the generic sense and water in the specific sense, and the water in the specific sense is the liquid phase of water in the generic sense. But the informal discussions make me unsure about this.


Tom said...

Is formula of water-molecule water? I would say no. Or would it be more adequate to ask, is water-molecule water? Hmmm... Still thinking... Is element of the stuff itself the very stuff, element of which it is?

Richard H said...

One of the things I do with children sometimes is ask two questions:
1. How many of you can walk on water?
2. How many of you can walk on water in its liquid state?

enigMan said...

I want to say that water is liquid dihydrogen monoxide (ice is solid dihydrogen monoxide), but there may be an equivocation even there, because 1 in 6,500 atoms of the hydrogen are the heavy isotope, deuterium, which is denoted by "D" rather than "H". Still, "H" may refer to both isotopes (both are isotopes of hydrogen). If so then water is H2O, and ice isn't water, and I suspect that those who say that ice is a form of water have learnt a bit of chemistry and are rather lazily using "water" to refer to H2O. But perhaps such usage changes the meaning of "water" so that they happen to be right after all...

Heath White said...

My guess is like yours, there is a specific and a general sense. The argument about the glass of ice seems obviously an implicature, since one asks for a glass of water when one wants a drink.

Also, "frozen" can't be an alienans adjective, since there are clear cases where "frozen X" is X. E.g. frozen ice, frozen snow, frozen wastelands, frozen hamburger meat, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"Alleged" is an alienans, but sometimes the alleged perpetrator is a perpetrator. Some frozen Fs aren't Fs and some are. Frozen steam isn't steam, and a frozen human is (at least typically) only a frozen corpse, but frozen meat is meat.

Jason Dulle said...

I think it's how we use words. Chemically, ice and vapor are just as much "water" as the liquid form, and yet colloquially we typically use "water" to refer to the liquid state. This answers the "water with my ice" justification for thinking ice is not water.

Andrew said...

Here is something which I think favors the idea of there being two senses of "water" (a generic and specific):
We use "steam" to refer to vaporized H20.
We use "ice" to refer to solidified H20.
Even though both are water, we do not think they are the same thing (in one way of thinking about them; If someone asked you if steam is ice, a very plausible answer would be, no).
Given we have specific terms for 2 of the 3 phases of H20, what do we use to refer to liquid H20?
To me it seems obvious that we use "water" in one sense to refer to a liquid state of H20 (as in "Can I have a glass of water? and upon receiving ice you would think you didn't get what you asked for...perhaps there is some implicature going on, but I think other things point in this direction as well.")
But we also use "water" in a more generic sense to refer to the thing which can be of any 3 phases: solid, liquid, or gas. I think many people (including my wife) say that ice, and steam are both water.
I think given we have specific terms for H20 in 2 of the 3 various phases, it would be conversationally strange to not have a term we use for it in the 3rd phase. This term I think is clearly "water". But, when the annoying analytic philosopher (like me) at the party points out upon receiving a glass of ice when you asked for water, "Oh but wait, your glass DOES have water in it, because water is H20." We want to respond, "Sure, but that's not what I was talking about. I wanted liquid water."
I think it is rather clear that we use water in 2 ways.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's another piece of evidence. You want a glass of water. You're given a glass of ice. You complain. You're told: "Just wait for the water to melt." That doesn't sound infelicitous, though one could also say (and maybe it would be slightly better) "Just wait for the ice to melt."

enigMan said...

"Oh but wait, your glass DOES have water in it, because water is H20."

From water being H2O it does not follow that ice is water. Water is H2O, because it is the liquid form of H2O. Ice is H2O because it is the solid form of H2O. But the solid form is not the liquid form.

But does "water" also name dihydrogen monoxide? I don't think there's any evidence that such is a proper use. Clearly some of us are using it that way, but that may just be a lazy habit of ours.

"Just wait for the water to melt."

That may avoid sounding infelicitous because it could be taken to be short for "Just wait for the water to melt off."

enigMan said...

...also, "water is liquid water" does sound wrong, like it should be "water is liquid." But that is no evidence the other way. Similarly, "men are male men" is true, and in some contexts would be perfect, for all that "men are male humans" looks better here.

Is "water crystals" not evidence for the thesis? But should that not properly be "ice crystals"? What about "water vapour" being evidence that "water" sometimes means dihydrogen monoxide? But that could be like "bird droppings" or "water droplets" and so on...