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What is the definition of "calculus"?

I've scoured some online dictionaries, only to be stumped as no dictionaries offer me a satisfactory explanation. I'm mostly focused on the "reaching a conclusion" variant of calculus. Take Oxford Dictionary, for example:

  • Calculus is defined as "A particular method or system of calculation or reasoning."

I've come across other variants such as

  • national calculus (example: The terrorist attacks scrambled the national calculus ),
  • political calculus* (example: The governor wakes up and looks at the political calculus, and sees if there's a need to do something)
  • economic calculus (example: Political conservatives agree that an economic calculus must give way to a strategic consciousness when national or global security is at stake)

With each and every variant I come up across, I've tried to figure out the meaning of the stem form calculus. But national calculus, political calculus, and economic calculus are vague in its meaning and relation to the "reaching a conclusion" variant of calculus. What is the true underlying definition for this elusive word?

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xbladefate25

I'm mostly focused on the "reaching a conclusion" variant of calculus. Take Oxford Dictionary, for example:

  • Calculus is defined as "A particular method or system of calculation or reasoning."

I wouldn't say that "reaching a conclusion" is necessarily part of the meaning of "method (or system) of reasoning".

The "particular method" referred to in the definition is found in the word that precedes 'calculus' in your examples:

national calculus: the method/system of reasoning used by the nation
political calculus: the method/system or reasoning used in politics
economic calculus: the method/system of reasoning used in economics

xbladefate25What is the true underlying definition for this elusive word?

I agree that 'calculus' does seem a bit vague at times, but I think the meaning is just as defined above. It's more of a methodology than a concrete result (conclusion).

CJ

Comments  
xbladefate25What is the true underlying definition for this elusive word?

The earliest citation for the word in the OED is from the early seventeenth century in the sense "stone", like a kidney stone or a gallstone, which it still means among doctors today. It came in straight from Latin where it means "small stone". Late in that century, it is cited in the abstract sense we know today. It also acquired the sense "calculation; computation" (note the "calcul-"), but that quickly went obsolete. The upshot is that the underlying definition is "small stone", which refers to counters and abaci and such in the abstract.

In common parlance, calculus means "that branch of mathematics that I avoided at school because it was too hard". In slightly less common parlance, it means "that branch of mathematics that deals with curved volumes and areas". But the branch of mathematics is actually more than one branch, and if we want to be precise, we have to say which calculus it is, differential calculus, integral calculus, etc. In that context, it merely means "way of doing mathematics".

The figurative senses you have found—political, economic, etc.—are little more than posturing by journalists, who incidentally were among those who avoided the math at school. It just sounds cool, like they are smart or something. We are left to try to make sense of it, and it really isn't that hard. There are ways of figuring out politics and economics, and that would be their calculuses. This is a figurative sense, and therefore it will not be found in many dictionaries. It is not in the OED.

P.S. - There are two plurals used in English, "calculi" and "calculuses". I tend to reserve the Latin plurals for the technical, medical, scientific, etc.