Is water wet? To answer the question, “is water wet?” I believe it depends on how you define “water” and what you mean by “wet.” If you really want to get technical (you know, like a philosopher would) then there is a reason water is wet.
All liquids have surface tension, and in chemistry we mean the ability of a liquid to adhere to the surface of a solid. Water has extremely high surface tension, which forms droplets; things like oil also have very high surface tension, so things like soap or detergent are usually necessary for them to wet solid materials. Put another way, these materials can’t “wet” — which just means that they can spread and impinge on the surface on their own — by themselves because of their high surface energy.
But all that is just chemistry. Is water wet according to an African perspective?
What does wetness mean?
Wetness can be thought of as a quality, or a condition. For example, when something is wet, it is liquid sticking to a solid. This can be best described in terms of its physical properties. A degree of wetness exists that depends on its ability to adhere to the surface of a solid. When we say that something is wet, we mean that liquid is sticking to its surface—though we might not think about it too much.
The question of whether water is wet is one that has baffled the greatest minds in philosophy, science and beyond. For many years, the official stance of Oxford University’s prestigious Philosophy Faculty was that “water is not wet.” In a statement issued in 2015, they said: “Water is not wet because ‘wetness’ is a property resulting from the interaction of liquid water and an object that causes it to adhere to the surface of that object by means of intermolecular forces. Water does not adhere to itself, therefore it is not wet.”
In recent years, however, Oxford has changed its stance. In 2017, the university tweeted: “Is water wet? We’ve finally answered this age-old question.” The statement linked to an article on their website which concluded: “Water isn’t actually wet.”
Traditionally, philosophers have maintained that water cannot be considered wet because something can only be described as “wet” if it itself contains moisture or liquid, rather than simply being a liquid; otherwise, everything would be wet — including the air.
As water contains moisture but also creates moisture when it touches another object (such as your skin) it cannot be described as being wet under this definition.
You feel raindrops on your arm, and then you feel the water sliding down your skin. “Rain is wet,” you say to yourself. But is it?
No, rain isn’t wet — and here’s the proof. Rain can’t be wet because something can only be considered wet when it has contact with something else. A wet surface or object has liquid on it or in it and is in contact with liquid, not itself.
When something is said to be wet, what that really means is that the object has come into contact with a liquid, such as water, and taken on some properties of that liquid, such as adhesion (water sticking to the object) and cohesion (water molecules sticking to other water molecules).
For example, if you drop a glass marble into a bowl full of water, the marble gets wet because water is clinging to it. The marble takes on some properties of water — namely, adhesion and cohesion. Water sticks to the marble because of adhesion. They attracted water molecules to the glass molecules in the marble. Water molecules also stick together (cohesion) because they’re attracted to other water molecules; this causes surface tension at the surface between the air and water.
So who do we believe? They have proven both answers scientifically.
Is water wet?—An African perspective
Yes, water is wet. But this isn’t a question that has an objective answer. It’s an abstract concept, and the meaning of “wet” depends on how you define it.
One way to think about it is that wetness is a property of something being surrounded by water. For example, if you put your hand in a bowl of water, it becomes wet because there’s water all around it. That’s why we say that water makes things wet.
Another way to define “wet” is to the degree to which something contains water. A dry sponge contains no water, so it’s not wet at all. A dripping sponge contains lots of water, so it’s soaked. Soaking up water makes something wetter.
If you define wetness as containing a lot of water, then yes, water can be wet. If you define being wet as needing to be surrounded by liquid, then no — since more water already surrounded water when it’s in an open container or other body of liquid.
So this is just one of those questions where you have to decide for yourself what the answer will be. You can choose whichever definition suits you best.
So when you ask “is water wet?” the answers would always vary.
The reason this question can’t be answered is that the perspective of the person asking changes according to their context. If a biologist asks if water is wet, they are making a scientific inquiry. If a philosopher asks if water is wet, they are making an inquiry into metaphysics and logic.
The distinction between a scientific and philosophical perspective is important when determining what makes something true. When a layperson with no scientific background or philosophical background were to answer the question “is water wet?” they would say yes, it is.
From an African perspective, water is wet, and that’s damn useful. You can drink it, you can swim in it, you can water your plants with it- all of that is really convenient. Other liquids are not as useful as water. Alcohol, milk and many other liquids do not stand close to the importance of water.
It can get pretty confusing figuring out what’s wet and what isn’t, but hopefully after reading this article you will consider the layperson’s perspective, an African’s views, the scientific approach and the logical approach. It might even tempt you to shut off the tap a few times before running your bath or taking that shower.