Three a week: Definitions

Philosophers are boring, always insisting on defining words to death. Three questions:

Question 1: Why such insistence on precise definitions?

Rather than ask a series of questions related to this broader question, as I normally do, I feel compelled to give an answer.

Precise definitions are absolutely fundamental to accurate thinking and accurate communication. We can argue all day about “human rights”, but if our definition for what “human” or “rights” differs, we might as well be speaking different languages (in fact, we are). Communication becomes a complete waste of time if the communicators are not using precise definitions for their words.

Philosophy crumbles at its core when people use vague definitions. We can not arrive at truth if we have not defined what we are even talking about. Cloudy word-choice leads to cloudy thinking and cloudy communication.

Question 2: How do we define words?

This question seems innocuous, but it is hugely controversial with enormous implications depending on how we answer it. The reason this is a tricky question is because we seem to fall into an infinite regress of defining our words. For example:

A: I understand you don’t like taxes, but this is a democracy.
B: Are you sure? What do you mean by “democracy”?
A: Where we the people vote for representatives in Congress.
B: What do you mean by “we the people”?
A: The average citizens of our country.
B: But what do you mean by “average” and “citizen”?
A: Just normal people, no royalty.
B: And what is meant by “normal”?
A: In contrast to the elites. Other systems are monarchical and stuff, they have kings.
B: What do you mean by “in contrast”, “elites”, and “other systems”?
And so on… ad infinitum.

Yes, this seems silly, but if there is no ultimate answer that we can give (in which the definitions do not need defining [which would make them non-words]), how can communication be possible? How did we arrive at the definition of “definition”, anyway? And when I try to answer that question, I have solved nothing if I need to define every word by using additional words. Communication has become impossible.

Eventually, it seems like we need an ostentatious definition: we point. What is the definition for “table”? That thing, right there. What is a “cat”? That creature right there, on the table.

Some people have concluded that language, and the basics for communal word-usage, are inherent in every human mind, from birth – that there are innate ideas and concepts which do not require previous learning. How are such things innate? Good question. This is why it is a controversial position.

Others have concluded that we can not have “innate ideas” or language, but that everything is learned. From the basics of language to the height of conceptual reasoning, all language – definitions included – is learned.

(Of course, this does not answer the infinite regress problem. Does a conceptual understanding of language presuppose a mind capable of understanding concepts, or can such a thing be learned? If every word needs to be defined, how does one go about defining words to babies without presupposing a language? How does a blank-slate mind understand what a word is? By what structure? If we say there is some kind of structure found in the mind of babies which allows them to understand language, aren’t we really saying there are “innate” concepts?)

Question 3: But how do you define “define”?

Just kidding.

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2 Responses to Three a week: Definitions

  1. Rich Stauter says:

    A dictionary defines a word in terms of other words, which are defined in terms of other words, which are defined in terms of other words, ad infinitum. Eventually of necessity, definitions become circular, wrapping around on themselves. Does this cirularity of definition pose a problem when words are used in logical constructions, which depend so much on accurate definition and linear progression?

  2. Steve says:

    Well, there is actually a problem with circular definitions, but I will argue otherwise first. We can explain how definitions come to be by analyzing how toddlers learn their words. You don’t linguistically explain what a lion is. You don’t describe it as being a large, yellow feline. That wouldn’t make sense to the kid. You point to a lion a few times and say “Lion”. This is ostentatious learning, and it can explain how the circular progression is first started. Kids associate verbal sounds with pointing. If I kept pointing to a smoothie I just made and said, “Ugnuk”, you would eventually associate those sounds with the smoothie.

    So, we don’t need verbal definitions for all words, we can just point.

    (Of course, one might say that this can be further explained via natural selection. Those brains which have associated stuff, sounds, and words into language have an advantage over those who cannot. Clearly, your survival can be improved via linguistic communication.)

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