The Definition of "Definition"
November 13, 2006 § 45 Comments
It is all the positivists’ fault.
Let me explain.
A definition is a formal statement about what something means.
Well, OK, but what does it mean for something to be a formal statement about what something means?
If we were positivists we would expect a definition to tell us everything pertinent that there is to say about the word or concept it defines. That is, the definition is really the same thing as the word it defines and can be substituted for it in other formal statements of things without changing any meaning. The word itself is just a shorthand way of referring to the definition.
But we aren’t positivists, because we know that positivism at bottom is a dead-end philosophy of meaning for arrogant adolescents.
Since we aren’t positivists, we understand that there is a difference between a formal statement and meaning. The formal statement doesn’t capture, contain, and completely specify all pertinent meaning; it merely points to meaning. A definition, then, is an inherently incomplete pointer to some meaning: it gives us enough of an idea to be able to understand the concept referred to, assuming that we have the intellectual capacity to do so, but it is not a complete formal representation of the concept. (We aren’t positivists, remember: so no sufficiently interesting concept has a complete formal representation at all. They aren’t even possible in principle).
Another way of putting this is that there is a difference between what someone is saying and how he is saying it. And when talking about various current events with Catholic uberblogger Mark Shea, quite a few commenters don’t seem to know whether they are disagreeing with the former or the latter.
In more general terms, people are expecting more of the formalities of language than it can deliver.