Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 07:19 am
I posted this on a different thread, but I thought better of doing so, and decided to start a new thread on definition. It deserves a thread of its own, and deserves greater currency than it would have on the other thread.

Although the etymology of a word doesn't tell you what that word means now, words often contain traces of their etymology, and these traces are often helpful in understanding its present meaning. The term "define" comes from the Latin, "definire" which means, "to limit" or, "to set boundaries to". And that is helpful because indeed to define a term is to give its limits in how it is applied to the world. Of course the more specific a word is, the better its limits, and the vaguer, the worse its limits. So, it will be easier to set limits to the application of a term that has a specific meaning, than to the application of a term that is vague. Since to say of a term that it is vague is to say of it that its limits of application are not clear. It is, I think, always possible to define a term, for it is always possible to set limits to its application. A term's application should not be too wide, otherwise it will be applicable to anything, and we won't know what (if anything) is is not applicable to. It will be too inclusive, and so, apply to what it should not apply to. And it should not be too narrow either, since then it will be too exclusive, and not apply to what it should apply to. In other words, like the baby bear's porridge, it should be "just right". And, getting it "just right" may take some ingenuity.
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Fido
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:00 am
@kennethamy,
Every word is a concept, and every concept defines an object as a subject...
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:02 am
@Fido,
Fido;115557 wrote:
Every word is a concept, and every concept defines a subject...


What does "define a subject" mean?
Emil
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:13 am
@kennethamy,
To add to:
[INDENT]Although the etymology of a word doesn't tell you what that word means now, words often contain traces of their etymology, and these traces are often helpful in understanding its present meaning.
[/INDENT]Indeed. Though it is as noted often a useful guide to its current meaning. If one concludes that the word means now what it once did, one would commit the etymological fallacy (ref).

-

I'm not sure about this part:
[INDENT]It is, I think, always possible to define a term, for it is always possible to set limits to its application.
[/INDENT]But it depends on the details. It may not be possible to define some words without giving a circular definition. A circular definition is one that includes the word/concept that it is 'attempting' to define.

Also, there are many kinds of definitions. Stipulative, lexical, clarifying and ostensive.
fast
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:26 am
@kennethamy,
I was thinking yesterday that defining a word is a bit like making an ice sculpture from a big block of ice. We need to chisel down the outer edges of the block to exclude ice that does not belong, but as we approach the ice we want to keep, we need to be especially careful not to chisel away ice we do want to keep. It goes along with what you said, "it should be just right."
0 Replies
 
Fido
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:35 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;115559 wrote:
What does "define a subject" mean?

I sort of corrected my self, it defines an object, and recreates it as subject...That thing becomes a thing, and in the process it is seen as an object, so it can only be finite reality if it will be de- fined...Infinites cannot be defined...No one can show the limits of emotion, or time, or God...When one shows the limits of an object as with science, it does so with values, which are a form of meaning based upon numbers... Think of a certain definition of a shape in geometry... Aside from dimensions, the sides have a certain relationship to one another in space, which includes all like figures... Now, that is a constant, because the definition, which is the concept, is conserved...Now; one hears of the conservation of mass and motion...These are constants, that are not changed by any object considered under the definition, so they are concepts....So; I can say, that a certain Geometrical shape is still the same shape whether larger or smaller, so the concept has a certain use, of a conserved quality under which we can compare differences rationally...

This principal, as conservation is. is common to all concepts, and is the same as identity in abstract logic... So; all objects can be defined because they can be identified, and their identification is their definition, and that definition is conserved... In moral philosophy we look for unchanging definitions of justice, or love, or good...These infinites defy definition, and we give our lives to support such definition as we give them...We define justice with a just life...We define love with a loving life... We make spiritual concepts real in a tangible fashion by what we make out of them...But what we have of concepts in the physical world of values can only be conceived of as matter of no being with a certain meaning...
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 09:44 am
@Emil,
Emil;115561 wrote:
To add to:[INDENT]Although the etymology of a word doesn't tell you what that word means now, words often contain traces of their etymology, and these traces are often helpful in understanding its present meaning.
[/INDENT]Indeed. Though it is as noted often a useful guide to its current meaning. If one concludes that the word means now what it once did, one would commit the etymological fallacy (ref).

-

I'm not sure about this part:[INDENT]It is, I think, always possible to define a term, for it is always possible to set limits to its application.
[/INDENT]But it depends on the details. It may not be possible to define some words without giving a circular definition. A circular definition is one that includes the word/concept that it is 'attempting' to define.

Also, there are many kinds of definitions. Stipulative, lexical, clarifying and ostensive.


I wonder why you think that for some words only a circular definition is possible. Have you any examples in mind? Some philosophers have proposed the argument that since to define terms is to define them in terms of simpler elements, there must be ultimate simples which are indefinable because there are not simpler elements. G.E. Moore, for instance, held that (at least at one time) and thought that "red" named a simple, and so was indefinable. And so, also was the word, "good". (Moore argued that in his, Principia Ethica.

The kind of definition I was thinking of was, lexical. One can always, of course, stipulate a definition.

---------- Post added 12-30-2009 at 10:59 AM ----------

Fido;115568 wrote:
I sort of corrected my self, it defines an object, and recreates it as subject...That thing becomes a thing, and in the process it is seen as an object, so it can only be finite reality if it will be de- fined...


Hmm. I thought as much.
Emil
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Dec, 2009 11:25 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;115571 wrote:
I wonder why you think that for some words only a circular definition is possible. Have you any examples in mind? Some philosophers have proposed the argument that since to define terms is to define them in terms of simpler elements, there must be ultimate simples which are indefinable because there are not simpler elements. G.E. Moore, for instance, held that (at least at one time) and thought that "red" named a simple, and so was indefinable. And so, also was the word, "good". (Moore argued that in his, Principia Ethica.

The kind of definition I was thinking of was, lexical. One can always, of course, stipulate a definition.


But I did not say that I believe/think that some words can only be circularly defined. All words can be circularly defined by the way, so there are no words that cannot be defined.

I suggested that there may be some undefinable words. I used to believe that there was, one such word I thought was "thing", or whatever word is chosen as the omniword, I chose "thing" because it is included in words such as "something", "everything", "nothing". Now I'm not so sure. I'll give it some more thought another day.

Also, I don't believe that words must be defined in simpler words. How does one determine the complexity of a word anyway? I'm assuming you were using "word" and "term" synonymously. One must be careful not to confuse words with the concepts/ideas they are used to communicate.

Thanks for mentioning the things about G. E. Moore.

Quote:
Hmm. I thought as much.


Me too. There is no escape from nonsense. The best solution is not to answer nonsense, that they will not respond to one's responses etc.
0 Replies
 
longknowledge
 
  1  
Reply Mon 18 Jan, 2010 11:53 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;115571 wrote:
The kind of definition I was thinking of was, lexical.


What do you mean by "lexical definition"?

Dictionary definitions of "lexical definition":

The meaning of a word in actual usage by speakers of a certain language.
The meaning of a word in common usage by speakers of the language.
A faithful report of the way in which a term is used within a particular language-community.
A report of how a word is actually used.
A definition of the kind commonly thought appropriate for dictionary definitions of natural language terms, namely, a specification of their conventional meaning. [doubly circular!]

Other statements about "lexical definition" from various webpages:

Lexical definition specifies the meaning of an expression by stating it in terms of other expressions whose meaning is assumed to be known.
The lexical definition of a term, also known as the dictionary definition, is the meaning of the term in common usage.
A lexical definition is the sort of definition one is likely to find in the dictionary.
In computer science, the lexical definition defines what tokens and separators are in formal languages -- the characters and words that are used in a programming language.
The goal of a lexical definition is to specify how a term is already used in a particular language community. The validity of a lexical definition is contingent on how accurately it specifies usage.
Lexical, or dictionary, definitions are reports of common usage (or usages). Such definitions are said to be reportive (alternatively, reportative) definitions.

And finally:

The Lexical or Dictionary Definition of a word, term or expression is (or specifies or reports) the meaning of the word, term or expression in actual and common usage (or usages) by speakers of a certain language, stated as simply as possible, in terms of other expressions whose meaning is assumed to be known, in order to convey information to the widest possible audience. It is descriptive, reporting actual usage within speakers of a language, and changes with changing usage of the term. It is the sort of definition one is likely to find in the dictionary and usually the type expected from a request for a definition. It tends to be inclusive, attempting to capture everything the word, term or expression is used to refer to, and as such is often too vague for many purposes. They are true or false depending on whether they do or do not accurately report common usage. (Wikipedia; italics mine)

By the way, all words were originally slang.

:flowers:
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Tue 19 Jan, 2010 04:18 am
@kennethamy,
I think one of the major issues in philosophy is that by its very nature it uses many words which are very difficult to define. And that is because of the general principle that the more specific a word is, the easier it is to define. It is generally very easy to define nouns that signify common objects or shapes (hammer, dog, window, rectangle) because they refer to a very specific concept. So it is a straightforward matter to define one thing in terms of another.

When it comes to defining abstract concepts such as those used in philosophy (mind, intention, reason), it is considerably more difficult. In fact I thought that a good part of the work of people like Frege and Quine was dedicated towards just this endeavour by defining rigourous logical rules covering language and signification, and so on. Bertrand Russell even proposed a scheme of 'logical atomism' which however I think was abandoned. Another type of difficulty comes from defining words which everyone uses on the basis of 'tacit knowledge' or 'social consensus' - again these might be very broad or somewhat vague terms. And when it comes to the metaphysical aspects of philosophy, some terms may be very hard to define indeed, which is perhaps one of the reasons that it has fallen into disfavour in this very technically-oriented age.

I find in my case, I am not an especially 'technical' philosopher but in my area of interest I have learned a certain a lexicon within which, it is hoped, like-minded persons will know what is meant by certain terms. To some extent this provides a 'working definition' in that a sense is developed within a discussion as to the meaning of those terms. I suppose this is the meaning of 'a universe of discourse'. After all within the Scholastic tradition, a great deal of effort was made to create and impart exact definitions for technical terms within philosophy, but then that too was in the context of a long and disciplined tradition.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 19 Jan, 2010 08:41 am
@jeeprs,
jeeprs;120983 wrote:
I suppose this is the meaning of 'a universe of discourse'. After all within the Scholastic tradition, a great deal of effort was made to create and impart exact definitions for technical terms within philosophy, but then that too was in the context of a long and disciplined tradition.


It really isn't.

Domain of discourse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Tue 19 Jan, 2010 02:26 pm
@kennethamy,
From which I quote

Quote:
The term "universe of discourse" generally refers to the entire set of terms used in a specific discourse, i.e. the family of linguistic or semantic terms that are specific to any one area of interest. In model-theoretical semantics, the term "universe of discourse" refers to the set of entities that a model is based on.


Which is pretty well exactly what I said.
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Tue 19 Jan, 2010 11:43 pm
@kennethamy,
anyway I am not really challenging or trying to derail your thread here, just contributing a particular perspective.
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Wed 20 Jan, 2010 09:49 am
@jeeprs,
jeeprs;121088 wrote:
From which I quote



Which is pretty well exactly what I said.


I don't think so.
0 Replies
 
Deckard
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 12:36 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;115538 wrote:
I posted this on a different thread, but I thought better of doing so, and decided to start a new thread on definition. It deserves a thread of its own, and deserves greater currency than it would have on the other thread.

Although the etymology of a word doesn't tell you what that word means now, words often contain traces of their etymology, and these traces are often helpful in understanding its present meaning. The term "define" comes from the Latin, "definire" which means, "to limit" or, "to set boundaries to". And that is helpful because indeed to define a term is to give its limits in how it is applied to the world. Of course the more specific a word is, the better its limits, and the vaguer, the worse its limits. So, it will be easier to set limits to the application of a term that has a specific meaning, than to the application of a term that is vague. Since to say of a term that it is vague is to say of it that its limits of application are not clear. It is, I think, always possible to define a term, for it is always possible to set limits to its application. A term's application should not be too wide, otherwise it will be applicable to anything, and we won't know what (if anything) is is not applicable to. It will be too inclusive, and so, apply to what it should not apply to. And it should not be too narrow either, since then it will be too exclusive, and not apply to what it should apply to. In other words, like the baby bear's porridge, it should be "just right". And, getting it "just right" may take some ingenuity.


The use of the word 'definition' seems to be confined to words and terms but not groups of words:

For example consider these questions:

What is the definition of that word?
What is the definition of that sentence? <-- doesn't sound right
What is the definition of that poem? <--doesn't sound right

On the other hand 'meaning' sounds fine in all three cases.

Why is this?
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 12:43 am
@Deckard,
Deckard;126952 wrote:
The use of the word 'definition' seems to be confined to words and terms but not groups of words:

For example consider these questions:

What is the definition of that word?
What is the definition of that sentence? <-- doesn't sound right
What is the definition of that poem? <--doesn't sound right

On the other hand 'meaning' sounds fine in all three cases.

Why is this?


I don't know at the moment. Of course, in the case of the poem, "meaning" means something quite different from what it means in the case of words. It means something like the exposition of the poem. We talk of the meaning of a novel in the same way.
0 Replies
 
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 12:47 am
@Deckard,
Deckard;126952 wrote:
The use of the word 'definition' seems to be confined to words and terms but not groups of words:

For example consider these questions:

What is the definition of that word?
What is the definition of that sentence? <-- doesn't sound right
What is the definition of that poem? <--doesn't sound right

On the other hand 'meaning' sounds fine in all three cases.

Why is this?


This is a good question. Is it because the words pull or distort at the definitions/meaning of one another as they are gathered together? If definition is fencing, then maybe there's something in words-with-neighbors that doesn't like a fence?

This too: the dictionary offers us words in isolation. Life offers us words in combination. Meaning seems more like interpretation. Definition plays it safer?
Deckard
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 01:29 am
@Reconstructo,
Reconstructo;126955 wrote:
This is a good question. Is it because the words pull or distort at the definitions/meaning of one another as they are gathered together? If definition is fencing, then maybe there's something in words-with-neighbors that doesn't like a fence?

This too: the dictionary offers us words in isolation. Life offers us words in combination. Meaning seems more like interpretation. Definition plays it safer?


A sentence has both subject and predicate. Definitions are predicated of terms. Term x is definition y. That is a sentence.

Oddly enough we call this sentence itself a definition or do we? Maybe not. Nah, let's not go there. In a dictionary I am more likely to refer to things of the from "Term x is definition y" as entries.

Are then definitions predicates? Yes.

Are then predicates definitions? Well I would say that all predicates are at least partial definitions.

Example

1) A sphere is a three-dimensional surface, all points of which are equidistant from a fixed point.

2) The sphere is red.

1) is a universal statement by "a sphere" we mean "all spheres"
2) is a particular statement by "the sphere" we mean "that particular sphere".

So there are universal definitions and there are definitions of particulars just as predicates can be predicated of in the universal or the particular. (Did I say this last part right?)
Twirlip
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 10:51 am
@Deckard,
Deckard;126952 wrote:
The use of the word 'definition' seems to be confined to words and terms but not groups of words:

For example consider these questions:

What is the definition of that word?
What is the definition of that sentence? <-- doesn't sound right
What is the definition of that poem? <--doesn't sound right

On the other hand 'meaning' sounds fine in all three cases.

Why is this?

Is it not simply that a definition is a way of assigning meaning to a linguistic form, and the way of assigning meaning to a sentence or a poem is first via syntax, and then via semantics (with a certain amount of feedback or iteration, in cases of ambiguity or other forms of obscurity)?

The stage of semantic processing begins with an assignment of meanings to words (or to stock phrases), via definitions.

There is simply no call for definitions while syntax is still doing its work.

If there were no syntax, we would indeed have to have definitions for everything.

Or one might just say that a definition is, by definition, a definition of a word or phrase or term. Your proposition is true by the definition of 'definition'.:letme-at-em:
0 Replies
 
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Thu 11 Feb, 2010 02:04 pm
@Deckard,
Deckard;126970 wrote:

Are then predicates definitions? Well I would say that all predicates are at least partial definitions.

Would that make a metaphor, for instance, a discursive definition? "Life is a gas."

If a definition is a drawing of limits, then some predicates would be the movement of these boundary stones, however temporary. Is this why sentences have meaning and not definitions? Is a sentence a sort of algebraic equation in which definitions are factors/variables?

"A sentence is an equation." One must know that the official/common definition of "sentence" is incompatible with this re-definition, recognize trope, and interpret the re-definition as temporary, a suggestion not of equivalence but emphasized similarity. I guess the word "is" is a multitasker.
0 Replies
 
 

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