Words and Meaning: A Mobius Relationship - Part 1


Or, “What’s in a name?”


In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “definitions”.

Three quotes which influenced my interest in this topic and blog post are:

  • “By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life” -Jean-Baptiste Girard (Swiss-Franciscan educator)

  • “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” -Ludwig Wittgenstein (Austrian-British philosopher)

  • “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” - Socrates (Greek philosopher)

To me, these quotes collectively mean that if I want to understand more (learn, gain wisdom) about anything (thoughts, life, my world), I should first and always strive to understand words (language, terms) and their meaning (definition). This time, the thing I want to understand more about is “definitions”. And so, taking Socrates’ advice, I’ll start with definitions.


In this first blog post, I’ll start with definitions of the word “definition” and introduce a process I call “Definition Dissection”. In subsequent blog posts, I will examine various sources of definitions, and further explore definition philosophies, categories, types, and characteristics.


Definitions of definition

What is a “definition”? What does the word “definition” mean?


Before looking up definitions of the word “definition”, I already had some vague idea of what a definition is and what the word “definition” might mean. My definition of the word “definition” was:

Definition (n.) – What a word means.

To me, that definition felt weak and was only marginally useful. And since I wanted to understand more about “definitions”, I proceeded to look up additional definitions of the word “definition” in other, various sources:

  • Oxforddictionaries.com - A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

  • Oed.com - A precise statement of the essential nature of a thing; a statement or form of words by which anything is defined.

  • Merriam-webster.com - A statement expressing the essential nature of something; A statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol.

  • Collinsdictionary.com - A statement giving the meaning of a word or expression, especially in a dictionary.

  • Dictionary.com (Random House Unabridged Dictionary) - The formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, idiom, etc., as found in dictionaries.

  • Wikipedia.com - A statement of the meaning of a term (a word, phrase, or other set of symbols).

As I read each definition of the word “definition”, I noted some interesting things. All the definitions contained the word “statement”, and referred to “meaning” or “essential nature”. Some of the definitions also referred to “exactness”, “preciseness”, and/or “dictionaries”. And finally, I noted that, while all the definitions were similar, none were the same.


I still wanted to understand more, and noted that all the definitions of the word “definition” were comprised of...words. And so, again taking Socrates’ advice, I continued by looking up definitions of some of the words in the definitions of the word “definition”.


Now, I’ll spare you, dear reader, further gory details. But as I did before, I looked up definitions of some of the words in the definitions of the word “definition”. And then I looked up definitions of some of the words in the definitions of some of the words in the definitions of the word “definition”. On and on, deeper and deeper.


A visual representation of the results of this process (using only Oxforddictionaries.com as a source) might look something like this:

Like before, as I read each of the definitions, I noted more interesting things. And, I was also able to create a new definition of the word “definition” composed of parts of definitions of other words, and then compare that new definition to an “original” definition of the word “definition” from a dictionary.


Compare an original, Oxforddictionaries.com definition of the word “definition”…

Definition (n.) – A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

…to my new, composite definition:

Definition (n.) – An accurate (exact) and clear expression (statement) intended to convey the purpose (meaning) of a distinct part of speech or writing (word), especially in a source of information (dictionary).

To me, this new, composite definition of the word “definition” is robust. It contains more explicit information about the nature and purpose of a definition, which seems useful to me. Based on this process and new definition, I’m now able to think about definitions differently than I did before. I now better understand that a purpose of a definition is to accurately and clearly convey a word. Or in reverse, a purpose of a word is to represent and convey a definition.


Ultimately, just by exploring definitions, I now feel that I understand more (learned, gained wisdom) about what a definition actually is and means.


Definition Dissection

The method I partially described and demonstrated above is what I call “Definition Dissection”. My definition of “Definition Dissection” is:

Definition Dissection (n.) – The process of looking up definitions of a word, then recursively looking up definitions of each word in those definitions, and so on.

I think that performing a Definition Dissection has some benefits and limitations.


One benefit of performing a Definition Dissection is that it sometimes helps me see the connections and relationships between various words and definitions.


However, a related limitation of performing a Definition Dissection is related to “diallelus” (circular reasoning - A type of reasoning in which the proposition is supported by the premises, which is supported by the proposition, creating a circle in reasoning where no useful information is being shared.), the “Regress Argument” (Any proposition requires a justification. However, any justification itself requires support. This means that any proposition whatsoever can be endlessly and infinitely questioned.), and to some degree, the “Symbol grounding problem” (how words and symbols get their meanings). Since definitions are comprised of words, a Definition Dissection could theoretically continue forever. I’ve found that performing a Definition Dissection can sometimes get confusing. Sometimes (and always eventually) a definition of one word might contain words that were previously defined at a higher-level in the same sequence. The definitions start to “fold backwards onto themselves”. For example, in the visual representation of the Definition Dissection of the word “definition” above, note the connections and relationships between the words “meaning” and “word” (each definition includes the other word).


Another benefit of performing a Definition Dissection is that I am sometimes able to create a new definition of a word composed of parts of definitions of other words, and containing explicit information about the nature and purpose of the word.


These benefits and limitations can all help me understand more (learn, gain wisdom) about a particular word.


However, a more restrictive limitation of performing a Definition Dissection is that it takes time. Often lots. Practically, there isn’t always sufficient time available to dig deeply into multiple levels of definitions. Similarly, sometimes there isn't a need. For example, in casual conversation, I might be comfortable assuming the risk that my vague idea of what a word might mean is satisfactory and/or isn't shared with others in that certain context.


So what?

I sometimes find myself using words that, upon honest reflection, I have trouble defining. This can be troubling, to me. If I cannot define what a word means to me, how can I use that word to accurately and clearly convey my meaning? Yet, I encounter this situation frequently in my personal life (trying to define words for my 3- and 5-year old children) and in my professional life (trying to define various testing terminology). I use words, but when pressed, cannot explain what I mean by those words.


And so, if I determine that I have the interest, need, and time, I sometimes turn to “Definition Dissection” to help me understand more (learn, gain wisdom) about words (language, terms), their meaning (definition), and therefore, life.


In the next blog post, I will more closely examine dictionaries, definitions, and other sources of definitions.

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