A Primer: Defining definitions

Definitions: The Soul of Logos

Philosophy begins with recognizing our limitations as humans. Socrates the great philosopher of Ancient Greece famously declared: “All I know is that I know nothing.” You will prosper in philosophy if you approach it with humility and respect.

We are finite beings with finite language. We need to communicate truths to each other through the medium of language. Thus, the highest prioritization should be placed on the definition. The definition of a word, or of a concept, will set the course of conversation. Let us define definition:

“Definition is the process of assigning an imperfect but acceptable meaning to a word. By acceptable we mean that it accords with commonsense. By commonsense we mean that the majority of rational, unbiased humans would agree that the meaning of the word accords with the actual being of that word itself.”

An honest philosopher will always provide his definition of a word, or concept, otherwise there can either be in the neutral case miscommunication and absentmindedness or in the malicious case, philosophical deceitfulness. The clearer and simpler a definition, the more constructive a conversation will become.

We begin with definition because philosophy, or knowledge itself, can only be communicated through symbols. If these symbols represent different meanings to everyone, we would fail in communication. The key to understanding language is that any “word” is a set of ideas. If each word can accord most with commonsense intuitions of those ideas, then the idea will be clear and open the eyes of the open-minded.

A definition is therefore a string of words, or a formula. Just like a mathematical formula, the correct string of words, if they accord with commonsense intuitions, can produce truth.

I define truth to be a correct definition: the right words attached to the right ideas. If the word “dog” has become associated with a particular kind of creature, which although may vary in color, shape, size texture, etc but which the intuition of such a creature is shared, then an adequate description of such an animal will produce a truth statement about that creature, and then the word “dog” is correct.