The impossibility of giving a clear definition

In our daily contact with each other we use words to express ourselves linguistically. These words are more or less related to things in reality, and usually there is no confusion in communication about what is meant. Should confusion nevertheless arise, it should not be a problem to clarify things with a clear definition. Unfortunately, in practice this often proves to be very difficult, if not impossible.

First of all, there is the linguistic problem of circular definition. In order to give a definition of a concept, this definition itself must also be expressed in language. In other words: you use other terms to describe terms. The words in a dictionary are described in other words that also appear in the dictionary. There is no beginning anywhere, and definitions are always circular in that sense.

Inclusion and exclusion
A second, more linguistic philosophical problem, is the problem of inclusion and exclusion. Take the example of a tree. Everyone knows what a tree is when we talk about it, and yet it is not easy (probably impossible?) To give it an appropriate definition. It has a trunk, it has leaves, it is high, it provides oxygen? Whatever property you mention, the definition will always exclude things that should be included in the definition, and include things that should not be included.
- It has a trunk? A verb too
- It has leaves? Shrubs too
- It's high? Bonsai trees are not
- It provides oxygen? Plants too
De Dikke VanDale (online) comes with the following definition: "Woody crop with a very large root system and a single, sturdy, woody and secondarily thickening, remaining trunk, which first branches off at a certain height above the ground." Here you see a list of a number of properties that together form the definition of the word.


The essence of a word
We are particularly inclined in philosophy to search for the essence of things and believe that it must be hidden somewhere - think of Plato's Theory of Ideas, who believed that the Idea (which you can see freely translated) if the essence) of one thing is in another world. But as Plato also said, things in our world are never perfect. Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, in the Philosophical Investigations (PI) notes in aphorism 116 that words can never be used in such a way that they are completely in accordance with their essence. He describes this incident beautifully by saying that words have no 'home'. Because we (both philosophers and people in daily life) do not want to accept this, we continue to search deeper for essential meaning. We ask ourselves questions such as 'what is red?' We can easily answer these kinds of questions by looking at how the term 'red' is used in daily life. According to Wittgenstein, meaning can be found in the use of concepts.

Wittgenstein cites the example of the definition of 'game' in this problem. There is no essential characteristic of what a game is, but there are several characteristics that do not all have to apply at the same time. Throwing a ball against the wall can also be a game, while there is no competitive element in it. So when something is called a game depends on the context. We also see a number of examples in the definition of 'tree' in the Dikke VanDale in which the use of 'tree' is illustrated.

Relation to reality
But there are even more problems with giving definitions. Often when defining a concept there is no direct connection or no connection at all with things in reality. Suppose you want to play a game of chess but someone has stolen the king. Do you have to find a replacement that looks like it and is also made of wood? No! A euro coin also serves well as a king, as long as you agree this with your opponent.
Language use is therefore mainly about the agreements that we have made with each other, consciously or unconsciously. Suppose you say: "this euro coin counts as king from now on", it would make no sense if your opponent said: "really not!" Your statement was not a claim with a certain truth value (it could not be true or false), but it was an agreement that gave the definition of the thing.

We cannot possibly point out things in the world around us that "prove" that a word has a certain meaning. We are trapped in our language; there is no Archimedean point from which to judge statements with certainty. Language is arbitrary, so it is impossible to give a clear definition.

Lectures 'Advanced Language Philosophy' by dr. Menno Lievers (2011/2012 - Utrecht University)
Lecture 'The Microscope and the Elephant' by dr. Floris van den Berg (2011 - Utrecht University)
Lectures 'Psychology of Language' by dr. Hannah de Mulder (2011 - Utrecht University)

25 thoughts on “De onmogelijkheid van het geven van een heldere definitie”

  1. Language is ultimately a limited resource, albeit a very useful one. Good to be aware of the limitations. A few more examples with an unclear meaning are 'universe', 'star', 'planet' and 'life'.

    1. Thanks for these examples! I think I will use these in a subsequent article on this, as they are relevant current debates that make my article a bit more practical. After all, Pluto is no longer a planet, because the definition of a planet has been adjusted. In a way, a definition is performative.

      1. Yes indeed. But in practice astronomers call anything that revolves around a star and has a mass of the order Earth mass, Jupiter mass, etc., a planet or planetary object. Even if the star is not a Sun-like luminous star but a remnant of it such as a white dwarf or neutron star, and also if they are formed in a very different way than (we think) that planets in our solar system were formed (from a gas disk) . Even planet-like objects in free space (not bound to a star) are sometimes called planets.

        As for 'star', this is often defined as something that gives off light or has nuclear fusion at its core, but there are also stages without fusion (energy comes from contraction) and a neutron 'star' is actually a remnant of a star.

        'Universe' is sometimes defined as all there is, but there is also talk of other universes, which is then not possible.

        The problem with "life" is more fundamental, probably because emotionally we want life to be a clear definition and fundamentally different from "inanimate" matter.

        "Consciousness" and "intelligence" fall into the same category, I think.

        Personally, I always have trouble with 'literature', this is often text that is appreciated by unclear defined 'authorities' and nothing else. Especially disturbing when these people are condescending about something that they don't think is literature, because taste is the only criterion.

        1. Yes, that's right, taste is a frequently used criterion (maybe always). A teacher of mine once defined art as follows: 'art is everything the museum owner says is art.' Pretty arbitrary.

          By the way, here you make a distinction between two categories: the words that do have a material representation in the real world, and words that do not directly have that. In the above article I hope to have shown that it is difficult / impossible for both categories to give a true definition (which you agree with, given your reaction :)).

        2. Yes completely correct.

          In general, problems only arise when people attach too much importance to a label, eg only want to see an object if a pseudo-arbitrary person has called it art. Ultimately, it does not change the object.

  2. Anecdote

    This anecdote is about 3 side tables and my 4-year-old son.

    I say to my 4-year-old son: Damien, grab the smallest side table and go eat at the coffee table. My son says: Yes, but Daddy, that's not a side table, is it? That's a stool! .. He looks at my wife and asks: Mamma, daddy said it is a table, but now he says to me that it is a stool ??… My wife looks at me with a foolish smile, pulls shrugs and walks away grinning.

    I say to my son: Yes if you sit on it it is a stool, if you do not sit on it it is a side table and when daddy sits on it it becomes firewood ...

    (Which definition is correct?) :)

    1. That is but the question. Also see this article in which I quote an example from Joel Anderson about a chess player who suddenly realizes that a pawn is really just a piece of wood and therefore does not want to continue playing. So how you view things influences what you want to call it.

      Ludwig Wittgenstein further emphasizes that we are going to the use of language. While I can't say for sure, I think he would say the way you use it stands for what you would call it. So it depends on the situation what you want to call the stool / table / firewood.

      1. @ Niek, this is exactly what I wanted to emphasize with my striking anecdote after your article. I couldn't have said the above comment about Ludwig Wittgenstein better.

    1. @ meddler,

      To begin with, it was already a side table, my son uses it as a stool .. Excellent example, as Niek said:

      We cannot possibly point out things in the world around us that "prove" that a word has a certain meaning.

      Officially it does not have to be a side table and officially it does not have to be a stool, it just depends on how you look at what it could be, in this case the same stool or side table can also function as a footstool. Who determines what is official?

      @Julie, the day I sit on a side table and turn it into firewood I don't go to the store to buy a new one, then I go looking for a fireplace.

    1. @ Julie, you show again how “intelligent” you are with a link that is really not about the anecdote I gave. It's all about material that is in my house, combustible because it is made of wood and certainly fragile if I would sit on it.

      In the words: Hm don't get burned yourself Barry and What are you going to do now? it is clear that you are just provoking again, I do not understand that you are deliberately joking yourself.

      1. Okay, so it is not suitable for sitting.
        as long as it is clear to you, we are all reassured. Put a little flower on it .. women are not foolish but smart + sweet. Your son too.

        1. Niek I will restore the warm thought of Christmas ...

          As rain that waters the earth, which is dry and thirsty, so the word of God feeds the man who is dead and dark.
          Like sunlight that germinates the green crop from seed: thus the word of God gives man glory again, a new glow.
          As a shade that cools down at the hottest part of the day, the word of God heals the man who is waiting for deliverance.
          O God, renew the barren ground, soften what is hardened: make us obedient to your word, and people after your heart.

          (nice definition of The Word)

  3. The elements of thought are, according to some, mental images,
    others believe that there are other, more abstract and symbolic forms of thinking that make use of mental structures such as concepts and propositions.
    (A class or category in which a number of separate entities can be classified. An important way in which concepts can be related is by means of propositions (statements) that define a subject (that about which something is said) and a predicate (that what is said about it).)
    The terms concept and proposition are also found in logic and linguistics.
    Subjects reported that when their thought processes were both imaginary and wordless, they often felt that there were underlying connections, such as the experience 'this does not fit that' or a sense of as or but (Humphrey, 1951). Mental images belong to the elements of thinking, but they do not have the exclusive right.
    For meaning of words and phrases, see Definition Theory and Prototype Theory, for the collection of psychological processes that enable us to understand language, see the Sentence Analyzing Machinery (SAM).

  4. Why would you want to give full definition, you just limit your world with it. As long as it is not clearly defined, there are more options. For example, you're a star, wow, with planets around it, imagine. No from TV, oh you mean that. Just sayin.
    I admit that it can cause a lot of confusion if you both have different definitions.

      1. Agree that this is useful when you are exploring what is already there. But disagree if you want to create something new, create something. Doesn't matter whether it is art or a new medicine, or a new technique, a new idea.
        The article states “the essence of the word”. You cannot get hold of that with a definition. Words have a limiting effect on this.

  5. Nice to read about this once, I have been thinking about this for a while now and have never been able to describe or explain it a little clearly to anyone (no matter how many times I have tried it). I do not find the right words for it or I do not think the meaning that the word entails is sufficient, so people very often did not understand that I was trying to make this clear. I find it a very confusing thing, a 'concept' ... 'concepts' are ultimately only ever created by a fellow human being? A fellow human being who, just like us, just tried to make the things around him / her a bit logical for himself (so tried to name it)? And logic is relative.
    The most confusing thing, I think, is that what is meant to make things easier because you are suddenly able to express yourself, ultimately only makes everything more difficult because there are already way too much of it and we are not like that anymore. know very well how to deal with this. (and then we will even try to name that 'feeling' and so we continue).
    I am very confused and would love to hear what others think about this.

    1. And I often notice that I have slightly different definitions in my head than others around me, for example I recently had a discussion with my friend about the word 'discussion', I was under the assumption that a discussion is a form of conversation in which you discuss a certain topic with someone and go deeper into that one topic than you would otherwise so that you see insights or perspectives or perspectives from another or get a look at different thought processes that are completely different in each person, so that you can see your own view whether perspective can broaden again and think differently and learn more and that is super nice ...
      I hope this message will be understood and not complete gibberish haha… ..

      1. oh yes and he thought that a discussion is a chain of reactions to each other and that you only try to convince each other that you are right. But in the end there is nothing magical about that. Why would you do it like that?

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