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)