Suspicious definitions

I’ve long been suspicious of speeches that revolve around idiosyncratic definitions. I was pleased to find this evening that C. S. Lewis shared this suspicion.

But when we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust. … The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for skepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so. This is especially true of negative definitions. Statements that honour, or freedom, or humour, or wealth, ‘does not mean’ this or that are proof that it was beginning to mean, or even had long meant, precisely this or that. … We do not warn pupils that coalbox does not mean a hippopotamus.

…  A certain type of writer begins `The essence of poetry is’ or `All vulgarity may be defined as’, and then produces a definition which no one ever though of since the world began, which conforms to no one’s actual usage, and which he himself will probably have forgotten by the end of the month.

From Studies in Words (ISBN 0521398312)

5 thoughts on “Suspicious definitions

  1. This reminded me of an exercise my philosophy teacher in high school would do. He’d bring out his gigantic copy of the O.E.D., ask for a word from the class, and look up the definition of that word. Then he’d look up the definition of a word used to define the original word. He’d keep doing that until he’d come full circle and the definition of the original word depended on itself. Then he’d launch into a lecture about tautology and the ouroboros.

    That being said, we’d start all our philosophy papers with a definition of terms in the introduction to insure the audience was on the same philosophical page before we presented our arguments.

  2. JEP. There’s a big difference between saying “Here’s what this word means” and “Here’s how I’m using this word today.” The latter acknowledges that the speaker is not doing lexicography and may be deviating from accepted usage. This is fine. It’s the former that usage that’s dangerous.

    A sophisticated speaker may use a definition as a rhetorical device and assume that the audience understands this though they do not. Or a demagogue may deliberately attempt to warp the audience’s understanding of a word. In either case, the harm done depends on how the audience receives what is said.

    On a related note, it bugs me to hear “true” inserted as a qualifier to mean “limited to the definition that suits my purposes.”

  3. One funny meta-point is that a very fair paraphrase of Mr. Lewis’s “real current sense” is “true definition” with true used in the way you dislike.

    I take issue with Mr. Lewis’s comments, mostly because I frequently communicate with people not as erudite as Mr. Lewis thinks he is, for whom a definition or at least an emphasis on part of a definition is helpful.

    I think the real criticism is not properly targeted at definitions, but at underhanded (or abusable) rhetorical techniques.

    One field that seems rife with these definitions is apologetics, and perhaps all of theology. Terms like “God”, “supernatural”, “faith”, “humility”, “love”, “brother”, “neighbor”, “Father”, “generation”, “day”, “time”, and so on are frequently defined in idiocyncratic ways, at least from the perspective of their “real current sense”.

  4. And compare how “real” and “true” are often used to mean “not real” and “not true”. As in “Although Achmed does not subscribe to our creed, he is, in a very true sense, a real Christian”.

    To John V: I think the context shows that Lewis was not critizing people (teachers, financial counsellors, etc) who are merely explaining the actual meaning of a word. That’s merely acting like a dictionary.

    And re the covert jibe, “not as erudite as Mr. Lewis thinks he is”, I suggest that Lewis could fairly said to be “erudite”. He won top acadmic honors for his undergraduate studies in Classics, Philosophy, and English. He was a professor of English literature at the University of Cambridge. Etc

    Not that the quoted passage incluves an implicit claim to erudition, merely a claim clarity of thought.

  5. Lewis should’ve went and talked to some lexicographers. They don’t define what a word means prescriptively, rather they go out and study how people are using words. If usage and even grammar didn’t change, we’d all sound like characters from Chaucer or before. The road to language change is people proposing new uses for words (either directly, or indirectly).

    As the truly great Cantabrigian Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, part of the game we play with language is to define the semantic boundaries of words. You can do that in a speech to get people to think about things differently, and if enough do, the language changes.

    As Wittengenstein pointed out, words are mostly defined by example for reasons of communication, not necessary and sufficient conditions. You can see this in the downfall of the logical positivists’ empirical program for language, as layed out in W.V.O. Quine’s hugely influential paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” and his later writings on word meaning.

    For those truly interested in semantics, check out A.P. Martinich’s collection “Philosophy of Language”. I used to use it as a text when I taught philosophy of language at Carnegie Mellon, and it contains most of the classic papers on everything from reference to metaphor.

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