The Myth of Definitions

I am writing this post  because I see many debates centered on differences in definitions.  Some people approach their word-impasses  by mistakenly trying to debate the “real” definition of the word.  But words don’t have “real” definitions.  It is in this sense that “definitions” are a myth.  It is surprising how a misunderstanding of the nature of words and language unnecessarily fuels many heated debates.

Words don’t possess definitions–particular people give words definitions.  Sure, you can grab a dictionary, and say “Look, here are the definitions”.  OK, you are right.  In that sense, words have definitions but using the same method we can also show that Santa has a big white beard by opening a book and pointing at the chap’s face.Dictionaries are made by people who probably used other human-made dictionaries as their reference.  But different dictionaries often given very different definitions.  And dictionaries from two hundred years ago give different meanings for words in dictionaries today.  This illustrates the illusion of the solidity of definitions.

So sure, definitions exist but they are not permanent, fixed or stable.  Let me list a few other ways of saying this:

  • Words are tools.  Words are negotiation techniques. Words are tacit contracts to facilitate conversation between two people.
  • Words change with time and users and thus are unstable.
  • Words have uses — lots of uses that vary from user to user.  Sure, you can scream “you are using that word incorrectly”, but all you are really saying is “most people don’t use that word that way.”  But even then, when you say “most”, you are only describing a certain population.  The reason words change is that this “most” attribute fluxes with time.  A minority become a majority and dictionaries adjust — often years later.
  • Dictionaries list multiple definitions to catch just some of the multiple uses.  But the uses are not fixed, stable or non-negotiable.

The illusion of solidity, discreteness, and permanence of words is possibly in part due to two things:

  1. Concrete Words
  2. Desire to Control

Concerning Concrete Words: How can we help but view words as having fixed definitions when we think of  words describing “concrete” objects like a “horse”.  One may agree that the fuzzy, flexible, contradictory and negotiable sense of words is more clearly seen in abstract words like “freedom” or “love”, but they feel pretty secure about “horse”.  But let’s look at the word “horse”.  Is a pony a horse?  What about a Zebra?  As we dig up evolutionary ancestors of horses, when do they stop being horses?

This reveals the human-derived nature of the word.  But what about words like “sulfur”, you may think.  Sure, that appears much more stable until you think of isotopes of sulfur.   But the person looking for unmovable definitions is right to point to the fact that some words seem less fuzzy than others.  But words are a human creation, a creation of mind and relationship and thus fuzzy by nature.

Concerning Control: We use words to manipulate and control our environment — they are a brilliant tool.  And we all know the feeling we get when someone tries to take away our tools or our control.  Don’t get me wrong — control can be very valuable, but we should not let it deceive us, and we need to understand its role and grasp over us.


So if you disagree with someone about the meaning of a word, then understanding their fluid nature of language and words can help you.  If you are willing to let go of the solidity of definitions, here are ways to possibly move on with your definition debate:

  • adopt their meaning and use a different word to capture your meaning
  • using subscripts or adjectives, give the word a list of nuances that you can agree on
  • create a new word you both feel comfortable with — heck, it may catch on and become part of your language years from now.

In philosophy, the notion that words have a real essence and an essential meaning that we can discover is a position taken by Plato.  Plato was wrong–brilliant, but wrong.  Thus, I do not hold a Platonic view of language.  I am not an essentialist.  I am not actually sure of the proper categories for my lay philosophical position on language.  Perhaps in contrast to a Platonic view, some would use the vague word “nominalist” to describe my view — but I wager that is wrong too.  If you know the proper philosophical category for my position (which I know is not unique at all), please let me know.  I see definitions as useful temporary constructs to aid communication.  They are negotiable and useful but they can also be blinding and contentious.  We need to realize that words are our servants, we should not be the servants of words.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “The Myth of Definitions

  1. Spot on! I’ve got a discussion coming up on this very topic — I find a lot of it relates to linguistic prescriptivism in that people naturally believe that words have an essence. Perhaps this is similar to how people are naturally creationists (they believe species have an essence) dualists (they believe minds have an essence) and so forth. It’s actually quite depressing how so many supposedly meaningful debates are actually just arguing over the definitions of words (eg. the free will debate) — so techniques like these can be a great help in dissolving these. Another one can be to consider whether the difference in definition actually makes a difference to the argument, it often becomes obvious that it doesn’t.

    PS. There’s a typo in Greta Christina’s name in the RHS blogroll.

  2. Wow, thanks Michael — I look forward to your post. I wrote this post so when the issue comes up in debate, I can refer back to this post to perhaps ease the dialogue.
    Also, thanks for the spell check — how did you ever catch that?! I fixed it.

  3. @ Michael :
    Indeed, I find that this essentialist thinking is present not only among Christians but also, ironically, among many Buddhists. But most interestingly, it also infects many Atheists. Heck, essentialism is a reflex of the mind and often hard to see beyond.

    It is due to these insights that I often feel that it is often more fruitful to analyze and critique the habits of mind than to debate about religion. Because the same modules of mind to be misused by some religious folks is similarly misused by atheists. We all share much more than we imagine — good and bad.

  4. By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth. George Carlin

  5. Happy New Year!

    There is a different kind of concrete, like Newton’s theory of gravity, which is an unchanging equation. The definition hasn’t changed in a single term over several centuries, although the gravitational constant has gained digits of precision. We can contrast this to the theory of evolution, which is constantly changing and has no fixed meaning.

    Aristotle’s three fold split comes to mind here: There is the Philosopher, the Sophist and the Dialectitian. Per Aristotle’s view, the Sophist is full of phony arguments and twisting definitions will be part of this. For the Dialectician, argument is an end in itself so he is constantly demanding precision of definitions and nit picking to the point that no conclusion can ever be accepted. All three groups believe themselves to be philosophers and condemn the others.

  6. Ian

    Superb post. I agree.

    There’s another dimension to language. It is both denotational (as you’ve said) and affective (which you touched on lightly). So I might call myself an ‘atheist’ not because of its definition, but because of the effects I think that word might have on people who hear it.

    Wittgenstein came to think that all language is primarily affective, and its denotation is secondary (if that). I don’t agree, but I think it is important. So it gives a word not so much a definition, as a teleology.

    So to respond to your reply to my comment on the previous post: when a Christian (or other religion) says their faith is unique, it is affective. As you said there may be no real uniqueness there, but that isn’t the point: the point is that they can say it is unique, and that has an effect on themselves and (they hope) their hearer. It isn’t a tautology – but the use of the word ‘unique’ doesn’t tell you much as a definition.

    I’m not sure I’m exactly getting the philosophical terms straight here, btw.

  7. @Dumnezero :
    Great quote. I added to my sidebar. Thank you.

    @Looney :
    Happy New Year to you too. Debating definitions can be very useful if the intent is to get agreed upon language to further knowledge.
    If you don’t mind, I won’t nibble on the Evolution bait.

    @Ian :
    You are absolutely right. May I see if this analogy also works:

    The word(s) uttered by a person is generated by their mind which has all sorts of connotations attached, all sorts of supposed implications and all with various weights and emotions. Meanwhile, the listener has the same. The speaker’s words are like a gift (?Trojan) horse. We allow it in and wait for the conversation to tell us if there were soldiers in the belly. And if they emerge, you wait to see if they want to fight or party with the soldiers in the fortress.

    Indeed, my last post’s purpose was to help reveal that the intent/connotations/affectations behind the utterance of “my religion is unique” meant much more than some definitions of the word implied. The post was a step toward realizing that. But the Christian who made it, never returned. Alas.

  8. ExAndroid

    When debate arises as the meanings of words I like to point out that the dictionary is akin to a history book, not a law book. It shows how words are used not how they shall be used. Look at the battles over the word atheist.

  9. Adam

    Wonderful. I especially like your suggestions here. It would be nice if more people could adopt those!!!!!

  10. Ian

    @sabio – Great analogy. I’ve had a few hit and run Christians this year too. It would be nice to pin them down long enough to have a good discussion! Hey ho. Thanks for another great year of fascinating posts. Sorry I dropped off commenting on the buddhist phase this fall – I didn’t drop off reading your posts.

  11. I will make a response about Newton’s law of universal gravitation — that is a great example about how essentialism doesn’t work “even” in science. In Newton’s time, the 2 terms representing mass were referring to a concept of mass as an essential, constant, unchanging property of an object (by coincidence, interesting parallels with linguistic essentialism). However, in a post-Relativity world we cannot read the same meaning into the equation since we know this type of fixed mass does not exist. We may still employ Newtonian mass as a convenient fiction when using his formula but even so, the original meaning has changed. At best, I would now see the formula as describing the gravitational attraction between two objects with proper mass (ie. mass for an observer at rest relative to the object).

    So even the best examples of some definitions staying essential don’t always carry through.

  12. Michael, Newton’s Theory of Gravity remains unchanged, and Einstein’s Theory was added in as a distinct theory with a precise definition. It would not be correct to say that no one uses Einstein’s Theory, but Einstein’s formula is essentially unused because it is computationally not practical. In 30 years of engineering, I have seen Newton’s theory employed for thousands of calculations, always with the same form. Not once have I seen Einstein’s used. Both Newton’s and Einstein’s equations require mass and position which are unchanged in their meanings.

    I am not sure what a space craft design would look like if we decided to willy nilly change these definitions, but I am sure I would neither want to ride in it nor want my signature on the design documents.

  13. @ ExAndroid :
    Indeed, it is a history book but only a history written about a certain population and written with the classic historical bias. And concerning Law Books: As you know, laws too are fluid and change.

    @ Ian and Adam Thanks

  14. Firstly I’m not sure what usage has to do with what we’re discussing. Secondly, are you actually claiming that relativity isn’t widely utilised??

  15. Michael, I am saying that when the questions of gravity are analyzed in day-to-day engineering, Einstein’s general theory of gravity is never used. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory might do an odd-ball computation now and then, but everyone else uses Newton’s theory of gravity or a specialized version of Newton’s theory.

    Relativity shows up in the Dirac equation of quantum mechanics, but this is a specialized form and not the full version of the generalized theory of relativity. In any case, all these definitions are fixed permanently. In physics and engineering, we are allowed to define a new theory with a new equation and stick our name on it, but it is not permissible to change any definition once it is set.

    As I noted earlier, the Theory of Evolution is completely different in that it has no generally accepted definition, thus, everyone gets to do whatever they feel like with it. There are drastically different standards regarding the fluidity of definitions in different sciences.

  16. Wonderful post, S. And I especially like the Trojan Horse comparison. It’s a great image for how people seem to treat new ideas.

  17. dictionaries only capture how words are currently used and how they’ve historically been used – they don’t actually define and determine word usage – usage does that.

    excellent post.

  18. @ Random Ntrygg
    Exactly ! Thanx.

  19. @ Sabio Lantz

    1. “But words are a human creation, a creation of mind and relationship and thus fuzzy by nature.” Unquote

    I don’t agree with you here.

    Words are not created by humans; humans don’t create any word with the intentions of creating it. They use the already existing words by giving them a little more meaning sometimes. Like a potter gives a shape to clay but does not create the clay; that may some people say the potter has created it; but not exactly.

    It is for this that one will not find words that could be traced having been created by somebody, naming a particular human being who has created the word/s.

    2. “We need to realize that words are our servants; we should not be the servants of words.”

    I would rather say that words facilitate our communication with one another; it is a bounty bestowed to humans by God; which would have been otherwise impossible.

    It happens so often that Atheists/Agnostics/Skeptics/ “Humanists”/ “Secularists” ask me to give “proof” of God or “evidence” of God.

    I know that they are repeating it as rhetoric of the Atheists; not understanding them exactly. Whatever reason or argument we provide them they would just ridicule or deride it saying it is no argument and or no proof or no evidence.

    I ask them to define the words “proof and or evidence” in their own words (not quoting from a dictionary) so that I could understand their personal concept of its meaning to come on the same page for a meaningful discussion.

    But they don’t provide it.


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