The Power Of Definitions.
If there was an appropriate imaginary word, to call my execssive reflective approach towards words, it would be something in the lines of a ‘definologist’s’ approach.
But you could pause & ask, why is it important to actually think about definitions, or at least stress in thinking about them, the way I do?
Well, there is the intuitive answer that, the more you understand words the better the understanding you have over your arguments/ideas,
but another hidden layer to it is that words tend to contain a lot of implicit assumptions within them.
And even though you might nod along and say, “yeah, I know this already”, but people often don’t act upon this too much.
There is a very proximal example, that I see some people enact in, subconsciously.
So some people will tell you: “I don’t have any ‘beliefs’, I only hold/have ideas, without having beliefs”,
but if you dig a bit deeper into what they mean by beliefs, and what the actual word means, you’ll see them the utmost proponents of a belief system (which is inescapable, anyways).
Also, a lot of people swim in the ocean of semantics when arguing, where they’re arguing about something, but they’re using different wordings, to mean the same thing, so they ostensibly think they disagree, when they, in fact, don’t,
which goes to say that definitions are actually the layer we a lot of the times miss in misunderstandings.
Because, often, definitions are so intuitive to us at the first instance, that we miss that the point of disagreement/fault might actually lie in the words.
You know when you look for a pair of glasses everywhere, but it turns out it’s on the top of your head, or in your hand?
The same approach could be juxtaposed to words. We sometimes think the disagreement lies somewhere else, but it actually turns out, a lot of the times, to be in the meanings of the words themselves.
One other great thing about contemplating definitions, is that it will branch your thought process into more well-structured questions.
And really the quality of your questions, will determine how far you reach when it comes to understanding something.
And equally important to questions, is that this approach also comes back to you when you need some clear answers to a confusing question, as well.
It’s also really worth mentioning in relationship to our approach to critically think through words, that,
most of the times, we don’t think of words in relationship to what they strictly mean, only,
but we also attach symbols to words, which makes the situation of definitions even more complex, and requiring & deserving more reflection.
A good example of this is the idea of a “conspiracy”.
So a conspiracy is usually thought of as some plan from behind the curtains, that entails some intentional, rather than accidental, consequence on some agents, and is usually associated with governments or huge institutions.
Ok, so what symbol do a lot of people usually attach to the word “conspiracy”?
And you’ll see this actualise, where people will usually call a person who purports a conspiracy, a “conspiracy theorist”, as if this is some deep counterargument against their conspiratorial claim,
but the truth of the matter is that calling someone a “conspiracy theorist” doesn’t say anything about the truthfulness/falsehood of their claim.
A conspiracy can be true or false based on the evidences presented,
but this symbol of falsehood, has been attached to the word “conspiracy”, where it sometimes leads to lack of interest to even entertain the possibility of it,
or people thinking that calling it that, could be used as a strong counter-argument to rule out a possibility.
So from that perspective, applying our approach of looking into definitions,
can also serve the purpose of unpacking the symbols & noise from words, and is of the utmost importance to critically maneuver through ideas & discussions.
So in order to make sure all of us get the best possible message out of this, I want to clarify some things I’m not saying.
I’m not purporting a meticulous approach of turning every discussion into a definitions one,
because there is something very similar to the law of diminishing returns, when it comes to words & definitions.
Meaning that, you pass a certain threshold, where, if you keep questioning the words & language of things, you won’t gain more productive insights,
and you’ll make every discussion/thought unintelligible, and uninteresting, and also will dig a hole that you can’t get out of.
Which goes to say that we should consciously account for the possibility that misunderstandings and faulty thinking might lie in the definition of a word, without over-inflating that chance.
Therefore, what I’m trying to say here is that one should embark in finding a balance, rather than subconsciously push things to both the extremes, if that makes sense.
And that balance will even be more clear on how to be achieved, practically, when we talk about the different kinds of definitions, below.
One practical way to find that balance we talked about earlier, is to really understand the different kinds of definitions and their reach,
because if you don’t understand how definitions really work,
you might try to apply something to them that is not there.
So I compiled a categorization that is very helpful to conceptualize definitions, since it can help one know the limits, or more precisely, the reach of a specific definition, and to not try to get something out of it, when it’s not there, and end up getting more confused.
Those are the type of definitions that don’t really have an explanation, but are only descriptive, because we either:
- don’t really know how, or don’t need to explain them, because they’re universal concepts.
- It’s more practical to describe them, than to explain them.
Examples include things like:
Human emotions like love, or anger, where we describe what they are, but we can’t really explain them in explicit words.
A table or a chair, are other examples of things that have descriptive definitions.
Those are the definitions that are mostly, but not necessarily, pertaining to inventions or even man-made phenomena,
where the definition is explaining what the thing does or its functionality, rather than merely describing it.
computers or cars, where it has to be a relative explanation, otherwise, the description wouldn’t really make sense.
(imagine defining a computer as: light that shows data, that “description” wouldn’t make sense,
so you need to, at least, minimally explain it, and say that it’s a type of machine that works to transmit data through programs…, in order to make sense of a definition).
Those are the definitions that we know are not complete,
but we still agree on some definition for them, to continue to make progress on the concept.
They’re a lot of the times confined to technical or academic discussions,
and examples include things like “intelligence” or “life”,
where people would agree on the “operational/practical definition” of it,
but everyone understands that we are no where near depicting all important aspects of “intelligence” or “life” in that definition.
Putting this one here is kind of inaccurate,
because those are the words that don’t really require any definitions, because of how extremely intuitive they’re to us.
Examples include: “do”, or “mine”, or “like”.
This might sound super trivial to mention but I mention this for purpose of contemplation,
because think about how mind-blowing it’s that we understand those things without ever being told what they explicitly are.
Makes you question the blank slate theory of language, but that’s another very interesting topic for another day…
So having laid out all these categories, if we try to link them to the balanced approach we mentioned previously,
we see that the balance can lie in not trying to force an explanatory definition to a word that we usually use descriptive definitions for,
because that will confuse things even more, rather than enlighten them, and will lead to confusion.
So one way to achieve that balance, is to bring those categorizations in mind when thinking about definitions.
There is a great tip we can end with, that can assist us with a branch of words we might come across.
This tip mostly works with words/concepts that are super broad, like: civilization, reality, or technology.
So since those concepts are super broad, one can practically start by defining what they are not,first, rather than what they are.
and the reason why this tip is important is because a lot of the times, starting from the default of defining such terms, is like catching a ghost,
so starting by negation, or defining what they are not, might give a lot more insights, and lead to more progress on those words/concepts.
If we Recollect our discussion today, with all of its nuances to not push our approach to its extremes,
It becomes obvious that clarity of thought is really and truly inextricably linked to clarity of language.
And as common sensical as that seems, but sometimes explicit reminder of common sensical things like this one,
can indeed be more valuable than giving new information, all together…