2009 Fall Proseminar Notes on Defintion

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Definition in the Meditations

Descartes in his Second Meditation (of the nature of the human mind, and that it is more easily known than the body) defines a thinking being as "a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives" (Modern Philosophy, 4th ed, page 25). It seems to me that this is a "Precising Definition" since it attempts to relieve the definition of a "thinking being" of its vagueness. One could potentially argue, however, that the definiens could be just as vague as the definiendum. (Taylor Wilkinson)

Stipulative Definition

A definition in which "a meaning is assigned to a symbol". A stipulative definition is not a report and cannot be true or false; it is a proposal, resolution, request, or instruction to use the definiendum to mean what is meant by the definiens. I found all this valuable information on page 134 of our handout. mkwasniewski

Lexical Definitions

Sometimes referred to as a "real" definition, Lexical definitions report the meaning that the definiendum already has. In a Lexical definition, the definiendum may be determined as either true or false according to the culture that uses it. This trueness or falseness is legitimized in that culture as a result of time and popular belief. (C. White)

Precising Definitions

"Stipulative and lexical definitions serve to reduce ambiguity;precising definitions serve to reduce vagueness, also a source of confusion in argument."(definition, pg.106) sanderson2

Theoretical Definition

"A theoretical definition is a definition that attempts to formulate a theoretically adequate or scientifically useful description of the objects to which the term applies." (SWilliams2 14:45, 15 September 2009 (UTC))

Ostensive Definition

Also known as "demonstrative definition," "instead of naming or describing the object denoted by the term being defined,...[it] refers to the examples by means of pointing, or by some other gesture." Example would be the word "lamp" and the pointing to the lamp. This method is very useful when learning a new language as we can assosiate words with their meanings. --Mbalcheva 17:00, 15 September 2009 (UTC)

Extension and Intention

As Anselm of Canterbury (or "of Bec") pointed out nigh on 1000 years ago, symbols can have both extensional and intensional meaning. The extensional meaning of a term would be the denotation, that is: examples of what the term signifies. The intensional meaning of a term, or the connotation, would be the definition that circuscribes all the shared characteristics of the objects that the term refers to.--DTuckerman 19:08, 15 September 2009 (UTC)

Persuasive Definition

These definitions are used to resolve disputes by either influencing attitudes, or stirring up the emotions of others. An example would include the definition of the death penalty. The pro-death penalty definition is as follows: deserved justice for the victim and victim's family. Someone with an opposing viewpoint would define it more like this: legal murdering of a human being. Ltokorcheck

Issues with Definition

How well do definitions relate towards the definiendum? Is it a word or a sentence that ought to be used in order to adequately and clearly define an object? Either the truthfulness of definition exists as it mirrors the definiendum in reality; how coherent the definition is in light of other definitions;or how well the definition is understood by the person(s) using the definition. (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed, pg.675) (Colin)

Problems With Persuasion in Definition

I am not sure if this is the same for everyone, but a red flag came up when reading about Persuasive Definitions. Last spring, I took a class on the gospel. One of the topics that my instructor pushed was the concept that humans often inadvertently attach bits of meanings onto words. One of the big ones that we picked apart was "Father" Though we can agree on some sort of lexical definition for that. From there, we may add a precising definition or second definition equivalent to "Lord". After that, what if one person's father was an alcoholic and beat them, whereas another's father was a super-hero. Yet another person's may be a stay-at-home father and another a construction worker. Each person will carry on other emotively charged bits of definition of "Father". That is just one word, now think about any other. More often than not, I think that I attach additional meanings to everyday words that allow me to be a bit less precise. Thoughts? (C. White)

Rules for definition by Genus and Difference

1). A definition should state the essential attributes of the species. 2). A definition must not be circular. ex. An excessive drinker is someone who drinks excessively. 3). A definition must be neither too broad or too narrow. 4). A definition must not be expresses in ambiguous, obscure, or figurative language. 5). A definition should not be negative when it can be affirmative. All of this information can be found on pages 125 through 128 of the handout (Michael McClain)

The Role of Definition in Dispute Resolution

There are three categories of disputes, in which clarification by definition may or may not have an affect in potential resolution:

  1. Obviously genuine dispute: The parties involved disagree in either belief or attitude explicitly and unambiguously. Definition does not contribute to any resolution.
  2. Merely verbal dispute: The parties involved perceive a disagreement, when there is none due to ambiguous use of key terms. Definition does lead to resolution by eliminating the distracting ambiguity.
  3. Apparently verbal but really genuine: The issues involved in the dispute at hand are initially unclear to ambiguous use of terms, but there still remains a genuine dispute. Definition can help clarify the stances of the opposing parties but does not lend itself to any immediate resolution.

(Summarized from sec 3.1 of the reading, pp99-102. --Kratuiste 23:53, 15 September 2009 (UTC))


Stipulative Definition - definition that arises from the deliberate assignment of a meaning; Ex. The number that is equal to a trillion trillions (10^24) is called a yotta. (JA)

Synonymous Definition: Providing another word, whose meaning is already understood, that has the same meaning as the word being defined.

Example: According to the dictionary Quick is defined as Moving or functioning rapidly and energetically; speedy (EH)

Definiendum and Definiens

"Two technical terms are common and useful. The symbol being defined is called the definiendum; the symbol or group of symbols being used to explain the meaning of the definiendum is called the definiens. It would be a mistake to say that the definiens is the meaning of the definiendum; rather, it (the definiens) is another symbol or group of symbols that, according to the definition, has the same meaning as the definiendum." (Definition 103) (A. Murphy)