Thinking Philosophically (Part 3): The Importance of Definitions

Thinking Philosophically (Part 3): The Importance of Definitions

Part 1 (the intellectual code of conduct)
Part 2 (the basics of logic)

Adhering to a philosophical mindset and applying the basic principles of logic can help tremendously in making debates more enjoyable and productive. But you can still run into problems if the meanings of words are not kept consistent.

Consider the following syllogism:

Only man is rational
No woman is a man
Therefore, no woman is rational

In the first premise, the implied meaning of “man” is the human species as a whole: Homo sapiens are rational. However, the second premise uses a different implied meaning of “man,” referring to gender (“male”). While each premise is, on its face, true, the conclusion does not follow from the premises because the definition of a key term — “man” — has shifted.

The above syllogism is an example of equivocation, or calling two things by the same name. Sometimes this can happen intentionally (this is a deep wellspring for comedy), but it is very easy to do by accident as well, leading well-intentioned reasoners to false conclusions by not keeping their definitions clear. For this reason, it is important to clarify what is meant by certain terms when interrogating an idea, and to clearly lay out one’s own definitions when constructing an argument.

We can see this approach in the very earliest Western philosophical works. When reading Plato’s dialogues, much of Socrates’ analysis is simply clarifying what is meant by certain terms:

SOCRATES: Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of any one else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.

EUTHYPHRO: I will tell you, if you like.

SOCRATES: I should very much like.

EUTHYPHRO: Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

SOCRATES: Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

EUTHYPHRO: Of course.

SOCRATES: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hateful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?


— Plato, Euthyphro

Indeed, we might even say that there may be no more philosophical statement than to begin by saying, upon hearing or reading something, “there are two different ways we might interpret this.”

Of course, it is even better to prevent the need for this kind of questioning in the first place, as Aristotle does with his simple and clear definitions, which remain consistent across his works:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

Aristotle, Politics

Ultimately, language is the tool of philosophers, and the quality of their ideas and concepts is bound by the sharpness and precision of their words. Trying to philosophize with hazy or ambiguous words is like trying to shape wood with dull axes, chisels, and saws. The speed is slower, the risk of serious injury greater, and the finer, more beautiful and elegant work will simply never be possible.



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