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March 11, 2017 / Congau

Exact Definitions

How many grains of sand make a heap? When does a hill become a mountain? What is the difference between a shoe and a boot? Who cares?

The words only have to be precise enough to fulfill one purpose: to communicate. We know when something is definitely a shoe and definitely a boot and for footwear that is somewhere in the middle, we are happy to accept any of the two designations. It doesn’t impede our communication, so it is fine.

The art of defining words is to indicate the area that the users of the language generally understand the words to cover. If the boundaries around a word are vague, that vagueness itself may be an element of the meaning of the word and no attempt should be made to come up with an artificial exactness.

When philosophers ask for precise definitions, they want no more than that. The question is: What do we really mean when we say x? What does the word really designate? The exact definition of ”heap” is not the number of grains.

Another kind of exactness is wished for. Sometimes our communication is confused when the extension of a word is enlarged while the original definition is still kept unexpressed in our mind. This is a typical propaganda trick. Take for example the word “war” in “the war on terror”. This is clearly an extended meaning of the original, but we are somehow still led to believe that nothing has changed. The leaders insist that it is to be understood literally and the purpose is to evoke the kind of feeling that the word normally gives and use it in a new situation. Then reality is distorted and a precise definition is much needed.

To define is to call forth our actual understanding of a word in order to avoid a false belief about reality.


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