On the definition of definition

Definition may be defined as the process of translating one irreducible concept into another irreducible concept while removing most of the content.

This may seem like intellectual entropy; nonetheless definition has its uses. Watertight definitions of things which are “interesting” is impossible. This is in the nature of things. Korzybski’s motto was that the map is not the thing; it would be more accurate to say that the map is not even the same kind of thing that the thing is. The reality is richer, more diffuse, and at a lower level of abstraction – if it is an abstraction at all.

Reality may be rich and diffuse but it has regularities. We may not be able to tell precisely where the hill begins and the valley ends. In fact there is no single point where the valley ends and the hill begins. Nonetheless there are hills and valleys. The world may be a seamless web but it is not without structure.

Words come before definitions. The word is a label, an invention. It is a response to a felt regularity and arises from experience itself. The definition which follows is an attempt at analysis of what the word refers to.

Analysis is not to be despised. It can be abused, particularly when words are substituted for the experience. Nonetheless analysis is an attempt at illumination; an effort to relate one regularity to others and to perceive the character of that regularity.

Analysis is valuable. The mind cannot see all even if it is attuned to the seamless web. There are things best seen from afar and things which are best seen in isolation. There are tricks of the mind as well as tricks of the eye. Analysis illuminates in a way that direct perception cannot. It allows to see false regularities that the mind has tricked us into perceiving and to discover how the trick was played. It allows us to see that this feature here is related to that feature there. It allows us to look at features in detail without the distraction of other connections.

More mundanely, definition operates at two levels. For those who are not familiar with a term definition is a process of fleshing out, of pointing out examples from which the concept can be abstracted. For those who already know the concept definition operates at the level of comparison and relation.

If you say “Science Fiction” and I say “Science Fiction” we may mean two rather different things. This difference may easily go unnoticed if we treat “Science Fiction” as a term which everybody understands, a term which has a commonly understood definition. This is of consequence if we discuss science fiction, with each of us talking about a different thing and each thinking we are talking about the same thing.

Definition of that which is already intuitively understood both clarifies and illuminates. When one attempts to define the intuitively understood one often finds that there are glossed over lacunae. All too often intuitively understanding includes little illusions, expressions of a feeling of understanding that is without substance. Definition illuminates: the effort to attain rigor exposes facets and characteristics that aren’t seen until we look with sharper eyes.

This page was last updated July 13, 1996