Monday, June 23, 2014

Logic Lessons pt 10: Definitions

I know that it has been nearly 2 years since we had our last foray into logic lessons.  To recap you can hit the "logic" tag at the end of this post to see all of the previous posts.

When last we left off, we went over all of the material fallacies.  But having finished that, we move on to definitions.

As I've written before on this blog, defining terms is one of the most crucial and most overlooked aspects of argumentation.  How can I properly refute my opponent's argument if I don't understand what he is talking about?  Or how can I properly defend my own beliefs if I cannot even explain what they are?

Both Democrats and Republicans say that they want to "help" the poor.  But what does "help" mean for them.  If a Republican wants to cut off public assistance, a Democrat would accuse him of not wanting to help the poor because for him "help" means using our governmental resources to give financial aid to the underprivileged.  But if a Democrat wants to expand welfare programs, the Republican will say that the Democrat is not helping the poor because by "help" the Republican means self-sufficiency that can come only when not depending on the government.

In both of the above cases, they wanted to "help."  But they had radically different definitions.  If they could agree on terms, the conflict would be less.

Of course there are those like Mao and Stalin who believed that words were not means to knowledge, understanding, and truth, but weapons to manipulate others.  If we do not want believe that, then we must dedicate ourselves to using them as tools of wisdom.

Definitions are key to helping us talk with each other.  Agreeing on terms help us to occupy the same mental space with another so that we can be more sure that we are talking about the same subject.


A definition, very simply, tells us what a thing is.  This is necessary for the 1st act of the mind: understanding.  This is what our minds do as they develop as children.  We point to things and we want people to tell us what they are.  A child points to a basketball and we say "ball."  The child points to a soccer ball and says "Ball?"  and we say "Yes."  The child then points to a dog and says "Ball?"  And we point and say "No. 'dog.'"

Slowly, we learn that some things are different than other things and other things are the same.  That is the same process we go through as adults, just more in depth.

Definitions clear up ambiguity.  Ideally we want an  “essential definition” which is an ideal definition that tells a thing’s essence by giving its genus and specific difference. It is clear and distinct.

At the very least, a definition must distinguish the object from other things.

I remember at one of our philosophy club debates, we were trying to figure out "What is art?"  One student smiled and declared triumphantly, "Art is… a WORD!"

And while that is true, it doesn't tell us anything.  I still am no closer to having the thing object in my mind.

If you said that "Red is… a COLOR!"  it would help, but I still don't yet have the object in mind.  If you said it was the color of the Flash's costume or Darth Vader's lightsaber or Jessica Rabbit's dress, then I am much closer.

At our next session, we will discuss the rules for definitions.

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