Home » On Definition and Language

“Nothing properly signifies itself.”

To signify: this is to convey something other, to something other. Signification thereby contrasts with representation by their respective extensions, which can be either “other-representation” or “self-representation”. When you see a portrait, this represents something other than itself, namely, the person portrayed. When you see that person herself, her visible being represents her very self. The good portrait accurately captures something of what is found in the self-representation. We measure portraits by their iconic sameness with their objects.

By contrast, when we read or hear words, an iconic sameness does not enter into their fittingness of other-representation. The word “sadness”, whether spoken or written, has nothing within its own being that corresponds to the emotion which it signifies. How then, does it signify that emotion? Some—deconstructionists—have opined that all such signification consists essentially in a willful imposition of the individual speaker; such that any auditor can willfully impose to the contrary. Were this true, it would be a disaster for human beings, for all solid meaning would disappear from our use of language. Definitions would be always ephemeral, always fragile. Thankfully, we do not need to fear the deconstructionists. We can, in fact, meaningfully define words. But we have to recognize that these definitions, though meaningful, are not absolute, nor do they possess an absolute fixity.

The Structure of Definition

John Poinsot—or John of St. Thomas—gives a definition of definition itself in his elementary logical texts. Here, I will ask some indulgence, for this is dry… but it also gives much-wanted precision. He writes:

Definition is “a linguistic expression explaining the nature of a thing or the signification of a term”. As for instance, if I say: “The human being is a rational animal”, I explain the nature of the human being, which is not explicated in the term “human”. And if I say: “White is having whiteness”, I do not explain the nature of “white”, but the signification of the noun, because this is the same as if I were to say: “‘White’ is a verbal signification of that which has whiteness”. The definition corresponds with the defined as its object, with which it is itself converted.

1631: Cursus Philosophicus, Artis Logicae Prima Pars, Summulae Lib.2, c.3 (R.I.19a 6–18): “Definitio est « oratio naturam rei aut termini significationem exponens ». Sicut cum dico: « Homo est animal rationale », naturam hominis epxlico, quae in illo termino ‘homo’ non explicabatur. Et cum dico: « Album est habens albedinem », non explico naturam albi, sed significationem nominis, quia idem est ac si dicam: « Album est vox significans id, quod habet albedinem ». Definitioni correspondet definitum tamquam obiectum eius, quod cum ipsa convertitur.”

In itself, this may not seem useful. But subsequently, Poinsot explains the conditions required for a good definition; the conditions required in order that something be defined; and finally, the divisions of definition into different kinds.

The three conditions for a good definition are: first, 1) that it proceed through genus and difference. Second, 2) that it be clearer than that which is being defined. And third, 3) that it should be neither redundant nor explain anything lesser in extension than the object defined.

The three conditions for something to be defined are: first, 1) that the object be one through itself, i.e., that it have a singular intelligible essence. Second 2), that it be universal and not include any conditions of individuality. Third, 3) that it be of a specific formal entity contained under some broader genus.

Finally, the divisions of definition fall into two categories, the second of which further subdivides into three. First, 1) there are nominal definitions. This is the kind of definition with which we are most familiar, for they are ubiquitous in our modern dictionaries. These definitions, like that given of “white” above, explain the signification of a term. Nominal definitions prove very useful: they help us to triangulate the meaning of words. And as Poinsot adds, etymology serves us greatly in producing good nominal definitions. But as he also writes, “often we are not able to explain the signification of a name except by making clear the thing itself.”

Thus, second 2), we have definitions of what things are (“quid rei”). These definitions divide into three categories: essential, descriptive, and causal. Essential definitions identify the intrinsic causal parts of a being: form and matter (also genus and species). Descriptive definitions orient toward what the essential being by identifying its proper accidents. Causal definitions specify extrinsic causal constitution: efficient and final causes.

Beyond the Structure of Definition

Merely stating the conditions and divisions of definition, however, gives us only the grounds for considering what makes definitions truly good. Many, for instance, might object to Poinsot’s conditions as being stuck in an antiquated cosmology of fixed and determinate biological species. Others might say, particularly given this apparent unfixity of the material cosmos, that our definitions never signify things, but only our ideas or concepts of them. Can we, that is, truly produce definitions that are essential? Can we have any definitions that are “real”—of things as they are in themselves? Or are all our definitions merely nominal—merely subjective?

Many today despair of being able to attain truth. The use of language appears as a pragmatic tool for communicating wants and needs, and painfully often, for manipulation of the audience. Artificial languages—those constituted by pure stipulation to signify with mathematic or programmatic precision—seem exemplary as means of such pragmatic and manipulative communication. But perhaps this despair springs not from the fallibility of our definitions, but our misunderstanding of definition itself. Perhaps, we ought to argue, a recovery of definition may be the only means to a recovery of truth.

Philosophical Happy Hour

If you would like to join us for a discussion of definitions, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: