A definition is a statement expressing the meaning of a concept in terms of its essential characteristics or nature. What do I mean by this? What do you mean by that?
Inaccurate or sloppy definitions are the cause of incalculable misunderstandings, deception and misguided action and therefore suffering. Conversely, the need to construct and adhere to accurate definitions is the essential basis of all sound thinking and effective communication.
Why are definitions important?
The reason definitions are important is two-fold. Firstly, and foremost they are important because the concepts we use are the tools of our thinking and clear and concise definitions are important for the discernment of truth and therefore the acquisition of knowledge. Reasoning is the essence of your method to discern the truth. But our reasoning can only be as precise as our understanding of each of the units we reason with. Reasoning, is observing the logical relationship between ideas. Ideas are the units of thought. ideas can be big and complex, but the component ideas reduce to individual concepts. Every word stands for a concept with the exception of proper nouns (names).
Your mental definition or meaning you have stored in your mind for a given word serves three purposes in one. It defines the referents within that concept, it summarises the knowledge of that concept, and it relates the concept to other relevant concepts in your mind enabling your knowledge to be integrated into a non-contradictory sum.
When definitions are lost, diluted or changed thought and therefore knowledge itself is threatened.
Secondly, consistent and precise definitions are essential for effective communication. To express our specific meaning we must be able to reach for words that have a commonly agreed meaning. On a one-2-one level, this means you can avoid talking at crossed purposes or talking past each other. And this is why in debates much time is spent on clearly stating and agreeing upon the definitions of all the key concepts involved.
If you are talking with someone about globalisation, for example, do you mean economic globalisation or political globalisation? These two different concepts are often merged into one or used interchangeably. However, It is possible to have globalisation of trade in a context of political freedom. This would be highly desirable, yet political globalisation means a ‘one-world government’ or global governance, which is not. Another example would be discussing a monopoly. Would that be a coercive or a non-coercive monopoly?
But beyond the inter-personal researchers and truth seekers need to be sure of precisely what it is that organisations, institutions, politicians, bureaucrats and news media are talking about in all of their proclamations and assertions. This means you have to find out what their definitions are. You will very often find theirs differ from yours in one way or another!
Of course, it’s not necessary to check absolutely every definition Truth seekers don’t need to be concerned with checking definitions of things like cars, computers and trees, or those of simple concepts representing attributes like colours, shapes, textures. These are defined ostensively, by pointing to an example or touching it, etc. Similarly, experienced conditions such as hot/cold tired, pain, loneliness, etc, do not require special attention. The meanings of these concepts can be easily grasped through experience and discussion.
But for words like propaganda, slavery, sacrifice, morality, freedom and capitalism, checking definitions is absolutely vital! Why is this?
The more abstract the concept the more important it is to check the definitions being used! You can’t point to these concepts and SEE them, you must think! You have to use your uniquely human faculty of being able to abstract and conceptualise.
Concepts of principles such as integrity, momentum, require even more abstract thought along with more complex abstractions such as subversion, or social engineering or even geoengineering.
Contentious means causing, involving or likely to cause disagreement. Contentious concepts are more susceptible to having their definitions altered or distorted intentionally.
Non-contentious concepts such as tourism, acceleration or punctuality remain unlikely to be messed with in any way. Because there’s no point in misleading anyone with respect to these concepts. But words or phrases like vaccine efficacy, cartel, COVID cases, or capitalism need close scrutiny because they are extremely contentious. The definitions of concepts laden with political implications must be checked carefully. This means checking what is meant by those official agencies or organisations that are originating new words and phrases as well as using old ones in new contexts.
The category requiring the closest scrutiny of all by truth seekers, is that containing concepts relating to the social sciences, to human behaviour and human interactions. This is because these are the conceptual ideas that can be manipulated to control people. Concepts such as economics, politics, and government (along with all their component ideas), and legislation need careful checking along with crime, subversion, freedom, rights, false-flag terrorism, technocracy, eugenics.
It’s most important for the truth seeker to be aware that the whole legal system of the western world uses an entirely different language called legalese. With enough commonality to sucker you into thinking you understand it, but with very significant differences that can leave you fooled or deceived.
For example the words “may” and “must” are synonymous, meaning they can be used interchangeably. This is not true in the English language. Also the word “apply” in legalese means “to beg”. The word ‘person’ in ordinary English refers to a human being, but not in legalese where it can refer to a corporation or any other ‘legal’ entity. This means that a pile of paperwork can legally be a person! You need an up-to-date copy of ‘Blacks Law Dictionary’ to find your way through the legalese minefield of deception.
The rational man or woman can only conclude that the potential for deception is intentional. This, along with knowledge of propaganda, is a crucial coordinate for the thinker and truth seeker to be aware of.
Being fully human
It should be fairly obvious that the more conversant we become with higher, more abstract, and contentious concepts the less foolable we become. We acquire knowledge and wisdom and we render ourselves mentally uncontrollable. All you need to do to be immune from mind control is to stay in the driver’s seat of your own mind. While you are actively at the wheel, no one else can take over the vehicle (metaphorically speaking).
But let’s take things a step further. It is worth noting here that it is in the process of thinking with and dealing with the more abstract concepts that we literally define ourselves as human, and distinguish ourselves from all other forms of consciousness that do not possess the ability to conceptualise with a faculty of reason. The only way to grasp concepts such as love, justice, compassion or revolution is by using this ability to conceptualise. When you think with these more abstract concepts you are performing that uniquely human ability. If you were to never bother to stretch your cognitive ability this far, you would have necessarily foregone your fundamental human potential. In declining to think conceptually people decline to use the one faculty that makes them human. Thus becoming more intellectually aware is not only your means to becoming more conscious through conceptual awareness, but it is literally your means to becoming more fully human!
You must check your definitions carefully, and check them TWICE! Check your definition, AND check definitions used by all those official organisations who spout propaganda.
Summary: Checking Definitions most important with complex abstract concepts that are contentious and pertain to the social sciences and issues of human freedom/slavery and to politics and the control and influence of people. Be aware of legalese!
How do we learn definitions?
- By asking – teachers. parents, guardians, friends, peers and colleagues.
- Through experience and discussion with any of the above.
- Through observation in context. Very often the meaning is evident from the contextual use of a word. Some words have different meanings dependent on context! Such as feeling, wear/where, strike, tough, etc.
- By consulting Dictionaries.
- By studying a topic in some detail and constructing our own definition.
The Deeper Issue
Do you learn your definitions pro-actively or passively? If we learn pro-actively we are in the driving seat, if we learn them passively we can be fed any old duff steers.
The detective does not conduct his investigation passively, expecting the truth to come to him, to be told the truth, and neither should you The credible detective and the truth-seeker must proactively examine all the evidence and make his or her own independent judgment, and the approach to clarifying definitions must be the same. Otherwise, you will be vulnerable to deception through wordplay and tricks like equivocation.
Linguistic tricks and propaganda
Sophistry is the clever use of false arguments to deceive, and it is rife in modern propaganda from official institutions, governments and organisations. Apparently sound arguments that are in fact logically inconsistent uses logical fallacies of one kind or another and the truth-seeker needs to be aware of these. Check out my previous post Learning to spot Logical Fallacies – with Bo Bennet.
Equivocation is a logical fallacy widely practised by politicians. It employs vague, unclear or ambiguous language with the intention to conceal the truth, deceive. or to avoid committing oneself to a particular meaning. It’s done using words with double meanings or special meanings and leaving it unclear which meaning is intended. Let’s look at some examples.
The use of special definitions
One technique is making a word mean something other than the commonly accepted meaning. This can only be done with the intention to mislead or deceive.
For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change gave the IPCC a very specific definition of ‘climate change’ that restricted their remit to a necessarily limited field of view. Climate change was defined as…
“a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over considerable time periods.”
They were thus able to pre-determine their results. Anything the IPCC has ever come up with will point the finger at humans because that is all they can ‘see’ according to their remit. Using this technique no actual lies are told, yet untruth passes as truth un-noticed by the majority due to the equivocation.
Another famous example is when George Bush junior said in 2006 “I want to be absolutely clear with the people of the world: the United States does not torture.” It was later found that his special definition of torture included water-boarding and forced nasal feeding. These practices are widely considered to come under a general definition of torture.
Yet another example is the definition of “vaccine efficacy” by the vaccine manufacturers as “stimulating an immune system response” which does not mean that it works to prevent any disease. Also “COVID cases” doesn’t mean that any infection is present, or that a person tested is actually suffering any illness at all.
Definitions changing over time
Definitions can be changed as well. For example, the definition of ‘unemployment’ has been redefined by the UK government dozens of times over the past 50 years. And colloquially words are changed and inverted, such as street kids using the word “sick” or “bad” to refer to something desirable and/or fashionable.
But this principle is used by governments and propagandists in a much more subtle form when words are used in a context that implies a ‘new’ meaning that is different from the original meaning – even to the point of inverting the meaning.
An example of the inversion of meaning int the minds of people is capitalism. For example, most people who bash Capitalism are unaware that the understanding they have of the concept has been sown in their minds through years of hearing the term in a context that implies an evil and exploitative system. Yet the word refers to a socio-economic system in which the means of production is held in private hands. This means property rights for you me and everyone, the basis of all rights and the only expression of them. People protest against capitalism in the most tragic ignorance of what they are protesting against due to the incorrect definition sown into their minds.
An example of a definition being inverted over a time span of 150 years is that of “germ”. Its current definition is primarily “A microorganism. Especially one which causes disease”. In dictionaries, it is given a secondary meaning as “a portion of an organism capable of developing into a new one or part of one” such as the embryo in a cereal grain or other plant seed, or an initial stage from which something may develop: the germ of a brilliant idea. Originally this secondary meaning was its sole meaning!
Consider further bizarre inversions of meaning with groups such as ANTIFA. They are apparently a left-leaning group (allegedly funded by wealthy people like George Soros) who claim to be against fascism. Fascism is a form os statism, a species of socialism, and it is characterised by a kind of tag-team cooperation between the state and big business. Some Antifa members attack capitalism which is the opposite of this tag-team. If they are against fascism and actually understood want it is, they would rally behind capitalism. But things are often not what they seem, and muddled definitions are the cause. These people do not know what they are talking about in a very literal sense.
Definitions by non-essential
Definitions must address the essentials of the concept being defined. Otherwise, they are meaningless. For example, if I defined a man as a thing that moves and makes noises, it would be true but hardly a complete and accurate definition.
Look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of politics as “the activities of the government members, members of law-making organisations or people who try to influence the way a country is governed”. This definition doesn’t even mention the fundamental that politics is a branch of philosophy that asks the question of how should men interact with one another. It doesn’t mention that politics is a science that seeks the principles by which men should live in society, or in community with each other.
Similarly, Wikipedia defines Democracy as “a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation.” This doesn’t mention that it is a form of Statism in which the majority holds the power to restrict the rights of the minority.
Summary: Check definitions for special definitions, inverted definition, changed over time, and by non-essential!
One single correct definition?
As you slide up the scale of concepts from the least abstract to the more abstract, it becomes increasingly obvious that there cannot be one single exact universal definition for each concept. With the less abstract and simple concepts such as tree, rock or pen, this is not apparent and it is far easier to arrive at a commonly accepted meaning for the concept. However, with concepts such as love, truth, morality or justice the limitations of language become more of a limiting factor. Philosophers could debate for lifetimes over the precise meaning of terms such as these.
The point to note here is that this: We humans are trying to achieve the accurate exchange of ideas within the inherent limitations of language. The point with definitions is to make sure that you are using the same one that the other party is using in any particular exchange. The everyday use of language to discuss everyday kind of things can easily use a commonly agreed meaning of car, butter, washing, work, house, etc without any real problems or controversy. But the truth seeker is not primarily concerned with these definitions, but the more abstract and contentious ones referring to more abstract concepts.
Yes, there must be objective common meanings of concepts to facilitate communication in common parlance, but in terms of thinking it is more about the need to know precisely what you are thinking (talking) about and precisely what each particular party in the ‘conversation’ is talking about. The truth-seeker must check and compare all definitions of all specific terms, new terms and technical terms.
I recommend that you check your personal definition ( understanding) of concepts such as truth, freedom, ideal, love, abundance, capitalism, etc.
Coming to terms
When we have a clear definition of the concepts we are using we can then choose our words carefully. There is great pleasure and even beauty in using the right word for the right purpose. For example, the word ‘fantastic’ is often used to describe something very good, but this is not an accurate use of the word. The stem of the word comes from fantasy, so it describes something perceived as good but not necessarily real – coming from a fantasy. It would be fantastic to win the lottery. Yet reality shows that that winning the lottery often ruins the life of the ‘fortunate’ recipient.
Problems with dictionaries
Dictionaries are obviously a useful tool in checking definitions but they should not be relied on. They can often contain definitions that fall prey to all the common mistakes listed above. They can offer definitions by non-essential or modern and inverted definitions. They are subject to being changed over time. Sometimes they merely offer synonyms for the word or descriptions of concepts rather than definitions. They can also offer definitions that are just not very good, not clear, not concise.
The best definitions
Ultimately, as a truth seeker (thinker) you should aim to create your own definitions using the 5th option in the list given above. This entails looking into a subject in some depth and constructing your own definitions of all the key concepts involved using the following 6 rules.
- A definition should contain a genus and differentia.
This means that the thing to be defined must be placed within a unifying class of similar things (the genus) and then distinguished from all the others by means of a specific and unique characteristic. For example, man is a rational animal. Putting mani in the wider class of ‘animal’ is the genus in this case, and his faculty of reason is the distinguishing characteristic, the differentia.
- It should not be too broad or too narrow
The definition needs to appropriately define the parameters of the class of referents to which the concept belongs, and must do this in sufficient detail. It would be insufficient to define man as a rational thing, or even a rational organism. The class of animal, being a living organism capable of independent movement or locomotion is appropriate. If we defined a table as a flat surface raised on 4 legs and made of wood. This would clearly be too narrow a definition since tables can have any number of legs and be made from other materials.
- It should state the essential attributes of the concept’s referents.
Defining man as an animal that rides bicycles or drinks coffee would clearly not be stating the essential attributes. Defining a dog as an animal with fur would similarly not suffice. Etc, etc.
- It should not be circular
This means that you can’t meaningfully define a cordless phone as a phone with no cord. Similarly, a definition of circles as shapes that are circular would not be meaningful. Another version of this is to define two things specifically in terms of each other. An example of this would be defining people as human beings, and then defining human beings as people.
- It should not use negative terms un-necessarily
When cars were first invented they were defined by some as a horse-less carriage. This made sense at the time. It is now commonly defined as “a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people.” This still needs updating to accommodate the new electric cars! Also to define a bachelor as a man who is not married is valid. but you would be breaking this rule is you defined a dog as an animal that cannot fly.
- It should not use vague, obscure or metaphorical language
Definitions need to be precise and so you wouldn’t define a car as the means to achieve a comfortable and exhilarating terrain-based travel experience.
If your goal is discerning truth and acquiring knowledge then sharpening your thinking is precisely what you are trying to do. Checking your definitions is the way to bring clarity to your thinking. You must know what you are talking about AND what other parties are talking about. it is an on-going process that will not be achieved in a day. But with each topic that you delve into, make sure to define all the key concepts involved.
Nigel Howitt, Treehouse Farm