What is the definition of "definition"?

John K Clark (johnkc@well.com)
Sun, 2 Feb 1997 22:16:24 -0800 (PST)


On Sun, 02 Feb 1997 Eliezer Yudkowsky <sentience@pobox.com> Wrote:

>>Well that's a real nice start Eliezer, but you didn't complete it.
>>Talking about "a symbol" won't do, I want you to explain "the
>>symbol", after all, I didn't ask a general question but a very
>>specific one. So please explain all the information necessary for
>>the formation of the symbol "definition".

>I think it's a bit misleading, quoting only my quickie definition:
>Definition (n): An explanation intended to convey all information
>necessary for the formation of a symbol.
>You should at least note that this was the summary only

You're right, it was a dirty trick, as was my asking the question in the
first place. If I had no idea what a definition was, how on earth could I
know if your definition of "definition" was correct?

Let me also say that although you have certainly not made a non-circular
definition of "definition", you have made a hell of a lot better stab at it
than most people.

>and that I also included an explanation of all the cognitive objects
>associated with "explanation", "information", "formation", and

You did fine for "information", "formation", and "symbol" but you didn't
give an explanation of "explanation", and that's all a definition is.

>This explanation was in turn the information necessary for the
>formation of the symbol "definition"

This what? I'm not familiar with the second word you used in your sentence
above. Could you give me an explanation?

>I could also point to the subjective aspect of watching something
>being defined, and that would also be sufficient for defining the
>symbol "definition".

You are of course correct, that's how we understand most things, but that's
not a definition. All of us already have a pretty good idea what a definition
is, even if we can't define it, that's why the question " What is the
definition of definition" does not sound like gibberish to us and that's
why a dictionary is not a useless circular book.

We don't have definitions for the most important things in life. I've never
seen a definition of mind or intelligence or consciousness that I thought
was any good, and I don't expect to ever see one, at least not one that could
be written on a piece of paper smaller than the Galaxy. That doesn't mean
however that the terms are meaningless. Good definitions are always nice to
have, but in most cases are vastly overrated. People are seldom able to
produce good definitions, even of familiar concepts, and it's even rarer that
they need them, unless they're dealing in a few highly specialized fields
like mathematics. Formal logic is only a small part of our intelligence,
so most of our knowledge is not in the form of definitions, it's in the
form "like this" and "not like this". That's just what you'd expect if we
are more like neural nets than expert systems, few definitions but lots of

>In other words, pointing to the subjective aspect would indeed
>define the symbol of "definition" and give it a referent, but not
>the *explanatory* (rather than experiential) referent you were
>looking for.

Definitions are explanatory not experiential, that's way they're so hard to
find, however I know what you're driving at and I basically agree.

John K Clark johnkc@well.com

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