What is the definition of "definition"?

John K Clark (johnkc@well.com)
Tue, 4 Feb 1997 22:10:39 -0800 (PST)


On Mon, 03 Feb 1997 Eliezer Yudkowsky <sentience@pobox.com> Wrote:

>your defense has now completely wandered away from its earlier
>position that my definition of "definition" - as opposed to "my
>definition of "definition"" - is circular, and is now reduced to
>claiming that all definitions must rely on pre-existing ideas.

All definitions, IF that's the only information you had, would be circular.
A dictionary would just say that one squiggle is equal to another squiggle
and that squiggle is equal to yet another squiggle in the same book.
You would not learn one thing about our world or the humans who inhabit it.
In the real Physical world dictionaries are useful because Lexicographers
know there is a lot of information that all their readers have in common that
is not in any book.

If I am frowning and have tears in my eyes and say "I am sad" then you don't
need any book to have some idea of what I am feeling. If you then read that
"happy is the opposite of sad" then you understand in a deep way what "happy"
means, it is no longer just a squiggle, it is a symbol with meaning.

>how is my definition of "definition" circular, as opposed to our
>discussion of it?

"Definition of definition" has a circularity in addition to the one I
discussed above. If you asked me for the definition of something I know
about, I may not be able to give an answer that would satisfy a rigorous
Philosopher, but the man on the street would probably say it was OK. If you
said "Give me a definition of frizbaum" I'd say "I can't" I'd know what you
wanted me to do I'd just be unable to do it. If I didn't know what a
definition was and you said "Give me a definition of definition" I'd say
nothing because your vocalization would be as meaningless as a burp,
just a noise you made with your mouth.

John K Clark johnkc@well.com

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