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Defending the DefiniteReaders of my essays for The Imaginative Conservative over the past few weeks will know that I have been somewhat preoccupied with the definition of certain words and concepts, such as “love,” “nice,” “civilization,” “Christendom,” and “Man.” It has been gratifying to see how this has stimulated comment and in some cases debate. One particular comment deserves further consideration because it seems to throw into question the very point or purpose of defining the words we use. I am quoting this comment at some length as a launching pad for my own thoughts on the subject, which will also serve, I hope, as an adequate riposte to the comment itself:

Sometimes, the search for a definition is itself misguided; one recalls Wittgenstein’s example of the word “game.” He argues that it is impossible to devise some definition of “game” that includes everything that we call games, but excludes everything that we do not. His point is that we do not need a definition and we get on very well without one, for we are all familiar with enough things that are games and enough things that are not games to be able to categorize new activities as either games or not.

In short, a word need not have an essential core meaning that is common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing.” We have to see how it functions in a specific social situation.

The problem with this understanding or misunderstanding of words is that it presumes implicitly and leads inevitably to a radical relativism, which is itself the slippery slope toward nihilism. We begin with the presumption that the words have no definitive, objective meaning and end with the conclusion that nothing means anything, or that everything means nothing. We end with the despairing cry of Macbeth that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And the ultimate joke, the height of absurdity, is that even the statement that life or reality signifies nothing must of course signify nothing! The nihilist screams in a vacuum of meaninglessness. He cannot be heard because everything he says is incomprehensible. No meaning can be conveyed by the very words he uses. His scream is senseless. It is a dust storm in a desert. If, of course, he understands what he is saying he is contradicting himself! If he means his words to mean anything he is proving himself wrong, or, at least, he is showing himself a hypocrite whose very actions contradict the things he is saying.

Making a game of the example of “game” that the follower of Wittgenstein employs, we can see that the word “game” does convey some very definite meanings. The Concise Oxford Dictionary which I have in front of me offers no fewer than six definitions of the use of the word as a noun, plus additional definitions of its use as an adjective and a verb. Playing devil’s advocate, we might wonder whether so many meanings can make the word meaningless. Doesn’t the fact that a word can mean so many different things introduce an element of ambiguity and ambivalence into its meaning? On the contrary, and exorcising the devil’s devious deviation in the direction of chaos, the multiplicity of meanings adds power to the word, enabling it to be used with eloquence, subtlety and finesse so that our exact meaning can be honed. If vocabulary, what the Anglo-Saxons called our word-horde, is measured by the number of words we have at our disposal, it can be seen that the more words we understand the more we can make ourselves understood, assuming that others share our vocabulary; if this is so, knowing the various different definitions of a word multiplies the words in our horde and therefore magnifies our ability to communicate our meaning.

As for games themselves, they are defined by the rules which are necessary to be able to play them. Without clearly defined rules, we could not play football, soccer, baseball or tennis; without such rules we could not distinguish one game from another. And this is the very point of my recent articles on the definition of “civilization,” or “Christendom,” or “Man.” We cannot understand a thing, let alone defend it, unless we know what it is. Indeed we cannot know whether a thing is worth defending unless we know what it is. Without clearly defined rules we cannot discuss, defend or condemn anything; without such rules we cannot distinguish one thing from another. As with games, so with language. Definitions are the clearly defined rules by which the “game” of communication is played. Abandon the rules and we can no longer play the game. Know the rules and use them well and we can not only play the game but win it.

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2 replies to this post
  1. G. C. Lichtenberg described definition as something like a ladder. It is a process in which we combine familiar words and use them to guide us toward understanding of an unfamiliar concept. If the concept is already familiar to us, a definition would have to be made of words that are even more familiar than the concept. In the case of some concepts, this appears to be impossible. For example, one must have some concept of “word” before one can become familiar with any particular word. Therefore, it is probably impossible to produce a fully satisfactory definition of the word “word.” Some of the words you list, especially “love,” “nice,” and “man,” indicate concepts that pre-verbal infants clearly understand, and therefore may be as resistant to definition as is “word.”

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