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If we do not understand words, through the apprehension and comprehension of their definitions, we cannot even begin to understand the wonders and glories of the cosmos that the Word Himself has brought forth…

It seems that Mark Malvasi, in his latest essay on these pages, seeks to continue what he calls our “gentlemanly epistemological debate.” I am happy to oblige, though I confess that I was tempted to do so by referring him to an earlier essay I wrote for The Imaginative Conservative, entitled “Defending the Definite,” in which I believe that I have already answered his objections to the definitive nature of definitions. I will indeed refer him to that particular essay but feel, nonetheless, that it would be decorous and polite, as befits the gentlemanly nature of our discussion, to respond to him directly.

Mr. Malvasi begins by suggesting that the whole debate has already been settled in his favour in the words of a popular song by Johnny Mercer, sung by a host of a popular singers, including Frank Sinatra, who are listed as a litany of authoritative sources. I am aware, of course, that he does so with a degree of whimsy and that I should not take his levitas too seriously. I intend, however, to parry his levitas with a degree of gravitas, insisting that the argument was settled in my favour many centuries earlier by Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose mind, we might presume, was at least the equal of Johnny Mercer’s and that it might even have matched in its wit and wisdom the mind of Frank Sinatra himself. Indeed, we might say that the difference between the philosophical realism of Augustine and the prideful relativism of Sinatra is that the former sought to view the cosmos His way, i.e. God’s way (objectively), whereas the latter insisted on seeing it and doing it “My Way” (subjectively).

To be honest, I found myself being reminded, upon reading Mr. Malvasi’s essay, of Lord Henry Wotton, the cynical relativist in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Take, for instance, this dialogue between Lord Henry and the Duchess of Monmouth:

“Decay fascinates me …”

“What of art?” she asked.

“It is a malady.”


“An illusion.”


“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”[*]

Lord Henry, as a radical relativist, refuses to be constrained by the limits that definitions place upon him, fearing perhaps that definitions point towards definite truths that he refuses to consider. Compare his position with Mr. Malvasi’s claim that “definitions are abstractions of reality that are elusive if not illusory. They cannot apprehend the essence of the thing defined, and often end up maiming and distorting it.” I’m not suggesting that Mr. Malvasi and Lord Henry Wotton are of the same ilk, though I fear that their respective philosophies are cut from the same deconstructionist cloth.

Furthermore, and to be frank, I found Mr. Malvasi’s efforts to prove his case to be incoherent. In seeking to prove that a horse cannot be defined, he quotes a character from Dickens who lists the attributes of a horse. His argument, I think, is that these attributes do not adequately define a horse. If he means that such attributes do not fully encapsulate all that a horse truly is, he is of course correct. There is, in terms of metaphysics, the essence of the horse, its quidditas, and perhaps, and more controversially, there is each individual horse’s haecceitas, its God-given uniqueness, the latter of which would certainly defy definition. But such a reality does not negate the entirely adequate definition of a horse as “a large solid-hoofed herbivorous ungulate mammal (Equus caballus, family Equidae) domesticated since prehistoric times and used as a beast of burden, a draft animal, or for riding.” Such a definition is not a mere “abstraction of reality,” the meaning of which is “elusive if not illusory.” Although it cannot encapsulate the full and complete and ultimately Divine and miraculous essence of the thing defined, it is absurd to say that this definition of a horse maims and distorts our understanding of the equine mammal being described and defined. The definition of the thing enables us to differentiate it from other things, such as dogs or cats, and enables us to think about it and to communicate our thoughts about it to ourselves and to others. This is the understanding of “conventional signs” that St. Augustine discusses and elucidates in De doctrina christiana (On Christian Doctrine).

The fact is that human beings are meant to join the quest for meaning, inherent in the fact that all meaning springs from the Word (the Logos). The apprehension of the meaning of things leads us closer to the Thing from whence all meaning comes. In the beginning was the Word, and our words, properly understood and defined, enable us to think about the things we see and help us to make some sort of sense of them. They also allow others, wiser than us, to communicate their wisdom to us. If we do not understand words, through the apprehension and comprehension of their definitions, we cannot even begin to understand the wonders and glories of the cosmos that the Word Himself has brought forth. A healthy vocabulary, connected to a comprehensive understanding of the definitions of the words we use, is the cognitive foundation of knowledge. The failure or refusal to embrace and defend the definitive nature of words is nothing less than the suicide of thought.

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[*] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, San Francisco: Ignatius Critical Edition, 2008, p. 213.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Well done, Joseph. The naming (and defining) of the animals in Eden was Adam’s first task. In naming each, he distinguished himself from it. There is an enormous significance in this myth. The entire process defines man, objectivity, and sanity. Indeed, it is the beginning of civilization, and the beginning of human intelligence. It requires putting things together, or classifying, and then distinguishing things from other things in its classification. It is this second step that constitutes definition, and it is this second step that some would like to abolish, for with its abolition, we have infinite undefined nothingness.

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