Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Holisms (3) – Definitional Holism


A definition isn't just an appendage to the word under scrutiny. The word would have no meaning if it weren't for the definitions we supply in order to facilitate understanding.

A word isn't atomic in nature. We can't say, for instance, that the word ‘freedom’ means, well, freedom and leave it there. Neither can we accept (on a naturalistic reading) some kind of abstract and non-individuated meaning or proposition which would allow us to escape from our linguistic system. Even if we were to allow for abstract and non-spatiotemporal meanings or propositions, they would still become material or concrete (as it were) as soon as they were expressed and communicated – which would need to be done, evidently, in some natural language or other.


It seems counterintuitive, at least initially, to think that the primary relation is not between words and things, but between words and other words. This isn't so surprising when, for example, we think of the classic example of defining ‘bachelor’ as ‘unmarried man’. However, these words are taken to be synonyms. But try explaining or defining a word like ‘freedom’ again. This certainly doesn't have a reference in a strict sense of the term. Thus we are moved on, immediately, to words like ‘liberty’, ‘choice’, ‘will’ and so on. And try getting further without bringing in terms which are themselves as much in need of defining or explaining as the original word ‘freedom’. Of course it may be the case that we arrive back at the word ‘freedom’ or use this term as part of some of the other definitions.

This word isn't as problematic as words like ‘thing’ and ‘experience’. Try defining those words without reference to things or experience.

It may follow, then, that if a word has a definition which includes terms themselves not defined (or even if we provide simple synonyms for the definiendum) then the speakers may not fully understand the word’s meaning. They may not even understand their own usages of the word in question because any full meaning (or full understanding) can only belong to the linguistic system itself. Any definition or explication of a word's meaning must reach an arbitrary finishing point if the game of understanding is to begin in the first place. And that stopping place will be contingent, if not exactly arbitrary.


Words are defined by other words, which are themselves defined by other words. No word, concept or thing is ever captured in a “finite web” of meaning. This is Karl Popper on this problem:

The derivation [of a term] shifts the problem of truth back to the premises, the definition shifts the problem of meaning back to the defining terms (i.e., the terms that make up the defining formula). But these, for many reasons, are likely to be just as vague and confusing as the terms we started with, and in any case, we should have to go on to define them in turn; which leads to new terms which too must be defined. And so on, to infinity.”

That must surely be the problem with definitions: they too will contain terms which themselves will need defining.

A similar problem is apparent when it comes to a logical argument and the premises on which it is based. That is, the premises of any argument may themselves depend on further premises and conclusions that may act as justifications for the validity or truth of the initial premise. Thus we have on our hands a regress of justification. However, the game can't go on forever.

This is why we must, at some point, simply accept premises, arguments or definitions if we're to get going on our philosophical or logical enterprise. The premises that we accept, however, needn't be seen as being “self-evident”, “indubitable” or anything like that. They simply need to be the starting points of reasoning if we are to avoid an infinite regress.

In a sense, it's precisely because definitions depend on their own un-defined terms that all words (or nearly all words) are inherently somewhat vague. That's because the meaning of a single word can be said to depend upon all the meanings of all the words in the symbol-system to which it belongs. We can't have a precise definition if the definiendum itself contains terms that aren't themselves defined. Though even if we do in fact define the terms in the definition, these definitions will themselves require elaboration and definition. And so on indefinitely.

The holist position on this problem will be that we must take into account the symbol-system to which the words under definition belong. But this too is problematic. How can we really take on board an entire symbol-system each time we want to define a term? Does this mean going on an infinite regress? Or if not an infinite regress, does it mean taking on board all the other words in a symbol-system? (Or perhaps a large sub-system of the larger system?) So, in that respect, the regress won't be infinite: it will be circular. This essentially means that we will arrive back at some of the terms which we actually started with.

This means that there are jut as many problems with holism (or coherentism) as there are with atomism.

Similar points to those above were raised by, amongst others, Bradley in the 19th century. Because of the problem of holism, Bradley concluded that no statement could be entirely/absolutely true. Similarly, we may now say that no definition is ever free from vagueness precisely because of its containment within a larger symbol-system.

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