There Are No Objective Definitions

More often than not, language is the problem.

An enormous amount of confusion comes from misunderstanding the nature of language – the relationship between language and objective reality. Linguistic errors plague every area of thought, and they affect everybody from the layman to the intellectual. But they become most important in philosophy, where small errors affect our entire worldview.

One of the most common errors is thinking there are “objective definitions” for words. People waste an enormous amount of time endlessly debating about the “correct definition” for some word. They are confused. Language doesn’t work that way. The misunderstanding can be resolved rather simply:

There are no objective definitions for words.

Notice, this doesn’t mean that “there is no objective truth”, or “there is no objective reality”. It’s a specific claim about the nature of language: all definitions are subjective by their nature.

Meaning and Definition

So first of all, what is a definition? Can we, with a straight face, attempt to “define ‘definition’”? I think the answer is simple: a definition of X is simply what we mean by X. It’s the meaning that we’re attempting to communicate.

With this definition, it should become clear that definitions are not objective. Meaning is something our minds bring to the table. It’s subjective, not objective. Words do not possess meaning by themselves.

Say I use the word “homablut”. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t have any “objective meaning” – it means precisely what I intend it to: a blue house. I don’t want to live in a homablut.

How absurd would it be to say, “No, ‘homablut’ isn’t a word at all!” or, “’Homablut’ doesn’t mean anything!” Certainly, as I’ve demonstrated, homablut is a word that has a very clear meaning. I can use it as effectively as I can any other word.

But you won’t find “homablut” in a dictionary. Does that mean it’s not a word? Isn’t the purpose of dictionaries to catalog the “objective definitions” for words?

Certainly not. Dictionaries simply record the commonly-agreed-upon definitions for words. We would have a very difficult time communicating if every individual used his own language. Fortunately, we have common languages that use common definitions. And if we want to communicate effectively, we should try to appeal to commonly-held definitions as much as possible.

However, in no way does this mean that words have “objective definitions”, as I will explain shortly. We cannot ultimately understand language by appealing to words. Dictionaries, by themselves, are a linguistic dead-end.

Take, for example, the word “logic” – a word I use all the time in my work. I mean something quite precise when I use the term, and it’s a bit different than the standard dictionary-usage. This is true for all core philosophic terms; philosophers have to expand upon the meaning of their terms in some detail in order to be precise.

Philosophers should not get mired down trying to appeal to “the correct definition of ‘logic’” – rather, they must focus on “what I mean by the term ‘logic’”.

Words and Concepts

Our understanding of language becomes much clearer when we understand the nature of words. We must have a definite answer to this question:

What are words?

Think about it. What makes a word, a word? Physically speaking, we might look at written words and conclude that they are just “squiggles of ink on paper.” We might hear spoken words and conclude they are just “sound waves in the air”. Or, we might observe sign language and think it is “just hand movements.”

But certainly more is going on. Language is not merely sound waves and squiggles. There’s something additional that separates words from arbitrary physical phenomena.

It’s our concepts. Certain squiggles/sound waves/gestures elicit concepts in our minds.

I like to think of words as a fuse. The fuse is attached to a stick of dynamite; the dynamite is a concept in the mind. Effective communication is about lighting the right fuses (choosing the right words) to explode the intended concepts in the mind of the listener.

But crucially: what differentiates a “written word” from a “squiggle of ink” is not objective. It is by convention.

We can see this illustrated many ways. Consider the experience of a typical Westerner encountering  Arabic or Chinese words written on a wall. They are completely indistinguishable from pretty scribbles. Because Westerners do not understand Arabic, the fuse isn’t attached to anything. We might have the exact same visual experience as an Egyptian, but our internal conceptual experience would be radically different.

Were definitions truly objective, then simply articulating the correct sounds, or assembling ink in the correct manner, would result in clear communication to every human. There wouldn’t be different languages.

This is, of course, nonsense. It’s almost superstitious, to think that meaning pops into existence once certain syllables are spoken in the correct order.

The confusion resolves itself when you realize that words do not come pre-packaged with meaning. They are empty vessels. They are visual or auditory patterns that humans create. They only mean something when somebody understands the language – when that particular pattern lights a fuse in somebody’s mind.

Communication and Imprecision

When you understand language this way, it puts a damper on any attempts at “perfectly precise communication”. Given the inherent subjectivity involved, clear communication is hard, but “perfect communication” is impossible. Here’s what I mean:

Communication is about sparking the intended concepts in the mind of the listener/reader.

I might have a conception of “individual liberty” that I want you to think about. But my conception is inescapably personal – it’s a stick of dynamite in my own mind, based on all the previous conceptual associations I’ve made over my entire life. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to spark the “exact concept” in your mind as it is in mine. We’re always going to be talking a little past each other.

This is why effective communication is such a valuable skill. It tries to place our inherently different conceptions within a margin of error.

I might communicate at length about a cat – its size, color, fuzziness, disposition, etc. – and it might take me a page to describe. If I’ve done my job, you’ll have a very precise picture in your mind that I’ve painted – but no matter the detail, it will never be be absolutely identical as my picture.

Take a simple case: imagine a square with four 1-inch sides. Its top and bottom sides are oriented perfectly horizontally. Seems pretty clear, right?

Well, perhaps your conception of a square is in a different color than mine. Perhaps the thickness of the lines is different. Perhaps the mental background image in mine is different than yours.

There’s going to be some arbitrary criteria that will be different between us. The point of effective communication is to clearly articulate all of the relevant criteria. If the color of the lines doesn’t matter, then two people having different conceptions in their mind is still “within the margin of error” for precise communication.

Abstraction and Intuition

Take one more example. What if a stickler says, “No, words do have objective definitions. We must precisely identify and define all of our terms, and then we can have perfectly clear communication.”

And further, “If we cannot perfectly define our terms, we cannot communicate at all!”

Let’s try to communicate the simple sentence, “The object was moving in a straight line.” If we want to be precise, we must first define the words “object” and “moving” (nevermind, for the sake of time, the words “the”, “was”, “in”, “a”, “straight”, and “line”.)

What do we mean by “moving”? Well, something like, “being in motion”.

And what do we mean by “motion”? It’s that state of “being in the process of changing position.”

Well, what do we mean by “process”, “changing”, and “position”?

I suppose you could say, “Position” is “location is space”. But then we’ll have to define “location” and “space”. Do you see the pattern?

When we define words with words, we’re left with more words to define. It’s a futile task. You will never be able to conclude, “At some point, these words will suffice as a self-evident definition.”

No words speak for themselves.

Language simply doesn’t work that way. Ultimately, words require ostensive definitions – we are forced to point to something and say, “that is what I mean by X”.

Think about how you learned language as a child – when you heard the sound “cat” articulated by your parents. Did they try to explain what a cat was with words? Of course not.

You don’t tell a child, “A cat is a feline mammal. It has paws, claws, funky eyes. It eats mice, etc.” You point to a cat and say, “That is a cat!” Then you point to many other examples of not-cats. You point to dogs, humans, objects, and distinguish between cats and not-cats. Ultimately, it’s up to the child to intuit the defining features of a cat.

This is the key: understanding language depends on the individual’s ability to abstract from concretes. It has nothing to do with the “objective construction of a sentence” or the “use of objectively correct words.” If somebody lacks the ability to abstract, it doesn’t matter how many words you use; they will never understand what you’re talking about.

Imagine you visit an indigenous tribe in the middle of South America. The people you meet have never heard English, and you’ve never heard their language.

Say you were trying to communicate the concept of “Can I drink water?” to them. Would you merely speak some words at them? Would you simply write down your English words on a piece of paper and assume they will understand them?

Of course not. You would gesture.  You would point. You would play charades with them until you think they’ve intuited the concept. It wouldn’t matter how precise you made your English sentences; they don’t understand the language – and it’s precisely because words do not have objective definitions!

This realization forces us to understand the inherent imprecisions in language. We can never have perfect communication – we’re forced to rely on intuition, abstraction, and hoping that you’ve lit the right fuses in somebody’s mind.

Precise communication requires creativity; it is not a science.

Subjective and Objective Meaning

Now, we musn’t conclude, “Since definitions are subjective, words simply mean whatever you want them to mean! Communication is impossible!”

This is another popular linguistic error. It’s on the other side of the spectrum. Instead of arguing for what you might call “linguistic objectivity”, some people argue for a kind of “radical linguistic subjectivity.” Neither position is correct.

There’s a difference between saying, “Words are given meaning by their communicator”, and “Words have no meaning behind them. You can therefore interpret them however you please.” Communication is not completely futile.

If I say, “I am going to the store today”, only a fool would conclude, “I can’t know what you mean. Therefore I interpret those words as saying ‘I will eat a hamburger today.’”

You still have correct and incorrect interpretations of language. Not because “words have objective definitions”, but because “words are objectively intended to mean something.”

A correct interpretation of language would mean, “Accurately understanding what the communicator intended to communicate.”

Notice: it doesn’t matter what words are used. My wife and I make up words all the time. Whether or not we’re communicating precisely has to do with intended and understood meaning, not our particular sentence construction or vocabulary.

So, if we want to rescue objectivity in language, we might say that there is objectively intended meaning, not objectively intrinsic meaning. And “intended meaning” can never be perfectly communicated.

Language Throughout

This conception of language is not irrelevant. It directly applies to every field of thought, and indeed, every area of our lives where we use communication – relationships, in particular. If people understood language more clearly, I think the majority of arguments would either never happen, or would progress very differently.

When you start asking, “What do you mean by X?” – instead of assuming that you share common definitions – you’ll be immediately shocked by how imprecise language is. I guarantee that people don’t use words the same way you do. Everybody has their own slightly (or sometimes radically) different meanings.  This is not a bad thing, as long as you’re aware of it.

In the world of ideas, whether in philosophy, politics, economics, etc., I can hardly imagine the time that has been wasted arguing about definitions. What’s the “right” definition of “government”, “economy”, or “population”? What’s the correct definition of “science”, “philosophy”, or “rationality”?

These questions are useless. There are no “objectively correct” answers.

Think of how silly it would be to spend hours arguing with somebody that, “The Supreme Court is an unjust institution”, when you share different definitions of “justice” – a complete waste of everybody’s time. Unfortunately, this type of disagreement happens frequently.

The resolution to all of these problems is very simple: just explain what you mean by the terms you use, and understand that imperfect communication is unavoidable. That’s just the nature of language.