Or, what the defining properties of some thing are.

For example, I might say, “Socialism is a government in which such-and-such happens,” and someone else might say, “No, socialism is when a society so-and-so.”

This might touch on topics in the book Naming and Necessity by Saul Kripke. The idea is that it may not be meaningful to assert what something is, because we can only determine what it is by virtue of certain definitional properties. Thus, it is meaningless to assert what thing X is, because all we know about thing X is the properties you asserted about it, in your definition.

In spite of this, the above form of argument is so common I think there should be a compact name for it, to refer people to. Is there any Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article that elaborates on the fallacy of treating definitions as if they are assertions - as if one can correctly state what thing X truly is; whereas, due to the arbitrariness of the sign, we have no referent for “thing X” except the arbitrary properties the speaker supplied it with.

  • 3
    A phrase commonly used is "debate about words" with negative connotation attached, the implication is that it should instead be about "substance". However, in many cases debates about words are not "fallacious", they are about which concepts are best suited for framing this or that area of concern. This is pragmatically meaningful even when the "thing X" is not and would be a social construct emerging from such a debate. It is all the more meaningful when the goal is to pick out 'correct' concepts for a class of phenomena. Historically, emerging fields in science displayed many such debates.
    – Conifold
    Dec 14, 2023 at 0:43
  • 1
    It's frequently referred to as "semantics", but it's definitely important to keep in mind that there are contexts where it's relevant to debate about how words are defined or should be redefined.
    – TKoL
    Dec 14, 2023 at 10:37
  • 1
    I think it is called 'philosophy'.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 1 at 14:13
  • Truly a vexing issue.
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 1 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


On traditional analysis accounts rooted in the essentialism originating with Socrates and Plato, definitions are indeed neither held to be assertions nor have truth values. They are mere descriptive statements. But this is controversial. Thus the correct definition is the accurate description. But what is an accurate description? From the Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Definition:

"[P]aradoxically, no problems of knowledge are less settled than those of definition, and no subject is more in need of a fresh approach. Definition plays a crucial role in every field of inquiry, yet there are few if any philosophical questions about definition (what sort of thing it is, what standards it should satisfy, what kind of knowledge, if any, it conveys) on which logicians and philosophers agree.

Thus, the notion that a real definition should be presumed and not an instance of assertoric force nor possessing any truth-conditional semantics, is a particular flavor of definition, one related to certain metaphysical presuppositions of object and objective, both of which are philosophically controversial notions. If one believes there is an objective reality, than a definition isn't lexical in the classical sense, but is a mere description of what is. Kant raised the question with his Ding-an-sich created philosophical complications related to claiming that we know only appearances, and not actuality. There was, of course, strong pushback:

The obvious SEP article to begin with is Definitions. From the SEP:

For the Frege-Russell project to succeed, the definitions used must have a special character. They must be conceptual or explicative of meaning; they cannot be synthetic. It is this kind of definition that has aroused, over the past century or so, the most interest and the most controversy.

What is controversial is the ontological ambiguity that modern philosophy seems to acknowledge. For instance, the logical positivists failed to produce any procedure that would allow one to produce objective observation statements divorced from theoretical content related to a modern account of theory-ladenness. If one's views are always contaminated or normative, there can be no objective description at all. Thus, on this view, there can be no real definition at all. Which brings us to our second topic the SEP covers, Concepts which are presumed to be that which real definitions allude to:

Concepts are the building blocks of thoughts. Consequently, they are crucial to such psychological processes as categorization, inference, memory, learning, and decision-making. This much is relatively uncontroversial. But the nature of concepts—the kind of things concepts are—and the constraints that govern a theory of concepts have been the subject of much debate

Again, we find that metaphysics has great bearing on definition, if definitions, as Locke held, are related to thoughts, concepts, or as he referred to them, Ideas. For instance, there is strong empirical evidence to doubt the classical theory of concepts. Again from the SEP:

The classical theory has come under considerable pressure in the last forty years or so, not just in philosophy but in psychology and other fields as well. For psychologists, the main problem has been that the classical theory has difficulty explaining a robust set of empirical findings. At the center of this work is the discovery that certain categories are taken to be more representative or typical and that typicality scores correlate with a wide variety of psychological data

You say:

In spite of this, the above form of argument is so common I think there should be a compact name for it, to refer people to. Is there any Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article that elaborates on the fallacy of treating definitions as if they are assertions.

Therefore the argument is common, not because it is widely recognized as fallacy, but because the notion that definitions are objective descriptions of reality without truth conditions, as in the classical notion of real definition, is itself controversial. Robinson's work Definition adheres to the classical notion going so far as to claim that real definitions are not definitions at all in the sense of lexical definitions. But, post-positivist thinking strongly undermines this claim, such as in the works of Sellars and McDowell who go so far as to argue that the spontaneity of sensory impressions are themselves not objective therefore rejecting them as empirical experience, a notion known by the Myth of the Given.

Given the sophistication of the argument, and the breadth of positions required to understand conceptualism, for instance, it often comes as a surprise to many to find that essentialist notions of definition are actually controversial. A similar pattern of surprise occurs to mathematicians who are frequently raised on a steady diet of Platonic thinking and then come to find that intuitionists in mathematics (SEP) reject core metaphysical presumptions of the objectivity of mathematics.

Thus, the position you cite is common not because it is fallacious, but because it contests your metaphysical presuppositions to begin with. Given the strength of both positions, to count one or the other is polemical, because both notions of definition have more than adequate metaphysical grounding. Rather, what you are witnessing is the schism inherent in the realist/anti-realist debate in ontology. We anti-realists simply do not agree to the "universal objectivity" of observation and definition you presume, and often reject certain key distinctions like the analytical-synthetic and the fact-value.

  • Can't we just pick something and move on? 'horizontal' is different everywhere on earth, but we still manage to construct buildings that don't fall down.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 1 at 14:11
  • The OP question looks to me like it is challenging, rather than asserting, "one true meaning" to words.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 1 at 16:30

J D answered this question from metaphysical perspective; I will attempt to answer this from practical perspective.

You seem to work under a clear-cut, almost mathematical framework: we start from axioms, make a few definitions (not to be confused with assertions), then derive some properties from these axioms and definitions or make hypotheses about the things we have defined and then attempt to test these hypotheses (these are all assertions). While such an approach might work for mathematics and any, how do I put it, 'apriorical' work, discussions about real-life phenomena (and any 'aposteriorical' work) simply do not look that way.

Your example with socialism already frustrates your approach.

For example, I might say, “Socialism is a government in which such-and-such happens,” and someone else might say, “No, socialism is when a society so-and-so.”

When people discuss socialism, they typically do NOT have in mind an abstract system that is already defined. To the contrary, they often have in mind a phenomenon observed in real world. For example, it is very plausible that they might be interested in discussing the socio-economic-political system that was present in USSR and its satellite states in the post-Stalinist era.

Now you define socialism in the way you presented above: "Socialism is a government in which such-and-such happens". This may not coincide with your interlocutor's understanding of the reality of USSR and its satellite states in the post-Stalinist era. So they will argue with your definition, because either:

  • They might think that otherwise the discussion is off-topic: if you're interested in discussing an abstract system that, in their mind, has little in common with the reality of USSR and its satellite states then they are not interested in continuing the discussion; or
  • Even worse: they may interpret your definition as an assertion; namely, they believe that you intend to assert that in the government of the USSR such-and-such was happening. So they argue with you, because they believe that instead in the society of the USSR so-and-so was taking place.

It seems that their understanding of the word 'definition' does not really match your definition of 'definition'. Both competing definitions of 'socialism' are, in fact, assertions rather than definitions. For the purpose of that imaginary discussion the implicit definition of socialism would rather be: 'socialism' is the system that was present in the USSR and its satellite states in the post-Stalinist era, because this is what both arguing parties really have in mind when they discuss 'socialism'.

Even this approach is frustrated. Because even when discussing the USSR and its satellite states it is often useful to put them in a context. For example it could make sense to also consider China; however, China ceased to be a satellite of the USSR after 1961. Thus, defining 'socialism' as the system present in USSR and its satellites after Stalin would exclude China. I doubt anyone would consider this useful.

Definitions implicitly contain assertions; this is inescapable when discussing real-world phenomena. This is because discussions about real-world phenomena start from these phenomena rather than any definitions (as opposed to mathematics, which does indeed start from axioms and definitions). People notice a phenomenon, they invent a word for it. But a word should be precisely defined, so a definition is devised. Immediately we have an implicit assertion that the phenomenon we attempted to name fulfills this definition. The phenomenon is in the center of attention, rather than definition: if it turns out that the phenomenon does not fulfill the definition after all, then the definition is amended - for example, notice how mushrooms and corals used to be classified as plants, but this is no longer the case.

Unfortunately, such issues can give a rise to dishonest discussion strategies. (As expected everywhere where assertions can be passed around implicitly). Your hypothetical interlocutor, arguing about the definition of 'socialism', might attempt to implicitly pass some assertions about the reality of USSR and its satellites. So can you: if you enter the discussion with a certain definition of 'socialism', then this definition is challenged so you respond that your opponent is indulging in semantics and is fallaciously treating definitions as if they were assertions you might succeed in enforcing your definition of 'socialism' and in this way in passing the assertion that the reality of USSR satisfied your definition of 'socialism' (however you define 'socialism'). I hope no one goes down this manipulative way.

Note how it doesn't really matter here whether definitions exist in the platonic sense or not. In my opinion, the core of this problem does not really lie in metaphysics, but in the ambiguities of natural language and how the same sentence can easily be both a definition sensu stricte and an assertion.

  • Perhaps we should start by defining the words 'definition' and 'assertion' and so on? Then when someone differs on those, you point to the rulebook, like in Chess, and say, no it has been fixed down already, no moving the goalposts.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 1 at 14:04

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