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This is sort of a thought experiment. I am not sure I expect it to mature into a canonical question, but I hope to have a little discussion through it.

Imagine someone asks “What is/are X?”, where X can be anything - “chairs”, “science”, “definitions”, “doing”. The contributor J D says in this answer:

…philosophy often recognizes two broad types of definitions: real and lexical. Lexical definitions are those which…describe how people use language…real definitions are attempts to state essential properties of entities…

(and links to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on “Definitions” and “Concepts”).


On the one hand, let us take this idea at face value. The next time someone asks me “What is X?”, I can immediately realize that there are two separate questions to be answered: “How do people appear to be using that word?”, vs. “What is the actual thing, which is merely being hinted at, by that word?

The first question sounds unexpectedly empirical. Contrary to intuition, it should not require almost any inner contemplation, but might simply require us to do some kind of “field study” in which we passively observe and note down all of the uses of the word which we see in the world around us.

The second question bothers me as an extremely rich philosophical question of its own which should maybe be factored out into its own question, but some preliminary considerations include the following. When someone asks “What is X?” and we understand that ‘X’ is just a sign pointing at some thing, we already assume the existence of said thing. In other words, it is like we agree that we have enough of a common understanding to know we are both looking at the same object, but we also both know that we don’t know everything about that object. Now the task appears to be intensely logical: we apparently have enough conditions on some thing to determine a thing, but we see it through a blurry window… we may know extremely little about what it is, or what it is like, but we already feel there is sufficiently strong enough reason to know that there is a thing there. (Here is where I guess one could get into some classic philosophical discussions about things like denotation, from Bertrand Russell or Saul Kripke… as in, there are tricky questions sometimes about to what extent a property determines something of unique identity, or not…).

That second one bothers me and it is a thing I have been curious about for a while now. I may currently favor some theory about concepts which has to do with the statistical concept of clustering. I don’t know a name for it, but I am pretty sure there is a philosophical view on concepts that the more inextricably interrelated certain properties are, the more we naturally perceive something as being a thing, and with good reason: a bundle of properties with profound logical integration thus acts in a highly integrated fashion with regards to things like cause and effect: for example, by eliminating the concept of “anatomically female” and making use of concepts such as “people who have breasts” and “people who have wombs”, it is like it is almost inevitable that we would “re-discover” an intense convergence, or parallelism, between those two things. They are in some way highly bound to each other, extremely frequently co-occurrent. This paragraph roughly summarizes the theory that I have long wanted to go into, but haven’t yet.

I think the point here is, there may be a way of arguing that things can have an inherent existence outside of the human mind, and that actually, the human conceptual system is really just an attempt at learning about all the things out there, as accurately as possible (and how they relate to each other, and so forth). (Of course, we could then talk about the profound influence that reification has, in which the reverse actually does happen - that people construct concepts by definition, whereupon the social world actually manifests them because human agents actually determine their existence, as an integrated phenomenon exerting cause-and-effect influence on the world - so they become real. And once something has become real, it is (now) real. Again, this is an entire theory I want to develop but have not yet, so it’s meant to be related, but a side-note). This is partially meant to be in contrast to someone who might say that there simply are no “things” without a human mind making arbitrary distinctions between the totality of ephemera in the universe, but I believe there is a deeper point to be made here in contrast to perhaps neo-Aristotelian(?) views on things as being defined by particular truth conditions.. I think the point may be to stop distinguishing between “things” and “properties”, since every property is a thing, and is also defined in terms of other things.. I will need time to develop what I am reaching for, here.

All this is (maybe) meant to buttress the view that it definitely does not make sense to just assume that “there is such a thing”, for a given word. The reason why is that we have not comprehensively examined what clusters are there, for a given starting condition. Let’s agree that we don’t know what a “woman” is, but we think we can begin with a bit of logical, propositional, conceptual, semantic “content” to actually determine the thing quite well: “Whatever Natalie Portman, Michelle Obama, my sister, Malala Yousafzai, and the Queen of Brunei have in common (and notice implicitly that I did not mention various things such as carrots, Mark Wahlberg, or being an actress, even though I didn’t explicitly say they were excluded.)” We don’t know what would happen. We may be surprised to discover that there is a fascinating distinction that naturally leads to the emergence of two sub-clusters - we didn’t realize all along that these two things are actually not the same thing (say, in a given context). Examples of this are strongest in science, where for example, we learn that by convergent evolution, two nearly identical species are from completely different zoological classifications, or something (that is, the way we cluster things is not unilateral, but related to maybe a certain context, or a property we are clustering on).


But I think it gets more complicated. Let’s go back to the original idea:

…philosophy often recognizes two broad types of definitions: real and lexical. Lexical definitions are those which…describe how people use language…real definitions are attempts to state essential properties of entities…

How do we know that this is true? It seems we have to go to a far more intensely primary level of self-inspection, to completely engage with this question in a far more authentic way..

It seems the most direct and unbiased way to try to answer a question “What is X?” is by self-querying.. what do I think the word means? Can I explore my own consciousness and cognition to explore if I feel there is/are some aspect or aspects which emerge in my mind somehow as most characteristic, definitive, emblematic, prominent, canonical?


While I do not feel satisfied with the current state of this question, I’d like to leave off here until I can gather my thoughts further. Let us make the meta-philosophy question the core focus here: it is less interesting to suggest ways in which one might approach answering the question “What is X?” - but philosophically, due to an epistemological reason, how should one answer such a question - what is a wrong way, and what is a right way, and why?

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  • Your text is not focused and does not ask a clear question. As you write "I’d like to leave off here until I can gather my thoughts further". Please rework your question.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 20, 2023 at 18:29
  • X is a letter of the alfabet, that looks as a cross or it does a cross, so X = to cross,/ or it is a reference to else being. The problem that when people say woman or heard word woman, does not give a clear sense what they mean: they mean real woman - that can be their mother, or they use word woman as a reference on something else? Dec 20, 2023 at 18:46
  • For a concept X you can have either a definition, in terms of previously known concepts, or a sort of elucidation, i.e. a discussion (sometimes a full book...) of its use and meaning, trying to circumvent the impossibility of a full explicit definition. Dec 21, 2023 at 6:56
  • If you are finding something about this question 'intense', you should really look in to Nonduality.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 21, 2023 at 12:04

3 Answers 3

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Since you admit that your question is vague and half baked, I trust you will appreciate an answer with a similar lack of clarity...

A wrong way to answer the question 'what is x?' is to give a definition of y, where y is not x. For example, 'A chamber in which legal cases are heard' would be a wrong way to answer the question 'What is a sea-horse?'. There are other classes of wrong ways to answer questions. For instance:

'Am I losing my marbles?' is a wrong way to answer the question 'What is loctite?'.

'Numoch zumplat ach dem ynogropt' is the wrong way to answer the question 'How many chickpeas are left?'.

A wrong way to answer an exam question, is to copy verbatim what the examination candidate sitting next to you has written.

'That makes you look fat' is the wrong way to answer any question posed by a loved-one about the suitability of wardrobe items.

'No, apart from the $10m I have in a secret bank account in the Seychelles,' is the wrong way to answer a question on your income tax form if you do not wish to attract the attention of the tax authority.

The right way to answer a question of the form 'what is x?' depends on the context, but you may reasonably suppose that it involves the provision of sufficient information to distinguish x from not-x. For example, an acceptable answer to the question 'what is straw?' might be 'the dried stalks of cereal plants such as wheat'- you do not need to provide an exhaustive catalogue of the properties of straw.

As for your supposition that you might best examine your own mind to determine whether there are 'aspects which emerge somehow as most characteristic, definitive, emblematic, prominent, canonical', an obvious shortcoming of that method is that it is applicable only to a subset of the possible values of x, namely the subset with which you are sufficiently familiar. If I were to ask you, for example, what is the maximum flux density generated by the fourteenth magnet along in a clockwise direction from the entrance to the northern-most ladies' toilets at the Large Hadron Collider, I suspect you might struggle to give me a convincing answer through a process of introspection.

The adequacy of any definition of x depends on the context in which it is requested. For example, mercury may be uniquely defined as a metal with a given atomic number- that information alone is sufficient to distinguish mercury from anything else. However, it is not a complete list of the properties of mercury, let alone of all of the concepts directly or indirectly associated with mercury which one might find in a comprehensive encyclopaedia entry.

You say, correctly, that the properties of an object are things requiring definition in themselves. Returning to mercury, for example; if I say it is a metal that is liquid at room temperature, and that it is poisonous and a pollutant found especially in certain fish, and so on, I am then inviting questions such as what is a metal? You cannot define anything without reference to something else.

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'What is X?' is always an ambiguous question. Ambiguity in language is generally resolved by context and and clarification. For instance, 'What is X?' might be understood as:

  • What is the nature of x? (ontological)
  • What is the purpose of x? (explanatory)
  • What is the behavior of x? (description)
  • What is the name of x? (reference)
  • I have the name of x; to what does it refer? (ostension)

Think about it. When you are having a discussion about a word in the context of grammar, 'What is X' becomes a question you answer with a dictionary. It is a noun. It is a verb. It is a particle. If you ask the question while repairing a car, then the response might include the name and explanation. 'What is that?' 'It's a butterfly valve, and it regulates the flow of oxygen in coordination with the accelerator.' In philosophy class, of course, one becomes very ontological with the question by seeking what makes something real or allows us to know we have this and not that. The real definition is a typical answer to the question. 'What is a person?' 'Man is a featherless biped.' 'No, it is the recognition of a human mind in society. According to Kant, we know...' So on and so forth. If the same conversation is had in geometry class, we might not want to ponder the ultimate nature of a line, but simply seek out the definition we use in class to find a piece of proof that has been assigned to us. 'What is a line?' 'A line is that which is determined by two points.' This would be in line with a lexical definition. There are other types of definitions, like operational definitions, precising definitions, and ostensive definitions. Each answers 'what is x' in a different context to a different end.

Metaontological positions are described by such positions as realist, essentialist, anti-realist, nominalist, and constructivist, etc.

You mention "the inherent nature of things". This is might be met with one of essentialist doctrines (SEP). From SEP:

There are at least four fairly standard ways of characterizing essentialism, and by considering two extreme views, we can easily see the differences among these four characterizations.

And yet, as I many others do, we accept that ontological properties are ambiguous, and there may no way to know a thing's ultimate nature since we have the problem of dealing with representations in our phenomenological experience rather the thing itself. Thus, we simply are using language to construct descriptions, and that those descriptions may even prejudice our observations as in conceptualism. From WP:

In metaphysics, conceptualism is a theory that explains universality of particulars as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind.2 Intermediate between nominalism and realism, the conceptualist view approaches the metaphysical concept of universals from a perspective that denies their presence in particulars outside the mind's perception of them.

Thus, how to answer 'What is X' in this sense is given by your metaphilosophical dispositons. Is there a best way? To me, such arguments ultimately degenerate into boo-yay contests that can never be settled in the same way the meta-ethical theory of non-cognitivism dominates ethical discussions.

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  • I think I understood your question to emphasize the second half of my response, but both halves are important in tackling 'How to answer x?'
    – J D
    Dec 21, 2023 at 15:34
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For this question, we need to delimit two distinct kinds of problem we are trying to solve: It's both an ontological and epistemiological problem.

So let's go at it: What is a woman ontologically? and what is a woman epistemiologically? The difference between ontology and epistemiology resides in the deifference between what a woman is in iteself (ontology) and what a woman is for us, how do we comprehend what a woman is? (epistemiology)

Let's start with the epistemiological answer of What is (we understand) a woman?

You write:

we can begin with a bit of logical, propositional, conceptual, semantic “content” to actually determine the thing quite well: “Whatever Natalie Portman, Michelle Obama, my sister, Malala Yousafzai, and the Queen of Brunei have in common. Notice that I did not implicitly mention various things such as carrots, Mark Wahlberg, or being an actress, even though I didn’t explicitly say they were excluded.”

You are misunderstanding the categories of universal and specific. When we see concrete things we can see that many of them share some common characteristics we can abstract in our minds. This way, for the sake of communication we stop considering the specifics of the concrete things: we form in our minds the concept tree separated from the diffent heights trees can have, or different leaf color, or fruit. We wouldn´t say that a tree is not so because it does not have a specific color, trees have different colors.

We could make an epistemiological definition of what a woman is to fit all characteristics of your sister and all others you mention; or I could make another one more specific that excludes your sister. The point is that epistemiological definitions are just snapshots of things that exist outside of us and not the things themselves. Therefore, there are infinite epistemiological definitions of what woman or any other word means.

Now for the ontological answer to What is a woman (in itself)?

I like Spinoza's thinking about this this: For him, asking what is x is the same as asking about x's cause. So what is a woman? and what causes a woman? are identical questions to which answer could be: Psychologically, a woman is what the mind determines it to be: A woman's consciousness is that of a human who considers itself as a woman. Under the same idea: socially, a woman is the social relations they embody: do they get treated as woman, do they respond as a woman would etc.

For neither of these definitions, genitals and other formal aspects (facial hair, wombs etc) have any implication.


Post-Scriptum

I think the point may be to stop distinguishing between “things” and “properties”, since every property is a thing, and is also defined in terms of other things.

Spinoza had an awesome answer for this: Basically there is only one infinite substance and every single thing that exists is just a configuration of that substance, in different ways that the content organizes itself. As such, singular things like you and me, and a rock are nothing but a certain amount of molecules organized in such a way to make a rock or a pair of sciscors.

To this inifinity of material content Spinoza called god. So we are not things but properties of the thing, of god. This makes it so every singular thing's relation to other singular things are just properties interacting with other properties of a unified much bigger thing. That infinite chain of cause and effect between properties is the world changing and developing.

TLDR: Abstraction. Token and type. Universal and specific.Al this opposite to substance and causation.

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