*By meaningless I mean undefined, and by meaning I mean definition.

As a student of philosophy, I, like the general public, thought that my difficulty in understanding the concepts of philosophy is because of their deep meaning. But after studying Wittgenstein's philosophy, I am afraid to believe that the difficulty in understanding the concepts of philosophy is not because their meaning is deep but because there is no meaning in them. Because unlike physics and STEM subjects which give rigorous definitions, philosophy gives poor definitions.

Idea: Ideas are usually construed as mental representational images of some object.

Mental representation: A mental representation is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality

Symbol: A symbol is an object that represents, stands for or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action or material entity

Quite frankly, I think that's like saying "asdasdasd" means "not dsadsadsa". Not only "asdasdasd" is meaningless, but also any sentences that uses that word is also meaningless. Saying "idea exists" is comparable to saying "asdasdasd exists".

***I hope you know I'm not underestimating philosophy by saying it is not worthy. I'm just thinking if philosophy lacks rigorous definitions.

  • You should have a look at the recent work of Peter Unger: 3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/… Jul 6, 2015 at 22:27
  • I think it would get quite exhausting if when we said something like "there is an apple." we would also have to say "and not a pear, and not a table, and not a fish..." ad infinite. But not just for a pear, but each particular pear, and further, state that all the other apples are not there either. asdasdasd as a premise does not necessarily imply not dsadsadsa unless asdasdasd -> ~dsadsadsa is also a premise.
    – hellyale
    Jul 8, 2015 at 4:32
  • However I do think that being able to describe things by their negation is a fun thing to discuss, and upvoted the question, even though I feel like just by having to ask it, shows that the answer is obviously: No.
    – hellyale
    Jul 8, 2015 at 4:34
  • If you want to examine a philosophy based on exact definitions and principles (axioms) along the lines of scientific methodology, read "Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought."
    – Wildcard
    May 16, 2018 at 2:31

4 Answers 4


Science doesn't have rigorous definitions. Rather, the science worth paying attention to has been created by criticising ideas according to whether or not they explain what they set out to explain. Definitions are used later as a way of summarising ideas so that it is easy to refer to them. Perfectly precise definitions are impossible in any case since any definition must use undefined words on pain of infinite regress. And discussions about definitions are not discussions about what is actually happening but about how you choose to label it. See Popper's criticisms of essentialism in "Unended Quest" Sections 6 and 7.

Disagreements about definitions alone can be solved trivially by conceding the other party can use a word in the way he likes and making up a new word, whose definition all the parties agree on. The only way this will not work is if the parties disagree on a matter of substance and then they should be discussing the issue, not words. For example, disagreements about the definition of words like socialism usually have to do with a disagreement of substance. For example, a socialist may think that a capitalist hasn't refuted his particular brand of socialism, and that the capitalist has tarred his brand of socialism with the same brush as Soviet communism. The socialist expresses this disagreement indirectly by arguing about the definition of socialism and trying to identify it with his particular brand of socialism.

There are a number of reasons why philosophy in a rather poor state, one of which is concentrating on definitions to the exclusion of discussing matters of substance, see Gellner's criticism of this tendency in "Words and Things", which also criticises Wittgenstein. Another problem philosophy has suffered from is that philosophical problems arise initially from problems in other fields, such as politics or science. When philosophers lose sight of the context in which the ideas arose, and study those ideas without understanding what problems they are addressing, the result is useless at best. See Chapter 2 of "Conjectures and Refutations" by Karl Popper.

The final problem is that philosophers commonly ignore criticism. For example, many philosophers who call themselves epistemologists bang on endlessly about how to justify ideas, but ignore Popper's criticism of justification and his ideas about non-justificational criticism, see "Realism and the Aim of Science" Chapter I, Section 2.

  • Thank you for your comment. Of course, perfectly precise definitions are impossible, but I'm sure science does have rigorous definitions. Yes, science also works on the explanation of a phenomena, but (as you know) what distinguishes science from pseudo-science is its rigorous methodology - including rigorous definition. Eastern medicine's obscure definitions like chi is considered pseudoscience because it is not rigorously defined, while Western medicine's definition of hemoglobin is rigorous, testable, and observable.
    – new
    Jul 8, 2015 at 3:25
  • To me, philosophy is like pseudo-science. I'm not devaluing philosophy - both of them may have great insights, but both do not use rigorous methods. (for the most of philosophy) Which may be the reason why Aristotle is considered a "natural philosopher" while Newton is considered a "scientist".
    – new
    Jul 8, 2015 at 3:29
  • @Bingkongmaster Science is "more rigorous" than philosophy in the sense that a scientific claim is expected to be experimentally falsifiable, but that doesn't mean philosophy or its definitions are lacking in rigor. Alanf is right in saying that neither field can claim to have more rigorous definitions. Science just "gets away with it" more easily because they can often point to some physical object whose "meaning" we accept without definition.
    – Ixrec
    Jul 8, 2015 at 7:19

Meaningless? No. Abstract and conjectural? Probably yes. A lot of people consider Philosophy to be an 'umbrella word' for a plethora of interwoven subjects. The definition of Philosophy, in itself, isn't quite black-and-white either.

Some consider the subject as a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.While others still, believe that it is an academic discipline that studies the extent of man's thinking.

Due to the definition of Philosophy not being watertight, there has been a lot of friction in regard to where Philosophy stops and Sociology or Psychology begin. For instance, some believe that Philosophy can be used to study patterns in the society as a whole, while others believe that it is strictly a subject dealing with existentialism.

Some like Ayn Rand argue that man cannot live without a Philosophy governing his life. Others feel that it doesn't come naturally to man to be guided by a willingly chosen set of morals and that he is more inclined to act on impulses. You see what I'm getting at?

No one knows what the scope of Philosophy is. What most people refer to as Philosophy is actually Epistemology. Though from what I've seen, they both are being increasingly used interchangeably. You mustn't sign off a definition as being too abstract.

As in the case of the cited example A mental representation is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality, it might look like gibberish to the untrained eye. But one must look at the scope of each of the terms, as defined by that very Philosopher. So for instance, you'll have to do a thorough study on what he/she considered as an 'internal cognitive symbol'. One must also know what the person means by reality. Which side of the scale was the Philosopher on? Transcendental Idealism or Objectivism?

If the person has been brave enough to pen down a definition in a single sentence, I'm sure you'll be able to find a comprehensive definition of each of the terms somewhere in his/her works.

  • "it might look like gibberish to the untrained eye. But one must look at the scope of each of the terms, as defined by that very Philosopher." But I doubt if philosophers are mistaking familiarity as rigorous definition. After all, if the very philosopher is confident in rigorous definition, wouldn't he have made rigorous definition without the need for his readers to "look at the scope". Granted, the philosopher may say that it is due to the "complexity", but I doubt if he's using that word as an excuse for his inability to define rigorously.
    – new
    Jul 8, 2015 at 3:16
  • "What most people refer to as Philosophy is actually Epistemology." That seems like too strong a statement. While it's hard to do any philosophy without epistemology, lots of "every-day" philosophy entails ethical questions. But great point about "it might look like gibberish to the untrained eye." Jul 9, 2015 at 21:09
  • @JamesKingsbery But aren't all philosophical questions, to some extent, questions of epistemology? Epistemology attempts to set in stone the limits of the human mind. Philosophy has limitless scope and is a very abstract study. But I'd say that epistemology (or metaphysics, for that matter) gives it a scope and a defined line of demarcation. Jul 10, 2015 at 4:51

The Ethics by Baruch Spinoza is a paradigm of a philosophical treatment which employs a mathematical approach. Spinoza advances “more geometrico” stating definitions, axioms and proving propositions. What’s your rating of his work?

You illustrate your point with three “definitions”. Are you sure that the author of the definitions “idea” and “mental representation” has a background in the philosophy of mind? If not, this could be the origin of the problem.

I agree with you that philosophy lacks rigorous definitions. But who is to be blamed for? To which degree must the fault be ascribed to the philosophers and to which degree to the subject of philosophy itself?

For mathematics it is a plain sailing with rigorous definitions, axioms and propositions. Because mathematics is free to invent its concepts. In addition, the complexity of mathematical affairs is by orders of magnitude less than the complexity of philosophical topics.

My examples of philosophers with a good mixture of rigor and content are, e.g., Immanuel Kant as well as the representatives of critical rationalism and the representatives of evolutionary epistemology.

  • Thank you for your comment. I see Spinoza as a philosopher who was less unsystematic than his contemporaries such as Descartes and Leibniz, (which is ironic because they were mathematicians while Spinoza was not) Spinoza also had ambigousity. Spinoza defines Third Knowledge as "the best kind of knowledge is a purely intellectual intuition of the essences of things," which is no different (from what I see) than Plato's ambiguous "essence." And I don't blame and accuse philosophers of making ambiguous definitions. All I'm saying is that they do.
    – new
    Jul 8, 2015 at 3:59

You're coming at this after all the hard work has been done.

If you look at the original book of physics, ie Aristotles Physics you'll see very little in the way of definitions; but he is arguing quite precisely about nature; earlier, one sees the Milesian cosmologists are making less precise descriptions of nature.

Now you look at a book of physics or mathematics after two Millennia and you see strict, nice definitions.

But where new work is being done, I mean this in the sense of furthering the frontiers of the science, finding the correct definition is part of the struggle of the work.

The ideal/reality axis has been a constant of philosophy; and Wittgensteins philosophy is part of this, I'd suggest, in mapping out a mapping of idea (as logic) to the facts of the world and this work lies in the tradition of Frege, Russell and Turing.

To show that symbol has a reality in a different discourse, say poetry; consider how 'rose' is used in Blakes poetry as a symbol of sexuality, life, and England itself in:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm that flies through the howling storm

Or, how 'wine' is used as a symbol for the life of the senses, and it's opposite the ideal; in the poetry of Keats:

Away with old hock and Madeira

Too earthly are ye for my sport;


My wine is overbrims of summer

My bowl is the sky

and the later poetry of Baudelaire; it's also used as a symbol by Persian poets such as Omar Khayyam.

Come fill the cup, and in the fire of spring

Of course, this notion of symbol is only tangentially important to your quote above, which is a discursive definition, and relates to no particular philosopher (or poets); but it does shows its reality in the particular world of poetry - which is an empirical fact.


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