I always enjoyed philosophy, but I never thought to ask this question when I was still taking philosophy classes. So, I thought this was a good way to see what "philosophy" people think of this.

When you spend time trying to define terms in philosophy, what are you doing exactly?

Examples: In ethics: what is good? what is right? In aesthetics: what is art? what is beauty? In epistemology: what is knowledge? In social/political philosophy: what is justice?

In these cases, and others I'm sure you can think of easily, what is the goal exactly? To say what the term "should" mean? To say what the term "does" mean, in the sense of how it is used by people? I realize I'm verging on philosophy of language territory here. But I really want to know what people engaged in trying to pin down terms like this think they are doing?

In mathematics, you simply define terms however you want, and the definitions are good or bad depending on what you can do with them, is that the idea? If you just want to know how the terms are used, it seems like that isn't inherently philosophical, more empirical. I would appreciate any perspectives on this!

  • "Classical" philosophy - from Socrates and Plato on, is aiming to "find the essence" of good, beauty, knowledge, etc. This is quite different from what you are describing as the mathematica practice of "defining terms" and ... see what happens. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 31 '16 at 14:26
  • 1
    A useful example from the math context can be : compare the math problems regarding number theory with the philosophical problem of "what are" numbers, i.e. the ontology of abstract objects. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 31 '16 at 14:29
  • There are various ways of setting up mathematics. The standard answer to "what is a number" would be "a number is a certain kind of set". If you ask "what is a set", the response is that it is an undefined object subject to a list of axioms (that can vary from system to system). Generally speaking, anything can be called a number if it "does the job of a number", meaning you recover all classical results about numbers. – Justin Young Sep 1 '16 at 14:08

There's no one answer to this. Plato's use of language was idiosyncratic, and he often used common terms in non-standard ways as a way of reshaping how people conceptualized them. Conversely Wittgenstein believed many classic philosophical problems were reducible to language ambiguities.

The general reason language is important to philosophers is that it is a stand-in for concepts, often ones that are difficult or impossible to communicate directly. As a rough measure, the lucidity of a philosopher's language matches their ability to clearly communicate their concepts.


As a general answer, they are trying to shape the language used in the conversation to help further the conversation along.

I have found the most useful viewpoint on this topic for myself is created by flattening out all of the complexity of defining such words into two directions. One directon occurs when a philosopher seeks acceptance for their theory of what something is by suggesting that a word everyone else has used informally is actually describing the something they are looking at. In such a case, if a philosopher can make an argument that this commonly used informal word is actually the concept they are exploring, they can describe what they are looking at much more succinctly.

The other direction I see for such definitions is to create room for a new category where that category was previously crowded out by others. A trivial example would be if one believed everything was either "good" or "bad," and that it was always clear which was which. A philosopher might try to pin down your definitions of "good" or "bad" enough to suggest that there may be a middle ground between the two extremes where things are a bit murkier. (Likewise, a philosopher engaging in the first direction might seek to take that murky middle region and define "good" and "bad" such that you don't feel there's a need for that middle region at all).

This becomes very important in philosophy because often philosophy deals with extreme scenarios, and controlling the meaning of the words becomes very important. As an example, "do unto others as you would have done unto yourself" gets complicated when one is talking about solipsism, or facing Laplace's daemon. It becomes very hard to interpret such phrases without very exacting meanings for mundane words such as "do."


Definitions aren't the same thing as Demonstrations; and usually they come after.

For example, its easy to demonstrate that numbers are useful; and no-one bothered to define them for two millenia. This doesn't mean that definitions aren't useful - they obviously are; but one must have a clear sense of what purpose they serve.

This is akin to the difference between Knowledge by acquaintance/presence and knowledge by descripton/reference.

I can refer to a tree or describe a table, but this doesn't dispense with actually seeing a tree or using a table - say in setting out dinner for four, and a stranger amongst them.

One has to be acquainted with beauty before beginning to talk about it (aesthetics), and one should be acquainted with the conversations that preceded yours - or at least their high points (so you might aim towards them) or their low points (so as to know what to avoid); similarly with ethics.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.