Life and death have a cyclic dictionary definition. Can one not be defined without the other? ( a question on philosophy of language)

I am hypothesizing that the immediate words that come to the human mind when describing these two terms fall in two mutually exclusive sets of antonyms. The only word which is a super set of "life" and "death" is "experience".

closed as too broad by Eliran, Conifold, Geoffrey Thomas Dec 26 '18 at 12:38

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  • Is it not the case that all definitions are 'cyclic' in this sense? We define by using opposites and can do it no other way. For a thing to exist requires that it 'stands out' from its opposite and is defined by reference to it. Hence the intellect lives in a world of opposites we call the 'categories of thought'. . – PeterJ Dec 24 '18 at 12:51
  • A more modern definition of life is homeostasis: a life form is a thing that responds to a broad range of conditions in ways that restore its own integral state without being purposely designed by another life form to do so. Such a thing would not need to die by definition. But the second law of thermodynamics suggests that it would not succeed at maintaining itself indefinitely. – jobermark Dec 24 '18 at 17:20
  • Dictionary.com does just that, "the sum of the distinguishing phenomena of organisms, especially metabolism, growth, reproduction, and adaptation to environment." – Conifold Dec 25 '18 at 2:11
  • Since dictionaries define words in terms of other words, the definitions are necessarily cyclic on some level. That's why you generally can't learn languages with just a dictionary, you also need some correspondence between at least some words and some non-word meanings (like experiences of physical phenomena). – Ben Millwood Dec 25 '18 at 16:42

Here is a non-cyclical definition of life given by Rand (emphasis added):

Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence.


Here is the question:

Life and death have a cyclic dictionary definition. Can one not be defined without the other?

Dominic J. O'Meara describes Plotinus's view of neo-Platonic Forms as follows: (page 36-7)

The Forms are not 'dead' objects; they have a life which is their activity and this activity is thought. As the Forms are 'true being', that is, possess an existence free of the evanescence characteristic of sensible things, this being is that of the thinking activity that is the Forms.

If one looks to neo-Platonism and specifically the thought of Plotinus one may find definitions of "life" that do not involve "death".

O'Meara, D. J. (1995). Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads. Oxford University Press.

  • a beginning for experience and an end of experience of even the thought itself. if there is existence a non existence You might want a new word but you cannot logically define anything beyond this. – Shankara N Dec 26 '18 at 8:18

Death means--"the end of life".

Life means--"the period between birth and death, or the state of being alive".

An object which manifested must certainly have destruction. A manifested thing will certainly exist up to a certain period. If we can find or imagine the end of that period we usually denote it by the term--'death' and the period till its death is denoted by the term--'life'. Most often we are compelled to use these two terms in connection with living things. Also, we use 'live' as the opposite of 'die'. And we know that live and die are closely related to life and death respectively. Even if we think that way also, we can't imagine one without the other.

But when we use the term--'life' to mention the life of machinery, we often do not use the term 'death' to mention their 'end of life'. Even if there is a possibility of functioning of a machine, we say often "The machine is dead." when it is not functioning (for a short period). I mentioned this just to indicate that the term 'life' is sometimes used to indicate the functioning of something. Here we needn't use the term dead to define life. So, very rarely this is possible. But still there is a possibility of another question: "Would we use use the term,--'life' (of the machine) even though we hadn't the knowledge about 'death' (of something or some being). The answer still is..."No."

Some ideas become meaningful only when there is something just opposite to that idea. Eg. Day & Night. We wouldn't use the word 'night' if we hadn't the knowledge about 'day'. Similarly, the term, 'death' would have no meaning if the thing hadn't shown any sign of life or the thing was not personified. Similarly, 'life' would have no meaning if we hadn't known/thought about the end of that thing. So, a cyclic definition is often necessary to define them. (Even scientists often think about the life and death of 'lifeless' stars.)

Birth, Life and Death are the three terms to be dealt here. Both Birth and Life often imply dynamism...and Death, its end. So, Birth & Death and Life & Death can be used to define each other. Even though the term Birth is being used as the opposite of Death (and are replaceable grammatically) , we cannot use Birth & Life as we use Life & Death. I have mentioned the reason already. Also, the word 'Birth' never indicates whether the thing that manifested has got life or not. Often it is only when we use Life, it shows dynamism. So, cyclic definitions are necessary to define Life and Death.


According to the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) LIVE and DIE are both semantic primes: core concepts of human thinking that cannot be meaningfully reduced, and are shared by all natural human languages. The list of NSM primes has been empirically developed over more than 40 years as a growing number of languages from all major language families have been studied, such that it is reasonable to conclude that these primes are found in all natural languages.

So if you subscribe to the NSM approach, then the answer would be that you don't have to make cyclic definitions for life and death, but you also have to recognise that once your definitions have been broken down to the level of semantic primes, that you don't continue trying to define them. NSM says that life and death are core human concepts, that are of course related, but which stand by themselves.

(I do not know why the NSM researchers chose the verb forms of LIVE and DIE to be the semantic primes, rather than the nouns life and death. Perhaps more languages have the verbs as simple base lexemes. In any case, it's not hard to derive the concept of the noun from the verb and vice versa.)

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