By "definitional question," I mean questions like what is knowledge, what is justice, what is love, etc - questions that relate to the definition of certain abstract concepts.

Take the question, what is knowledge, for example. I'm having trouble articulating what is it exactly that philosophers are arguing about when this question comes up?

For example, some philosophers advocate for the classical JTB theory of knowledge, while others argue against it. And I understand this. But what confuses me is what aspect of reality are philosophers measuring these theories against to determine their truth? What thing out in the world that we call knowledge are philosophers analyzing and saying, "yeah the theory ABC seems to better get at the nature of this thing than theory XYZ"?

My initial thoughts regarding my questions were that philosophers were interested in what concept people seemed to be getting at when they talk about knowledge, or justice, or love, etc.

My concerns with this line of thinking were (1) this seems to frame much more of a psychological question than a philosophical one, and (2) this still doesn't seem to get at what philosophers are actually interested in. They aren't just interested in what people seem to think, but what they ought to think, which leads me back to my question of what this ought implies? What thing are philosophers pointing to and saying, "you ought to believe my theory because it better corresponds to the nature of this thing."

I think my question can be most succinctly put this way. Sure theories like JTB, or retributive justice might be coherent and consistent. But what ultimately makes them true? The fact that they might correspond to certain intuitions? The fact that they seem to capture what many people mean when they talk about these concepts?

And I have the same confusion regarding other similar kinds of questions I listed. Could someone shed some light on where I'm going wrong here?

  • Typically, philosophy starts from "definitional questions", i.e. the attempt to define the essence of something: nature, life, justice, knowledge. Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 7:00
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Sure, I understand that, and would largely agree with that. My question comes about when we consider what using words like essence implies. For instance, saying philosophers study the essence of knowledge implies there is some thing out there in the world which we are trying to get at the nature of. My question is what is this thing? For the platonist this might be a pretty straightforward question, but for the non-platonist not as much.
    – Chris
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 7:06
  • Probably, a non-platonist will disagree about speaking of "the essence of ...". Thus, an "analytic-minded" philosophers will devote himself to study what is the "current" language uses of the word "knowledge". Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 7:12
  • Ah ok @MauroALLEGRANZA, that's exactly the kind of understanding I had in mind, but I wasn't sure how accurate it was.
    – Chris
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 7:15
  • 1
    Examples are of what is called conceptual analysis in analytic philosophy. The purpose is to extract a cogent kernel from often ambiguous and incoherent use of a concept in common discourse or scientific practice, and formulate explicit application conditions for its cleaned up version. The result is judged not on "truth", but on pragmatic factors: how much of the existing use it covers (scope), how well it matches selected fragment of intuitions (fit), how well it serves the purposes original application is directed at (utility), etc.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 11:00

3 Answers 3


It seems like you are puzzling over theories of truth - and yes, coherentism is one approach plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth As 'philo sophia', love-of-truth, determining what truth is, is clearly a core philosophical concern.

We were discussing how philosophy is intrinsically 'meta', and meta concerns tend to become philosophical "Why ask why" and its scions


When we try to philosophically define a word like "knowledge," we're trying to capture the sense in which we already use it.

But the sense in which we already use it may be vague and inconsistent, and may vary from person to person. So what we're really trying to do is find a definition that is clear and specific, while being close to how we casually use the term. We're trying to systematize our use of the term. This systemization may somewhat change the meaning, but if the new definition is clear and specific, it may be more useful than the original informal term. We may be able to reason about the systematized, formally defined term more easily than we could reason about the original term.


"What is knowledge?" is not an empirical question. It's a conceptual question (i.e. about the meaning of the concept of knowledge). Empirical questions always presuppose answers to conceptual questions (e.g. scientific inquiry on the nature of consciousness requires an operationalized definition of "consciousness," which might be taken from philosophical analyses of the concept of consciousness). Appeals to common intuitions in philosophical arguments are inescapable because the concepts of interest originate and thereby derive their content from their use in ordinary language in everyday life. But the conclusions of the philosophical analyses aren't reducible to common intuitions or ordinary language, because common intuitions and ordinary language are pervaded by vagueness, ambiguities, and contradictions, which it is the goal of the philosophical analyses to clarify and prescribe a resolution to. That's why there's always a normative aspect to answers to philosophical questions: they're prescribing a meaning for a concept that has an underdetermined (or overdetermined) meaning in ordinary language and common understanding.

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