Greetings fellow earth dwellers. Definitions...useful, sharp, often-times dust clearing, so to speak. But as one progresses into intellectual conversations, definitions aren't so clear and can be harmful to some degree.

Why do I think this is the case? Well, define truth. If you type 'truth' into the google search bar, you'll get 'that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality'. Wow, eye-watering...isn't it? All jokes aside, the definitions of certain words e.g., truth, object, concept, element etc. have different definitions according to different individuals. To some extent, i think this is beneficial to give words a sort of 'lenient' definition. That is, where one can explain a certain word with several definitions.

On the flip side, however, shouldn't the definitions of words have one and only one meaning? Naturally, the more exact a science, the more universal it is. So wouldn't having a concrete definition of a word help cut-out all the redundancies of language? My problem with this view is that definitions change, they adapt with language, so having a single, non-changing definition of a word would, in a sense, trap the word in a language where its uses are misguided.

  • We cannot define everything... This is the issue with most "basic" concepts like: reality, fact,truth. Jun 14, 2021 at 5:45
  • And yes, a good definition is one word=one sentence where the new word is defined with a sentence that (i) does not include the newly defined word; (2) must include only already known words. Jun 14, 2021 at 5:46
  • There're no two exact tree leaves in this contingent world, thus in theory it's useless or just a form of trivial truism if we invent words and language like you requested exactly... Jun 14, 2021 at 5:53

1 Answer 1


A strong case can be made that clarifying terms is one of the primary roles of philosophy. Some quotes from Wittgenstein:

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

"The philosopher treats a question, like an illness."

"What is your aim in philosophy? — To shew the fly the way out of the bottle."

“The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work.”

“Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.”

Very often clarifying terms is not just about 'zooming in', but also 'zooming out', looking at framing, context and integration between ideas. As such, they can be where paradigms clash. Such disagreements are the source of the 'harms' you speak of, I'd say.

There is a time for lenient definitions, and a time not: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” -Einstein.

Quoting from Any people except Wittgenstein, who have written about the misuse of language?:

Organic is quite a good example of the change of use of language over time. It start out meaning the sound from the keyboard musical instrument. It got used for organism in the early days of biology. Organic chemistry as that science got increasingly sophisticated. Then organic food. Now as vs forced, or artificial. Complaining about 'organic reach' is just complaining about a neologism, like saying organic food isn't right because there is no inorganic food.

Shifting definitions is crucial to extending and developing meanings. Sharpening them means looking at 'language as use', etymology, context and types of discourse, all kinds of tools. But we can only get as exact as we should, and no more.

The idea of words having a single meaning, was something Russell & Frege would have approved of, a logical language based on a mathematical. But Godel's Incompleteness theorems put an end to that, because ad hoc new truths can always be added in a sufficiently complex system, shifting terms & definitions.

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