On Definitions

Posted by

A reflection on Plato’s Sophist

I have previously discussed the importance of names, and how interlocutors can talk past each other rather than engage each other in meaningful debate (see on Names). This is where the importance of specificity in language emerges. If you and your partner are talking about different things while using the same words, it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion. At best you will come to a flawed understanding, where you both believe the other has accepted an opinion that may differ radically to their true beliefs. At worst the discussion will break down into an argument as frustration and miscommunication boil over. Thus, in this reflection, I will examine the concept of definitions and how we need to adjust our language to engage in dialectic successfully.

The belief in the fundamental incoherence of language exemplifies the position of absolute relativists: that it is impossible to transcend the differences in language between individuals, and as such any meaningful conversation in which people can engage in intellectual discovery and exchange is impossible (see Against Absolute Relativism). But to accept this theory of language we need to accept the relativists theory of metaphysics, that reality is only relative to the observer, shaped by their mind, and that it is impossible to build a foundation for discourse on universal truth.

Although I am convinced by the sceptic exhortation to lay aside judgement, I reject this radical sceptical denial of reality. Things occur physically outside the mind, and to deny otherwise would require us to accept a level of illusion in our senses that degrades all discourse into the black abyss of nihilistic apathy. Even if we cannot perceive the ‘absolute truth,’ we can refer to it in part through our words. In this sense, language is the act of referring to the fuzzy concrete and conceptual objects that we encounter in our lives.

In translating between languages, this act of reference is of particular relevance. An example can easily be drawn from Malay when translating the English word ‘we.’ In Malay, the words ‘kami’ or ‘kita’ represent the English term, although with significantly different meanings. ‘Kami’ refers to ‘we’ exclusive of the listener, as in we (the speaker and friends) just arrived at your home. ‘Kita’ on the other hand refers to ‘we’ inclusive of the listener, as in we (the speaker and listener) should leave now.

What I am trying to allude to through this example is that the conceptual grouping of ‘we’ in the English language is a fluid, able to encompass both exclusive and inclusive meanings which are made explicit in Malay. Think of the differing interpretations of ‘we are leaving’ and think about how the contextual, tonal and body language indicators influence our perception of this phrase. As such if you were in the process of conducting a discussion about groupings, it may be necessary to lay out a definition of who you mean by the term ‘we’ to avoid misperception by your audience.

In this sense, a term can have multiple meanings across languages – but also within languages. Think of events in your life where a misunderstanding has resulted in miscommunication. With this in mind, we need to ensure that we generously approach dialectic and be specific with our words, but also – I would caution – more specific with their meanings. To police the language of another is both overbearing and risks triggering an unnecessary argument that you could resolve by coming to a common understanding of a terms gist.

Original text

Plato’s Sophist


Pieter Isaacsz, Rhetoric, c. 1620

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s