On the Necessity of Defining Terms

The start of the new year is a great time to look at the foundations of writing, and speaking: definitions.


In the first week of Western Civilization and Great Books after the Christmas break, we studied Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Near the end of the play, Phoebe – a shepherdess – asks Sylvius – the shepherd who loves her without being loved in return – “what ’tis to love” (5.2.87). Sylvius responds with a multifaceted definition:

“It is to be all made of sighs and tears… / of faith and service… / of fantasy… / of passion and all made of wishes, / All adoration, duty, and observance, / All humbleness, all patience and impatience, / All purity, all trial, all observance” (5.2.87, 93, 98-102).

Though placed amid a scene of hilarity – in which Sylvius declares his love for Phoebe (who will not have him), Phoebe declares her love for Ganymede (who is actually Rosalind, the heroine in disguise), Orlando declares his love for Rosalind (whom he believes is actually absent), and Rosalind declares her love “for no woman” – Sylvius’ definition captures both the physical and metaphysical aspects of love – its pain, its beauty, its commitment, and its holiness.

Sylvius’ definition fulfills Aristotle’s requirement for a definition. In his Topics, Aristotle explained definitions this way:

“Since, however, of what is peculiar to anything part signifies its essence, while part does not, let us…call that part which indicates the essence a ‘definition’.”

Sylvius’ definition captures the essence of what it is to love. Indeed, the play revolves entirely around this definition. Far from being the pro-feminist, pro-transgender, anti-male, and anti-Christian play it is often made out to be, Shakespeare’s gem offers example after example of loving acts – sacrifices of self made out of undaunted devotion to the beloved.

But one wonders how long As You Like It and other classics that offer insightful definitions will continue to be taught in a society that has reduced murder to “workplace violence” and appropriated a synonym for joy as the name for a sexual interaction in which it is biologically impossible to create a new human life. Indeed, “male” and “female,” so flagrantly re-defined, are nearly as Orwellian as 1984‘s propagandistic mantras “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” A society bent on changing the definitions of words as fundamental to human existence and flourishing as “man,” “woman,” “life,” “liberty,” “right,” and “wrong” has a serious problem: it no longer understands the purpose of the definitions of words.

According to Aristotle, a definition is about what a thing fundamentally is, not about what we feel that thing is or what we wish that thing was.

This means that definitions require that words have fixed meanings; if the meanings of words change, particularly if words come to mean the opposite of what they have meant, we will no longer be able to communicate. As you may have experienced, communication cannot occur when the parties speak past one another; words may be said, fragments of ideas may be heard, but there will be no true understanding, and the result is often unpleasant, to say the least.

In “The Power of the Word,” a chapter in Richard Weaver’s 1948 classic, Ideas Have Consequences, he explains that our current society is based on the concept of democracy that insists not merely that all people are created equal by God and have God-given rights which are not to be violated, but also that all people have equal opportunities. Such a society, wrote Weaver, has no room for ultimate truth, absolute morality, or sound definitions of words, because such a society does not allow anything – not God, and not even ultimate standards of truth, morality, or definition – to be above its supposedly-equal members: “Teleology enjoins from above; equalitarian democracy takes its counsel without point of reference,” Weaver writes.

In the nearly seventy years since Ideas Have Consequences was published, our society has only become less-willing to face ultimate facts. Weaver’s examples of the different terms for “welfare” – “relief” and “social insurance” – and the different descriptions of military tactics – “rugged” and “brutal” – are still relevant, but as we have already noted, they have been joined by a host of other newly re-defined words.

How and why are words redefined?

First, it is important to note that the re-definition that is occurring is not simply the centuries-long alteration of words that has comparatively minor impact on society’s way of thinking. Take the example “charity,” which at the time of the writing of the King James Version of the Bible was a synonym for “love.” Now, “charity” implies care for the poor. This change in definition, while significant, does not alter the fundamental essence of either love or aid to the poor; aid to the poor is often a form of love, and a loving person is likely to be concerned to aid the poor. But as we have seen above, the re-definitions that are proposed today are definitions that do alter the fundamental essence of the concepts they have been applied to. Weaver quotes Sir Richard Livingstone, who wrote that society no longer

“know[s] the meaning of certain words, which had been assumed to belong to the permanent vocabulary of mankind, certain ideals which, if ignored in practice under pressure, were accepted in theory. The least important of these words is Freedom. The most important are Justice, Mercy, and Truth. In the past we have slurred this revolution over as a difference in ‘ideology.’ In fact it is the greatest transformation that the world has undergone, since, in Palestine or Greece, these ideals came into being or at least were recognized as principles of conduct.”

Weaver adds that

“our surrender to irrationality has been in progress for a long time, and we witness today a breakdown of communication not only between nations and groups within nations but also between successive generations.”

The problem of re-definition is not merely a question of the precise meaning of an old text; it is a problem that fundamentally alters human relationships by hampering people’s ability to communicate.

Second, as Livingstone implied above, it is important to note that much re-definition is politically motivated. As Weaver states, those with political power can gain more power if they re-define words. Weaver quotes Thurman Arnold’s work, Folklore of Capitalism:

“When men begin to examine philosophies and principles as they examine atoms and electrons, the road to the discovery of the means of social control is open.” Weaver adds: “If one examines the strikingly different significations given to ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom,’ he is forced to realize how far we are from that basis of understanding which is prerequisite to the healing of the world. To one group ‘democracy’ means access to the franchise; to another it means economic equality administered by a dictatorship. Or consider the number of contradictory things which have been denominated Fascist.”

The case becomes clearer when examining the Nazi era when the Nazis, the National Socialist party, claimed that the Communists, among other groups, were threatening Germany. In reality, while they tried to separate themselves as far as possible from the communists, the Nazis suppressed the fact that socialism and communism both destroy the societies that adopt them by restricting peoples’ freedom to make economic and moral decisions for themselves; socialism and communism, far from being as different as a warm summer breeze and an icy Arctic blast are much more like two earthquakes a degree or two apart at the upper end of the Richter scale.

Political re-definitions occur largely because the dominant attitude of politicians, “social scientists,” philosophers, and even educators in the upper echelons has come to be, in Weaver’s words, that “the only normal, sane person is the healthy extrovert, making instant, instinctive adjustments to the stimuli of the material world.” The developers of today’s new definitions also rightly assume that most people do not think very carefully about how politicians and educators control, or want to control, their lives; however, the re-definers wrongly assume that everyone can be taken in by reasoning with as many holes as a sieve. Weaver emphasizes that definitions, instead of describing a thing’s essence, now offer vague hints intended to make the hearer invent his own definition in such a way that it aligns with the plans of those who seek to increase their power. Power-seekers must not actually state the essence of their meanings. Weaver quotes Arnold again: to re-define words, an author must

“choose words and illustrations which will arouse the proper mental associations with his readers. If he doesn’t succeed with them, he should try others. If he is ever led into an attempt at definition, he is lost.”

Such tactics become more devious; Weaver quotes another author,

“Possibly the reader himself should participate in the process of building up a definition. Instead of being presented with finished summary definitions he might first be introduced to an array of examples arranged in such a way as to suggest the ‘mental picture’ in terms of which the examples were chosen.”

This means that there is no certainty about the words’ meanings. Not only has the author abdicated his responsibility of clearly stating his meaning, he has handed that responsibility to the reader who must now develop his own idea of the meaning. It is a miscommunication of the first order.

Most frighteningly, because those who want to increase their power – whether or not they agree on the details of how their power is to be increased – can nevertheless manipulate their unthinking or unaware subjects into granting them more power. To see that the subjects typically do not realize what is happening until it is too late, one only has to consider the long line of totalitarian regimes from the twentieth century: Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Ceausescu’s Romania, and Amin’s Uganda, to name only a few.

How does this all relate to writing?

According to Weaver, only an education strongly focused on the precise meaning of words can help today’s students regain the “power of the word.” Students who do not understand this power will not understand the significance of writing, and they will be unlikely to take the trouble to write carefully. We will only have added to the number of people who misuse words and communicate poorly, with devastating results.

Weaver suggests three key elements of such an education: study of the greatest poetry, extensive training in Latin and Greek, and careful examination of Socratic dialogues.

On poetry, Weaver writes:

“The discipline of poetry may be expected first to teach the evocative power of words, to introduce the student, if we may so put it, to the mighty power of symbolism, and then to show him that there are ways of feeling about things which are not provincial either in space or time. Poetry offers the fairest hope of restoring our lost unity of mind.”

Students must learn that words affect thoughts and feelings, but by studying poetry that is not only well-written but morally beautiful in its subject matter, students will also learn that words have incredible power to direct our actions toward what is good. (The same may be said about the power of words to move toward what is evil.) Poetry is used because, unlike prose, it is constrained by the demands of meter; to communicate his thoughts amid such restraints, the poet frequently relies on carefully chosen, accurate symbolism. The poet’s ideas given in a rhythmic form make them more powerful; as N. M. Gwynne writes,

“If we need evidence that free verse leaves an unhappy gap in the inmost desires of human beings, and that metrical verse ‘speaks’ to our most deep-seated impulses of all of us, it is to be found in the arena of song-writing by people who want to make good money out of it.”

Preferably, Gwynne adds – and it seems that Weaver would agree – a student’s acquaintance with good, metered poetry should begin at a young age.

On Latin and Greek, Weaver writes:

“Nothing so successfully discourages slovenliness in the use of language as the practice of translation. Focusing upon what a word means and then finding its just equivalent in another language compels one to look and to think before he commits himself to any expression. It is a discipline of exactness which used to be reflected in oratory and even in journalism but which is now growing as rare as considerate manners.”

At the time, Weaver could write that his readers were very familiar with the advantages of learning classical languages, but now he would not be able to do so. Fortunately, Gwynne has written a fine piece on this topic (summarized here, and in book form here), as have Victor Davis Hanson and Tracy Lee Simmons.

On the study of Plato and Socrates, Weaver writes:

“The most important fact about dialectic is that it involves the science of naming. The good dialectician has come to see the world as one of choices, and he has learned to avoid that trap fatal to so many in our day, the excluded middle. It is not for him a world of undenominated things which can be combined pragmatically into any pattern. From this failure to insist upon no compromise in definition and elimination come most of our confusions.Our feeling of not understanding the world and our sense of moral helplessness are to be laid directly to an extremely subversive campaign to weaken faith in all predication. Necessity for the logical correctness of names ceases to be recognized. Until the world perceives that ‘good’ cannot be applied to a thing because it is our own, and ‘bad’ to the same thing because it is another’s, there is no prospect of realizing community. Dialectic comes to our aid as a method by which, after our assumptions have been made, we can put our house in order.”

Studying the dialogues of Socrates shows the student the importance of considering the many ways in which words can be used, misused, and consequently misunderstood.

Tips for Writing

  • How do you define the key terms in your thesis when you are writing an essay? First, make sure you understand the terms that need to be defined. If you need to look up words in a dictionary, look them up. Do not risk using a word inaccurately – the whole point of careful definition is to use words accurately. Then think carefully about what the key terms of your thesis mean, what connotations they might have, and whether those connotations are accurate. Compare the definitions you have written with other definitions – but do not simply copy someone else’s definition. Write down your ideas. Then write a draft argument based on the terms as you have defined them. Think about whether that argument makes sense or if it is weak because of your definitions. If your argument is weak because you have not written careful definitions, re-write them. Finally, revise your definitions, and your essay, carefully; sometimes, you will only see how your definitions are flawed after you write a draft of your essay.
  • Strong, carefully-considered definitions also help you understand your opponents and more fully refute their arguments because good definitions show you how your position differs from your opponents’ positions. While defining your terms, think about how your opponents might object to your definition. Also make sure that your argument addresses your opponents’ objections, particularly if they would object to your definition.

Photo: Detail of lacemaking from Alessandro Allori’s Annunciation, 1603