Uit: Language in Thought and Action,
door S.I. Hayakawa.|
Definitions, contrary to popular opinion, tell us nothing about things. They
only describe people's linguistic habits; that is, they tell us what noises
people make under what conditions. Definitions should be understood as
statements about language.
|| House. This word, at the next higher level of
abstraction, can be substituted for the more cumbersome expression,
"Something that has characteristics in common with Bill's bungalow,
Jordan's cottage, Mrs. Smith's guest home, Dr. Jones's mansion. . . ."
Red. A feature that rubies, roses, ripe tomatoes,
robins' breasts, uncooked beef, and lipsticks have in common is
abstracted, and this word expresses that abstraction.
Kangaroo. Where the biologist would say "herbivorous
mammal, a marsupial of the family Macropodidae," ordinary people say
Now it will be observed that while the definitions of "house"
and "red" given here point down the abstraction ladder (see the charts)
to lower levels of abstraction, the definition of "kangaroo" remains at the same
level. That is to say, in the case of "house," we could if necessary go and
look at Bill's bungalow, Jordan's cottage, Mrs. Smith's guest home, and Dr.
Jones's mansion, and figure out for ourselves what features they seem to have in
common; in this way, we might begin to understand under what conditions to use
the word "house." But all we know about "kangaroo" from the above is that where
some people say one thing, other people say another. That is; when we stay at
the same level of abstraction in giving a definition, we do not give any
information, unless, of course, the listener or reader is already sufficiently
familiar with the defining words to work himself down the abstraction ladder.
Dictionaries, in order to save space, have to assume in many cases such
familiarity with the language on the part of the reader. But where the
assumption is unwarranted, definitions at the same level of abstraction are
worse than useless. Looking up "indifference" in some cheap pocket dictionaries,
we find it defined as "apathy"; we look up "apathy" and find it defined as
Even more useless, however, are the definitions that go up
the abstraction ladder to higher levels of abstraction-the kind most of us tend
to make automatically. Try the following experiment on an unsuspecting friend:
||"What is meant by the word red?"
"It's a color."
"What's a color?"
"Why, it's a quality things have."
"What's a quality?"
"Say, what are you trying to do, anyway?"
You have pushed him into the clouds. He is lost.
If, on the other hand, we habitually go down the
abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction when we are asked the meaning
of a word, we are less likely to get lost in verbal mazes; we will tend to "have
our feet on the ground" and know what we are talking about. This habit displays
itself in an answer such as this:
||"What is meant by the word red?"
"Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look
at the traffic light facing them. Also, you might go to the fire
department and see how their trucks are painted."
"Let's Define Our Terms"
An extremely widespread instance of an unrealistic (and ultimately
superstitious) attitude toward definitions is found in the common academic
prescription, "Let's define our terms so that we shall all know what we are
talking about." As we have already seen in Chapter 4, the fact that a golfer,
for example, cannot define golfing terms is no indication that he cannot
understand and use them. Conversely, the fact that a man can define a large
number of words is no guarantee that he knows what objects or operations they
stand for in concrete situations. Having defined a word, people of ten believe
that some kind of understanding has been established, ignoring the fact that the
words in the definition of ten conceal even more serious confusions and
ambiguities than the word defined. If we happen to discover this fact and try to
remedy matters by defining the defining words, and then, finding ourselves still
confused, we go on to define the words in the definitions of the defining words,
and so on, we quickly find ourselves in a hopeless snarl. The only way to avoid
this snarl is to keep definitions to a minimum and to point to extensional
levels wherever necessary; in writing and speaking, this means giving specific
examples of what we are talking about.
Another way to keep extensional levels in mind, when definitions are called for,
is to use what physicist P. W. Bridgman called "operational definitions." As he
||To find the length of an object, we have to perform certain physical
operations. The concept of length is therefore fixed when the operations
by which length is measured are fixed. ... In general, we mean by any
concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is
synonymous with the corresponding set of operations.2
The operational definition, then, as Anatol Rapoport
explains, is one that tells you "what to do and what to observe in
order to bring the thing defined or its effects within the range of one's
experience." He gives the following simple example of how to define "weight": go
to a railroad station or drugstore, look for a scale, stand on it, put in a
penny, read the number at which the pointer comes to rest. That is your
weight. But supposing different scales give different
readings? Then your weight can be said to be within the range of, say, 140 to
145 pounds. With more accurate scales you might get closer readings, such as 142
pounds plus-or-minus one. But there is no "property" called weight that exists
apart from the operations measuring it. As Rapoport says, "If the only way we
can be aware of the amount of weight is by means of the scale, then the very
definition of weight has to be in terms of the scale." 3
Such, then, is the scientific, or "operational," point of
view towards definition---one that attempts rigidly to exclude non-extensional,
non-sense statements. We can extend this idea from science to the problems of
everyday life and thought. Just as there is no such thing as "length" apart from
the operations by which length is measured, just as there is no "weight" apart
from the operations by which weight is determined, there is likewise no
"democracy" apart from the sum-total of democratic practices, such as
universal franchise, freedom of speech, equality before the law, and so on.
Similarly, there is no such thing as "brotherhood" apart from brotherly
behavior, nor "charity" apart from charitable actions.
The operational point of view does much to keep our words
meaningful. When people say things like, "Let's have no more of progressive
methods in our schools," "Let's get back to sound business principles in
running our county government," "Let's try to do the Christian thing,"
"Let's put father back as head of the family," we are entitled to ask, "what do
you mean - extensionally speaking? To ask this question often - of
ourselves as well as of others-is to do our bit towards reducing the vast amount
of non-sense that is written, spoken, and shouted in this incredibly garrulous
The best examples in everyday life of operational definitions
are to be found in cookbooks, which describe the operations by means of
which the entity defined may be extensionally experienced. Thus: "Steak Diane.
Slice tenderloin beef very thin and give it a few whacks with a meat mallet to
flatten it even more; sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Have your pan very
hot. . . ." (The Sunset Cook Book.) Writers and speakers would do well to
study cookbooks occasionally to increase the clarity and verifiability of their
2 The Logic of Modern Physics (1927), p.
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