Aperçu: On Clarification and Definition

A definition assigns a distinct, preferably unique meaning to a word. It is a legislative act whose purpose is to limit the use of a word, to restrict its range, and to decide — once and for all — how it is to be used in all conceivable contexts. It involves taking the analogy out of language!

This brazen objective is rarely realised by the definer — and when successful, it is usually not for long because, words have a way of shedding their tethers. The best examples of this are found in advanced natural sciences, where each discovery is named, baptized. What is a hadron? It is not for eating yet, but tomorrow some enterprising entrepreneur may come up with a product, name it “hadron” and flood the marketplace with this delectable mushy chocolate-tasting, non-fattening, gluten-free imitation chewing gum!

Clarification, however, is entirely different from definition. One selects a concept and its term(s) that already exist, which may in fact be quite widely used — as hadron is in particle physics — and may have a history of use in a variety of contexts. One then shows in what manner the concept has been employed, what alternate terms are already in use for it (for it is not unique) and in what manner the term can be extended from its literal to many new figurative meanings. One also tries to point out what implication the term may have, or may have acquired over its long period of use. The term has a history — which may help contribute to its interest. Thus, in clarification one performs an analysis not a dissection of the term, and one should not be over eager to give a term which may already be rich in meaning, a singular unique meaning, except for the nonce.

It seems to me that philosophers are in the business of clarification — at least some are. Clarification may bring enlightenment, broaden the understanding of a concept whereas clarification may help to throw it into stark contrast to other ideas, to which it is related. One benefit is that it may add wisdom, a quality many of us seek but few attain. Wisdom is not discovered like a pebble on the sands, but is the outcome of an inquiring mind that seeks a better understanding of how different aspects of their experience can be interconnected to yield a special perspective on the world, a perspective which the person may then share with others.

In summary: Definitions deliberately restrict and often do so for justifiable reasons, whereas clarifications expand our horizons and promote our understanding of individual experiences and our shared world. One can do both, yet recognize that each has its separate place in the order of things.

5 thoughts on “Aperçu: On Clarification and Definition

  1. Lovely piece, Harry. I particularly like your observation, “One also tries to point out what implication the term may have, or may have acquired over its long period of use. The term has a history…”

    Not long ago I wrote the little aphorism For both words and people, definitions are less revealing than etymologies.


    • and you are correct about this. Like Richard, I own a 1912 edition of Chambers Etymological Dictionary which I was required to buy as a school boy entering high school in 1937. I continue to use it – but it is deficient in that it does not do “a history” but ahistorically points to sources of a word..More about this later ! Keep tuned – I know you will.

  2. A wonderful article Harry. When in high school I was trained to use a good dictionary, the Chamber’s Etymological Dictionary, which was first published at the beginning of the 20th century and revised and enlarged in 1912. A new edition was published in 1949. I paid $2.25 dollars for this publication in the early 1960’s during my high school experience. My English teacher insisted that each student in his class would have a copy of this particular book. That teacher was L.A. Gilbert. I am truly indebted to him for the education that he provided in his classroom. To this day, that particular book has a very special place on my bookshelf…many books come and go but not this one. It will hold it’s number one postion for many years to come. This book provides specific and very clearly worded definitions for words used in the English language and allows one to communicate very well by making reference to it when required. Now, on to the other concept in your blog…clarification. Prior to the internet period, early 1990’s, remember telnet and archie and veronica and then netscape…all words used in daily discourse were well defined and there was little ambiguity. At the start of the internet period, and subsequently, several words acquired additional meanings and also new words were created and the definition of those words moved into an evolutionary phase. A good illustration of this phenomenon occurs in the magazine called Wired. Wired journalist are constantly creating new words or using words in different ways. Journalists in the media are creating new words. We have to guess the meaning of the words that they use from the context. A certain amount of this behaviour on their part can be classified as noise! A lot of it has no intrinsic value. However, clarification can be an essential process and there are many occasions where clarification is essential. A background based on knowledge and experience is essential in order to be able to provide clarification! When the topic of quantum comes up at a coffee shop I enjoy being able to provide clarification. Since it is just a coffee shop visit I often use analogies…that seems to work well. As time goes on, individuals who clarify will become much more valuable in our society! A quality education is an essential ingredient to make that possible.

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