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.

Aperçu #2: Dedication

Sometime a few words are enough. My wife and I were thinking — as grandparents often do — about what lies ahead for our grandchildren, and we concluded that they each show a characteristic which has more to do with parenting than with their genes, and more to do with style than content. It is their dedication to tasks, not how they do these, not the nature of the tasks whether given or self-initiated, but in how these are pursued. Each child has their own individual style, but they have in common an ambiance, an absorption, a willingness to see it through, and a pride in doing things for reasons which we, as adults, can only presume. Whether one is creating a Lego model, practicing the piano, or reading a story book slowly and with stammers, it matters not: what matters is the devotion and the dedication given to each task.

Bright are many,
Dedicated few.
— Hilde Thornton

Brightness is nature-given,
Dedication mostly learned.
— Harry Hurwitz

When partners complement each other to provide harmony and co-operation within a learning environment, their children thrive.
— Harry Hurwitz


Like most words the French aperçu has more than one meaning. It can mean a glance, a glimpse, an insight or a hint, a sketch or outline, a summary and even a preview. I would like to use the word here and in future notes in the sense of a short statement which may contain some insight, some wit, some twist or thought, perhaps even as an introduction to a more eloquent statement to be published some time in the future.

So let us begin. Each aperçu will be numbered and labeled. I hope that will help.

Aperçu #1 : Interpreting another’s meaning

As a philosopher you must believe that what another philosopher said is what you understand him to have meant! There is no other way of doing philosophy, for if you deny this premise you could not give an exposition of another’s viewpoint, only your own. You could then end in an infinite regress, asking again and again whether what philosopher A  said is what he had meant to say.

Now you could be incorrect in your understanding of philosopher A, of what philosopher A meant. But how could you discover this error in your judgment? How could you find out?