Rigid Definitions and Rigid Description

Words appear as spoken by people and as transcripts of a spoken word. A printed book is a transcript, as is a digital recording or synthesized speech! I shall focus exclusively on transcripts of the spoken word and specifically on English texts.

If W is a word, the rule appears to be that W may have at least two manifestations: (1) it is sounded in a certain way and (2) it is used in different ways on different occasions. If a word has multiple uses it follows that is has several definitions and some — if not all — should be registered in a common dictionary. A dictionary however is not expected by its users to exhaust how a word is used, or has been used — or how it will be used in. Dictionaries are very modish.

What a dictionary most often does is to list how a word is currently used. I invariably look up the dictionary’s date of publication and when it was last revised. “Currently” indicates that the uses cited refer to the use on the date of publication. It therefore has explicit historical parameters: by whom, when, where, and under what range of circumstances the word is likely to be used! Most dictionaries do not do so, but assume that the user does their homework and fills in the missing blanks! “Likely” tells us that the editors/compilers of the dictionary cannot be sure that they have identified all the current uses of a word. Fair enough — let readers and users be warned. They should not conclude that all that could be said about a word has being said within the covers of the dictionary consulted.

A dictionary lists words and their possible use in a possible world but it does not deal with the nature of the possible world itself. It describes (sort of!) how others tend to use a word or expression. Dictionaries are not handbooks on cosmology. Each dictionary also “dates” the usages of the words it has assembled. This is done by including in the exposition different uses of the words at different periods but also by its date of publication. Few people refer to the latter!

A dictionary does not usually state whether the definiens is a description of a phenomenon as well as an explication of the term being defined. The definiens is therefore neither a causal nor a phenomenological analysis of a word or a concept. The compilers are not legislators who intend or are empowered to prescribe how a word is to be used, or proscribe its uses although their editorial actions may have the unintended consequence of laying down in many minds what the “proper” use of a word is. Let the user therefore beware! He/she is not bound by the definition offered: it is only a recommendation. However the compilers may feel obliged to emphasize what is currently in widespread use and thereby indirectly promote and reinforce an existing social preference.

But if the definiens is neither a causal or a phenomenological analysis of a term or concept, what constitutes a causal or phenomenological analysis? Both of these are concepts belong to a different order of events and do not take the form …= df … but, propose, take the form … = xp… The symbol *xp* is new and will be clarified below!

Clarification of *xp* — a new symbol

The symbol *xp* is short for *explicate*, that is, to clarify something referred to. It is sometimes used as an alternative for *explain* but that is not how I propose to use it. Rather, I propose to restrict *explicate* to the idea of giving a logical analysis of something.

Now it is in the nature of the case that whenever one offers to explicate something, defined as developing the implication of an idea, to analyze it logically, one does so by drawing an invisible curtain around it and stating — in some manner — that of all possible things that can be meant by the idea, one wishes to clarify a particular meaning, aspect or interpretation of it. One assumes that the term has multiple meanings, and one lays these out as best one can. Although one is free to offer more than one analysis of a term, this option is usually rejected and the effort is focussed on only one.

This is a mistake: all options should be on the table before one explictly favours one and rejects others. Rejection does not mean “incorrect”, but “not favoured now, within the context of the present discussion.”

We will use X as the symbol for what is being explicated
XP as the set of statements submitted in explication.

XP may refer to “conditionality”, or refer to a condition of use, but it may also be mainly descriptive. The latter refers to the idea that one can talk about an event by describing it in various degrees of details.

Take a scene like the arrival of a steam locomotive drawing a set of carriages into a small local railway station. The year is 1899! There is no doubt that ideally one would submit a set of photographs to depict the scene. Each viewer is then free to translate what he/she sees into words. Some may submit florid descriptions; others may use sparse and few sentences. Provided each also includes the name of the railways station we can be more or less sure that they are describing the same scene. It does not mean that everything that can be said about the matter has been or will be submitted!

Therefore XP does not exhaust X: it clarifies but does not give exhaustive descriptions! Furthermore, XP does not (and therefore is not designed) to create a rigid definition (in the sense discussed by Kripke (1980) and others (see Laporte, 2012 in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). On the contrary, X remains open, pliable, although it has been limited to some degree by the explication, XP, given. So we need to distinguish between a definition of a term and a description of what it could cover. It is not difficult.

In a definition we start with a word which is unknown to us, whose use is therefore unfamiliar or which is ambiguous to us. We therefore ask someone to gives us a definition, a statement to tell us how this word is used by its speakers. The sign =xp therefore indicates that we are dealing with a clarification, not an equivalence.

One can give different clarifications and therefore treat the set of these clarifying statements as “more or less equivalents”! This explains why the same word is given different definitions in different dictionaries without causing a general strike amongst dictionary users.

A description, on the other hand, refers to any effort to state in words and sentences what some person has seen (experienced) about an event he/she witnessed or has knowledge of. Descriptions come in different degrees of details and authenticity. If I report what several of my friends have told me about an accident in Mulberry Street which occurred some time ago in Fort Myers, the credibility of my report will be quite low, whereas if I added that I had witnessed the scene myself in part, the report might be given slightly more credence!

So descriptions are rated (usually silently) by using mostly implicit criteria to gauge their credibility. This is quite unlike what happens to definitions. I have previously suggested that we dimensionalize descriptions by talking about their rigidity: accordingly, a detailed description is also rigid, or becomes increasingly rigid. This rigidity also makes it easier to contest against competing accounts of what happened in Mulberry Street.

In so far as XP is time-bound (historically restricted) it is part of an effort to create (by an unknown group of individuals!) a particular universe, a wished-for closed system which portraits a possible universe, but not the only universe! Even if we make the dictatorial move to declare that this Universe which is being described is the final universe, we acknowledges that “final” is one of a finite series with antecedents. It could therefore have additional successors — it is possible. See also Steven Weinberg’s illuminating discussion of this and related issues in To Explain the World” (Harper, 2015) and his earlier Dreams of a Final Theory: the scientists’s search for the ultimate laws of nature (sic!) (Vintage, 1993).

More on Rigid Definitions and Rigid Descriptions

A rigid definition — not to be confused with a rigid descriptions (Kripke, 1980) — stands in contrast to a fluid or porous definition. A definition is rigid when the words that defines another word (or expression) — the definiens — is designed to be unique and therefore cannot be substituted by other words. Does this happen? Indeed, quite often and increasingly so because our language contains many more “technical”, “scientific”, “modish” or “proprietary words”, i.e. names of patented processes or of legally protected products than, say, 25 years ago.

However, we often overstep the bounds of legal use and employ technical terms in a nontechnical manner. Users, when they do so use silent, invisible quotation marks to indicate that words have more than one meaning or reference. This effectively undermines rigid definitions. No matter: the consistent effect of rigid definitions is to limit — but also to impoverish — a language immeasurably. Language probably emerged as a within-group behavioural device which effectively permitted a group to communicate their “mood” about the safety of their immediate habitat and only later became an adjunct to “grooming behavior, a means for in-group consolidation. (This is of course pure speculation !!!)

To insist on rigid definitions is like extracting all teeth instead of undertaking a measured pace of saving what needs preservation and leaving well enough alone. The pain, discomfort and loss of function is most likely far too expensive, too much to pay for the accrued benefits.

In any case, we are not in danger of dumping our current language habits in favour of a total makeover, as was once proposed, although one should remember that such was advocated for almost 70 years by many philosophers of science throughout the last century, by many who identified themselves as members of the Vienna Circle, or Logical Positivists or Logical Empiricists (e.g.Bertrand Russel). Wittgenstein, one of the earliest advocates of this position renounced it within ten years of publishing his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) which had explored the consequences of applying the strict methods of empiricism to the language of science. Instead he advocated that we overcome misunderstandings induced by loose language habits, by resorting to a more careful analysis of how we use language in different settings. This agenda involved drawing implicit demarcation lines between different uses and functions of language.

The work of Karl Buhler(1867-1963), sometime professor of psychology in Vienna in the early 20th century was critically important in the next step of moving from a monistic position regarding the role of language in human affairs by viewing it as a multifunctional activity. He viewed language as having three roles: an expressive function, a representative function and a conative function (in the sense of “motivation”). Only the second of these had been addressed by philosophers of science (e.g. E. Mach), namely its representational (referential) role.

Buhler’s students included the philosopher Karl Popper and the founder of ethology, the biologist Konrad Lorenz, but it was the former whose influential views on the nature of the scientific enterprise had a profound influence on the relation between the acts of discovery and the emergence of theories about how discoveries become integrated to generate and form a succession of falsifiable hypotheses and “theories” about the wider universe, i.e. cosmologies. He did not address questions about the expressive or conactive functions of language. In retrospect in appears that K. Lorenz and his group of animal behavioral analysts (also known later as “ethologists”) were primarily interested in viewing within and inter-species communication as attributes whereby a species facilitated its survival.

Philosophers of science, generally speaking, have focussed on the second role of language listed by Buhler, how it serves to represent cognitive experiences. One should not overlook that every formulation of ideas — which ultimately finds expression in a language and mathematics — and which the representational function of language develops quite slowly, tediously, and depends initially on borrowing from the position of others (from fellow “citizens”) about what they themselves are due to experience. It is comparable to an 8-year-old child being asked to look through a microscope for the first time and told what he/she is about to see if it guides its sights in certain prescribed ways! Without such guidance most would see very little as they stare through the lenses!

And how is this guidance done? By “instructions’ which are easily understood because these rely on a lot of previous experience of being guided to a correct — often rewarding — outcome. So discoveries often — but not only — take place in an environment which includes some form of language and ipso facto occurs within a cultural context. Monkeys — and others — alert each other, their group, by shrieking, wailing, screeching — but do not give a careful description of the intruders they have sighted and presumable their fear — whereas humans do so with considerable panache!

In summary: If all our words were subject to rigid definitions we would need to increase our current treasury of words enormously, but we would also lose our ability to express our flights of fancy in words. We know much about “flights of fancy” in humans — but have reasons to be skeptical whether this occurs with equal frequency or élan in dogs, cats, or lice.

The notion of “incomplete descriptions” acknowledges that whatever particular description is available, could perhaps be bettered, improved upon, extended, or could be added to. The understanding is that should this happens it would not radically alter the “story” of the event or its narrative features. Thus it may not be materially relevant what colour the hats and dresses of the persons involved in the accident were since accidents are commonly defined by injuries sustained by those involved, not the damage to their clothes!

One could argue that not all definitions exhaust the meaning of the word which is being defined, but — one the contrary — it is rare to find such exhaustive definition. We chose an easier way. Our objective is to identify salient features of a situation or an object.

This argument is based on a widespread approach that the function of communication is to outline essential features of a situation, not to give a minute description of one’s personal experience to others. If details are missing, people will demand that such errors of omission are rectified! In most situations the opposite is true: if one loads a description with details which others believe — rightly or wrongly — to be excessive, the chances are that our report will be overlooked in favour of those which are more pointed and brief. It is the listener who decides whether the information is sufficient. One is best served by using tools suited to a task!

One could add that if words are meant to have distinct, unique referents — a common approach to object-words — then it is possible that several of the words in use refer to the same objects, and are therefore redundant. Question: does every distinctive phenomena have to have, or should have, a distinct, separate label, a name? What is the relation between naming a phenomenon and the phenomenon? Are labels independent of the phenomenon?

Admittedly there are cases where it is highly desirable that an object or situation carries a singular name. Example: we use a variety of devices which measure time, and we have have invented a string of labels for these,e.g.water-clocks, spring-clocks, atomic-clocks etc. There are also designations which focus on other characteristics: pocket watches, grandfather clocks, kitchen clocks, etc. It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether a particular kitchen clock is electrically operated, a wind-up device (spring driven), a pendulum device etc. Everyone involved has agreed from the outset that it is reasonable to ask such questions — and also other questions — without necessarily knowing why each question is being raised. We say “Such questions may be pertinent but are also appropriate under some circumstances”. These questions are a way of averting the alternative — horrible thought — that a description must contain and include from the outset the kernels of all questions that could arise about the object/event!

In general, scientists prefer to label all “known” objects and phenomena and they do so under the impression that the name will continue to be “proprietary”, limited to that object or class of objects. Historically, this is not what happens. Names of objects have a tendency to migrate, grow in the realm of application before these wander into adjacent territory and finally prove of limited use to their “sponsors”. There are exceptions — but these are few. I doubt whether the name of a chemical compound would get co-opted as the name of generic product — but it could happen.

Facts as News Items

Comments and Commentaries: The blogs in this series were written over a period of three years. Many of my ideas shifted significantly during this period but instead of revising everything and forcing it into a common mold, I decided to let matters stand as first conceptualized. All comments are loosely connected by my interest in the idea of a “fact” or “what is a fact,” seen from a historical perspective.

It often pays to look at what a dictionary says about a word, especially one as widely used as *fact*. In my experience a dictionary may carry conflicting meanings, and this – as I discovered – applies with special force to *fact*. The reason is clear: *fact* is a word used on a daily basis to underwrite and support opinions strongly held and presumably as props for opinions which cannot easily be justified by the “common man.” (The *common man* here refers to everyone in their relaxed, uncritical mood.) The reputable, much-used Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) has the following entry for *fact*:

Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed – actuality – truth – case – circumstance.

The suggestion that fact is a part of a report in a news article came as a total surprise to me. Which part? In a news article, perhaps, as published in a typical daily newspaper? My philosophical head also spun on seeing the synonyms listed, for synonyms cannot automatically be substituted for one other, to serve as alternatives, without changing at least somewhat the meaning of the expression in which they are used. If this were the case, it would defeat the purpose of what most people regard as the primary role of a dictionary: to give a clear explication of a word: no ambiguities, please! What is indisputable about the Merriman-Webster entry is that the word *fact* serves as a noun – but this is not a part of its meaning, and only identifies its grammatical status.

Many, but not all, news articles (whatever these are) report matters that are poorly substantiated and plainly not even truthful. Such articles often omit critical information and may include easily-correctable errors, such as an incorrect date. Since newspaper and magazine publishers are for-profit organizations and are driven by the need to provide an service to an information hungry general public, their dominant goal is profit, not a service to others.

Furthermore the quality of reports may vary greatly over time, as the history of the venerable London Times has demonstrated. Could the Times possibly become part of the yellow press and cease to cater to supposedly well-educated men of industry and senior civil servants in the UK, the empire builders and financiers of yester-year? Not likely. Yet it could certainly change the quality of its reports in order to fit the temper of the times. Indeed it has done so quite deliberately.

And what about those many matters which were once widely and commonly regarded to be well-substantiated, solid facts, but which lost their certainty, and thus their sheen? Facts, as we have learned, can be children of fashion, and fashions change at an alarming rate. Surely readers should be told how and when such changes are made (and they never are!). I would love to see a subheading of a New York Times article say, “Read with a pinch of salt,” or “This item may be too vinegary for some.”

Truth to tell, many journalists invent and fabricate facts – or at least put their own spin on factual raw materials – and the conclusions to be drawn from such imaginary facts. Are there perhaps advanced courses in journalism at universities and business schools which teach people how to turn facts into plausible fictions, and vice versa? Such course may attract large enrolments.

Of course, I am not suggesting that all is rotten in Fleet Street or similar pockets of the news industry. To my delight, I discovered some time ago that in several countries the quality of reporting and the standard of commentaries about newsworthy events continues to be very high. Standards of excellence are also maintained in review articles of books, the theatre, films, art exhibitions, concerts and most certainly in political commentaries, regardless of which side of the spectrum editorial sympathies lie.

Would it be invidious to single out places or specific papers? Most of us confine our news-reading to local papers – many now free and doubly dependent on advertising revenue. These litter public transport, lie around on streets and coffee houses. They are understandably sparse in writings for intelligent people. But cities like in Zurich, Basel, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Stockholm, to name a few in Europe, continue to value breadth of coverage and quality of writing. Not so throughout the USA, which continues to be poorly served by its daily newspapers but are better served by weeklies and monthly magazines. Different countries, different cultures; different attitudes of what is news, to what the public is expected to know, and what are fair commentaries about events.

Ah well – why complain when more and more of us can access internet services and spend free moments watching awesome “telly” and the products of Hollywood and Bollywood.

In summary: facts are not news-items, but are claims that a statement could be true. It depends on how stringent are the criteria for “referential truth”. This is a topic which will be discussed in more details elsewhere, in other blogs of this series.