User talk:WHEELER/Principles of Definition

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Forward: This was first written for Wikipedia:Policy thinktank. It has been deleted, so it has been moved here.

The principles of definition need to be understood by any writer, particularly an encyclopedist.

Words are powerful tools, but they can be misused and abused. They can be used to motivate or destroy. Socrates recognized this danger when he said, "False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil." 7

Principles of Definition[edit]

The first major works on the nature of definition were the Platonic dialogs. In the early dialogues, Plato captures the character and mission that Socrates was doing. The early dialogues frequently portray Socrates engaging Athenians in their use of words. More often than not, Socrates typically examines the definitions suggested by his interlocators and finds them deficient. They always violate one or more of these three principles of definition:

  • The principle of identity—This simply states that A is A. A is not B. A is not C. A is A. It stricly means this and nothing but this. This principle of identity is laid down in the Republic of Plato.
  • The principle of non-contradiction—Paramenides' principle of non-contradiction is that a subject can not hold two predicates that oppose each other. If the dog is of a solid color, it cannot be said to be both black and white. It is either Black or it is White. Oxymorons are created this way. Examples: Square circle; living dead; democratic republic; far-right neo-Nazi,(Nazi an acronym for "nationalist socialist workers party"); etc. These are all contradictory terms placed together that negate themselves.
  • The principle of consistency—The principle of consistency states that a definition must apply to all relevent situations. It must be able to be used at various times and locations. For example, Socrates states, "And I will begin with courage, and once more ask what is that common quality, which is the same in all these cases, and which is called courage?" 8 Socrates is always looking for this "common quality". What his interlocutors do is have courage mean "this". Then Socrates would apply that definition to another situation; soon to find out that the original definition doesn't apply to another situation requiring courage. Socrates asks the individual then to give a definition of courage that "will fit all situations" that require courage. By this demonstration, Socrates seeks for true meaning. This consistency will help to eliminate confusion and incoherence. The criteria of truth is consistency. Several generations later, Cicero said, "Truth is not one thing in Athens and another thing in Rome. Truth is not one thing yesterday and another thing today." Cicero said that philosophers should be judged "by the degree of consistency and coherence which this whole body of doctrine displays". 2

Truth was also seen as the faithful representation of reality. 1 This empirical perspective provided a useful counter balance to the three analytic principles mentioned above. And to inject a practical element, truth and knowledge were also associated with the golden mean. This is the midpoint between extremes, for example, between the extremes of the under-report and the over-report, between ignorance and exaggeration.

In the middle ages the notion of absolute truth (or divine truth) became popular. St. Maximos the Confessor said, "One man with the truth is the majority." Truth is not based on mob rule or on opinions. Truth is the object of one's loyalty.

The subject matter of knowledge is "being". Knowledge is to know the nature of being. 3 If it exists, we can know it. Knowledge then is what is apprehended from being. Every being gives off its evidence. This evidence is what is called characteristics. What defines a particular being from another being is its characteristics. If the characteristics disappear, then the being disappears.

Socrates accepted that the modality of knowing is to "define and divide". That is, we come to know something when an object is defined and then differentiated from other objects. 4 Socrates says about an interloquitor, "When he thinks that he is reasoning he is really disputing, just because he cannot define and divide, and so know that of which he is speaking; and he will pursue a merely verbal opposition in the spirit of contention and not of fair discussion." 5

This "define and divide" approach involves two steps. The definition step is an application of the principle of identity. A thing is what it is, the sum of its attributes. The differentiation step contrasts and divides the object off from all other things and asks what differentiates the object from all other things. That is, knowledge incorporates definition and division from what it is not. Knowledge, then, is in the business of knowing reality; all of it. Definitions can be seen as a general description of what a thing is, combined with a description of what it is not. For example, the definition of a radio could be "an electronic device (general description of what it is) that receives and demodulates a radio frequency broadcast signal then converts it into sound waves" (what differentiates it from related devices).

As for truth and knowledge being practically the same, "Truth is a property of knowledge when judgement is in harmony with being, as it is in reality; otherwise falsity is present." 6

Knowledge must be ordered coherently before it can be used and defined. The ancient Greeks used the two step "define and divide" approach to construct categorizational schemes and taxonomies. The "Genus" is the general category, and the "Species" is the differentia.

See the democracy article for an illustration. Democracy is a "genus" and "direct" and "indirect" are species.

The job of an encyclopaedist[edit]

Our job is to "catologue" all information and knowledge and also to "protect" words and definitions from being abused and misused.

Philo's rule dominated Greek culture, from Homer to Neo-Platonism and the Christian Fathers of late antiquity. The rule is: "metaxarratte to theion nomisma". It is the law of strict continuity. We preserve and do not throw away words or ideas. Words and ideas may grow in meaning but must stay within the limits of the original meaning and concept the word has.

Related Sites[edit]


  1. Apostolos Makrakis
  2. On the Good Life, Cicero, trans. By Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, NY, l971. pg 70. Discussions at Tusculum 10,31.
  3. Republic, Plato, trans. By B. Jowett, M.A., Vintage Books, NY. §619; pg 394
  4. Republic, §478; pg 209.
  5. Republic, §454; pg 174.
  6. see entry "Knowledge", Catholic Encyclopaedia, l967. Vol 8, pg 225
  7. Phaedo, §115e
  8. (need to find reference)
    1. another reference: The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, l961. Laches 191d; pg 173.