Definition 1: Definition and Argument

All typologies of argumentation have one or several entries “Definition”, frequently the first on the list. Issues focusing on definition of terms, S. Stasis arise in highly productive forms of argumentation.

1. Defining definition

The definition of a word is a description of its meaning(s) in relation with its use(s).

Not only words but also phrases need to be defined. Fixed or semi-fixed phrases, that is idiomatic expressions, such as beat around the bush, have also to be defined, since their global meaning does not result from the mechanic combination of the meanings of their components.
Moreover, social life produces conventional expressions used with a specific meaning that requires a definition:

What is a single parent?
What constitutes an emergency situation? An urgent case?

Depending on the nature of the word and the circumstances of the questioning, these questions ask about the meaning of the word, or about information about the kind of object to which the word refers, or about the circumstances in which it is possible to use the word.
In argumentative situations, even the meaning of current words can be disputed: What is an educated person?

The meaning of a word in ordinary language is not a “backstage spirit” animating the word, but a discourse “equivalent”; “having the same meaning”:

uncle                      =      “brother of the mother or the father”
[definiendum]       =      [definiens]

The definition establishes a semantic equivalence between a term, the definiendum, “what is to define”, the dictionary entry, and a discourse, the definiens “what defines” (sometimes called “definition” by metonymy).
The definiens is a discourse answering questions like “what does the word X mean?” “What is X?”.

From a logical perspective, the equivalence definiendum / definiens meets two requirements, one semantic and one formal.
— In semantic terms (intension) definiens and definiendum must have the same meaning.
— In formal terms (extension), the definiens and definiendum must be intersubstitutable in all contexts, the global meaning of the passage remaining the same.
The definition is substituted to the word defined, when the discourse containing this word has to be clarified; the word is substituted for its definition when the discourse has to be abridged.

The definition of “fish” as a species of animal draws on the field of natural sciences. The definition of “democracy”, “citizen” and “citizenship”, combines political sciences and political and ideological ideals. The definition of “single parent” refers to laws and ordinances. The vague concept of a “cultivated person” will combine a little of all the arts and letters. Advances in knowledge, history, and usages will change the meaning of the words and the kind of beings and objects they refer to.

Argumentative situations de-stabilize the meaning of words, and the definition of commonly used words may require revision and further clarification.

2. Kinds of definition

Different methods can be used to build a sound definition of a word, S. Arguments Establishing vs Exploiting a relationship. They propose criteria that come to the fore when the meaning of a word is at stake, when one wants to de-stabilize an unsatisfactory definition, or justify a challenged one.

2.1 Giving cues to the meaning of a word or a phrase: Ostension

Ostension is a gesture, the act of showing to somebody a concrete object. Defining a concrete noun by ostension is to show a sample of the objects or beings referred to:

Want to know what a duck is? Well, look at that one just flying by!

Ostension underlies the famous argument:

I cannot explain how, but I do recognize a boletus badius when I see one!

Ostensive definitions can only be applied to concrete beings materially present in the context of speech. Ostension is fundamentally ambiguous: the same gesture shows the chestnut horse and its chestnut color, but it is disambiguated by the context.
Ostension bypasses meaning; it lacks the discursive element considered essential for a proper definition.
Ostension is a key auxiliary for the definition of concrete things. The more closely the concrete object or being resembles the prototype of its category, the more effective ostension will be.

2.2 Focusing on the referential capacities of the word

The consideration of a variety of cases is crucial for the criticism of definition: Does the definition under scrutiny permit to correctly refer to all the beings or cases currently referred to by the corresponding name? S. Arguments justifying a definition.

2.2.1 Definition by exemplification

Definition by exemplification approaches the meaning of a word by giving an example of its use:

What is a hoax? Well, that is, for example, remember when reputable media announced that blondes and blonds would disappear by 2202? [1]

The example given, if prototypical, provides a good basis to capture the meaning of the word.

2.2.2 Definition by enumeration (in extension)

Definitions in extension proceed through the enumeration of all the individuals the word or expression refers to. Thus, the expression “conventional binary logic connector” is defined in extension as a member of the set {~, &, V, W}, S. Connective
A democracy is a state mentioned in the list of democracies established in the Democracy Dictionary:

Syldavia is a democracy since it is on the “Democracy List”.

Definition by extension provides the basis for case-by-case arguments. If “honestly acquired money” is defined as acquired “either through work, inheritance, financial investment, or winning the lottery”, then it can be indirectly proved that a sum of money was ill-gotten by showing that it has been acquired neither by work, nor by inheritance, nor is the legitimate product of a financial investment, etc.

2.3 Definition as instructions for use

2.3.1 Operational definition

Operational definition associates a term X with a set of operations permitting to determine whether or not that individual is an X. An operational definition do not say what an essentially is; it simply indicates how to find all the individuals X refers to.

The expression “prime number” is defined as “a number that is only divisible by itself and by the unit”. This definition unambiguously determines whether or not a given number is a prime number.

2.3.3 Functional definitions

As operational definitions, functional definitions do not consider the essence, or the technical design of the instrument named. The referent is characterized in terms of its functions, goals, objectives. To know what a compass is, is to know that, it points north (magnetic), and is used accordingly.

2.4 Describing the meaning of the word

2.4.1 Essentialist definition (definition in intension)

Essentialist definitions require that the definition “focus on the essence (and not the accident), and proceed by next genus and specific difference” (Chenique 1975, p. 117).  An individual receives the name of its category, identified through a series of generic features common to its superordinate genre and differentiating features specifying its species. S. Classification.

Essentialist definitions work well for natural species. In general vocabulary, the contrast is between central and peripheral features. A dictionary of Syldavian institutions would include an entry “President of the Syldavian Republic (SR)”, defined through the modes of election, the constitutional role etc. These core elements can be complemented by anecdotal characteristics, such as “lives in the Parnassus Palace”; “her spouse is called ‘the first lady or man of Syldavia’”, etc. The latter information refers unambiguously to the President (they apply to him or her and only to him or her, the substitutability condition is fulfilled), but doesn’t contribute to clarifying the meaning of “President of the SR”. In Aristotelian terms, free accommodation at the Parnassus Palace is not an essential property attached to the office of President of the SR.

Essentialist definitions seek to express the true sense of the word, corresponding to the very nature of the things it designates, that is, their permanent essence. They go beyond the linguistic knowledge of the word (lexical definition), and even beyond the knowledge of the things defined (encyclopedic definition), always reflecting an imperfect state of knowledge.
In Platonic terms, an essentialist definition claims to retain the idea of ​​the thing: “what is virtue?”. In theory, the essentialist definition is ruled by a methodology, based on an “intuition of the essence of the thing”, S. Classification. Ancient dialectic was the instrument used to build correct essentialist definitions.

While a pragmatic definition of the word democracy is based on the many socio-historical uses of the word, an essentialist definition tries to establish the ideal, essential characteristics of democracy, sometimes to condemn the current uses of the word on behalf of “true democracy”, S. True meaning. It may be that no real democracy corresponds to the essence of democracy. The essentialist definition is used as an important critical tool in idealist or conservative argumentation (Weaver 1953). 

2.4.2 Lexicographical definition

Lexicographical definitions are found in language dictionaries, as opposed to encyclopedic dictionaries. Language dictionaries must meet multiple conditions:

— Collect all the words and idioms of a language (or the vocabulary used at a particular period).
— Provide a description of their various meanings, their uses in speech, and their stereotypical figurative uses.
— Give the typical contexts of use associated with these meanings.
— Specify the syntactic constructions corresponding to these meanings.
— Locate them in the various semantic fields to which they belong, that is, specify their relationships with their (quasi-) synonyms and antonyms, and their position in their derivational families.

The dictionary is a highly legitimized and legitimizing institution. From the perspective of argumentation studies, lexical meaning being inferential, the dictionary should be seen first of all, as a huge stock of “inferring principles”, S. Argumentation based on a definition (3).

Linguistic definitions simultaneously draw on different kinds of definition. Knowledge of words (lexical definitions) and knowledge of things (encyclopedic scientific definitions) are theoretically clearly separated. They are, however, inextricably linked for current terms having an encyclopedic definition. “When the barometer falls, the weather turns bad”: is the deduction backed by a meteorological physical law expressing knowledge about the variations in atmospheric pressure? Or is it included in the linguistic meaning of the word? Knowing the functional meaning of the word “barometer” is to know that “when it falls, the weather turns bad.”

All words are worthy of a lexical definition, but only those having “plenty of being” are worthy of scientific knowledge, and are registered in the encyclopedia. The border between the two categories is unstable and dependent on the state of research; conversation, once considered a futile and elusive thing, was conceptualized fruitfully by conversation analysis and ethnomethodology. These sciences have given “more being” to their object.

 2.4.3 Scientific definition of concepts and lexicographic definitions of words

Encyclopedias collect only conceptual terms. Encyclopedic definitions summarize the state of knowledge about things and concepts referred to by the term. A good definition of a thing stabilizes a well-constructed knowledge.
Scientific definitions can use a re-defined common term, (see infra stipulative definitions). The mass of the physicist is not the mass of the language dictionary:

In physics, mass is a property of a physical body. It is the measure of an object’s resistance to acceleration (a change in its state of motion) when a force is applied. It also determines the strength of its mutual gravitational attraction to other bodies. In the theory of relativity, a related concept is the mass-energy content of a system. The SI unit of mass is the kilogram (kg). (Wikipedia, Mass).

Whereas, in current language, the word mass is defined and illustrated as follows,

a: a quantity or aggregate of matter usually of considerable size
b (1): expanse, bulk — (2): massive quality or effect — (3): the main part or body <the great mass of the continent is buried under an ice cap (…) (4): aggregate, whole <men in the mass>
c: the property of a body that is a measure of its inertia and that is commonly taken as a measure of the amount of material it contains and causes it to have weight in a gravitational field
: a large quantity, amount, or number <a mass of material>
a: a large body of persons in a group <a mass of spectators>
b: the great body of the people as contrasted with the elite —often used in plural <the underprivileged and disadvantaged masses (…) (MW, Mass)

Arguments establishing a scientific definition of things are domain-dependent. An astronomy conference was necessary to redefine the term planet, and end the controversy over the status of Pluto.

The usual definition can be hardly recognizable under the technical definition. The following definition correspond to an everyday experience:

1. A blocking of the alpha activity preceded by a transitional element that is expressed in the cortex region (a temporal tip-cortex)
2. A more or less pronounced muscle jerk (a start);
3. Neuro-vegetative events, such as tachycardia and decreased skin resistance.
So, I was referring to the “classical” reaction of surprise that you all know.
Henri Gastaud, [Discussion], 1974[1]

This is a scientific definition of surprise, “in the sense of ‘surprise reaction’ that is to say the set of phenomena observed by the neurophysiologist, when a sudden unexpected stimulus occurs.” (Ibid.)

2.5 Giving a phenomenon its scientific name:
Stipulative definition, neology and baptism

Stipulative definitions are also called “definition of name”:

The only definitions recognized in geometry are what the logicians calls definitions of name, that is, the arbitrary application of names to things which are clearly designated by terms perfectly known. (Pascal Geom., p. 525)

They play a key role in the scientific creation of words. When a new class of phenomena or beings has been identified and characterized, they must be given a name. While in the general case, the defining process begins with a given term and looks to clarify its pre-established definition, stipulative definitions start with a clear and well-established meaning (the definiens), and seek a word to refer to this content; it is a baptism. To this end, one might choose a usual word emptied of its ordinary meaning. By convention, physicists use the word charm to speak of a particular particle, the charm quark. The equivalence condition between the technical use of the word and its definition is fully satisfied.

In other cases, the word chosen to name the new phenomenon retains something of its ordinary meaning, and it is arguable that “my word fits better than yours the nature of the phenomenon”. As each and every person has a preferred terminology, the relatively arbitrary nature of the stipulative neologism can lead to terminological inflation and a “war of words”, which can be overcome by invoking the primacy of the reality of things. Should we call such argumentative patterns:

serial reasoning or subordinate argumentation?
linked reasoning or coordinate argumentation?
convergent reasoning or multiple argumentation?

If no agreement can be reached, the issue can be radically settled, “You may even call it ‘Ivan Ivanovich’ as long as we all know what you mean.” (Jakobson 1971, p. 557).

3. Argumentation and definition

3.1 Argumentation constructing or evaluating a definition

Definitions are argumentatively constructed in reference to a set of rules, S. Argumentations establishing a definition.
These rules generate a set of specific argumentative lines that are exploited when a conflict of definitions occurs, such as:

What do you precisely call a terrorist, a democracy, a spin doctor?

Persuasive definitions are definitions restructured in order to include or exclude an individual from their scope. They can be criticized as violating the non-circularity principle.

3.2 Argumentation based on a pre-existing definition

In this second case, the definition of a word is used as a stock of arguments.

3.1.1 Definition used to categorize and name an individual

The argumentation naming an individual attaches this individual to a category name W, in reference to the definition of this category, S. Categorization and nomination.

This is a mushroom

3.1.2 Definition used to enrich the description of an individual

In this form of argumentation, the speaker allocates to an individual any feature mentioned in the definition of its name.
If Syldavia is a democracy (category), and that “having fixed elections dates” is a defining essential feature of democracy, then one might infer that there will be elections in Syldavia in a not too distant future, S. Argumentation based on a definition.

3.1.3 A Discursive ploy: Demanding a definition

The request for a definition might be made with the intention of blocking the development of the opponent’s argumentative line, S. Destruction of speech. The following exchange takes place in a discussion about various personalities competing for a scientific distinction:

S1:      — Doe has a lot of prestige.
S2:      — What do you call prestige?

This inevitably leads to a stasis of definition, in which many participants are not eager to participate.
The internal magazine of a research institution objects to a traditional claim from laboratories:

“[Lack of technical staff] would lead to a lack of “optimum efficiency” in laboratories. First, how do we define the optimal efficiency of a laboratory?

[1] After Wikipedia, Disappearing blond gene (10-09-21)
[1] Gastaud H. (1974) “Discussion”. In Morin E. & Piattelli-Palmarini M. (eds). (1974). L’Unité humaine. Paris: Le Seuil. P. 183.