Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors]

petuous ’; because the words “ in love' and `lover' point to precisely the same state of mind. But we have no right to say, “Schemers are not to be trusted ; this man has a scheme; therefore he is not to be trusted'; for one is not a ‘schemer' unless his ‘schemes' are rather dishonest, and are so habitually. So likewise a man who is once drunken or who once lies is not necessarily a drunkard or a liar. Words like these, which appear to correspond in meaning but really do not, are quite common, e.g.: art, artful; design, designing. faith, faithful; presume, presumption, king, kingly; probable, probability; child, childish.

When we are confronted with arguments which turn upon some ambiguous word we do not usually see what the trouble is all at once; but we often do have a vague

How to feeling that there is something wrong; and this deal with

ambiguities. ought to be sufficient to make us go back and. examine all the words on which the argument seems to turn. The surest way to test the argument is to put it into new words altogether, taking care that each one of them shall indicate something perfectly definite. Since all correct inference is based upon the nature and relations of the things in question, and not upon the relations of the words in which we happen to speak of them, this method of getting rid of the questionable words is perfectly legitimate and reasonable. When this has been done and we realize exactly what the relations in question are, we may then

go back to the old words and show how they seemed to indicate first one and then another. If we wish to avoid making such blunders ourselves, we should pursue much the. same method, and make sure that our argument depends upon the relations of things themselves and not upon the accidents of language by seeing whether it will seem to hold no matter what language we use to denote these relations.

When words are vague or otherwise ambiguous, it is usually wise for the person who uses them in a given connection to announce the exact meaning which he intends them to

[ocr errors]



When he does this he is said to define them. A Definition, therefore, is a statement of the meaning of a word

as used in a given connection, or a statement Definition.

that tells what qualities or other relations an object must have in order that the word defined should be properly applied to it. By the aid of definitions the same word can be used in different senses in different connections without confusion.

When a word of doubtful meaning has not been defined by the user the only course for the hearer or reader is to define it for himself by comparing the various passages in which it

He must try to find some definite meaning which will fit them all. This is what the makers of every dictionary have to do. By a definite meaning I mean of course a definite relation that the word is used to denote, not merely a definite set of phrases to put after it in a definition whether they mean anything or not. We have not found the meaning for the word “toves’ merely because we have learned to say, “ They are something like badgers—they are something like lizards—and they are something like corkscrews ?'. If a word has several distinct meanings, or if the meaning is vague, the effort to find one definite meaning which will fit the context in every case will soon make this plain.

To find a definite meaning for every word and every statement in the books that one studies is no easy task, and when any one first undertakes to do it he will probably be disappointed tɔ find how little ground he can cover. But unless a person seeks one he cannot understand the book thoroughly, and unless he does it often enough to feel confidence in his own work he cannot tell the difference between a book that means something and one that does not. He will not be able to “understand’ the latter, or get definite thoughts out of it, but he will not be able to tell whether it is because of his own stupidity or because there are no definite thoughts there to get; and if he has not this ability to discriminate, he is likely to be the victim of any incoherent writer whose words are


sufficiently high-sounding. This ability to interpret what one reads or hears and discriminate between sense and nonsense is one of the most essential aims of all education, and a person who has not taken the trouble to acquire it ought not to call himself educated.

When we have found the meaning of a word and come to state it two things are essential: to be precise and to be simple. To be precise is to tell exactly what the word means

How to --no more and no less; to state the characteristics frame

definitions. of an object, in virtue of which the name is applicable, with perfect definiteness. We must not define a net as something made out of string with holes in it, or as something to catch fish with. For a net is not necessarily made out of string or used to catch fish, and things might be made of string and have holes in them, or be used to catch fish, without being nets. In the same way we should not define man as the animal that laughs, for though man may be the only animal that laughs, it is not laughter that makes him man and entitles him to the name. He would remain man if he never laughed again. So, we should not define virtue as the only thing which makes one truly and permanently happy, or acid as that which turns blue litmus paper red; for virtue might still be virtue if it ceased to make us happy, and the word acid would be quite as applicable to various substances if litmus paper had never existed.

To be simple in a definition is to frame it in such a way that it will immediately mean something to the people for whom it is intended. Dr. Johnson defines a net as something reticulated and decussated, with interstices between the intersections; and Herbert Spencer defines evolution as “an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.'' These definitions are precise and to the expert they may be simple, but to ordinary people they are not.

Simplicity and precision are difficult to unite, but with patience the union can nearly always be made.

There is an old rule that definitions should be by genus and differentia. This means that it is not necessary or desirable to enumerate every single attribute of the things denoted by the name defined. It is sufficient to tell what class they belong to and how they differ from other members of that class. If we are defining the word · bloodhound' we should say that bloodhounds are a certain specified kind of dog. It is not necessary to say that they are living things, belonging to the animal kingdom, and possessed of a backbone, mouth, eyes, ears, teeth, and paws. These attributes and a hundred others are all implied by the generic term “dog'.

To define a term by itself or by some other equally obscure word from the same root, e.g., a preacher is one who preaches’, is practically the same as not to define it at all. It adds neither precision nor simplicity. But if two words from the same root do not indicate precisely the same rela-v tions it may be proper to define one by means of the other and some modifying phrase, e.g., 'a preacher is one who preaches by profession', 'a liar is one who tells lies habitually'. Again, we are likely to lose rather than gain in both precision and simplicity when we define in metaphorical language, as when we say that words are barbed arrows, the soul is life's star, truth is the food of the soul, or the camel is the ship of the desert. The metaphors may be useful, but not as definitions.

Definitions are usually supplemented by examples, diagrams, or other illustrations. These do not make the definition any

more accurate, for they give only one case out of Illustrations.

many that fall within it, and unless some explanation is added, they do not show exactly where the dividing line is. But they do make the definition easier to understand. because they turn one's attention in the right direction. When we know some of the things which a boundary is intended to include we are better prepared to learn precisely


where that boundary is. Because examples give this kind of preparation it is often wise to put some of them before the formal definition.

The illustration chosen should be typical. If we try to prepare for the definition of virtue by an example, we should choose some act or character that is recognized as virtuous by everybody ; something well within the class, and, if possible, something of which virtue is the most striking feature. To prepare for the definition of a fish we should not draw an eel. It looks too much like a snake. After the definition is given, however, and its general purport is understood it is often wise to give an example of something that falls within it and of something else quite like it that falls without, and then explain why it is that the one is included and the other not. When one is making a contrast of this sort one might well use an eel to illustrate the difference between a fish and a snake, or a whale to illustrate the difference between a fish and a mammal. The nearer we get to the boundary on any side the easier it is to understand a description of that particular

part of it.

When an example is not so striking as to be unmistakable we should take pains to make clear in precisely what respect it illustrates. It will not do to say, • The subject of a sentence is the name of the thing spoken about, e.g., John struck James'. We should underline the word “John', put it in quotation-marks, or indicate in some other way that it is that word that is the subject, and not the real John or the word · James'. Similarly we cannot explain what a house is by merely handing some one a picture and leaving him to wonder whether the house is the thing in the background with windows or the thing in the foreground with ears.

The reason why the common uneducated person does not recognize the importance of understanding the meaning of words precisely is that it is really not very important for his purposes. To play out of doors, to find one's way along the street and notice what people are doing there, to buy clothes

« AnteriorContinuar »