A Definition Is Not a Description
Defining something is setting out what in the world a concept identifies. Describing something involves making a claim about a particular example or multiple examples of whatever has been identified. I cannot describe the concept “couch,” but I can define what in the world I intend the concept to include. I can only describe a particular instance of “couch” or a set of “couches” once I have set out a definition that identifies particular couches. One cannot make a description of something until one has set out what that something is.
Who cares? Why make such a distinction (i.e., between definition and description)?
- When people define things differently, they often act like they have different descriptions, different perspectives, or different opinions on the thing. That is, if you say that the sine qua non of Christianity is belief in Jesus as both divine and a messiah, but I define Christianity as a commitment to the message of Jesus, a third person might say “you two have different perspectives on Christianity.” The problem is that this doesn’t make any sense. If I define “cat” as a certain type of feline, but you define “cat” a a certain type of pachyderm, we don’t have two different perspectives—we’re talking about different things altogether. So the two imagined characters don’t have different “views” of Christianity—they’re talking about different things altogether. Two people can only have a different perspective on a thing if they are talking about the same thing in the first place. Again: if I say the president is named Bush and you say the president in named Obama, we don’t have different opinions on the president—we’re talking about two different things. A lot of relativist talk about everyone having different views would have to be thrown out the window if we attended to this distinction between definition and description.
- Sometimes people say something can’t be defined, which is pretty much never true (although it might be the case that definitions can be fuzzy). Somethings might not be able to be described, but one can only know that if one has already defined a thing. For instance, if I define “God” as that which cannot be described, then I have defined God, but as something that I can’t hang any adjectives on. But saying that God can’t be described is not the same as saying God can’t be defined. In addition, if I say that God cannot be defined, then I have to face the fact that people can and have offered definitions of “God” before. So the claim that God cannot be defined is obviously a false claim.
- Sometimes people say something like “God cannot be defined” and seem to mean something like “God cannot be contained.” How can you know that God cannot be contained unless you’ve already identified him?
- Sometimes people say that Christianity cannot be defined, because they want to prevent someone from defining Christianity in a way that excludes them. But the fact remains that people can and have offered definitions of “Christianity” before. So the claim is obviously false. Usually these people want to replace one definition with a new, broader one. But they still want to define it. If it cannot be defined, then it’s possible that this stain on my shirt might be part of Christianity.