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A Definition Is Not a Description

September 27, 2009

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)?

  1. 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 theĀ  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. David Heinimann permalink
    October 29, 2009 2:21 pm

    I like your comment. Have been teaching the very thing for some years now. To add: description, rhetorically, requires the appeal to the senses, or reliance on them, and is perceptual; definition, as you rightly imply, is conceptual, the invention of the mind. The mind/body issue is central, as is mythography (cf. Euhemerus).

    Indeed, a lot of nonsense could be avoided if people got this straight — especially concerning God/godhead. Since we can only define the divine, have no empirical evidence, it is we, of course, who create him. The whole story has always been backward: man made God, not the other way around (though, again, once certain men have made a certain God, they could then, by their definition, go on to have their God “create” a certain man, as well as all the architecture around that creation — again, the standard idea of mythology).

    Here is a well-argued paper on the invention of the divine, from a neuro-psychologist, fyi:

    “Magical thinking” is the general category of consideration. Wikipedia has a basic and fair article.


    (etymology: “a+dios”, to Zeus, the last god the Greeks credited before philosophy took over, so his name was used for the definition — Zeus=theos=deus, dios).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 29, 2009 2:28 pm

    Thanks for your comment! I’ve seen a few things about magical thinking, and I’m really interested in pursuing more about it. I know there is some good research on the topic being done …

    One critique of your comment: to say that we invent a concept/definition is not to say that we invent the thing it picks out from the world. The concept of the “Big Bang” is something that we have created, but that doesn’t mean that we invented the Big Bang itself. I do think that we have invented gods, but I don’t think the idea that we’ve invented the concept of god is a good argument in favor of that position.

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