Real and nominal definitions revisited

Marc asked:

My question concerns real vs. nominal definitions.

In brief: is it possible for real definitions to be either true or false?

For example, let’s assume I fix the denotation of the term ‘tiger’ (as I point to a large, four-legged cat). Then, I give a real definition of ‘tiger’: an eight-legged invertebrate.

Would it be reasonable to say that the real definition of ‘tiger’ I have given is false? Assuming the earlier denotation of ‘tiger’ I gave by pointing to actual large, four-legged cats?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

I feel uneasy with your concept of ‘definition’. What you call a ‘real definition’ is only a ‘labeling’, attaching a label to some object.

Any definition has to be a ‘nominal’ definition, but even this is a bit misleading: To define something means to show its ‘boundaries’ (‘de-finire’ verbally means to delimit, to draw the boundaries). Thus you cannot define a human without showing what a human is NOT! A human is not an ape, is not a robot, is not a god nor demon etc.. But even if you say ‘a human is not an animal’ you will get into trouble. A human IS an animal, but a very special one. So to define a human you cannot just point at a human and say ‘this is a human’. What about a cripple? It doesn’t fit the standard picture of the anatomical atlas, but as a child of human parents, it is a human. This too is a definition: to be a child of human parents. As you know, a walfish is not a fish but a mammal, and the jellyfish is neither a fish nor a mammal but a quite different sort of animal. In this case, fish is just a label of ‘animals living in the sea’ as different from ‘animals living on the dry land or flying around’ etc..

What’s an electron? Nobody has ever seen one! This does not mean, that there are no electrons, but you cannot point at them. They are — like photons and neutrinos — ‘required objects’ in the context of ‘particle physics’. They are in this sense ‘real — but unobservable’. You can write books on the properties of those electrons, photons and neutrinos without ever seeing any of them — and without becoming mystical in any way. You define them by their effects, but not by visibility — which is only one of man possible effects.

And what about ‘liberty’ or ‘justice’ or ‘sin and grace’? They too are ‘real’ in a sense, they point at something, but once more they are not ‘things’ you could point at but ‘theoretical constructs’ like ‘class struggle’ or ‘Oedipus complex’. All those ‘objects’ exist in some way, they are related to experiences, but they are defined by theories. Without Marxism there is no ‘class struggle’, while there are still social conflicts.

Thus even to call a definition ‘nominal’ is besides the point. You should call it ‘theoretical’. It’s not nomina but theories that define the object. And every religion has a different definition of God anyway — including the paradoxical definition that God cannot be defined because He — if He exists — is without any limits.

Thus my definition of ‘definition’ would be: A method of bringing some order into the boundless chaos of experiences — sensual and intellectual. The whole concept of ‘real definition’ is a misnomer, and even ‘nominal definition’ is. What you have as primary givens are experiences, and then you first attach labels to them and if needed you re-define the (sensual or rational) objects in the context of a theory. Because all theories are changing, the ‘objects’ defined by those theories have to be re-defined again and again according to the theories defining them. And if Christianity as a theory is vanishing, then the Christian experiences of ‘sin and grace’ are vanishing at the same time.

BTW: The notion of ‘definition’ is strongly related to the notion of ‘concept’: The tiger is — like you — a bunch of complicated molecules. For the neutrino the tiger — like you — is transparent. Thus for the neutrino there are neither tigers nor humans. You see the rainbow — but where is a rainbow save in your brain? The rainbow in a sense is ‘real’, since you even can take a snapshot of it with your camera, but you cannot grab it and bag it in to take it with you. You only can have memories and dreams of the rainbow. So how do you define the rainbow? The rainbow is at the same time virtual and real like a hologram.

If you are confused now it is a good state for a philosopher to be in and to start wondering and pondering.


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