On the definition of terms

"What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent /.../ The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, 1922)


Many people have, according to my understanding, misunderstood the whole basis of philosophy and science. In many discussions I'm asked for a justification for the belief or unbelief in a term where people take the term for granted without really having an idea of what the word stands for. The fallacy is to first define the term and then, from the definition, decide if the term exists in reality or not. The rational way should be to do it the other way around - first detect a thing or a phenomenon and then name it.

Too often I'm asked to disprove the existance of a god, without being given a definition of what the word "god" stands for. Without a definition the word is just meaningless, and with a definition it can be argued that I don't prove that GOD does not exist, only that GOD is not a "god". My reply is that I know that "god" does not exist, but GOD is simply meaningless because it is only a construct of letters. There is nothing in reality which corrensponds to GOD.

The same problem is encountered in morality and in discussions about evolution. How can I believe in morality when I don't believe in "god" or GOD? The answer is very simple, and that is that I see great many things in reality which I think words such as "moral", "ethical", "immoral" and "un-ethical" are very appropriate for, but I have seen nothing in reality which I would like to call "god" or GOD. It is not that I define "moral" a priori and then try to justify my definition, no I do it the other way around and name it moral because I realize that it is good.

Constructs and names

The way I see it, there are three different ways to define words:
  1. A priori names
  2. Constructs
  3. Names
An a priori name is a name that you just define out of the blue and then try to find out what it is. An example would be if I invented a word, say sdunlewuth, and asked you to disprove the existance of it. But what if sdunlewuth is a verb? As long as we do not have a definition of what a sdunlewuth is, the word remains meaningless.

A construct is a word that we compose of words which we have a concept of. This could also be considered a kind of a priori construct, but in this case the exception is that the essense of the words can be understood. The word is not meaningless because it is related to other words. An example of a construct is a Unicorn. Nobody has ever seen a unicorn, but we can still comprehend of it in our minds because we know that a unicorn is a (white) horse with a horn growing out of its forehead.

Some constructs do not have a single word, but can still be understood as constructs. An example is a square (euclid) circle. We all know what a square is and what a circle is, so we can understand the construct. However we know that a square and a (euclid) circle are not compatible. Thus we know for sure that there are no square circles.

The problem with constructs is that they do not really add any understanding to physical reality. We can say for sure that the qualities of a certain construct does not exist, but we do not really know if the word really corrensponds to the name we have given it. In the example of "god" again, I know that the existance of unnecessary suffering is incompatible with a being who has the will and the power to abolish all suffering, but how do I know that GOD does not exist only because I have attributed it the qualities of omnibenevolence and omnipotence? That "god" is a logical contradiction comparable to square circles does not prove that GOD does not exist. However, the word GOD is only an a priori construct, as explained above, and thus meaningless.

Names are words that we have invented in order to name things in reality. When we experience things for the first time, we have no words for it. Thus we construct a name from words in our pre-existing vocabulary. The words only become meaningful in our communication with other people, but reality is what it is irrespectible of what we call it.

This can be illustrated in the following way. An a priori name is a combination of letters, say skdahgjkd. When you define a skdahgjkd, you attribute some qualities to the word, and when you name something a skdahgjkd, you start with the thing and just call that thing skdahgjkd. You may just as well have called it a vbijaehtiwae:

              skdahgjkd ---------->
              a priori name, points at nothing. What it points at does not exist.

              skdahgjkd ----------> [Definition]
              construct, points at arbitrary definition.

              skdahgjkd ----------> 
              name, points at  and gives it the name skdahgjkd.


If language is understood this way, great many arguments become logical fallacies. Constructivists, who claim that science is only theories of paradigms are refuted because the terms of the paradigms are names given to actual observed phenomena, and not as they assume, constructs produced by a certain paradigm. For example, a sunset, according to constructivists, presupposes understanding of what a sun is etc, but I think that is not correct. The name sunset is given to an observed phenomenon irrespectively of paradigm, and is later understood in the communication with others as a sun setting in the sky.

Another fallacy is by creationists who define away the existence of transitional fossils. That life has evolved in the history of the earth is a fact, which can be easily understood by going to a museum and enjoy the paleontological collections. Creationists try to define away this fact by saying that the fossils are not transitional fossils. They do so by requiring impossible criteria for a species to call it transitional, but the fact remains that fossils in the earth show a (sometimes continous) transition from one species to another.

A third fallacy consists in asking skeptics to justify their lack of belief in a proposition. If a word is only an a priori name, then it is meaningless; and if it is a construct it can be demonstrated by demonstrating the parts of which it is constructed. If it is a name, they can show the skeptic the thing and then tell the name of it.


It is important to be aware of the pitholes and to avoid using words in the form of a priori names and constructs. Every word we use should be a name for something that has actually been discovered in reality. In philosophy and mathematics it is necessary in many cases to consider constructs, but one should be aware that these constructs may (or may not) have little to do with reality. It is important when dealing with constructs that you do not define away a thing which has actually been observed.

Defining things away is not to explain them.

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Created: Sunday, May 03, 1998
Last update: Wednesday, November 18, 1998

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