What Is Definition?

Definition is the act of defining; simply by describing the nature or essential qualities of something, or a process of expression that provides the precise meaning of a word or phrase.

Analyzing the Meaning of Definition

In the act of definition, the word or phrase aimed to be defined is known as the definiendumOpens in new window, and the word or phraseOpens in new window (or in some case, action) that defines it is known as the definiensOpens in new window.

Take for example:
  • An elephant is a large gray animal native to Asia and Africa

In the definition above “An elephant is a large gray animal native to Asia and Africa”, the word “elephant” is the definiendum, and the phrase “a large gray animal native to Asia and Africa” is the definiens. Thus, a definition (definiens), correctly constructed, will be logically equivalent to the word or phrase being defined (definiendum).

Varieties of Definition

  1. Lexical Definition — Lexical definitionOpens in new window is the common dictionary definitions of words already in a language. Studies have proven that lexical definitions are not correctly constructed definitions because they based emphasis in how words have been used in the past. Although some people might have lexical definitions in mind when they mention the word “definition,” from the standpoint of a correctly constructed definition a lexical definition may be wrong.

  2. Stipulative Definition — Stipulative definitionOpens in new window, which is another form of definition; is a sort of definitional proposal aimed at a specific purpose, as when a mathematician offers a specific meaning for a word as part of a proof.

  3. Ostensive Definition — Another variety of definition is the ostensive definitionOpens in new window which consist merely as simple lessons for future word usage based in example, as when a parent points to an object and names the object for a child.

Definition has been practiced and analyzed since SocratesOpens in new window popularized questions of the form “What is X?” Right from this period have philosophers and linguists tried to clarify what definition involves and to improve the analytical tools employed in definition.

AristotleOpens in new window observes that definition in a strict sense tell us what something is, and not just what a word means. Stating that a “correctly constructed” or what some would call “real” definition gives us knowledge of what it defines, where Aristotle takes what it defines to be not a word but what that word refers to. Hence, the so-called “correctly constructed” definitions are efforts to define things rather than words, to gain knowledge of the essence of the species. This implication of the account of definition is confirmed by the discussion of definition in the Metaphysics, where Aristotle proceeds as though anything we learn about definition is telling us something about essence. Take for instance, when one attempts to provide a “correctly constructed” definition of death, one is not merely reporting how people use the word death but identifying the defining characteristics of what death, itself, really is.