Definitions in Arguments

One of the most common problems in argumentation is disagreeing over the meaning of a word. Many arguments are little more than misunderstanding what your opponent means. If we can avoid errors in definition we make the process of argumentation go much smoother.

A definition is simply the meaning we assign to a word-symbol. That is, when ordinary speakers of a language use a word there are rules to determine how the word is used. These 'rules' amount to the definition we assign to a particular word. Every definition has at least two parts:

  1. The Two Parts of a Definition:

    1. Definiendum - the thing (i.e., the 'term') being defined

    2. Definiens - the linguistic expression (i.e., the definition itself) of the definition, the qualities or properties asserted of the term.


      NOTE: Equivocation is a logical error that occurs when a term is used in an argument more than once but is attributed two distinct meanings with each usage.

      Man is a rational animal. T
      Susan is not a man. T
      Therefore, Susan is not rational. ?


  2. Types of Definitions

    1. Intensional - (connotation) assigns meaning by indicating the qualities of the term

    2. Extensional - (denotation) assigns meaning by indicating the members of the class of the definiendum

  3. Ways of Defining Terms

    1. Stipulative - assigning or giving a meaning to a term for a specific context

      1. Demonstrative - (i.e., ostension) pointing to an object

      2. Extension/Enumeration - naming the members of a class

      3. Difference (i.e., negation) - listing what is not meant by a term; noting the distinctive characteristics of the term relative to what is not intended

        1. Genus - the meta or larger class of things
        2. Species - the smaller or subclass of things

      4. Lexical - The common meaning or usage of a term

        1. Synonymy - giving other words which have the same meaning

        2. Enumeration - listing the members of the class which the term denotes

        3. Etymology - assigning meaning by noting a term's linguistic ancestry.

      5. Theoretical - assigning meaning based on the theoretical framework the term denotes.

      6. (Precising - assigning a meaning in a legal or theoretical context in order to clarify the contextual meaning of a word.)

      7. Persuasive - assigning meaning using emotive language intended to create an emotional response toward the definiendum.

    2. Problems with Definitions

      1. Vagueness - lack of precision (a fuzzy definition)

        1. Quantitative Vagueness - more precise numerical expression needed

        2. Task-Related Vagueness

          1. does it apply to a specific case
          2. further factual information is not helpful in determining

      2. Ambiguity - more than one meaning is possible; it is unclear which is intended by the context

        1. Referential Ambiguity - assuming the audience understands which of two possible references is meant.

        2. Grammatical Ambiguity:

          1. grammatical structure allows more than one interpretation
          2. context does not clarify the meaning

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