A Good Definition Or Not?

  • Category: Philosophy
  • Words: 1061
  • Grade: 96
In the Bible, one of the Ten Commandments states: "Thou shalt not kill." Regardless of religious preferences and beliefs, everyone knows of this Supreme command; but do they know what it means? Consider this: does "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not murder" mean the same thing? By its common definition, to "murder" means to kill unlawfully or at least unjustifiably. However, centuries ago, the Ten Commandments handed to Moses simply mentioned "kill". There was no mention at all whether "to kill" distinguished between the lawful or unlawful taking of a life, or for that matter if the life even had to be that of a human. In today's society, it appears "Thou shalt not murder" is more appropriate than "Thou shalt not kill," as "kill" denotes a just and lawful reason to take a life.
It then becomes clear that the way each person defines a certain word affects the meaning and intent of a statement or discussion. It is essential that a word be defined in a way that clearly illustrates its true essence. To make a definition successful, three criteria must be followed to avoid confusion. Possibly the most difficult condition to preserve when explaining a word's meaning to someone is to not give that person only examples of the word. When an example is the only source of knowledge of a word's meaning, a problem occurs. One must take into account that those examples could encompass ideas other than the true nature of the word, or perhaps not fully cover other characteristics of the word. This leads to the second criterion of a successful definition. A definition cannot be too general, yet at the same time it cannot be too limited. Finally, the third condition of a successful definition dictates that a form of the word or an equally obscure word cannot be used to redefine the word. To break the cycle, terms more familiar than the one being defined must be used. Though these three conditions are not absolute, they do lead to a clearer, less vague definition of words.
As seen in the initial example, "murder" is commonly defined as killing unlawfully or unjustifiably. However, it is not specified if this definition is dependent on what is being killed or what is actually killing. Perhaps it means only living things, for example people and animals, can murder or be murdered. It is also accepted that something such as an idea or belief can be killed through doubt. For example, if the government bans free speech of ideas of change or revolution these ideas were killed by unconstitutional means. Despite the method, these ideas are dead; but does that mean that they were murdered? By the accepted understanding of murder, an idea is not usually thought of as the target of murder, yet it appears from the definition given that an idea can be murdered. This definition "to kill unlawfully or unjustifiably" is therefore too broad as the meaning of "murder" encompasses more. At the same time, this definition also appears to be too narrow. Is it really murder if the act was committed without intent or if it was an accident? Again, by the accepted understanding, a murder only occurs if it is committed with malicious and criminal intent. In this case, "to kill unlawfully or unjustifiably" is too narrow a definition.
The sun is yellow. The business section of the phone book is yellow. The second light of a stoplight is yellow. Granted, these are all examples that describe yellow, yet, in reality, they mean so much more. Some would argue that the sun is in fact orange, and at times even described as red or white. The "yellow pages" of the phone book also have other colors such as black, red, or blue. Perhaps the second light of the stoplight in a normal lane of traffic is "yellow," but consider a turn lane with 5 different signals on it. Does "second" instantly mean second from the top, or could it be second from the bottom? In this case, it is possible that the light is in fact "green" or "red." Though sometimes these examples all point to "yellow," it is also seen that "red" can be common to all as well. Simply giving examples of a word leads to a flawed understanding of said word.
A game is a sport. A sport is football. Football is a game. The word has been defined, but in such a way that it essentially has not. The full circle is complete and one is no closer to truly understanding the extent of what a game can be; essential the word is being defined with itself. This definition, in fact, appears to fail all three criteria of a good definition. Only examples are given thus leading to too narrow a definition of what a game is. Because there are several denotations of "game," this method only provides a "definition" of an athletic game. This method of defining game is clearly flawed in many ways.
A good definition is sometimes hard to create. Returning to the first example and attempting to define "murder" does not seem like too difficult a task. Murder is an intended, unlawful and criminal act of one human killing another human without provocation or justification. For the most part, this definition fulfills criterion one; it is not an example. Secondly, this appears to get at the heart of what a murder is: not too broad, or too narrow. The third criterion is also met, all the words used are relatively familiar. For the most part, the definition captures the essence of the word "murder" in its most common use. That, however, is where the problem lies; the definition is only good for the common use of "murder." It can be seen that one must follow these three conditions of a definition to gain true knowledge and understanding of what a word means. It is also evident that multiple definitions of a word are required to truly encompass its full meaning and uses.
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