Intro to Philosophy Through Problems| Lesson 1: The Problem of Definition

“It is necessary with regard to the science that we are seeking that we should first address those puzzles that first arise… For those who wish to make good progress must start well; for subsequent progress depends on the resolution of the first puzzles” -Aristotle, Metaphysics

Philosophy and Definition

Are definitions possible? Does our language map onto reality? Are we capable of defining things as they really are, can we define their essence? Or do we define things in name only? Or perhaps neither? Do we just define things according to our own pragmatic purposes?

The problem of definition is a perfect place to start our introduction to philosophy because philosophy is eminently concerned with definitions. As philosophers Steven Cowan and James Spiegel note, “A good philosopher always takes care to define terms. Not only does this make key concepts clear and distinct in one’s mind but it also prevents merely verbal disputes.”[1]

With that in mind, let’s define what we’re not talking about when we talk about ‘philosophy’ in this series. We are not talking about a personal “philosophy of life”. This ain’t no hakuna-matata-problem-free-philosophy type stuff. So you won’t be reading “well, you see, my philosophy is..” We also won’t, primarily, be considering philosophy as a second order discipline, like the philosophy of science, or the philosophy of mathematics. We will mostly be seeking to understand philosophy as a first order discipline, what philosophy has to say about philosophy- actually, that might be some weird kind of first-order-second-order positive feedback loop. Nevertheless, that’s what we will be attempting. Inevitably we will get into philosophy as a second order discipline, but that won’t be our first concern.

So, as we’ve just demonstrated, definitions are important. In fact, definitions are so important to philosophers that Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl place it in their philosophical commandments, “If, somewhere, there lie written on tablets of stone the ten philosophical commandments, you can be sure that numbered among them is the injunction to ‘define your terms’.” And they go on to say, even more strongly, that “In fact, definitions are so important in philosophy that some have maintained that definitions are ultimately all there is to the subject.”[2]

Philosopher Roger Scruton doubles down on the importance of definitions in philosophy as he considers the definition of philosophy itself, “What is philosophy? There is no simple answer to this question: indeed, it is in one respect the main question of philosophy, whose history is a prolonged search for its own definition.”[3]

Now, you might think this last statement is a bit of an exaggeration- surely there is more to philosophy than just definitions, or its own definition. But historically the problem of definition has been the driving force in philosophical inquiry. How do we define reality? Can everything be defined as an ultimate unity? A unified ‘One’? Or should everything be defined as multiplicity? An ultimate diversity- a ‘Many’? These are the types of questions the “Presocratics” (those that came before Socrates) asked.

Those who identified the universe with an ultimate unity are called ‘Monists’, from the Greek word monos, meaning single. Those who identified the universe as an ultimate diversity are called ‘Atomists’, from the Greek word atomon, meaning uncuttable, indivisible. The Atomists believed that the universe is ultimately made up of tiny indivisible, beebee-like atoms. The Monists believed that everything is ultimately made of the same elemental ‘stuff’ and that diversity is illusory- though they often disagreed on what that elemental stuff was.

Many consider these Presocratics to be the fathers of philosophy, or at the very least, the fathers of Western philosophy. For in seeking to define reality, they inaugurated the discipline which looks for systematic answers to life’s ultimate questions, the discipline which we now call philosophy.

Gordon Clark traces the inauguration of Greek philosophy to a single person, Thales of Miletus. He even tracks down the very minute in which philosophy began in his famous “partly serious and partly facetious” assertion. Clark asserts that “Greek philosophy began on May 28, 585 B.C., at 6:13 in the evening.”[4] Now, how can this statement be taken as even “partly serious” at all? Clark explains:

“What was it, then, that existed after 585 B.C. but not before, and began at the ridiculous hour of 6:13 P.M.? It was on that day that there occurred an eclipse of the Sun. Of course, solar eclipses had been occurring for some time, but the new characteristic was that this had been predicted by Thales, an astronomer of Miletus in Ionia. Records of celestial phenomena had been kept for centuries by the Eastern sages, but now for the first time Thales had discerned a regularity in these occurrences, had formulated a law, and had tested this formulation by a successful prediction. Together with Thales’ other speculations, this is called philosophy. It had not existed previously.”[5]

So, Thales was one of the first to look at reality and back up his “armchair” philosophizing with facts. In this sense, not only can he be seen as inaugurating philosophy, but also astronomy as well as science. But not all of Thales’ speculations turned out to be so spot on. Thales falls into the Monist camp as he sought to reduce multiplicity to uniformity in defining all reality as fundamentally comprised of water.

“Water? Seriously? What a dummy! How could he believe that everything was made of water?” Well, hang on a second, before we judge Thales too harshly, Clark explains why Thales was not totally bonkers:

“While the fact that all things are made of water is no more important than the fact that all things are made of energy, the reasons and motives behind these assertions cannot be dismissed. Thales was attempting a comprehensive explanation of the universe. Whatever element he chose, it would have to be a plausible source of all the force displayed in natural phenomena; and can anyone who has been tossed in a small boat by a storm on the Mediterranean deny that the ocean is a source of great power? Again, if water underlies all things, and lies under the earth also, as one can see by digging a well, the storms of this subterranean ocean would account for earthquakes. Again, if the universe and all its phenomena are to be explained by one stuff, the original stuff must be capable of transforming itself into the visible things of common experience. That water can produce earth is seen in the fact that when water evaporates from a dish, a little earth is left behind. Evaporation also shows how water can produce air. And in lightning and the rain there is a connection between water and fire. Hence there is no impossibility in assuming that all things can come from water…How then can water explain life? Well, in the first place, it is obvious that life cannot exist without water: Plants soon die of drought, and when dead they dry up. Men likewise, though they can live a long time on water alone, cannot long go without it. Then again, it seems that water can produce living things because when pools begin to dry up, little wriggler are found in the wet mud.”[6]

Though my aim is not to convince you of Thales’s ‘water-Monism’, as you can see, Clark makes a compelling case for Thales’s position, given his place in history.

But while the Presocratics sought to define ultimate reality, Plato was more concerned with defining the “forms” or the great “ideas” such as truth, goodness, virtue, friendship, piety, righteousness, happiness, beauty, and justice. Plato sought to define these ideas through his dialogues (dialogos, through word). In his dialogues, Plato usually used his mentor, Socrates, as his own mouth piece in order to question various Athenian wisemen about the nature of a given idea until he had flummoxed the wisemen and showed the fictional audience in the dialogue, as well as us, the readers, just how difficult it is to define these most important ideas. Through dialogue we are able to glimpse Plato’s higher realm of the forms or ideas, the most real realm. But even more than that, through this process of dialogical reasoning towards definitions, we are led to examine our lives and realize just how little we know, which is actually the path towards true knowledge and wisdom. For Plato’s Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living.

In the field of philosophy, none stand taller than Plato, as I’m sure you well know. Philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, has gone as far as to say that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”[7]

Philosopher, Mortimer Adler, on the other hand, begged to differ. He claimed that Plato is actually second best and the crown belongs to the true philosopher-king, Aristotle. Adler explained that while “Plato raised almost all the questions that everyone should face; Aristotle raised them too and, in addition, gave us clearer answers to them. Plato taught Aristotle how to think philosophically, but Aristotle learned the lesson so well that he is the better teacher for all of us.”[8]

Aristotle took philosophy to the next level, and with it, the science of definition. Adler notes that for Aristotle, “to define is to state the genus and differentia by which the species of a thing is constituted.”[9] In Aristotle’s usage, a genus is just a class of things and a differentia is something that differentiates the defined thing from other things in the same class. So, man, as Aristotle defines him, is the rational animal; animal being the genus, and rational being the thing that differentiates man from other animals, the differentia.

Though many throughout the history of philosophy have agreed with Whitehead about the prominence of Plato, they have often taken his content and opted for the conceptual clarity of Aristotle’s method, especially when it comes to definition.

Now that we’ve surveyed a bit of the history and demonstrated the importance of definition in philosophy, let’s try our hand at defining philosophy itself.

Definition of Philosophy

We’ve seen that definitions are important to philosophers, but Adler argues that they are just as important for mankind in general. Adler says the search for definitions “basically belongs to the activity of the human mind in all its scientific or dialectical efforts to clarify discourse, to achieve precision of thought, to focus issues and to resolve them. Men have no other way of coming to terms with one another than by defining the words they use to express their concepts or meanings…”[10]

So then, if definitions are as important as Adler claims, what is a definition? Well, if you google the etymology[11] of ‘definition’, you’ll see that it comes from the Latin definire, “to set bounds to”. You’ll often hear people break the word ‘definition’ down into de, meaning ‘of’; and finite, ‘having limits or bounds’. A philologist might demur, but I don’t think it’s a huge stretch since finite comes from the Latin finire which we see right there in definire. So, etymologically we might understand definition as setting limits or boundaries to a word; this is in the concept or substance of the word and that, on the other side of the boundary, is out. That’s pretty interesting, but we need more.

If you Google ‘definition’, you’ll see that a definition is “a statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.” Now we’re getting closer! But dictionary definitions don’t exhaust the full semantic[12] range of the word ‘definition’. So, still we need more.

Remember back to our discussion of Aristotle, who listed two conditions of a definition: a genus and a differentia. What he demonstrated so long ago is still useful for our efforts today. Logician (someone who studies and teaches logic (the analysis and appraisal of arguments)) David Kelley, defines a genus as “a class of things regarded as having various subcategories (its species)”[13] and a differentia as “the element in a definition that specifies the attribute(s) distinguishing a species from other species of the same genus.”[14] With these two in hand, Kelley defines definition as “a statement that identifies the referents of a concept by specifying the genus they belong to and the essential characteristics (differentia) that distinguish those referents from other members of the genus.”[15] But, it’s not quite that easy. It turns out there are different kinds of definitions, even given Aristotle’s genus-differentia scheme.

Harry Gensler, another logician, defines a definition as “a rule of paraphrase intended to explain meaning.”[16] He then differentiates between lexical definitions which explain current usage of a word and “stipulative” definitions which specify an individual’s unique usage of a word. Lexical definitions are roughly synonymous with dictionary definitions. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s ((SEP) – an amazing- free!- online philosophy resource) entry on definition says that “A dictionary explains the meaning of a term, in one sense of this phrase. Dictionaries aim to provide definitions that contain sufficient information to impart an understanding of the term.”

According to Gensler, a good lexical (or dictionary) definition is:

  1. neither too broad nor too narrow
  2. avoids circularity and poorly understood terms
  3. matches in vagueness the term defined
  4. matches, as far as possible, the emotional tone (positive, negative, or neutral) of the term defined
  5. includes only properties essential to the term[17]

A stipulative definition “specifies how you’re going to use a term. Since your usage may be a new one, it’s unfair to criticize a stipulative definition for clashing with conventional usage. Stipulative definitions should be judged, not as correct or incorrect, but rather as useful or useless.”[18] Here you ‘stipulate’ what you mean by a given word.

However, and unfortunately for both you and I, there are even more ways to parse ‘definition’:

Descriptive definitions: “like stipulative ones, spell out meaning, but they also aim to be adequate to existing usage. When philosophers offer definitions of, e.g., ‘know’ and ‘free’, they are not being stipulative: a lack of fit with existing usage is an objection to them.”[19]

Explicative definitions: “Sometimes a definition is offered neither descriptively nor stipulatively but as, what Rudolf Carnap (1956, §2) called, an explication. An explication aims to respect some central uses of a term but is stipulative on others. The explication may be offered as an absolute improvement of an existing, imperfect concept. Or, it may be offered as a “good thing to mean” by the term in a specific context for a particular purpose.”[20] This might be roughly synonymous with what Logicians Copi, Cohen, and McMahon call Precising definitions: “those used to eliminate ambiguity or vagueness.”[21]

Ostensive definitions: “Ostensive definitions typically depend on context and on experience. Suppose the conversational context renders one dog salient among several that are visible. Then one can introduce the name ‘Freddie’ through the stipulation “let Freddie be this dog.” For another example, suppose you are looking at a branch of a bush and you stipulatively introduce the name ‘Charlie’ thus: “let Charlie be the insect on that branch.” This definition can pin a referent on ‘Charlie’ even if there are many insects on the branch.”[22]

Persuasive definitions: “a definition formulated and used to resolve a dispute by influencing attitudes or stirring emotions, often relying upon the use of emotive language.” These are common in political argument. The right defines capitalism as “freedom in the economic sphere” and the left defines socialism as “democracy extended to the economic sphere.”[23]

Okay, I know that was painful, but it was like a page and a half in Microsoft Word, so it wasn’t that bad. Let me just introduce two more important concepts for definitions and we can get into defining philosophy.

Last two, here we go- their also Latin, sorry: the definiendum and the definiens.

Definiendum: “In any definition, the word or symbol being defined.”[24] That which is to be defined.

Definiens: “In any definition, a symbol or group of symbols that is said to have the same meaning as the definiendum.[25] The thing doing the defining.

So, when you see a definition in a philosophy book, often you’ll see something that fits the following equation:

X: …X… =df. – – – – – – -.

X is going to be the term to be defined, …X… is an expression containing the term to be defined, and =df – – – – – – – will be another expression which is used to define X. X is the definiendum, and everything on the right of the =df – – – – – – –  is the definiens.

So, to put some flesh on it, let’s say I wanted to define the traditional understanding of knowledge. I might write:

Knowledge: S knows x = df. S has a justified true belief of x

“Knowledge” is the definiendum. “S knows x” (“a subject” has knowledge of/knows “x” which is a variable for anything which can be known) is the expression containing the definiendum, and the “S has a justified true belief of x” is the definiens. So, knowledge is being defined as justified true belief- more on this in a forthcoming blog post.

Boom! We did it! You now know more about definitions than you ever wanted to know. Let’s define philosophy. I might start playing fast and loose with the different types of definitions described thus far, so bear with me, or better yet, take issue with the way I use them!

Remember back to the quote I introduced from Roger Scruton about philosophy as a prolonged search for its own definition. If we include a bit more of the full quote, we can see that Scruton gives us a stipulative definition of philosophy:

“What is philosophy? There is no simple answer to this question: indeed, it is in one respect the main question of philosophy, whose history is a prolonged search for its own definition. Nevertheless, a kind of answer can be given, in terms that explain what follows. Philosophy involves the attempt to formulate, and also answer, certain questions.”[26]

Bertrand Russell (a giant figure in modern “Analytic” philosophy (more on in a later post)) gives us a stipulative definition which further expounds on Scruton’s:

“Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy – for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.”[27]

Russell’s stipulative definition is rather long. But while I was skimming The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, In the entry for “Philosophical inquiry: premises and first principles”, I came across one of the briefest definitions I’ve ever seen:

“there is an aspect of philosophy that is pervasive enough to be sometimes used to define it: the criticism of assumptions.”[28]

I mean that is very brief! Philosophy = df. The criticism of assumptions. Wow. But I think it’s not actually all that useful since it is open to lots of counterexamples: “a specific instance that proves a definition wrong.”[29] For instance, if you came home and assumed that your wife made you dinner and she criticizes your assumption, is she now a philosopher? Is she really practicing philosophy at this point? I don’t think so, but maybe you do.

John Frame, in his A History of Western Philosophy and Theology gives us another brief stipluative definition but which leaves us with a much thicker meaning. Frame says, “I define philosophy as “the disciplined attempt to articulate and defend a worldview.” And he defends his definition as such:

“A worldview is a general conception of the universe. The sciences generally seek understanding of particular aspects of the universe: chemistry the chemical, biology the biological, and so on. But philosophy deals with the most general truths of reality: what is, how we know, how we should act. The term worldview, therefore, is an appropriate designation for the subject matter of philosophy.”[30]

Cowan and Spiegel also emphasize the importance of worldviews in philosophy, though they don’t go as far as Frame does in stipulating an identity between the two. Instead they see the development a reasonable worldview as one of the main tasks of philosophy. They go on to give their definition of a worldview:

“A worldview is a conceptual scheme or intellectual framework by which a person organizes and interprets experience. More specifically, a worldview is a set of beliefs, values, and presuppositions concerning life’s most fundamental issues. You might say it is a perspective on reality. Like tinted glasses, a worldview “colors” the way we see things and shapes our interpretation of the world. And, it must be emphasized, everyone has a worldview.”[31]

In defining life’s most fundamental issues, they quote from one of my favorite Christian philosophers, Ronald Nash, who says that the issues include:

  1. God (Theology)
  2. Reality (Metaphysics)
  3. Knowledge (Epistemology)
  4. Human Beings (Anthropology)
  5. Values (Ethics, Aesthetics, Political Philosophy)[32]

While I love when philosophers emphasize worldviews, I think ultimately, to define philosophy as such is too narrow.

In search of a more descriptive definition/understanding of philosophy, we can return once more to Scruton who says,

“Philosophy arises, therefore, in two contrasted ways: first, in attempting to complete the ‘Why?’ of explanation; secondly in attempting to justify the other kinds of ‘Why?’ – the ‘Why?’ which looks for a reason, and the ‘Why?’ which looks for a meaning. Most of the traditional branches of the subject stem from these two attempts, the first of which is hopeless, the second of which is our best source of hope.”[33]

So, philosophy, in this light, is the attempt to answer the right kind of ‘Why?’ question. Again, I like it but it’s probably too broad.

But the great thing about Scruton is that his work is chalked full of great descriptive definitions. Scruton spells out the meaning of philosophy in three aspect which comprise the subject-matter of philosophy:

  • “Philosophy studies another realm of being, to which it gains access through its own procedures. The purpose of the ultimate question is therefore to open gates into that other realm. This was the view adopted by Plato, and argued for in some of the most inspiring and beautiful of all philosophical writings.
  • Philosophy studies anything. Philosophical questions arise at any juncture and concern any kind of thing. There are philosophical questions about tables – for example, what makes this table the same as the table I encountered yesterday? (the problem of ‘identity through time’)
  • Philosophy studies everything: it tries to provide a theory of the whole of things. In contrast to the ‘bittiness’ of science, philosophy attempts an integrated account of the world, in which all truth will be harmonized.”[34]

I like the various types of definitions surveyed thus far. I think they definitely help us wrap our heads around philosophy. However, I’ve found that when it comes to definitions of philosophy, explicative definitions, those that seek to respect some central uses of a term and yet offer improvement, are best. Here I’ll list three of my favorites:

“‘Philosophy” is derived from a Greek word literally meaning ‘love of wisdom’. But it is better and more accurately defined as ‘inquiry’ or ‘inquiry and reflection’, allowing these expressions their widest scope to denote thought about general features of the world and human experience within it.” A.C. Grayling, Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject, 1.

“‘Philosophy,” as the etymology of the word suggests (philein, “to love,” and sophia, “wisdom”) is the love of wisdom. Better, and more provocative, the philosopher is wisdom’s lover. Philosophers are those who “refuse to accept what is false, [they] hate it, and have a love for the truth.” [Plato, Republic]… we shall understand philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom for the sake of flourishing.” James k. Dew Jr. and Paul M. Gould, Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, 2.

“First one could focus on the etymology of the word philosophy. The word comes from two Greek words, phileo, “to love,” and sophia, “wisdom”. Thus a philosopher is a lover of wisdom. Socrates held that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the ancient Greek philosophers sought wisdom regarding truth, knowledge, beauty, and goodness. In this sense, then, philosophy is the attempt to think hard about life, the world as a whole, and the things that matter most in order to secure knowledge and wisdom about these matters. Accordingly, philosophy may be defined as the attempt to think rationally and critically about life’s most important questions in order to obtain knowledge and wisdom about them. Philosophy can help someone form a rationally justified, true worldview, that is, an ordered set of propositions that one believes, especially propositions about life’s most important questions.” J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview 2nd ed., 15. [bold original]

You’ll note that each seeks to do justice to the etymology of the word philosophy yet they move to update and improve the definition as well.

Last but not least, I want to introduce at least one persuasive definition of philosophy. In our previous post, Some Preliminaries, we noted that philosophy involves “philosophical reflection.” Well, according to Alvin Plantinga, philosophical reflection “is not much different from just thinking hard”.[35] Now that is almost the definition of a persuasive definition. Any of you who have made it this far in this blog post will know that philosophical reflection is a lot more than “just thinking hard”. But it’s a fun definition and it’s great to pull out when you want to lure people into philosophy.

For the class:

Take some time now, after reading about definitions, philosophy, and definitions of philosophy, to come up with your own definition of philosophy.

  • Think of an appropriate genus and differentia.
  • Classify which type of definition yours fits under.
  • Clearly explain which is the definiendum and which is the
  • Make sure your definition isn’t too broad or too narrow
  • If it’s stipulative then make sure it’s useful.
  • Try to think of some counterexamples which someone might use to critique your definition and readjust if necessary.
  • If you’re confident in your definition then drop in in the comments of my blog, my Facebook, my Instagram, or whichever social media site referred you to my blog page.

Now we are ready, at long last, to consider the problem of definition.

The Philosophical Problem of Definition

The philosophical problem of definition has to do with the “object” of definition, the thing being defined, the definiendum. Does the definiens really give us the essence of the definiendum? Can definitions do this? Or are definitions merely conceptual? Do they just relate to the names we’ve given things? Or, worse still, do definitions just reflect of our own desires? Are they just pragmatic tools we use for our own means?

Mortimer Adler sums up the problem well,

“There is, first of all, the question about the object of definition. What is being defined when men make or defend definitions? This question broadens into the problem of nominal as opposed to real definitions. That is a complex problem which raises a number of further questions. Are all definitions arbitrary, expressing the conventions of our speech or the particular purpose we have in mind when we classify things? Or do some, if not all, definitions express the real natures of the things defined? Do they classify things according to natural kinds which have reality apart from our mind and its interests?”[36]

So, according to Adler, we have at least three answers to the problem of definition.

The Realists: at least some, if not all, definitions actually express the real nature of things defined. Definitions are capable of expressing things according to their kinds. Realists would include figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas.

The Nominalists: definitions are nominal- from the Latin nomen and nominalis, “name”- that is, definitions are in name only, they don’t express the real nature of things defined. They are arbitrary and express the conventions of our speech. Sure, definitions tell us what words mean though how words have been used, but they don’t map onto reality like the Realists believe. Famous Nominalists include Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The Pragmatists: definitions express the purposes or interests which the definers have in mind when they classify things to suit themselves. The pragmatists focus on the practicality of definitions rather than theoretical or metaphysical considerations (like essences, natures, substances, etc.). The chief pragmatist concerning definitions is a philosopher by the name of William James and surprisingly, Blaise Pascal seems to fit in this camp also.

For the Class:

In your own words, explain the problem. Then give your answer. What do you think? Is this really a problem? Is there an easy way to affirm each of these three perspectives without contradiction? If not, and if this really is a problem, then who do you most agree with? Could you accurately be described as a Realist, Nominalist, or Pragmatist concerning definitions? Why or why not?

Theology and Definition

Now we come to the good stuff. It’s my contention that without belief in God, specifically a Creator God like the God of the Bible, all definitions would be relegated to Pragmatism. Maybe you don’t think that’s such a big deal- but I do.

If Darwinistic evolution is the great metanarrative, the overarching grand archetypal storyline of reality, then what the ancient philosopher Protagoras said is true, man is the measure of all things. If there is no telos, no teleology, no purpose or design in the world, but rather, if all is constant flux- just chance acting on matter over time- then of course our definitions don’t tell us about essences. We are a cosmic accident after all not the product of design, therefore, man is the highest rationality in the universe, so we can choose to define reality in terms that best suit our purposes, namely the survival of our species- and within that, the survival of the fittest among those in our species.

But if Darwinistic evolution is the driving force behind the development of our reasoning capacities, then it’s more probably that we would have evolved to produce beliefs that are useful for helping us survive rather than beliefs that are true. Now, of course true beliefs would probably help us survive well, but the theory of survival of the fittest is aimed at survival not truth and the two, though related, are not the same. You could have all sort of false beliefs that end up helping you survive. Like a frog who thought eating flies would turn him into a prince. The frog has a false belief, but if the it acts on its false  belief, then it will grow and survive. So, if Darwinistic evolution is true, and our cognitive faculties evolved over time in order to produce beliefs which will help us survive, then we have a reason not to trust our cognitive faculties to necessarily give us true beliefs, but beliefs that help us survive, survival beliefs. So, then we ought not take our belief in darwinistic evolution to be a true belief, but just a belief that helps us survive, which might be true but probably isn’t given the difficulty of arriving at the truth and the amount of false beliefs which still would help us survive.

If this argument holds, which is a simplistic version of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, then of course it would apply to our definitions as well. We pragmatically define things according to our desires to survive- not necessarily according to the nature of the thing itself.

If, however, you hold to the Christian metanarrative, then you could be justified in being a Realist about definitions. Indeed, some philosophers in the Western tradition, have been such Realists in their understanding of definitions that they have sought to use definitions to demonstrate the existence of God. The most famous proponent of this type of argument, known as the ‘Ontological Argument’ is philosopher-theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm defined God as “something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.”[37] If you can think of a God that is perfect but does not exist, then I can think of something greater, a God who does exist. So, if God is a being greater than which no other being can exist, then God must exist.

‘Uh, what? That was too slick to have any value wasn’t it?’ Well, again, we may return to the eminent Roger Scruton for more interesting insights. Scruton says,

“The ‘ontological argument’ is normally offered as a proof of the existence of God. But it is capable of a wider interpretation, and reappears in Spinoza and Hegel as the final answer to every ‘Why?’ It tells us that God is, by definition, the sum of all perfections, so that existence, which is part of perfection, belongs to his essence. He must exist, and the question why he exists answers itself. Since God’s existence explains everything else, no ‘Why?’ is without an answer, not even the why of the world.

Stated thus briefly and bluntly, the argument has the appearance of a sophism. Hence it is never stated briefly or bluntly, but wrapped in artful subtleties. Indeed, it is the one argument for God’s existence that is still alive, and which perhaps always was alive, even before St Anselm gave explicit voice to it. For what is really meant by the sublime words which open the Gospel according to St John? In the beginning, writes the evangelist, was the word, the logos. In Greek philosophy logos means not only word, but reason, argument, account: any answer to the question ‘Why?’ In other words, or rather, in the same words if you stick to the Greek: in the beginning was the why which answers itself.”[38]

Now, I take issue with Scruton’s contention that the ontological argument is the last argument for God left on the table, but the rest of this quote is pure God. Scruton moves effortlessly from the more speculative philosophical reasoning of Anselm to the sure word of the Bible. In his interpretation of John 1:1, Scruton lays out the classical “Logos Doctrine” which borrows heavily from Hellenistic philosophy. But interestingly, he ends up broadening the definition of logos out past just ‘reason’ to give a richer definition that many Christians can get behind.

Leaving aside the issue of defining God for another blog post, let’s follow Scruton’s lead, and move from speculative reasoning back to the Word and back to showing how a biblical metanarrative can justify Realism in regards to definitions.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we find justification for Realism. God created the world for a purpose and with a design. He made humans in His image and likeness for the purpose of cultivating the earth, exercising dominion over creation, caring for His animals. Here we see God’s definition of man.

Plato is attributed with defining man as a “featherless biped”. This definition was open to a hilarious counterexample presented by Diogenes the Cynic in the form of a plucked chicken. Diogenes tossed the chicken down in the midst of Plato’s academy and said ‘Here is Plato’s man.’[39] Thus, Plato’s definition, which includes plucked chickens, is bunk.

Aristotle, as we saw earlier, defined man as ‘the rational animal’. But this definition is criticized for too narrowly focusing in on one of man’s faculties. What about those who aren’t so rational, are they less than human? In focusing on the primacy of the intellect, perhaps others important aspects such as the will and the affections are left out. But while many have criticized Aristotle’s “functional”, capacity driven definition of man, still many today find it useful.

The Bible on the other hand, defines man with reference to God. Man is the imago dei, the “image of God.” The image bearing animal. The one made in the likeness of the Creator. The arbiter animal.

“Then God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27)

In finding our definition from the top down, rather than the bottom up, we can avoid various counter examples that are advanced against other self-referential definitions. And while the Image of God certainly includes various capacities, like reasoning, it is broad enough to include other desiderata (something that is needed or wanted, something desirable). For more on how we can flesh out the definition of image of God see my other blog posts: Who Is Man That We Should Be Mindful of Him? and Imago Maniacs .

Within the biblical metanarrative we see God creating animals and plants according to their kinds and then giving his image bearer the task of naming them (Gen. 2:19-20). So, one of the first jobs man was called to do was the science of taxonomy!

We see then, that those who hold to the biblical view of the world have a reason to be Realists about definitions, God made mankind partially for the purpose of definition. Those who hold to a Darwinistic view, on the other hand, seem to have a reason not to be Realists, even about their own definition of Darwinistic evolutionary theory…

For the Class:

Reflect on the biblical justification I’ve provided for being a realist about definitions. Do you agree, do you disagree? Back up your answer. Ponder on the ontological argument, is there something there or is it mere sophistry? How about the self-defeating nature of the Darwinistic definitions? Do you buy it, why or why not?

Congrats, you’ve made it through lesson 1!

Certainly, there is more to be said but I’ve probably already said more than I should have said. I hope you’ve learned something. This will have been the longest post in the whole series, I promise. Lord willing, lesson 2 will cover the Problem of Induction, are we justified in believing that nature is uniform and that the future will be like the past?




[1] The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville: B&H Publishing: 2009), 5.

[2] Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 31.

[3] Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (New York: Penguin Group 1994), 3.

[4]Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey (Trinity Foundation, 2000), 17

[5] Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey (Trinity Foundation, 2000), 19.

[6] Ibid., 21-22.

[7] Process and Reality (Free Press, 1979), 39.

[8] Mortimer J. Alder, Aristotle for Everybody (New York: Touchstone, 1978), x.

[9] The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon I (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, INC., 1952), 286.

[10] The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon I (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, INC., 1952), 294.

[11] “the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.” -Google.

[12] “relating to meaning in language or logic.” -Google.

[13] The Art of Reasoning: An Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 42.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Harry Gensler, Introduction to Logic 2nd ed., (New York: Routledge, 2010), 37.

[17] Ibid., 39.

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] “Definition” in SEP, 6.

[20] Ibid., 7.

[21] Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, Kenneth McMahon, Introduction to Logic 14th ed. (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 82.

[22] Ibid., 8-9.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] Ibid., 79.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (New York: Penguin Group 1994), 3.

[27] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 7.

[28] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 661.

[29] The Art of Reasoning: An Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 42.

[30] Bold mine. A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015), 1.

[31] Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville: B&H Publishing: 2009), 7.

[32] Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 26-32.

[33] Roger Scruton, Philosophy: Principles and Problems, (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), 11.

[34] Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (New York: Penguin Group 1994), 6-7.

[35] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 1.

[36] “Definition” in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon I (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, INC., 1952), 286.

[37]Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 86.

[38] Roger Scruton, Philosophy: Principles and Problems, (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2016),7-8.

[39] According to Diogenes Laërtius third-century Lives and Opinions of the Eminent PhilosophersPlato was applauded for his definition of man as a featherless biped, so Diogenes the Cynic “plucked the feathers from a cock, brought it to Plato’s school, and said, ‘Here is Plato’s man.’ ” When asked about the origin of his epithet, cynic deriving from the Greek word for dog, Diogenes replied that it was given to him because he “fawns upon those who give him anything and barks at those who give him nothing.”



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