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Don Watkins wrote:

First, let's be clear: the meaning of a concept is not its definition. The meaning of a concept is the things in reality it denotes, i.e., the meaning of a concept is its referents, including all their attributes. For example, your concept "book" means all books that have ever existed, that exist, and that will exist, including all their characteristics, even the one's you don't know and will never know. This is true even though you will only encounter a small number of books in your lifetime.

You know the meaning of a concept if you can identify its referents.

A definition is a condensation of all that information into a retainable "label" that enables you to hold your concepts by naming the essential distinctive attributes of the units they refer to. So, for example, I form the concept "book," and then retain that concept with a definition: "a written or printed work with pages bound along one side."

Let me stress: the definition is not the meaning of the concept: the meaning of the concept is actual books. The definition is our way of retaining the concept.

My interpretation of what he wrote is that you do not know the meaning of something unless you've directly experienced it yourself.

asked Apr 30 '13 at 18:00

Humbug's gravatar image


edited May 01 '13 at 22:38

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The questioner's interpretation of the excerpt from Don Watkins (from another website linked in the question) is a bit too narrow. It's like saying that one can't know the meaning of "death" until after one has died. In the case of "burn" (presumably intended in the question as a verb, i.e., an action), one can certainly observe other objects burning and know on a very concrete level what "burning" refers to. One does not need to be burning onself. The conscious experience of what a "burn" feels like (using "burn" as a noun here) probably can't ever be fully real to a person if he has never been burned (verb form of "burn" again). But one does not need the conscious experience of having been burned (verb usage) in order to know what the concept "burn" (verb) refers to.

The excerpt by Don Watkins emphasizes the difference between the meaning of a concept and its definition. The key observation in the excerpt is:

You know the meaning of a concept if you can identify its referents.

It is actually italicized in its original context. This, however, doesn't directly answer a related question: what, then, is the role or purpose of a definition? Are definitions necessary and/or important? What for? The cited excerpt says only, "The definition is our way of retaining the concept" -- without specifying how a definition does that. Ayn Rand's description of a definition is as follows (ITOE Chap. 5):

A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept.

In order to identify the nature of a concept's units, a definition needs to name the wider category from which the units of the concept were differentiated, and the essential distinguishing characteristics that differentiated a concept's units from other units within the same wider category. The "wider category" (or conceptual background, characterized by a "CCD," Conceptual Common Denominator) is known as the "genus" of the concept (similar to the genus of a species in biology), and the essential distinguishing characteristics are known as the "differentia." The standard form for most such definitions (in the Objectivist/Aristotelian perspective) is: an 'A' is a 'B' that has 'C'. One starts with the whole range of 'B' units, notices that some of them have 'C' and that this is significant in some way, and then one mentally creates the category 'A' to denote all B's that have C.

Note that the relationship of units to their conceptual category is not just a simple issue of membership in a class (or species). A non-human animal, functioning entirely perceptually, can readily perceive different species and know which species are like him, which are good to eat, which are dangerous to him, which threaten his territory and should be resisted if possible, and so on. It's when man starts noticing that there are more subtle similarities and differences between units of the same category, similarities and differences that have fundamental significance in man's current context of knowledge, that man rises above other animals cognitively. (Many years ago, if I remember correctly, Edwin Locke suggested that measurement-omission appears to be the key step in the concept-formation process that non-human animals are unable to follow.)

Since concept formation involves starting with a wider category and then narrowing it (or, conversely, starting with two or more narrower categories and realizing that they belong together in a single wider category), definitions can help man greatly to retain his concepts and to know precisely what a concept's referents are (and are not). Definitions do this by naming both the wider category to which the concept most fundamentally belongs and the essential differentia that most fundamentally distinguish the concept from other concepts within the same genus.

Again, a concept's meaning includes the full range of all its characteristics. Describing man as a "rational animal," for instance, doesn't exclude the fact that animals and man are conscious and capable of locomotion, nor the fact that man, animals, plants, and micro-organisms are all alive, meaning that they perform internally generated, self-sustaining actions in the face of the constant alternative of life or death, that they grow through metabolism, and that they have a reproductive capacity whose exercise (by the parent organisms) was and is responsible for bringing all existing organisms and all new offspring into existence.

For further insight on the nature of concepts and definitions, refer to the following topics in The Ayn Rand Lexicon: "Concepts", "Concept-Formation," "Conceptual Common Denominator," "Similarity," and "Definitions." One key excerpt under the topic of "Definitions" emphasizes (from ITOE Chap. 5):

To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality.

When in doubt about the meaning or the definition of a concept, the best method of clarification is to look for its referents—i.e., to ask oneself: What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?

Note that the referents always come first, cognitively and metaphysically. "Meaning" and "definitions" follow as a consequence.

answered May 01 '13 at 15:09

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Apr 30 '13 at 18:00

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Last updated: May 01 '13 at 22:38