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The act of defining: conceptual engineering

5 October, 2015 - 14:09

Variation four, D\rightarrow X+Y , refers to the act of defining a word in a certain way. We are talking here about what is sometimes known as a "stipulative" definition. It is not a claim that this is what the word means when it is used by people in general or even how it is used by any other particular people. That is to say it is not a descriptive definition, of the type to be found in dictionaries.

Rather, a stipulative definition is merely a statement of what the decision maker intends to mean when using the word in question. "When I use this word", he or she is warning us, "this is what I mean, no more, no less." Of course the person creating the definition may hope that if people find the definition useful it will catch on and pass into general usage.

Imagine that you, as a writer or speaker, have worked out a specific definition for which, it appears, there is presently no word in your language which has exactly this meaning. The concept specified by the definition is a useful one, but in order to use it conveniently you need a word with which to point to it. What are your options?

One option is to invent a new word to point to the definition, or get someone else to do so. For example, many years ago I came up with the following definition:

Conflict over how to divide up the benefits produced by cooperation.

It was clear that this type of conflict is a fundamental characteristic of voluntary associations (a concept which will be explained in Concepts of Human Association of this book). It is especially visible and important in labor management relations. One of my students, Doug Chamberlin, kindly invented a new word to point to my definition: coopetition.

The other option is to borrow an already existing word whose general meaning is close to your new definition, and announce that when you use this word, this is what you mean. This is what I am doing in Chapter 2 of this book when I define laws as general rules of action enforceable by sanctions.

The point to be emphasized by including variation four, D\rightarrow X+Y , however, is that the act of defining is one which is in pursuit of a goal, and that this kind of decision has side effects. One’s goal may be to clarify though, to help people make a distinction that is usually glossed over or ignored, or it may be the antithetical goals of confusing thought or of getting people to forget about a distinction that they are now inclined to make. Side effects are particularly important when one is defining sets of related words, since defining one of the related terms in a certain way may have side effects (and not necessarily helpful ones!) for all of the other terms in the system. Therefore alternate definitions may need to be considered, in order to achieve our goals without causing problems elsewhere in the system, goals may need to be modified or abandoned under some circumstances, etc.