Clarification and Definition

The question “what does a philosopher do” or the complementary question “what does a dentist do” are not answered by giving a narrow, restrictive definition of the two critical terms needing definition, but by offering a clarification of the meaning of a particular unfamiliar term or phrase.

ClarifyTo do so effectively may require that each term is placed in as many contexts as possible. It woud demonstrate to a foreigner unfamiliar with the term, its breadth of use. The foreigner may then search within their home-language for comparable term which is similar in sound and thereupon take the plunge aware that he/she may indeed have guessed incorrectly!

Both terms cited are names of occupations — what a person does in their occupational life during working hours. An answer would therefore consist of a sentence or two which identifies what each group of people carrying the label do as wage-earners.

There is considerable room for errors when answering each question. Yet, within limits, any answer given would be open to correction or modification. (Note: We tend to be tolerant towards outsiders when it comes to language-use — we forgive them their trespasses!)

In what way does a clarification differ from the definition of a term? Every clarification is an attempt to explain to someone who admits that they do not yet understand the meaning of a term, in what way the unknown, unclear term is used by others who — it is assumed — are already familiar with it and its common (even several!) uses. We asked the question originally because we realised at that moment, we are not yet privy to the term as it as being used by others. In truth, we wish to participate in a conversation and therefore realized that to do so we have to understand what others are saying, that we generally also use a context to facilitate or aid our understanding what partiucular events are being referred to, what is being named or what quality of an object or event is currently the focus of interest for others, the current centre of their concerns.

Clearly offering a definition to someone who has actually asked for a clarification may help that person, but the definition may itself contain elements which are not understood by the interlocutor. He/she may come back to request further clarifications and may do so until every term used in a definition is understood or until the definitional sentences themselves are fully understood.

Furthermore, when people ask for the clarification of what is for them currently an unfamiliar word, term or expression, they expect us to stake out the characteristics of what is confusing or unfamiliar to them! Only then do we say, “I now fully understand” (and often also add a sight of relief)!

Much of what we say in an explanation will be quite clear except for a particular (target) term or terms. A definition, then, may help us to some extent, but not on all occasions. The puzzling term may already be familiar to someone, but not the context in which it is being used on this particular occasion. Of course, people bring a vocabulary to every discussion (unless they happen to be foreigners whose language has no overlap with the language being used). If a language of words is unavailable to parties of an exchange or conversation, such people would indeed be severely handicapped and may be forced into exchanging even elementary ideas like *right* or *left*, *up* or *down* by resorting to other forms of commuication than words, much as earlier European explorers did during voyages of exploration and discovery in the Americas and in the Far East during the 15th and 16th century. These voyagers employed gestures or even acted out their ideas, wishes and proposals!

Gestures between humans has always been helpful but does not promote discussions about ideas. Modern humans live in an environment which may be described as consisting of references to objects and items which are products of human invention and whose uniqueness is given by their appearance and functionality, that is, by our ability to have learned how an object is different in kind from another by virtue of its context.

A prime example which comes to my mind is the ubiquitous button or switch whose functionality is associated with what operation it was programmed to control. The button on my electric dryer is the same as on my car — but its functionality is totally different and non-comparable. Much depends on the preparedness of the questioner to be taken into a field of knowledge with which they are already familiar, for which they may aleady have even a rudimentary vocabulary.

The contemporary world today is so stocked with “knowledge” about diverse matters that most of us are truly ignorant, although many are prepared to learn and to add to both our existing knowledge and vocabulary! Ignorance can be remedied and more people than ever are prepared to do so than in the past. We have all somehow learned that errors and absence of knowledge is too widespread and often astonishingly common, so that it is our individual responsibility to remedy this (lamentable) state of affairs whenever possible. Many of us do.

We do not usually add to our knowledge of things and events by learning (memorising) definitions. Learning definitions — whether by rote or in some other way — has its uses but it is a method useful in specialised contexts only. Most of us learn to offer a definition upon request, e.g., the definition of a soup-spoon, in contrast to a tea-spoon. The definition of the latter would not be covered by “a smaller version of a soup spoon”, or “a spoon used to stir a tea-pot”, whereas “a spoon smaller than the normal soup-spoon and used in a variety of situations where a small spoon may be useful, like eating a cup of berries, would be useful.

In short, a clarifications serve to help us learn the meaning of a term and includes that one learns in what context the troubling word is used most frequently, but also when it is used rarely. A definition of a word is more narrowly aimed. First and foremost it serves the purpose of informing us about a word’s restricted reference, that any word may have a widerange of uses and meanings. It is a more advanced undertaking which often requires that the learning of the new word also involves how to use it figuratively, that is, analogically.

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