What’s in a Definition?

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a pattern of allied concepts.

Why seek meaning in conceptual fields of knowledge and those allied concepts, principles and paradigms that describe and control them and then connect them with a theory?


We communicate with a language and concepts. Initially, we must seek concept definitions on the path to meaning; however, definitions only provide a foundation.  But, what’s in a definition? Not much and certainly not necessarily meaning. I turn to Paul Elbourne, a distinguished professor of semantics at the University of London. Semantics is the study of how meaning in language is created by the use and interrelationships of words, phrases, and sentences. The following excerpt is from the introduction of his book entitled Meaning, A Slim Guide to Semantics.

“Words are traditionally supposed to have meanings.  Indeed it is widely supposed to be possible to define word meanings. Whole books, called dictionaries, are devoted to listing the definitions of words; and philosophers from Socrates (469-399 BC) and Plato (429-347 BC) onwards have devoted obsessive attention to pinning down the meaning of philosophically interesting words like knowledge, truth, justice, and indeed meaning.  It is important for anyone embarking upon the study of semantics to realize, however, that defining the meaning of a word is an enterprise of almost inconceivable complexity.  Despite 2,400 years of trying, it is unclear that anyone has ever come up with even the simplest.  Certainly the definitions in dictionaries are the merest hints, and are sometimes flat out wrong. A definition is just a string of words. It is unsatisfying, therefore, to say that the meaning of a word is a definition, because that would be to say that the meaning of a word is just more words. It would appear that we are not progressing to any explanatorily deeper level.”

The purpose of my book is to make progress toward achieving an explanatorily deeper level of meaning, utilizing word patterns. Word patterns improve our ability to attach meaning to a concept, permitting a higher level of comprehension. The mechanics of a pattern can be used as a model for a related idea or process such as a thought pattern or a combination of words that formulate a descriptive explanation—the focus of this chapter. Word patterns are built upon multiple definitions from multiple dictionaries which are then aggregated to create a pattern with some of the same characteristics as weather, voting, or traffic patterns.

We are affected by patterns on a day-by-day basis. Traffic patterns can affect our ability to get to work on time, or impede emergency vehicles. Weather patterns cause drought, flood and icy conditions. We follow a pattern everyday when we drive to work. Our pattern helps us predict how long it will take us to get to work in a timely manner. If we change our pattern, we impact our original prediction. Voting patterns are used to predict election outcomes; weather patterns can predict hurricanes and tornados; and traffic patterns can predict traffic jams. The analysis of patterns can lead to prediction and the avoidance of potential problems.

Abraham Kaplan put it this way in, The Conduct of Inquiry.

“According to the pattern model something is explained when it is so related to a set of other elements that together they constitute a unified system. We understand something by identifying it as a specific part in an organized system. The perception of a pattern is what gives the “click of relation” spoken of in connection with the norms of coherence for the validation of a theory. The pattern is not constituted by our seeing it, but has its focus in a network of objective relations.”

But, where can we find effective networks of objective relations?  Where can we find a master pattern that is a unified system?  I will reveal all in my next post.