Definition is the most common term which survives from Aristotelian logic. But there are many problems with it. Are we defining words or things? Are some words indefinable? Can definitions be true or false, like statements? How do definitions affect the way we think about issues? The subject is large and technical but I shall touch on a few of the questions it raises.
The Aristotelian tradition distinguishes between nominal or word-word definitions and 'realist' or word-thing definitions. I remember when universities were keen on the 'aims and objectives' approach to lectures. Their terms needed to be defined. Typically, 'aims' would be defined as the 'intentions' of the lecturer. That is an example of a word-word definition. It is sometimes called 'lexical' because it is simply offering some dictionary equivalent. But at some point, we must get outside the enclosure of words or we will not know what any word means. Word-word definitions presuppose word-thing definitions. Aristotle himself defines 'definition' as the statement which gives the essence, and he is thinking of the essence or the type of thing and not of the word.
One form of word-thing definition derived from Aristotle is classification. For example, Linnaeus provided a form of realist or word-thing definition of plants through his system of botanical classification using terms such as 'genus' and 'species'. Classification is still one important way of coming to understand phenomena in the world, such as animals or even diseases. Of course, nature is fuzzy at the edges and does not always fit the necessary and sufficient conditions of neat definition.
Another form of definition is to take a state of affairs we are familiar with and approve of and give us an enlarged or ideal form of it. For example, in 1946 the World Health Organisation (WHO) offered a definition of health which has been much criticised: Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Clearly, the WHO were not offering a definition of the word 'health'. They were suggesting an ideal, something we should aim at. Sometimes this is called 'persuasive' definition, or taking the favourable resonances of a word such as 'health' and enlarging our conception of what it can be.
Another example might be that of the teacher who discusses with the class the hardships of those who refused to fight in the 1914-18 war but rather protested against the futility of war. The hope would be that this would enlarge the young persons' conception of courage.
All words are definable. For example, a colour word such as 'green' is definable by pointing to an example – that is what green means. That is called 'ostensive' definition. Wittgenstein tells us that we can always find the meaning of a word by considering how it is used in a language.
Experiences may not always be definable. It is often said that the experience of love is indefinable, although some writers and poets have had a good crack at it.
It is important to note that we don't always need definitions. I can agree to meet you for lunch at restaurant X at 12.30 on one of the allotted days around Christmas. But I don't need to be able to define space or time. So much is obvious, but what is less obvious but more worrying is the way in which actual or assumed definitions can have unfortunate consequences.
For example, the US Institute of Medicine published a paper entitled To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System
. It made some startling claims. It reported that (in the US) there are perhaps over a million preventable adverse events each year. It suggests that of these 'adverse events', between 44,000 and 98,000 led to the deaths of patients. To me, these figures seemed startling, but then I noted their definition of a medical error.
The Institute defines an error as 'the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim'. But that is surely a counter intuitive definition of an error. If I am prevented from getting to the intended restaurant for our Christmas lunch because of a transport breakdown, then that's very unfortunate – my planned action was not completed as intended – but I have not made an error. Indeed, it is not uncommon for most of us – and no doubt especially within the complex world of medicine – to have rational evidence-based plans which for unforeseeable reasons do not work. Sometimes, for example, the standard, evidence-based antibiotic might not clear the infection because an unknown strain of bacteria has appeared. These failures are hardly 'errors', with the suggestion of culpability which the word 'error' implies.
As Burns puts it in his poem To a Mouse
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Burns is not suggesting that the mouse has made an error! The mouse has simply discovered, as we all do, that 'stuff happens' and things don't work out as we had intended. Definitions can be dangerous when they are tendentious and push us to a view of things which may not accurately reflect the reality.
A current example of this – and I appreciate that what I am about to write is highly controversial – might be the widespread use of terms such as 'mental health' or 'mental illness'. When is a worry or a dip in mood a mental illness? Startling claims sometimes appear in the media, that one in five of us at some time experience mental illness, or two out of five children have mental health problems. Really? Life can be a rough business and certainly some children are bullied at school or on the internet, and of course children may well pick up the general mood of unease or despair which COVID-19 has caused. But it may be unhelpful to assimilate these unpleasant setbacks into the category of mental health problems.
This kind of tendentious definition or labelling may actually be harmful. If dark moods are assimilated into the category of mental illness then certain remedies but not others may as a result be suggested. Dark moods will have been medicalised. But the solution to these real and distressing moods may be social rather than counselling.
The Scottish Government is planning to invest many millions of pounds in employing more counsellors in schools, and no doubt other administrations in the UK are doing the same. I suggest that this is a mistaken policy. It may be a case of supply encouraging demand.
There are, of course, serious mental illnesses, but what are often called mental illnesses in young people – moodiness, boredom, loneliness, concern about appearance – may be best tackled with some positive, outward-looking type of activity. The money should be spent on improving sports facilities, setting up film and camera clubs, dancing clubs, drama groups, instrumental teachers, school orchestras, rock bands, brass bands, choirs, school gardens, talks from role-models, and so on.
If there is a pervading mental health problem of some young people it is narcissism – too much concern with how they look or what others think of them. Counselling may encourage this self-obsession.
There are also problems of the way in which changing public attitudes can affect definitions or words. Support groups have a right to fight prejudice in whatever way they can and suggesting more acceptable names may be one way. For example, Wordsworth wrote an insightful and moving poem called The Idiot Boy
, but the language of the title would be frowned upon nowadays.
Even milder terms such as 'mental handicap' are not in current use. But while it might be considered preferable to speak of 'learning difficulties' rather than 'handicap', the term 'learning difficulties' conceals or glosses over the problems of those within the group who cannot talk or understand, cannot feed themselves and are incontinent. Hard realities will not go away by a change of name and a hard reality can actually be created by an inappropriate labelling or definition.
Inappropriate labelling can indeed have dreadful consequences. I once heard a psychiatrist say that Van Gogh was clearly mentally ill and that nowadays he would have been 'cured' by being pumped full of anti-psychotic drugs! The anti-psychiatry movement clearly has a case.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow