Some Conditions for Definitions #liespy

When thinking about how we understand the world, it’s vital to think about exactly what we mean when we employ particular terms.  Thinking about definitions is a core component in critical thinking: figuring out what something precisely is (and is not) before thinking about what should be done with it and how it should be understood.   In short, defining things is not an easy task.   Take ‘critical thinking’, for instance.  Many invoke this phrase and mean something like close reading: looking at a text and trying to figure out the ways it can/should be understood.  Many assignments and courses ask you to “think critically about x,” which seems to mean something like “think hard on x” or “scrutinize x” or “analyze x” or “critique x” (etc.).  Though, others–philosophers, for instance–will think of ‘critical thinking’ as a more disciplined process of reasoning and judgement.  In philosophy, critical thinking is a field of study: we learn to understand how to think better and assess common arguments and assertions based on particular rules and processes (see my previous post on flaws in reasoning for a bit more on this).  The word ‘logic’ works the same way.  Often in common conversation people will use ‘logic’ to mean how people think.  Utterances like “I don’t understand your logic here”  or “Your logic is wrong” seem to mean something like “I don’t know why you believe what you do” or “I don’t get your reasoning here.”  ‘Logic’ to philosophers is another field of study with particular principles, formulas, and methods.  This is not to imply that philosophers are right and others are wrong; rather, it is to say that people differ widely on how they use the same terms and what they mean by them, which can result in a lot of confusion and problems when making arguments and judgements.

Here are three ways we can think about types of definitions:

Way 1: Reportive Definitions

These are definitions that include typical, standard usage of terms.  Dictionaries, for instance, provide these.  “Standard usage” here means how the word is commonly understood in a contemporary society.  ‘Hipster’ is a good instance of this (because for some reason people can’t stop calling other people hipsters).  Consider the following:

Tommy is such a hipster!  

This would seem to imply something pejorative in contemporary society–Tommy is pretentious or looks a certain way.  This same sentence would mean something quite different if we were in the 1940s, where ‘hipster’ had a more specific denotation of someone who was really into hot jazz.

Way 2: Stipulative Definitions

These are definitions we create based on specific circumstances of their use.  For instance, when researchers employ terms in academic articles, they typically take the time in the beginning of a paper to explain to the reader what they precisely mean (ex. “For our purposes here, ‘hipster’ means someone who follows the latest obscure subculture trends).  It may not be something that is the standard usage of a word, though it works given the proper context its given.

Way 3: Essentialist Definitions

These are definitions that include the essential nature (or purpose) of the concept.  These are unlike the above types of definitions because they ask for theories behind how we should understand particular terms.  For instance, “equality” or “love” or “vengeance” or other larger concepts demand deeper reasoning to justify how we think they should be understood.  At the heart of it, these definitions serve as theories for how we should understand the concept employed.

When applying this to our class, I am asking you to define ‘lie’ by the third way; we are looking for the conditions that must exist–and should only exist (the “necessary and sufficient conditions” for a term)–in order to constitute a lie.  So far, many students have said wonderful things on Slack and blog posts about what can constitute a lie.  Though, what is the contained, precise definition?  How do we know it’s the right one?

When thinking about defining what it means to lie, think about everything that goes into lying as you see it.  What does it include?  What does it not?

Consider the point @reynoldssrm2 made in our Slack conversation:

I do believe that lying is telling someone a false statement. But that does not always mean that the person conveying said false information is a liar. Imagine, if I tell you that Dunkin Donuts on Broad st. is giving away 3 free donuts to everyone who comes into the store shirtless. I know what I’m telling you is a lie but you don’t. Then I tell you to tell 20 friends that same information so they can all get free donuts. When those 20 friends walk into Dunkin Donuts with no shirt on and walk out shirtless, donutless, and disappointed they are going to call you a liar. When in reality you did lie, communicating a false statement, but you did so unknowingly. I believe in this situation I am the only true liar, whilst you are just a pawn in the lying game.

This is a great example of conditions for lying.  It may be a necessary condition for lying that it includes a false statement, but it’s not a sufficient one–meaning, you have to make a false statement when lying, but not all false statement are lies on their own.

What, then, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for lying?  How should we concisely understand the term to include everything you have discussed so far but excludes everything else?  For instance, is the “false statement” clause too narrow?  Can lies be things that aren’t statements at all (images, actions, etc.)?  Is the intent to deceive necessary?  What is a succinct way of defining the concept?

Some help for thinking about how to define something to encapsulate its precise meaning:

  1. Definitions should not be too broad.  ExampleA clock is any device that tells time.  We can’t include all devices that tell time though, right?  This would include things like TVs, phones, and many other devices.
  2. Definitions should not be too narrow. Example: A clock is a time-telling device that people have in their homes on nightstands and walls.  This would exclude all kinds of non-home clocks.
  3. Definitions should not be too broad and too narrow.  Example: A clock is time-telling device that people own.  This would be too broad because one can own something that tells time without it being a clock, and it is too narrow because it only includes devices people own (omitting things like public clocktowers and things of the like).


This is step one.  Once we figure out what we precisely mean by ‘lie’ we can move on to discussing what we should make of them (i.e. how we should judge them and assess when, if ever, it’s ok to lie).


One thought on “Some Conditions for Definitions #liespy

  1. Oh, I hope you cover lies of omission eventually. Especially those omissions you don’t consciously know you are not making.

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