Monday, February 02, 2009

For Candlemass: Light on Definitions

Today, the fortieth day after Christmas, we recall the Purification of Mary, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, as was foretold:
And presently the Lord, whom you seek, and the angel of the testament, whom you desire, shall come to his temple. Behold, he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts. And who shall be able to think of the day of his coming? and who shall stand to see him? for he is like a
refining fire...
[Malachias 3:1-2]
And so the Church blesses candles today, and in the dark gloom of winter there is a feast of Light.

From quite some time ago, I recall a cartoon version of "The Cat in the Hat" - which as usual had parts which were not in the book. There was something lost (I forget what) and the Cat takes the opportunity to teach the children his clever technique for finding things: a technique called "Calculate-us Eliminate-us" which locates the lost item by finding out where it ISN'T. I was so struck by this that I used it in my doctoral research. And, so, in trying to advance our discussion of "argument", I shall give you a little of the reality behind the Cat's clever trick.

It is simply a matter of knowing how to define something. (The Cat's trick works because you cannot hope to find a thing unless you know what it is, and one way of knowing that is to know what it isn't.)

However I am not going to play games today. (That's reserved for a future post.) In order to do this well, we need some authentic details. The following excerpt is from Scholastic Philosophy by Michael W. Shallo, S.J. It gives us the important details about "definition", which is always the starting point of all argument:

23. A definition declares briefly and distinctly what a thing is. It is either Verbal or Real.

(a) A verbal or nominal definition gives the meaning of a word. It is formed either:

According to the etymology of the word, e. g., 'President is one who sits at the head.'

Or, according to common usage, 'President is the head of the executive in a Republic.'

Or arbitrarily, i. e., when a word is ambiguous, and one settles the particular sense in which he uses it, e. g., 'By President we mean the one whom the class chooses to represent it in regard to class matters with the authorities of the College.'

(b) A real definition declares what the thing, signified by a word, is, by giving a clear and distinct account of it. It is either:

Causal, if it assigns the extrinsic causes of the object, i. e., its efficient, final, exemplary cause; or

Essential, if it gives the essential or constitutive parts of the object, regarded as a physical or metaphysical whole, e. g., 'Man is composed of a spiritual soul and an organic body'; 'Man is a rational animal'; or

Descriptive, if it gives the properties of the object, or such of its accidents as serve to distinguish it from all other objects; or finally

Genetic, if it gives the manner in which a thing is produced.

24. A Definition should be clearer and more distinct than the object defined. It should embrace neither more nor less than the object defined, and apply to none but it. It should not be tautological, i. e., it should not contain the name of the object to be defined, or any of its derivatives, or of such correlatives of the thing to be defined as cannot be explained unless the thing itself is already known. This is called Defining in a Circle. It should not be negative, for the purpose of a definition is to declare what a thing is, not what it is not. However, an exception to this law is allowed in the case of contradictory opposites. When one has been positively defined, the other may be defined negatively, e. g., "knowing what parts are and that a compound consists of parts, we may define a simple being as one which does not consist of parts."

25. All things known to us can be more or less accurately described; but not all need or can be delved, partly on account of their simplicity or obviousness, partly owing to the imperfection of our knowledge.

26. We may form a strict definition either by

(a) The method of synthesis, i. e., by starting with a notion more universal than the object to be defined, and gradually descending to it by the addition of different notes; or

(b) The method of analysis, i. e., by starting with the individual, and gradually ascending by the elimination of individual or accidental characters to a specific or generic concept.

Yes, I know there are some terms which have been defined previous to this excerpt (like the term "note") but I cannot give you all of the book here and now. But we need to have some sense of the idea of a "definition" before we get very far.

Now, just to balance out this rather rigorous piece of technical detail, I shall give you a little more of Chesterton, since it is even harder for most of us to grasp that we must enter into an argument as intelligent beings, removing (as far as possible) all animosity, belligerance, tension, hate, anger, antipathy... coming to our opponent - or really our opposing teammate - with respect and with humility. We are seeking truth, and our victory shall be over ignorance, not over our opponent.

I have quoted GKC's wonderful words about Shaw several times before, and most likely shall do so again. Here I shall give you a little more of the context. Read this carefully, and try to keep this in mind the next time you face an adversary.
I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
Most likely we shall never be quite so distant from any opponent in argument as GKC was from GBS. Here's how Chesterton explained it:
my controversy with G. B. S., both logically and chronologically, is from the beginning. Since then I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world; and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. I have defended the institution of the family against his Platonist fancies about the State. I have defended the institutions of Beef and Beer against his hygienic severity of vegetarianism and total abstinence. I have defended the old Liberal notion of nationalism against the new Socialist notion of internationalism. I have defended the cause of the Allies against the perverse sympathy felt by pacifists for the militarism of the Central Empires. I have defended what I regard as the sacred limitations of Man against what he regards as the soaring illimitability of Superman. Indeed it was in this last matter of Man and Superman that I felt the difference to become most clear and acute; and we had many discussions upon it with all sides.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:214-5]
Let us go further. When GKC was giving a lecture on "Culture and the Coming Peril." Maisie Ward reported that this was
the intellectual, educational, psychological, artistic overproduction which, equally with economic overproduction, threatened the well-being of contemporary civilization. People were inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.
[Ward Gilbert Keith Chesterton 590]
Afterwards, as usual, there was a question and answer session, and this was reported:

Questioner: "Is George Bernard Shaw a coming peril?"
GKC: "Heavens, no. He is a disappearing pleasure."
Evenmore important than our definition of "definition" is this mystical attitude of friendship: of a complete emptying of self, and of personality, in order to enter into argument not so much (as people love to say) in an "unbiassed" way, but with as little of personality as possible - much as a scientist enters into a laboratory. He may know full well what he expects to find. But he is ready to risk being surprised, in order to learn more.

So our first lessons from today's notes:

1. Know how to make a definition.
2. Try to be friendly - and impersonal - in argument.
3. Be willing to risk a surprise


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