fredclaymeyer

Defining Terms

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I had an idea for how we might go about defining notoriously difficult terms like “art” and “happiness.” A lot of humanity’s best thinkers have tried, and come up with definitions that are brilliant and compelling but, when taken out to some logical extreme, ultimately untenable. I wonder if this is because the terms in question actually refer to multifaceted things: that perhaps each term actually summarizes a combination of attributes, and so is not amenable to a definition hinging on a single quality.

For example, two commonsense definitions of “art” are that it’s aesthetically stimulating, and that it was intended as art by its creator. But drab art—art that does nothing for the aesthetic sense—is still art, because it was intended as such. Conversely, if you spill house paint on the sidewalk and it splatters beautifully, you might (without giving it too much thought) call the splatter “art” even though no one intended it as such. But just dropping your sandwich on the sidewalk probably isn’t art: too many things are missing.

Similarly, “happiness” should mean some sense of joy. But is a person in the bliss of a drug trip really happy? Perhaps not—perhaps happiness also has some shade of not being fundamentally confused. Perhaps “happiness” has no elegant absolute definition: it is something we recognize as the combination of a number of qualities. Input on this way of defining things, or a Wikipedia link to the ancient thinker who figured this out before mankind domesticated the dog, would be welcome.

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