May I suggest that a serious thread on definitions deserves a new subject header? I’ll probably enter the conversation before long. To start, though, I’d like to be clear about what a definition is – one of the problems in the conversation to date is that many things have been put forward as definitions that are not definitions. These include descriptions of design, evaluations of the function of design, comments on the role design plays in society, and even loose metaphors. These are not definitions. If we seek a definition of design for the purposes of clarity and debate, let’s first be clear on what a definition is.
Merriam-Webster’s defines the word “definition” in this way:
“1: an act of determining; specifically the formal proclamation of a Roman Catholic dogma, 2 a: a statement expressing the essential nature of something, b: a statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol <dictionary ∼s>, c: a product of DEFINING<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=defining>, 3: the action or process of DEFINING<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=defining>, 4 a: the action or the power of describing, explaining, or making DEFINITE<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=definite> and clear <the ∼ of a telescope> <her comic genius is beyond ∼>, b (1): clarity of visual presentation : distinctness of outline or detail <improve the ∼ of an image>, (2): clarity especially of musical sound in reproduction, c: sharp demarcation of outlines or limits <a jacket with distinct waist ∼>.”
For Merriam-Webster, to define is to:
“transitive verb: 1 a: to determine or identify the essential qualities or meaning of <whatever ∼s us as human>, b: to discover and set forth the meaning of (as a word), c: to create on a computer <∼ a window> <∼ a procedure>, 2 a: to fix or mark the limits of: DEMARCATE<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=demarcate> <rigidly defined property lines>, b: to make distinct, clear, or detailed especially in outline <the issues aren't too well defined>, 3: CHARACTERIZE<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=characterize>, DISTINGUISH<http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=distinguish> <you ∼ yourself by the choices you make — Denison University Bulletin>. intransitive verb: to make a definition.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a definition as:
“†1. The setting of bounds or limits; limitation, restriction. Obs. rare. 2. The action of determining a controversy or question at issue; determination, decision; spec. a formal decision or pronouncement of an ecclesiastical authority. Obs. exc. in specific use. 3. Logic, etc. The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means. 4. a. A precise statement of the essential nature of a thing; a statement or form of words by which anything is defined. b. A declaration or formal explanation of the signification of a word or phrase. [Not recognized by Johnson.] c. definition in use: a definition which does not provide an equivalent for the expression to be defined, but instead replaces the whole context in which that expression occurs by an equivalent not containing that expression; a contextual definition (cf. contextual adj. b<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/40213#eid8443198>). 5. a. The action of making definite; the condition of being made, or of being definite, in visual form or outline; distinctness; spec. the defining power of a lens or optical instrument, i.e. its capacity to render an object or image distinct to the eye. b. gen. Definiteness, precision, exactitude. rare. c. The degree of distinctness of the details in a photograph, film, television picture, etc.; so high-definition, low-definition, used to designate television systems using different numbers of scanning lines.”
In the OED, to define is to:
†1. a. trans. To bring to an end. Also intr. To come to an end. Obs. rare. †b. To bring to an end (a controversy, etc.); to determine, decide, settle. Obs. 2. a. To determine the boundary or spatial extent of; to settle the limits of. Also fig. b. To make definite in outline or form. Also refl. (See also defined adj.<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48875#eid7200831>) †3. To set bounds to, to limit, restrict, confine. 4. a. To determine, lay down definitely; to fix, decide; †to decide upon, fix upon. †b. intr. To determine, decide. Obs. †5. a. To state precisely or determinately; to specify. (Const. with obj. clause or simple obj.) Obs. †b. intr. or absol. To make precise statement. 6. a. To state exactly what (a thing) is; to set forth or explain the essential nature of. (In early use: To state the nature or properties of, to describe.)
c1374—1875 b. To set forth or explain what (a word or expression) means; to declare the signification of (a word). [Not recognized by Johnson.] c. intr. or absol. To frame or give a precise description or definition. 7. transf. Of properties: To make (a thing) what it is; to give a character to, characterize; to constitute the definition of. 8. To separate by definition, to distinguish by special marks or characteristics (from). rare.
With this in mind, I’ll offer two apposite comments.
First, a great many statements put forward here as definitions are not definitions. It’s a mistake to see them as definitions, and a mistake, therefore, to critique them. It seems to me a great many people have gone off at odd angles because of this.
Take, for example, Dick Buchanan’s statement. This is a description rather than a definition. Dick neither defines design as a verb nor as a noun, but describes it as a human power: “Design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and making products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes.” I think this is a useful and valuable description, but it is not a definition.
There are many kinds of “design is” statements that are not definitions. “Design is the hottest heels on Chapel Street!” “You bet your Louboutins that we know design!” “Design is knowing how to make a small apartment seem big.” And so on.
The second point has to do with David Sless’s comment on Wittgenstein. David is right: all usages merge from language communities. To me, Terry sometimes seems to lack an ear for language: his approach to definitions suggests a view of language as a kind of engineering in which definitions are a group of numbers that we cantreat as an equation for a firm, final answer to any puzzle. Of course, this is not so. Wittgenstein’s (2009: 236 [n. 327]) somewhat cryptic comment is appropriate here: “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.” What a lion would have to say would depend not merely on whether the lion spoke English or some other human language, but on the quality of lion-ness, the embodied and experiential sensibility of what it is to be a lion lodged in a community of lions.
But here, I’d like to suggest that attention to what the word design means – and how it takes meaning – is a different matter than understanding a lion. Dictionaries and dictionary definitions are assembled by human beings precisely on the basisthat would enable us to understand lions if we were lions ourselves: usage exemplars taken from communities of users embedded in the context of talk.
It’s a bit like that moment in The Maltese Falcon where Gutman and Sam Spade meet over whiskey. Gutman says, “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.” He goes on to talk about talking: “Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice … Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like, and I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in paper and online and the Oxford English Dictionaryboth take their meanings from a massive set of usage exemplars. These usages reflect the communities of speakers who talk about the ideas and concepts the words represent, writing them in context.
A great deal of what people mistakenly label definitions are usage exemplars, and as exemplars, they are useful. But there is a second level that we require in developing definitions. And that is not a case for physics or the algorithmic attempt to set a secure linguistic foundation under the concept of design for all time. That, rather, requires sensitivity to language and meaning, to “determine or identify the essential qualities or meaning of …. to discover and set forth the meaning of … to fix or mark the limits of … to make distinct, clear, or detailed especially in outline …” what we mean (or the several things we mean) when we use the word design.
If members of the list want seriously to work on the issue of definitions, I’m certainly willing to give this some thought. This will take time, and it will probably go on around other threads – that’s another reason I’m giving it its own header.
This is the kind of thing that is serious enough if we are to take it seriously that I would rather not embark on this kind of endeavor if peoplefind it uninteresting or useless.
That said, I’m allergic to wine, so if we do take this up, I’d be hoping for a better prize – perhaps a bottle of good Calvados or, better yet, a bottle of Linie Aquavit.
Is anyone interested in pursuing the issue of definitions as a thread?
Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | University Distinguished Professor | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia | [log in to unmask] | Mobile +61 404 830 462 | Home Page http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design/people/Professor-Ken-Friedman-ID22.html<http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design> Academia Page http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman About Me Page http://about.me/ken_friedman
Guest Professor | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China
Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2013. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary Online. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc. http://www.merriam-webster.com/ Date accessed: 2013 March 1.
Simpson, John, ed. 2013. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. URL: http://www.oed.com/ Date accessed: 2013 March 1.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2009. Philosophical Investigations. German text with an English translation by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Revised 4th Edition by P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
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