The Finger & the Moon: Fiddling with Definitions


Given the glut of redundant, overlapping, circular, or conflicting definitions, it may help to remember that “define” literally means putting limits upon. Definitions and their targets are two different things, the former being language constructs (intensions), the latter set of instances (extensions).  As a Chinese patriarch once said, the finger is not to be confused with the moon.

Fingering definition

Fiddling with words: to look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.(Thich Nhat Hanh)

In order to gauge and cut down the distance between words and world, definitions can be assessed and improved at functional and semantic levels.

What’s In & What’s Out

At the minimum a definition must support clear answers at whether any occurrence is to be included in or excluded from the defined set. Meeting that straightforward condition will steer clear of self-sustained semantic wanderings.

Functional Assessment

Since definitions can be seen as a special case of non exhaustive classifications, they can be assessed through a straightforward two-steps routine:

  1. Effectiveness: applying candidate definition to targeted instances must provide clear and unambiguous answers (or mutually exclusive subsets).
  2. Usefulness: the resulting answers (or subsets) must directly support well-defined purposes.

Such routine meets Occam’s razor parsimony principle by producing outcomes that are consistent (“internal” truth, i.e no ambiguity), sufficient (they meet their purpose), and simple (mutually exclusive classifications are simpler than overlapping ones).

Functional assessment should also take feedback into account as instances can be refined and purposes reconsidered with the effect of improving initially disappointing outcomes. For instance, a good requirements taxonomy is supposed to be used to allocate responsibilities with regard to acceptance, and carrying out classification may be accompanied by a betterment of requirements capture.

Once functionally checked, candidate definitions can be assessed for semantics, and adjusted as to maximize the scope and consistency of their footprint. While different routines can be used, all rely on tweaking words with neighboring meanings.

Purposes & Capabilities

On a broader perspective, definitions can be ranked with regard to purposes and capabilities:

  1. Lexicon: flat and non specific list of words.
  2. Thesaurus: cross and domain specific semantics of words.
  3. Ontology: cross and domain specific semantics of concepts with epistemic qualification of whatever is considered.
  4. Models: cross and domain specific semantics of concepts with epistemic qualification of whatever is considered and rules to be applied to the processing of representations (descriptive, predictive, or prescriptive).

That principled approach can be used to clarify the scope and reliability of competing standards. It could also be extended to the design of business oriented ontologies.

Ontologies & Business

Ontologies are all too often seen as abstract contraptions best reserved for arcane issues. But, as noted above, ontologies are meant to be built on purpose, to flesh out thesauruses with actual contexts and concerns, and put to use.

That could help enterprises confronted to the crumbling of traditional fences, changing business environments, and waves of digitized flows with confusing semantics.

To manage these challenges enterprise governance need knowledge architectures bringing together heterogeneous and changing business contexts as well as homogeneous and stable models of organization, systems, and platforms; that cannot be achieved without open and modular ontologies.

But for that to be achieved, means, e.g conceptual graphs or semantic networks, should not be confused with ends, i.e the purpose of ontologies. Whereas implementation issues are not to be ignored, the priority should be to characterize ontologies with regard to the social basis of contexts (institutional, social, professional, corporate, personal), and the epistemic nature of targeted instances (concepts, documents, actual occurrences, or symbolic representations.)

Further Readings



6 Responses to “The Finger & the Moon: Fiddling with Definitions”

  1. caminao Says:

    I fully agree with your last recommendation, but not as a last word: continuity is critical, but refinement is usually required when new domains are to be explored.
    As for pragmatics, their part has to be circumscribed lest definitions turn to cooking recipes, with outcome contingent on Chefs’ personal touch.


  2. RJP Says:

    Your comments tend to a structural / representationalist view. Which I think is OK but incomplete. There are also communication factors. And social factors. By communication I mean questions of signal and noise – which applies not only to the physical channel but also to the symbolic system. Poor use of definitions – especially sub-technical stipulations of existing terms create noise. Also, there is a reason that professional lexicographers describe rather that construct definitions – language is always conventional. Structural considerations are important for understanding and composing useful definitional statements – they don’t help much with the underlying questions of ontological or epistemology veracity.

    It’s a worthy and important consideration. I tend to find that in nearly all cases it is better to ask (if you are an English speaker of course) – what word in the english language best describes my idea, then don’t mess with the ordinary meaning of that word and write a definition that contextualises it by obeying the well established and documented techniques employed by professional technical writers.


  3. caminao Says:

    And AS answer shows why logical and pragmatic assessments must be carried out separately.


  4. AS Says:

    RE “no amount of modeling and planning predict the future sufficiently” BPM does not predict the future although Max is still assuming that – it helps to be prepared for various variants of the future.



  5. caminao Says:

    It seems your comment demonstrates the effectiveness of the routine: definitions must be validated by their use.


  6. Max J. Pucher Says:

    Let me point out that most of such contemplations are pointless because the usefulness of its results are actually very limited.

    Especially the definition of BPM is utterly ambiguous and serves no purpose whatsoever unless the purpose is to make definitions for the sake of it.

    As Shun Tzu said: Not planning changes the future but action does. Let me add that action requires a decision and ALL decisions happen in the emotional context that is not accessible with models, logic and rules. The reason? Because no amount of modeling and planning predict the future sufficiently and not because the modeling is false but because the world in itself is random, complex and adaptive. It changes itself as the future unfolds.

    Therefore the whole idea of modeling a business into repeatable process flows is a fools errand. If anything in can be modeled into goals that humans will collaborate around and no more.


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