The Finger & the Moon: Fiddling with Definitions

What can be shown, cannot be said.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Preamble

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.

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 feedbacks into account as instances can be refined and purposes reconsidered with the effect of improving initially disappointing outcomes. For instance, a goodrequirements 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.

Semantic Improvement

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.

Here a routine posted by Alexander Samarin: find a sentence with a term, substitute the term by its definition and check if the sentence still has the sense. (Usually a few sentences are used for such a check).

For example, taking three separate definitions:
1. Discipline is a system of governing rules.
2. A business process is an explicitly defined coordination for guiding the enactment of business activity flows.
3. Business Process Management (BPM) is a discipline for the use of any combination of modeling, automation, execution, control, measurement and optimization of business processes.

And a combined (or stand-alone) definition:

Business process management (BPM) is [a system of governing rules] for the use of any combination of modeling, automation, execution, control, measurement and optimization of [explicitly defined coordination for guiding the enactment of business activity flows]

Further Readings


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