Fallacies of definition

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Fallacies of definition refer to the various ways in which definitions can fail to have merit. The term is used to suggest analogy with the logical fallacies. This is a typical sort of list found in texts used in college logic courses.



If one concept is defined by another, and the other is defined by the first, we have a pair of circular definitions, somewhat similar to a question-begging argument: neither offers us enlightenment about the thing we wanted to be enlightened about.

Defining with a synonym

A definition is no good if it simply gives a one-word synonym. For example, suppose we define the word "virtue"—an important word in ethics—just using the word "excellence". It might be perfectly true that all virtues are excellences and all excellences are virtues, but the word "excellence" by itself is not a good definition of "virtue" in philosophy. One can always simply ask, "But what does 'excellence' mean?" Surely, if one has a basic confusion about what "virtue" means, then one may also have a basic philosophical confusion about what "excellence" means.

Defining with a near-synonym

A definition does no good if it uses a very near synonym in the definition. For example, suppose we define 'beautiful' as 'possessing aesthetic value'. The words 'beautiful' and 'aesthetic' are very nearly the same in meaning; so if anyone is deeply confused or curious about beauty, then he or she is of course going to be confused or curious about the aesthetic. The question is what general characteristics are possessed by all beautiful objects, or all objects that have aesthetic value.

Over-broad definitions

A definition is too broad if it applies to things that are not part of the extension of the word defined. Suppose one defines 'bachelor' as 'unmarried male'. At first glance this might look correct, but male is a word that can apply to many things. For example, unmarried male dogs and unmarried male babies are not considered bachelors. Narrowing the definition can avoid this problem. In this case, 'bachelor' can mean 'unmarried man'. However, the Pope, or a man whose wife has died and who has not remarried, are not considered bachelors either — so if it is to fit the common conception, the definition must be further narrowed to 'a man who is socially regarded as able to marry, but has not yet'.

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