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Four canons of definition

Before going more deeply into this conundrum of definitions, we must review some of the thought on what a definition is. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (5th ed.) defines “definition” (2nd sense) as: “a precise statement of the nature, properties, scope or essential qualities of a thing; an explanation of a concept, etc.; a statement or formal explanation of the meaning or a word or phrase.” We may add to this Ralph Borsodi’s (1967:32-33) the following four canons of definition: (1) A definition must be adequate; that is, the referent word stands out from all other referent words. (2) A definition must allow differentiation. It must provide “enough specific and significant attributes and properties peculiar to the word’s referent” to obviate confusion with anything else. (3) Proper definitions have impartiality; they are written such that they do not favor particular attributes and properties over others that also conform to the first two canons. (4) Finally definitions must have sufficient completeness.

They should be complete enough to enable their audience to recognize the referent word.

The present discussion strives to meet these canons. But remember that definitions of concepts, like the theories of which they are a part, are subject to revision as new data and ideas challenge their validity (Kaplan 1964). So the present definitional undertaking is necessarily hypothetical, although as hypothesis, it squares with present data and thought.

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