George Walford: Define Your Definitions

One comment received, in response to the talks at Friends House, was that the key terms used ought to have been defined. The trouble with definition of terms is that it presupposes a number of terms, with meanings thoroughly understood and universally accepted, that can be used to construct the definition. Failing this, one is in an infinite regression of needing to define the terms used in the definition. Whatever may be the case in other fields, in social affairs – politics, ideology and so on – there is no common stock of terms thoroughly understood and universally accepted. The meaning of every term varies according to the ideology of the speaker and that of the listener.

But this does not mean we cannot use words precisely. Every one of us uses thousands of words. We use them precisely and our hearers understand precisely what we mean by them; if this were not so, concerted action would not be possible. But how many of them have we, or our hearers, ever tried to define? We have come to know what they mean by noting the context in which they appear, and it is by noting the context in which we use them that our hearers come to know the meanings we ascribe to them.

Similarly with terms used in these talks at Friends House (and elsewhere in systematic ideology). When the context is taken into account then there is only one meaning the term can carry, only one meaning that “fits.” Or, to put the same point another way, each talk (article, book, etc.) is an extended definition of all the terms used in it.

from Ideological Commentary 2, November 1979.