Chapter 2: Language Matters
A. Intension and Extension
We can study meaning through definitions. More specifically, we can look at the definition of term: “A single word or group of words that can be the subject of a statement” (p. 46). Notice that not all words are terms. Terms—common name, proper names, and descriptive phrases—are not words like adjectives.
When we define a term according to its intension, we define it according to its characteristics. “Cat,” is a furry, four-legged, meowing creature. When we define a term according to its extension, we define it according to the class or collection of things to which the term refers. “Cat” is a feline animal.
When we use an intensional definition, we focus on the properties of characteristics of the term. The properties or characteristics reveal the term’s connotation. Focusing on a term’s intensional definition allows us to talk meaningfully about things that don’t exist—empty classes. In other words, some terms have intensional meaning but no extensional meaning. So, we can talk about fairies’ and elves’ intensional meaning, but not their extensional meaning, since they lack the latter.
We can also talk about increasing or decreasing intension. We can also talk about increasing or decreasing extension. Notice the inverse relations: a series of increasing intension is also a series of decreasing extension: biodegradable, edible, vegetable, broccoli. A series of increasing extension is also a series of decreasing intension: broccoli, vegetable, edible, biodegradable. In some cases, an intensional definition will make for a clearer sentence than an extensional definition, and vice versa.
B. Using Intensional Definitions
When we define, we assign meaning to a word, phrase, or symbol. So, we have that which is defined (the definiendum) and that which defines (the definiens). Terms defined intensionally are often defined by synonyms, word origins, operational feature, and genus and difference (see pp. 52–56).
C. Using Extensional Definitions
Terms defined extensionally are often defined ostensively, enumeratively, and by subclass (see pp. 56–58).
D. Applying Definitions
Intensional and extensional definitions are not the only types of definitions. Some other common types include stipulative, lexical, functional, precising, theoretical, and persuasive (see pp. 61–68).
E. Guidelines for Informative Definitions
The clearer and more exacting are our definitions of words and use of those words in statements, the better our arguments will be. There are eight guidelines which are meant to facilitate the construction of informative definitions. These guidelines are helpful to the production or identification of meaning, which in turn leads us closer to understanding:
1. An informative definition should use quotation marks appropriately.
2. An informative definition should include the essential meaning of a term.
3. An informative definition should not be too broad nor too narrow.
4. An informative definition should not be circular.
5. An informative definition should be affirmative and not negative.
6. An informative definition should not use ambiguous or vague language.
7. An informative definition should not use emotionally charged or figurative language.
8. An informative definition should include a context whenever necessary.
F. Cognitive and Emotive Meaning
How we choose to use language says a lot about what we mean or intend by our words. For example, we can choose to use language cognitively or emotively. The former is distinguished from the latter in terms of language that attempts to describe or convey information rather than express emotion. Both types of meaning can be found in value claims, which are judgments that someone or something is moral or immoral, good or bad, or better or worse than someone or something else.
G. Factual and Verbal Disputes
It is important to distinguish between factual and verbal disputes. A factual dispute occurs when there is disagreement over matters involving facts. A verbal dispute occurs when vague or ambiguous language results in linguistic misunderstanding. Since this sort of dispute is really a misunderstanding, we say it is “merely” verbal. If and when the misunderstanding is cleared up, there may be an actual or factual dispute. In both cases, disputants can enlist emotive and cognitive language.