Sunday, November 20, 2011

How is a Definition Different from an Explanation? (Part 1)

This topic will require more than one post, because there is more than one definition of "Explanation".  That is, the term "Explanation" signifies more that one concept.

The first kind of explanation we will deal with can be defined as:

"Bringing a mind to an understanding of a topic".

This means that an explanation must be relative to the mind which is to be brought to the intended understanding.  For instance, the way we explain the solar system to an 8-year old child will likely be different to the way we explain the solar system to a college undergraduate.  The explanation offered will depend on prior knowledge, experience, developed intelligence, and probably many other factors.  Differences between defintion and explanation can be summarized as follows:
  • A definition is not intended to be proportional to any mind.  It has to be the best description of a concept that is available. This is is quite unlike explanation, where there will be many explanations proportionate to the types of minds which are to be provided with a given explanation.  
  • There can be many explanations for a concept, but there should be only one definition.  
  • An explanation may exclude difficult points (say to convey an initial understanding), but a definition must be as complete as possible.  
  • An explanation may avoid technical language.  A definition should aim to exclude technical language, but it may sometimes need to include technical language.
There is always a danger that an analyst creating a definition will treat it as an explanation.  This will likely make the definition unusable as an authoritative reference.  The analyst will probably only be guessing at the type of mind any explanation is aimed at.  It is one reason careful governance of definitions is needed (so analysts do not go in the wrong direction).  

It can be argued that there is an environment in which the definition is to be used, and that the definition should be the best for that environment - but might be vary across such environments.  For instance, the insurance concept of "Incurred But Not Reported" can be defined within the environment of Insurance Company X, without any intent to be used in any other insurance company.

An issue here is that if a definiton is the best for a particular environment, how can this satisfy the vision of the Semantic Web which would seem to have common definitions of concepts across the entire web?  However, this is an issue beyond comparing definition to explanation.


  1. Malcolm, you make a good point. A definition should be the most concise way of explaining what the term means, whereas a description of it can be more elaborate.
    Think of this also for visualization purposes: if the distinction is not made between a definition and a description, and people provide description that are half a page long - including pictures, how will a modeling tool consistently visualize this while keeping overview?

    Consider a list of 100 terms in overview mode: you want to get the gist of it, and see some quick context: a brief definition, a type, an owner, a status, ...
    What if all the definitions (or even just one of them) were actually half-page descriptions?

    On the Semantic Web note, just a quick thought: something is always defined with respect to a goal or objective - this is where the meaning comes from (i.e. how we pragmatically experience the effect of the definition on our daily lives). Generally defined concepts living in the Semantic Web must have an all-round purpose, which will come with the necessary frustration in some cases. Specific concepts will drown under the plethora of generally defined concepts and be hard to find.

  2. Stijn, you have some good points here, but I do not entirely agree with them. I will do a new post to discuss them.