Monday, July 9, 2012

"How Do You Define Yourself?" - Answer: You Can't

A few days ago my son was getting same day surgery and I was forced to sit in a waiting room for longer than I wanted.  The usual trash TV was being shown to keep the nervous relatives quiet, and there was a typical "self-help" show on which featured some bizarre members of the general public, each of whom had issues that apparently had some entertainment value.

A phrase that kept coming up was various variations of "define yourself", as in "How do you define yourself?", or "Don't let your [whatever problem the person had] define you".  It occurred to me that the purveyors of these phrases must have had only a fuzzy idea of what they were saying.  They were probably repeating a clich√© they had heard before, to save themselves the difficulty of thinking and finding a way to express their thoughts.

Definitions for Concepts, Identities for Individuals

So what was wrong with asking "How Do You Define Yourself?"

The answer is that definitions apply to concepts, not to individuals.  As it says in the entry for "Definition" in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy 

       "Individual objects and summa genera are logically indefinable."

So you cannot define yourself, or any individual person, or any individual object.  Individual objects have identities, and descriptions, but not definitions.

If the people on the trash TV show were using "definition" in an attempt to express a thought they had, what could that thought have been?

Well, concepts can be implemented as individuals.  These individuals possess the attributes of the concept.  More properly, the attributes of the concept are expressed in the individual.  That is the terminology I first learned in genetics, and I think it is appropriate (although geneticists talk of characteristics, not attributes).  So an individual has a character, which is the sum of how all the attributes they possess are expressed. 
I would therefore suggest that the subjects of the trash TV show did not want their characters to be judged solely on the basis of the appearance of whatever problem they had.    

Moral character, which is what we are probably talking about here, is not the same as definition.  You cannot define a person, but you can describe their moral character. 

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