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Unpublished Paper
The Possibility of Technical Definition in Later Wittgenstein
  • James M Donovan

Wittgenstein’s philosophy remains influential. If its tenets impose constraints on either the possibility of scientific definition at all, or upon the kinds that will be valid, then those limits should be recognized and to the extent possible, observed. Locating the locus of meaning in ordinary use does appear to preclude certain types of definitional strategies. Stipulative definitions of terms that have ordinary currency but which are idiosyncratic and not grounded in that common usage would appear to be most troublesome. It is not that one could not attempt such definitions (quite the contrary, they are offered at every turn), but only that their success in providing a stable and precisely delimited referential standard would be called into question. Flaunting convention in this way would open the scientific discourse to questions about what it “means”: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but when I talk about religion, I’m talking about something entirely different!” Beyond the philosophical, this strategy also incurs costs for science as a social enterprise: If people think they know what is being said because ordinary terms are being used, but then are told they didn’t understand the claims at all, this will have no effect so much as to reduce popular support for the project.

While neologisms provide one feasible solution to this obstacle—new terms have no history of established use, and therefore the term can be introduced and grounded in the ordinary uses of the relevant reference speech community, the specialists—many technical concepts that science wields have labels taken from common speech.

The results of this discussion have offered one possibility for resolution by basing the technical definition upon the ordinary language meaning, but with procedures that inductively extract the concept’s core and comparatively essential attributes by study of how the speech community deploys the term. The isolated associations are then framed as testable hypotheses in order to explicitly plumb the nature of the asserted association. If found to be reliable, then indeed, as Wittgenstein observed, “what to-day counts as an observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it.”

Publication Date
December, 2006
Citation Information
James M Donovan. "The Possibility of Technical Definition in Later Wittgenstein" (2006)
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