Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

The limits of definition

Meaning is notoriously difficult to define — and, in fact, meaning lies at the opposite pole from precise definition. Words gain fullness of meaning only when they are removed from the dictionary and placed in a concrete context, where an interplay of qualities, connotations, suggestions, and metaphorical juxtapositions enables the words to interpenetrate and pulsate with many-dimensioned significance. To “nail something down” in a definition is rather like removing all the overtones from what had once been the richly resonant song of a violin string in order to get a precise, definable rate of vibration. Qualities are reduced to number. As semantic historian Owen Barfield has pointed out, every effort at definition, to the degree it achieves the desired endpoint of abstract, of decontextualized precision, becomes mere counting (Barfield 1973, pp. 185ff). Water, for example — to the extent we succeed in our abstraction — might be defined in terms of boiling point, melting point, density, transparency (percent transmission of light), and so on.

But despite the loss of meaning in the very attempt to define it, we all have a certain sense for what meaning is, because we all know what we mean when we speak.

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