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To Define is to Limit

Oscar Wilde wrote:
To define is to limit.

I think this quote seriously lacks an accompanying context.
I would find it very offending if the word 'limit' is used in a sense that something is rather limiting and less useful than it could've been without the restriction.

Are we looking at a work of art when we are saying this? In which case certain terms may be open to different interpretation and that may very well be the intention of the artist/author.
Or are we trying to carry out an argument in a rigourous manner? In which case not having a set of definitions to agree upon in the first place will only generate unintelligible conversations. Heck it won't even be a conversation in the first place!

To define is to narrow down the meaning of a term to a set of non-contradictory conditions expressed as propositions (not fixed in a language or context) in a way that this creates an injective map (i.e., no other set of propositions/conditions maps to the same term). This is what we want, not what we don't want.
Labeling it as 'limiting' is, in my opinion, a very bold move.
If I were to say something even remotely similar to this, but hugely different in its implication, I would go with:
To define is to be more precise.

At least this would be a quote where one could smile at.

11 blog comments below

Makes sense to me. Very well written.
Bluedoll on Thu Sep 19, 2013 10:43 am
Agreed Sylin. Totally on the mark for me. Think stereotyping fits here as well. This searching for reference points in order to understand people are probably the very thing that puts blinkers on us and narrows our vision. Our intelligence can trip us up in that way.
deanhills on Thu Sep 19, 2013 7:14 pm
Thanks for the comments, Bluedoll and deanhills Smile
I am not quite sure I fully understood everything after the point about stereotypes though.
Sylin on Thu Sep 19, 2013 9:15 pm
Sometimes we have a stereotyped idea of what someone with religion is like, or someone from England or France is like, or someone from Syria who is Christian or Muslim. We read or hear things in the news, and get conditioned to stereotypes. Yet it's not the truth. So those definitions are limiting in getting to the truth.
deanhills on Fri Sep 20, 2013 2:45 am
ahh right, I see I see
hmm, that got me interested in the definition of the word 'define' itself and what it comprises of
Sylin on Fri Sep 20, 2013 7:45 am
Well I guess one could say stereotyping is a very distant cousin of define. Or what do you think?
deanhills on Fri Sep 20, 2013 1:28 pm
It could be stereotyping which could be limiting us before we have a chance to understand someone or something they said yes but I was thinking when I read the blog entry it was about finding the truth. I like the example of using art though we often do not think of definition concerning art.

An example could be, this Picasso painting is defined as a person with two personalities. No, its not it is a person with a hangover. Laughing Actually the definition might be in the eye of the beholder.

At least that is what it got me thinking about, again blog entry was a nice one!
Bluedoll on Fri Sep 20, 2013 2:21 pm
To define is to limit

sounds like something Bruce lee would say.
Marcuzzo on Fri Sep 20, 2013 8:50 pm
The original blog is indeed about truth-seeking, but partly.
When I first saw the quote, I immediately thought of the whole of maths, an area in which I am currently studying, without any definitions to work with. The whole discipline simply breaks down. To say that defining things makes it 'limiting' is rather ignorant and highly unappreciative in this context. The same holds true for any scientific endeavour that constantly seeks out for rigour and precision.

But it can also be very agreeable that defining things is quite 'limiting' as demonstrated interestingly by the Jeet Kune Do example as well as in the case of stereotypes which I also agree that we 'define' them Smile

The above 2 contradictory points pretty much sum up why I think this quote seriously lacks an accompanying context.
Sylin on Mon Sep 23, 2013 10:32 pm
When you are defining something you are limiting the possible interpretations or meanings of whatever you define. It might or might not make it more useful depending on what it is and what you are trying to do.

Take this math formula: y = x

Without defining a value for x or y they could be almost anything. All this function does is that it describes the relationship between the two variables.

By defining one variable to be a certain value we are limiting the possible values of both x and y. E.g. if y is defined to be 4, then the possible values of x is limited to 2 and -2. This is indeed useful if we want to know what values of x that give y value 4 but it is not at all useful if we want to find out the second derivative of the original formula.
Peterssidan on Fri Sep 27, 2013 3:04 pm
I think this is a mere statement of fact, and not meant as an attack on definitions. "Limit" and "Definition" are synonyms after all, since a definition defines something's limits. I don't think the statement is meant to warn you off the concept of making definitions, but it's to warn you of the limitations of the concept.
dansm01 on Fri Nov 01, 2013 6:13 am

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