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Definitions: coffin for a deceased thought

Will "dictionary definitions" help us understand the meaning/concept behind the word, "vocabulary definitions"? Bringing in a glossary, list of definitions? No, dictionary definitions won't help! One cannot say anything about the object except how it relates to other objects. Definitions are often built "Aristotelianly," as generic-specific definitions - defining the genus of the object, then its characteristic distinctive features as a species for that genus (the relationship of specialization). "An orange - is a species of the citrus genus of the rut family, and also the fruit of this tree." In life, such definitions help little because different people highlight different characteristic species features useful for different uses of the concept, and their relationships are concerned not with generic-specific relationships, but part-whole, realizations, classifications, etc. Working with definitions all the time turns out to be situations similar to those described in the anecdote: "Cheburashka, how can one explain to you what a helicopter is? Do you know what an orange is? Well, a helicopter is not like it at all!"

The meaning of a word is determined not by its definition, but by its use in the context of the language game^[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_game_(philosophy). The neural network of a person learns the meanings of words in the context of their use, through examples of use in some methods/practices/cultures. The only way to understand the meaning of a concept is to get many examples of its use in some practical/activity/cultural/stylistic/"method of work" context of speech, each new example of use will clarify the area of the meaning of this concept in this context. The definition will not help here, but only confuse: most often, definitions are simply used as a pretext to provide some counterexamples to these definitions, and these counterexamples more often than not will point to other contexts of using the discussed method/practice.

Systems thinking is not reduced to mathematics, although in recent years physicists have given mathematical justification for many observed general regularities of system behavior in different subject areas, after all, systems are primarily physical systems. It is impossible to give a strict physical, and within the framework of physical and mathematical, definition of its concepts.

In natural language and even in formal languages, there will still be ambiguity in concepts, uncertainty in assigning types. Although this uncertainty can be removed by various methods indefinitely, it will remain. Different properties for the same system will be highlighted by different roles, different systems will be called by the same words, because each role has its own method/culture/style of work that sets its typical situations, and therefore words in definitions will be used differently.

We will not give reasons to get confused in "definitions," and then deal with their contradictions, insufficiencies, inaccuracies, inevitable ambiguity, distortion when translating from one natural language to another due to the absence of certain concepts and corresponding terms.

In systems thinking "definitions from the glossary" often become the medicine that turns out to be the disease. In situations where there is ambiguity in terminology, use not definitions, but methods developed in modern philosophical logic:

  • If you (or your interlocutor) do not want to change something in the physical world (and for that explain, that is, understand the causes and consequences), but simply "seek the truth" out of curiosity, then disputes must be ended: disputes about "truth" and "terms" are theoretically fruitless. If it is unclear how you will use terms for an action that alters the world (as opposed to altering descriptions of the world, what difference does it make what description of the world, if the world itself does not change, "paper endures everything"!), then you may not agree, there is no need to negotiate since the world will not change regardless of whether you agree somehow or not, there is no need to negotiate because the world will not change from the fact that you somehow agree, and from the fact that you do not agree. If the physical world does not change from the results of the dispute, then you can not worry, stop arguing and disperse immediately, do not waste time in vain. But if the world changes due to the results of the dispute (both agreed on joint actions), continue debating and agreeing on the next steps, the next actions, seek explanations (that is, discuss the causes and consequences).
  • when describing the incomprehensible, do not go to more general concepts (the path of "Aristotelian definition" ), but "ground yourself" (grounding): describe the physical world. Leaving for more general concepts and describing the incomprehensible as specializations (Aristotelian definitions “X is Y with such-and-such characteristics”) leads to a dead end. To come to an agreement, it is necessary to specify, not to abstract - not to reduce to the known common to the disputants, but to reduce to the known physical for the disputants. For the particular, the poorly defined general standing opposed to it is implied, or the incomprehensible implementation in the physical world as a "functional role" is discussed. Abstract concepts - these are mostly role/functional objects, they refer to some behavior. Discussing behavior is always more complicated than static physical objects that act like things. Therefore, for each role object, we substitute a clear example of some understandable constructive/material object (thing) playing the role of a functional object - and discuss its behavior, it will be understood immediately.
  • during discussions about terminology, taboo the term itself[1]** (its use does not lead to understanding, it only slows down the discussion), instead, provide expanded formulations.** If you need to continue the conversation, and the word is clearly not understood by the interlocutor, then continue the discussion without using that term! Discussions are not about terms, they are about the matter, terms are simply needed to make the discussion more compact, but the debate on terms removes all the advantages of using the term, without it it turns out to be easier. If the dispute turns into a dispute about terms (about "truth" and "what is correct to call," and not about "what we are doing"), then this is a troubling symptom of an unproductive dispute, immediately stop arguing and leave the conversation.

When explaining unfamiliar concepts through other unfamiliar concepts, understanding helps with "conceptual distances"[2]. These distances are usually not short: try explaining to a third-grader how to build a volt-ampere characteristic for a thyristor. Tell him about volts, amperes, characteristics, and what a thyristor is. This is pure fiction, populism about "a real professional can explain everything clearly even to a child." Surely, you don't believe in fairy tales? To explain something complex to a child, that child needs to be educated for many years to become knowledgeable. During such attempts to "define" thyristors and other complexities for a child, everyone understands everything, but two professionals still try to "define" their "thyristors" and other complexities in three sentences - the age difference is not significant, and it seems that they can explain in simple terms, giving "definitions that a child can understand." But no. No matter how many definitions you give, there will be no benefit from them. Beware, beware of definitions - it is the medicine that turns out to be the disease more often than it cures. Georgy Petrovich Shchedrovitsky liked to repeat: "A definition is a coffin for a deceased thought." And he was far from alone in this, except that he spoke more often, colorfully, and starkly about the disadvantages of definitions than many other specialists in methods of thinking in the intellect-stack.

In our course, there is no reliance on definitions, no glossary (what's the use of it?!). The last section of the course provides a concise presentation of the ontology of the third-generation systems approach, but it is specifically titled "Instead of a glossary: ontology of the third-generation systems approach" and presents a coherent narrative with references to literary sources instead of a set of definitions.

In bold in our text, terms are highlighted at those points in the text where the concept denoted by this term is extensively discussed for the first time. Of course, there are also some phrases in the course text that resemble definitions, but they cannot be considered as such. Later in the course text, for these same terms and the concepts they denote, there will be other phrases, also resembling definitions. And then again and again: the text trains your neural network in the brain, forming meanings for unfamiliar words, leading a language game.

With each use of a word, its place in the space of meanings for you is defined more and more clearly. Furthermore, in terminology, there are synonyms as terms from different contexts with different shades of meanings and other associations. But the uses of terms - these are not definitions by any means. The result of such conceptual work through training the neural network of a living brain with elaborate texts using words in a practical/cultural/practical/labor context of performing work by some method (all according to Wittgenstein: the meaning of words is determined by their use! not by definitions!) is achieved through learning and is usually good. However, the result of definitions in education, discussions, and everywhere in communication (unless it's about mathematics!) is only disputes and requests to clarify/change the definition.

Systems thinking is about life, it is not mathematics, where points have no size, and parallel lines do not intersect even at infinity and their lengths are also infinite. In life, everything is different, significantly determined by neural networks and neural network representations, so attempts to immediately move to strict formalizations are doomed to failure. Systems thinking is not mathematical (to the extent that it is not the mathematics describing the space of meanings, for example, mathematics of neural network models in large language models), it is about life that is not too formally organized and not too formally described!

The meanings of terms (and any other words, even if they are not pompously called "terms") are determined probabilistically, not accurately - and this is done by their use in various situations "from life," that is, language is determined not by the need to describe something, but by the need to describe something in order to do something. In any work, the objects with which actions are performed by the method/practice/culture/style/engineering/labor - that sets the context for the language game in which word meanings are determined.

In our course, we believe that your guesses about the meaning of terms from the course (and then your guesses about the meanings of the terms you will encounter in work projects) will be formed by studying elaborate texts describing various practical/activity/cultural situations (situations of work by some method), understanding different relationships of concepts denoted by these words with other concepts denoted by other words used in close proximity. When defining the meanings of term-words, we do not read definitions but primarily deal with texts and speeches as sets of elaborate statements containing the term of interest (even if it is about a photograph or diagram, it will end with you describing them in words, and relying on the terms in these descriptions - you will not discuss them with mumbling!).

So, first of all, we deal with the terminology (pay attention to them, and not just one word, but in the context of use! Words are important!) , which we have encountered, that is, we determine their meaning, extract from these words an unnamed concept that has different names in different professional languages ​​of a variety of different communities adhering to different methods of work/actions, worshiping different dictionaries (including unwritten, "jargon") and other terminological standards - and then work with the concept (not focusing on the words-terms! From this point on, the initial terms can be replaced! Words are not important!).

Life is complex, and we simplify it by considering only a couple of interconnected concepts/terms each time (and even dropping long discussions about the nuances of concepts embraced in the theories/explanations of various methods). For this reason, we avoid discussions about long lists of names of these concepts in various dialects of various professional communities. About concepts we learn through their terms. Terms are important! Without them, there is trouble, we will not learn anything! Mumbling is not allowed, it is uninformative! But we never nitpick at the terms themselves, they are unimportant to us, what is important are the concepts denoted by them!


  1. https://lesswrong.ru/wiki/Табуирование ↩︎

  2. https://lesswrong.ru/w/Ожидая_короткие_понятийные_расстояния ↩︎