Japan, 1951. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum


Meaning beyond definition

In science our concepts have neat, hard edges. In poetry our concepts stretch and expand. Both are necessary for knowledge

by James Camien McGuiggan + BIO

Japan, 1951. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum

Whether you are reading a scientific paper, a musical score, a DIY manual, text on an art gallery wall, or a 20-page terms and conditions document for a new toaster, you will be familiar with this sort of locution: ‘First, to define terms …’ We seem to take it for granted that, in order for us all to get on the same page as each other, in order for us as speakers to be clear, we need to define our terms.

Defining our terms is especially common in science, where just about every term that isn’t carried over from standard English has, somewhere, a definition: π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter; Yorkshire terriers are dogs with specific heritage. These are normally precise definitions: π is not the ratio of an almost-circular oval, and it is not an approximation (it is not 3.14); if an ostensible Yorkie does not have the requisite level of genetic purity, then it is a mixed breed, no matter how much it may look like a Yorkie (and contrariwise, a Yorkie that has unusual coloration is still a Yorkie, even if it will not win conformation shows).

But if we take a step back, we might think that this business is a bit strange. After all, we rarely define terms in everyday speech or in poetry, and there are plenty of important terms that can’t be defined but which we can still use perfectly well. To give two different sorts of example: I couldn’t define what it is for someone to have a good sense of melody, but I know it when I hear it. And philosophers have tried in vain for decades to define ‘knowledge’, but we all use the word happily enough.

In this essay, we will be led by some of these countervailing winds to investigate this drive to define our terms. Does it serve the goals we think it does? Are there other ways to be clear? I will not recommend a wholesale rejection of the practice. We will see, though, that it is sometimes unnecessary and even counterproductive.

Lest I be accused of not being sincere when I say that we shouldn’t totally reject the practice, I would like to now define ‘definition’. I will define it as a precise, verbal explication of the defined term. ‘Unmarried man’ is a precise explication of ‘bachelor’ – it explains the meaning of the defined term exactly – and it is verbal: given in words. And there are good reasons why we so often define our terms, two of which are found in Nicholas Joll’s paper ‘How Should Philosophy Be Clear?’ (2009). First, if you tell your interlocutor what you mean by a term, then you free them from the cognitive labour of working out what you mean by it, which labour they can then spend more productively. And second, you minimise the risk that they will simply not arrive at an understanding of what you mean by the term at all, or arrive at a false understanding – thus, you minimise the risk of confusion and of talking past each other.

But defining terms is not a panacea. I suggested just above that we don’t (always) need to know the definition of a term in order to know what we are talking about. In 1963, in a three-page paper, Edmund Gettier offered a concise definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’, and introduced a counterexample to that seemingly obvious definition. Since then, the attempt to define ‘knowledge’ has grown to a whole subfield of philosophy, and we still don’t know what knowledge is. Except that in a sense, of course, we do: we still use the term perfectly comprehensibly.

There’s an interesting disanalogy here between ‘knowledge’ and something like ‘democracy’ or ‘art’ where we also don’t remotely have consensus on what they are. In the case of democracy and art, it seems we often have different concepts underlying the words, and therefore often talk past each other. You might think democracy is fundamentally about the ability to kick out a government, and I might think that it’s fundamentally about collaborative deliberation; you might think art is fundamentally about authentic expression, and I might think art is whatever artworld institutions, such as art galleries, call art – a real view developed by George Dickie in his book Art and the Aesthetic (1974), but which has since fallen out of favour. Here is where we might most think that defining our terms would be helpful. But in the case of knowledge, we don’t disagree anything like as much about how to use the term, but we still don’t have a definition. This suggests that our understandings of terms are often prior to our definitions of them – and, so, that we don’t always need definitions to understand each other.

There are substantive philosophical issues at play here, which are not the subject of this essay; the goal here is just to put a bit of initial pressure on the too-easy thought that, in order to understand what we mean, it is sufficient to define our terms. Our understandings of terms sometimes outpace our definitions of them and, when that happens, offering definitions can muddy the waters. We need to be more creative if we want to be clear. So let’s consider a practice where clarity is an important goal, but which takes a totally different approach to it, forsaking definition entirely: poetry.

The aim is to truthfully – clearly – represent an obscurity in the world itself

In suggesting we look to poetry for a practice that is clear without defining its terms, I am not claiming that poetry is always and only concerned with clarity. Beauty (however that is defined) is arguably a goal. Truthfulness is another. Indeed, obscurity and clarity can both be tools for the poet, and so obscurity can even be fostered: the poet Carl Phillips argued that, in his Sonnet 129, William Shakespeare uses a 12-line convoluted sentence to create a fug that is dissipated by the epigrammatic sentence that finishes the poem. But this sort of obscurity is at the level of what the syntax and meaning of that long sentence is. As the literary critic Sven Birkerts writes, it ‘mimes the mental movement it characterises’. In other words, it is true to that mental movement, and so to that extent clearly represents that mental movement.

More generally, poets’ artistic material is not just the meanings of their words, but how the reader feels when reading them. Similarly, the poetic device of ambiguity might seem unclear to the scientifically trained, who will naturally want to know whether meaning A or meaning B is the intended meaning of an ambiguous word or sentence. But ideally, all meanings of an ambiguity will be intended – and this includes the higher-order meaning created by these meanings being simultaneous and ambiguous within a moment, rather than sequential. At this more abstract level, clarity is almost always an important aim. Even when the poet Paul Celan says that ‘lack of clarity … is something we aspire to,’ the aim is to truthfully – clearly – represent, through isomorphism of form, an obscurity in the world itself, or to acknowledge language’s inability to represent something as overwhelmingly monstrous as the Holocaust. Think here also of James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake (1939), an attempt to render the surreal, dream-like quality of night-time stream of consciousness; or the poet Marianne Moore’s claim that ‘feeling at its deepest … tends to be inarticulate.’

This is all to say that poetry does in fact aim for clarity, even when it does so via superficial obscurity. But poetry can also be clear in a much more clear (if you will) way. Take the opening stanza of ‘Dirge Without Music’ (1928) by Edna St Vincent Millay:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

I can’t see how anything could be clearer than these sentences. They cut right through me: it feels more like an image or revelation that strikes me than sentences that I decode. But considered from the point of view of the practice of exhaustive definition, the poem falls short: ‘heart’, to raise just one point, can mean any number of things, and nowhere does Millay give it a definition. (Note, by the way, what an absurd gesture that would be.) So much the worse for the thought that we always need to define our terms to be clear – but what is it about this poetic context that makes this so, when it is not so in contexts such as maths and DIY?

I think we have a good candidate for an answer in the philosophy of the British philosopher Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943). Collingwood was something of a Renaissance man: he was a leading archaeologist and historian of Roman Britain in his day, as well as an amateur painter and musician. Primarily, though, he was a philosopher. He was professor of philosophy in Magdalen College, Oxford, and he wrote in many areas. Probably best known now for his work on the philosophy of history, especially his book The Idea of History (1946), Collingwood’s philosophy of art, particularly in his book The Principles of Art (1938), also remains influential. The Idea of History was actually published posthumously and unfinished because, in the last years of his life, before dying of overwork, he abandoned it in order to devote himself to ethics and political philosophy as his contribution to the war effort: his final major work, The New Leviathan (1942), is a panegyric for liberalism as against Nazism.

For our purposes, though, the relevant text is An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933). This is a work of metaphilosophy, the branch of philosophy that turns philosophy’s attention upon itself, and to my mind it is a beautiful and profound work whose time, if I have anything to say about it, will come yet. A distinction between science and poetry is a leitmotif of the book, and I will use this distinction to ask why poetry can get by without exhaustive definitions of its words, even when it is central to science.

First, let us consider the ‘science’ half of Collingwood’s distinction. The key feature of Collingwood’s conception of science is that it concerns itself with concepts that are wholly different from one another. What he means by this is that, in scientific concepts, species of a genus fit under that genus more or less as books fit into a library: they are distinct both from each other and from the library itself. Books in a library are wholly different from each other in the sense that they do not overlap: in checking out one book, you do not, to any extent, check out another, nor do you at all check out the library itself. Similarly, a chiliagon is not, to any extent, an octagon, however similar it is to one. Although it is of course a polygon, the copula here indicates that ‘chiliagon’ falls under the genus ‘polygon’; the overlap that never happens is between concepts at the same level of abstraction that fall under the same genus. Again, a dog either is or is not a Yorkie; no matter how much it looks like a Yorkie, if it isn’t one, it simply, and entirely, isn’t one: it is a related breed or a mixed breed. (Dog breeding is probably not what Collingwood had in mind when he talked about science, but it operates, in this respect, in the same way, and I will use the term ‘science’ broadly.)

In science, then, we are dealing with concepts with clear, hard edges. This is in dramatic contrast to poetry. Suppose we have a ‘genus’ of a quintessential poetic concept, ‘love’, under which we have different ‘species’ of love, such as a generous love and a possessive love. Strictly classifying these concepts is clearly inapposite. Quite the opposite: enquiring into the interwovenness of possessiveness over a loved one and generosity towards them is a rich source of poetic insight: consider how Charles Swann, in Marcel Proust’s multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27), showers his lover Odette with gifts as a way both to please her and make her dependent on him.

It is perfectly reasonable and natural to think that some ‘species’ of love come closer to the ‘genus’ love itself. It is perfectly coherent to think, for instance, that jealous love is not really love, or that it is a weak and atrophied form of love: you might think that that sort of love lacks a trust in the loved one’s constancy that is essential to true love. Or you might think that unconditional love is not just a mere species of love-as-such, one sort of love among many, but the highest form of love. Compare to this natural and felicitous way of speaking how absurd it would be to say that one book in a library is interwoven with another, or that an octagon is more a polygon than a chiliagon is. For Collingwood, the reason for this difference is not skin-deep: it’s because concepts in poetry have soft, porous edges. They bleed into one another: when you talk about death, you are always also, even if to a minimal extent, talking about countless other things.

This discussion has all been rather abstract: let us consider, through a specific illustration, what I am arguing here. In Will Harris’s poem ‘SAY’ from his collection RENDANG (2020), the idea of ‘flow’ is a guiding thread. But what does Harris mean by ‘flow’? He uses it in a host of ways. In a literal sense, a stone engraved with ‘SAY’, part of the name of an old sugar company, is washed ashore by the flow of the sea, where Harris’s father found it; this stone’s passage is then likened to the metaphorical flow of capital once under the control of the company who engraved it; the stone then flows from the hands of Harris’s father to Harris’s sitting room’s mantelpiece, its meaning changing as the water molecules in a current change: no longer a naive symbol of power and a boundary-marker, but an artistically self-conscious symbol of colonial capitalism, Ozymandian decline, and ‘reason / in madness’. Further on, ‘flow’ is contrasted with ‘break’:

Last week, there was an
acid attack. Two cousins, assumed to be Muslim, having torn off their
clothes, lay naked on the road, calling for help. Passers-by crossed the street.
Things break, not flow[.]

Harris, in suggesting that the passers-by do not flow, is circumscribing a particular shape, and he is depicting what fails when this moral obstacle impedes the smooth progression of Londoners’ days. But Harris is also aware that, in another sense, the passers-by did flow, as water flows around an obstacle: ‘That SAY brick picked from the riverbed proved that / broken things still flow.’

Poetry stretches words until and so that we are forced to look afresh at them

The idea that passers-by can ‘flow’ and ‘break’ is an extension of the metaphor from passive water, stones and meanings to people who are active: they chose not to help the cousins calling for help – although saying they ‘flow’ is partially an attempt to suggest that they don’t live entirely deliberately, but are merely buffeted about, as water is, by obstacles and paths of least resistance.

Later, the meaning of ‘flow’ is extended further and used in more cryptic ways. Speaking of a lover, Harris writes:

The stillness in the room
was like the stillness in the air between the heaves of storm. We flowed
into and out of each other, saying – what? Saying. Not yet together,
we were incapable of breaking.

There is a clear emotional resonance to ‘flow’ here, but when I try to push into it I lose sight of it: all I have is an intimation. And when Harris says that those not yet together cannot break, does he mean just that they cannot break up? Or more? That they cannot hurt each other? That they have not been the obstacles to each other that would interrupt their passive flows along their prior paths?

Finally, Harris writes of his father:

One morning, gagging on his breathing tube,
he started to text my mum, but before he could press send his phone
died. He couldn’t remember what he tried to say. I can’t remember
what I tried to say. Flow, break, flow.

What is flowing, what breaking, here? The words themselves interrupt, break the flow of the poem, as if Harris’s father’s death is an obstacle around which the emotions and articulacy of the poem break.

In ‘SAY’, ‘flow’ itself flows throughout the poem, taking on meanings and resonances, creating a water-current ecosystem where images are fed by sediment brought from other images. It would be misplaced to ask for a science-style definition of ‘flow’: the poem is interested in how the different meanings of the word relate and how too they relate to similar concepts such as ‘break’. This is not an academic exercise, either. Harris is not just making puns, but drawing out the connections between the concepts and the experiences behind them. The flow of young love is blissful, but Harris, in using ‘flow’ also in his description of the shameful flowing of passers-by around a break, draws attention to the connections between these things: to, for instance, the shameful way in which young love blinds itself to the object of its love (lest it thereby break). Or again, in tying ‘flow’ and ‘break’ together as a dyad throughout the poem, he asks us to think more deeply about the ‘opposition’ between them.

‘SAY’ is, in this abstract sense, doing what much successful poetry does. In an academic paper that covers some of the same ground as the present essay, I mention several other examples. Feel also how Lorna Goodison, in her poem ‘Signals from the Simple Life’ (1999), brings together symbols of the cleanliness of three things not often seen as clean: menstruation (‘A red cloth’), death (‘White napkin’) and marriage (‘new gloves’). Here, controlled, peaceful fabric covering and dignifying crucibles of rejuvenation and recommitment – ‘clean’ here is much more than just the absence of dirt and disease. And when George Moses Horton writes, in his poem ‘George Moses Horton, Myself’ (1865), of how ‘My genius from a boy, / Has fluttered like a bird within my heart’, the ‘fluttering’ metaphor is distant, but it is rich and precise, capturing the activity, delicacy and drive of his genius, as well as its fear, how it is constrained, and how it is hidden by the sort of dehumanising arrogance that cages birds (Horton spent most of his life in slavery).

Again and again, poetry stretches words until and so that we are forced to look afresh at them, and by the same token at the concepts, experiences and attitudes behind them. The poet Randall Jarrell quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing.’

Hopefully I have now convinced you that precisely defining our terms can sometimes be an impediment to clarity: in poetry, when we are trying to stretch and expand concepts that overlap one another in the way that I have illustrated with regard to ‘SAY’, we should use language in a way that is similarly free. When language and its terms are in this state of flux, it would be counterproductive to pin them down with strict definitions: this would just shear language of its capacity to stretch with the reality it is trying to describe. Collingwood has a lot more to say about concepts in poetry, but this essay is not the place to reconstruct his account of the principles that structure this strange (from science’s point of view) behaviour: after all, it took him the entirety of An Essay on Philosophical Method to so much as sketch it out. In focusing on one key difference, I hope I can persuade readers to turn to the original text – it’s a delight.

In poetry, we should not let ourselves be hidebound by this drive to define our terms. But it is not just in writing poetry that we should heed this warning. I have argued elsewhere that stretching concepts is also common in some areas of philosophy, such as continental philosophy. But it is even more common than that. Consider the everyday idea of ‘violence’. If you look at the first definition of this term in a dictionary, you will see reference to physical force or injury. If you read further, though, you will find some very different usages attested: colour combinations can be violent, as can a musical transition; the philosopher Kristie Dotson has also written about ‘epistemic violence’, which can be wrought simply by not listening to someone, if done systematically and from a position of material power advantage. In his article ‘The Boy Who inflated the Concept of “Wolf”’ (2019), Spencer Case criticised what he calls the ‘concept inflation’ of the term from its more common meaning: ‘violence’, he argues, can less effectively be used to muster a response to physical injury if its meaning is diluted by also being used to describe eye-wateringly garish stripes.

Our concepts have vast penumbras: they extend into the most distant places of our souls

Case is right that it is important to separate such different things, but I would stress that this is so only in certain contexts. In other contexts, it is important to do quite the opposite: to bring out the connections between different senses of ‘violence’. In the case of violence, the perspective of ‘physical force’ can bring into focus the causes and consequences of epistemic violence, and can be illuminating as well as obfuscatory. It can, for instance, allow us to see how epistemic violence can lead to physical violence: if someone is systematically not listened to, then their humanity can become overlooked, which increases the risk of physical violence against them.

So many of our concepts have vast penumbras: they have some core meaning, but they extend into the most distant places of our souls, meaning fading into resonance; furthest from the centre, only the deepest-diving poets can bring to the surface of our consciousness how they apply: this is the achievement of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who finds the passions of the Iliad in a local row between the Duffy and McCabe clans, or of Wallace Stevens, who finds concupiscence in ice-cream curds. Every definition of a word cuts these penumbras off, somewhere or other; poetry reminds us that this break in the flow of meaning is a violence.

Acknowledgements: Alison Fernandes, André Grahle, Sophie Keeling, Heather Peterson, Lizzy Ventham.