The Science of Comprehension

Part V

The Circular Dictionary

How Do We Get Grounded In Reality?

Dictionaries define words using... words. Sounds rather circular (as in "Circular Reasoning" — see "Reasoning, Circular"). You can look up a word, then look up those words that define the word, and each of those words are in turn defined using even more words. And on and on, ad infinitum. Somewhere along the line we have to eventually reach words for concepts the reader is already familiar with so that no further definition is required.1 , 2

Yet there are no words that are so basic a dictionary doesn't bother to include them, nor are there any words in a dictionary that do not have a definition because they are so basic they don't need one. There are no words where the definition is, "Hey buddy, if you don't know what THIS means, you might as well just give up."

How do we get ourselves grounded in reality? How do we get out of the theoretical realm of words defined by other words back to the concrete world of our physical experience? Abstract concepts must be explained using more concrete concepts, and those concrete concepts in turn are explained using even more basic concepts. We must eventually arrive at concepts grounded in experiences we've already had. There must be some very basic concepts that are so basic even a young child is already familiar with them by the time they learn to talk. What are these very basic concepts upon which all the rest of our knowledge is built upon? It's all got to start somewhere.

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Supplemental Footnotes:

1. "The tethering of words to reality helps allay the worry that language ensnares us in a self-contained web of symbols. In this worry, the meanings of words are ultimately circular, each defined in terms of the others. As one semanticist observed, a typical dictionary plays this game when it tells the user that:
         Word Snare
This cat's cradle is dreaded by those who crave certainty in words, embraced by adherents of deconstructionism and postmodernism, and exploited by the writer of a dictionary of computer jargon:
  • Endless loop: See Loop, Endless

  • Loop, Endless: See Endless Loop
2 A definition (which admittedly is always incomplete) is not the same thing as a semantic representation. A definition is a dictionary’s explanation of the meaning of an English word using other English words, intended to be read by a whole person, applying the entirety of his or her intelligence and language skills. A semantic representation is a person’s knowledge of the meaning of an English word in conceptual structure (the language of thought), processed by a system of the brain that manipulates chunks of conceptual structure and relates them to the senses. Definitions can afford to be incomplete because they can leave a lot to the imagination of a speaker of the language. Semantic representations have to be more explicit because they are the imagination of the speaker of the language."

From The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker.
Footnote #1: pg 11-12, citing Lieberson, S. 2000. A Matter of taste: How names, fashions, and culture change.
Footnote #2: pg 100.

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