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DEFINITION is the process of explaining a subject by setting bounds to it, enclosing it within its limits, showing its extent. The ocean is properly defined by the shore; a continent or island is defined by its coastline: shores set limits to the ocean; coastlines bound the island or continent. So, when a child asks, “What is Switzerland?” you show on the map the pink or yellow or green space that is included within certain definite boundaries. These boundaries set a limit to the extent of that country; in other words, they define it. As soon as a traveler steps beyond the limit of that country, he is at once in another realm, has become identified with a quite different set of conditions and circumstances
he is, in fact, in a country that has a different definition from that of Switzerland. In the same way, when some one asks what truth is, or nickel steel, or a grand piano, or humanism, or art, or rotation of crops, or a rocking chair, or the forward pass, you attempt, in your reply, to set bounds to the thing in question, to restrict it, to fence it off, to state the line beyond which if it goes it ceases to be one thing and becomes another. It is by no means always an easy task to find this line. Many a child has come to grief in his attempts to keep safely within the limits of truth and yet be close up to the realm of desirable falsehood. Likewise many witnesses in court have been beguiled or browbeaten into crossing the line without knowing that they were getting into the country of the enemy. But though the quest for the line may be difficult, a true definition must set off the thing being defined from other things, must set bounds to it, enclose it within its limits, show its extent.
The Process of Definition The logical process of defining consists of two steps: first, stating the class or group to which the object of definition belongs, as to say that Switzerland is a country, the forward pass is a strategic device in football, humanism is a philosophy of personal development; and second, pointing out the difference between the object of definition and other members of the class, showing how it is distinguished from them. Since the purpose of definition is to limit the thing defined, the practical value of the first step is at once apparent. If, in total ignorance, a resident of India asks you, "What is ragtime?” the most helpful thing in the world that
you can do for him is to cleave away with one stroke everything else in the world but music - absolute exclusion of all other human interests — and place ragtime in that comparatively narrow field. That is the first thing of great help. However many qualities you may attribute to ragtime, whether you call it inspiring, invigorating, pleasing, detestable, or what not, - you are making at best only slow progress toward defining, really limiting ragtime. The number of pleasing things, for example, is so endless, and the things are so diverse in character that your listener is almost as ignorant after such a quality has been attributed as he was before. But the moment that you limit ragtime to music you scatter untold clouds of doubt and place the inquirer in the comfortable position of having a fairly large working knowledge. What is left for the inquirer to do is merely to distinguish ragtime from other kinds of music - after all, a rather simple task. Likewise in any definition, such as that of rotation of crops, the first necessity is to place the subject in its proper field, in this case agriculture; the grand piano in the class of musical instruments; the rocking chair in the class of furniture.
Now sometimes the task of discovering to what class your subject belongs is difficult. Is a believer in Unitarianism a Christian? He follows the ethical teachings of Jesus but denies him any special divinity. In this case obviously the question of classification will depend on the definition that we make of Christianity. Is a man who serves the state in legislative or judicial capacity and at the same time writes novels to be called a statesman or a man of letters? Governments have fallen into difficulty with each other over such things as contraband of war, there being great doubt at times whether a particular thing is properly contraband or not. The question is sometimes doubtful — you will be inclined to say, “I don't know what to call this,” but in making a definition call it you must. The United States Government, facing the problem of discovering the proper class for frogs' legs, in determining customs duties after much perturbation placed them under the heading “poultry.” Ordinarily you will find slight difficulty in determining the class; but in every case you must patiently search until you have found some class into which your subject naturally fits. Until you have done this you obviously cannot set it apart from other members, because you will not really know what the other members are, you will be forced to run through the total list of human ideas and things. Until you know that oligarchy is one form of political society you cannot know whether to set it off from democracy and monarchy or from Christianity and Buddhism. First, then, however difficult, discover the class to which your subject belongs. In the following definition of a clearing-house, you will find that in the course of time the class to which the subject belongs has changed, has come to include more space, needs a larger fence to surround it, and therefore the definition has been changed.
What is a clearing-house? The Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania has defined it thus: "It is an ingenious device to simplify and facilitate the work of the banks in reaching an adjustment and payment of the daily balances due to and from each other at one time and in one place on each day. In practical operation it is a place where all the representatives of the banks in a given city meet, and, under the supervision of a competent committee or officer selected by the associated banks, settle their accounts with each other and make or receive payments of balances and so ‘clear' the transactions of the day for which the settlement is made.”
But we must go farther than this, for though originally designed as a labor-saving device, the clearing-house has expanded far beyond those limits, until it has become a medium for united action among the banks in ways that did not exist even in the imaginations of those who were instrumental in its inception. A clearinghouse, therefore, may be defined as a device to simplify and facilitate the daily exchange of items and settlements of balances among the banks, and a medium for united action upon all questions affecting their mutual welfare.1
The second step in the logical process of definition is to show how the subject for definition differs from other members of its class. Once I am told that the piano is a musical instrument I must next learn wherein it differs from the violin, the kettle-drum, and the English horn. The surname Tomlinson partly defines a person as a member of the Tomlinson family, but the definition is not complete until the name is modified and the person is distinguished by George or Charles or whatever name may belong to him. A skillful shepherd knows not only his flocks but also the characteristics of the different members of the flocks, so that he can say, “This sheep is the one in X flock that is always getting into the clover.” Here “X flock" is the class, and the quality of abusing the clover is the distinguishing individual tag. Since the desire in this part of the process of defining is to set individuals apart, no mention will be made of qualities that are shared in common but only of those that are peculiar to the individual. These qualities that distinguish individual members of classes from each other are called the differentia, just as the class is commonly called the genus.
i Francis M. Burdick: The Essentials of Business Law. By courtesy of the publishers, D. Appleton & Co., New York City. Copyright 1902, 1908, by D. Appleton & Co.
For convenience in keeping the list of differentia reasonably small, to avoid unwieldiness of definition, care must be exercised in choosing the class. When a class which itself contains other possible classes is chosen, a long list of differentia will be necessary. It is well, therefore, to choose a relatively small class to begin with. For example, if I put the piano into the large class of musical instruments, I shall then be under the necessity of amassing sufficient differentia to set it apart from wind instruments whether of brass or wood, from instruments of percussion, and from other stringed instruments that do not use metal strings. If I restrict the class to stringed instruments, I thereby exclude the differentia of both wind instruments and instruments of percussion. If I further restrict the class, at the beginning, to instruments with metal strings, I need then to employ only such differentia as will set it off, perhaps, from instruments that do not have a sounding board for their metal strings. Such restriction of the class is advisable chiefly for purposes of economy of effort in discovering the differentia, and is usually accomplished, in expression, by preceding the class name with a limiting adjective or by using a limits ing phrase. This adjective or this phrase is likely to be the expression of differentia among smaller classes, the differentia among individual members being stated more at length later in the definition.
The process of definition will be complete, then, when the subject of definition has been assigned to a class, which for convenience should be relatively small, and the qualities that distinguish the subject from other members of the class have been found.