Definitions Theory and Its Problems

One approach to determine the meaning from words is by using definitions theory. Definitions theory states that in order to uncover the meaning of a sentence or expression we must first define each word in the expression. These words combine to form the expression, thus the expression’s meaning is just a combination of all of the definitions of all of the words in an expression. There are three problems with definitions theory. These are: circularity, type of knowledge, and context.


I’ve covered what circularity means in another article, but I’m going to briefly cover it here. If you want to read more about it you can read more in my article about circularity in semantics.

If we assume that an expression’s meaning is just the sum of all of the words in the expression, we must first define all of the words in the expression. However, in order to understand those definitions, we must define all of the words in the definition. This would go on forever.

Type of knowledge

How do we know what a word means? There are two types of knowledge: linguistic knowledge, the meaning of words and encyclopedic knowledge, about the way the word is.

Saeed uses the example of the world whale. If two people have a different understanding of the word, for example, one person thinks that a whale is a fish and the other person thinks that a whale is a mammal, does the sentence “I was swallowed by a whale” mean the same to both speakers?


The last problem with definitions theory is that context can play a role in an expression’s meaning. If you show up to my birthday party and I say “You came,” I may express happiness, but if I didn’t want you there and I said  “You came” the meaning would be one of unwanted surprise.

What to sound more like a native English speaker?

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