Mark Blasini

Concepts Toolbox

Circular synonymity


This is my term for the effect of defining a concept by a synonym whose definition is the original concept in question. Thus, the definition goes in circles. In other words, the tools that one is using to define the concept is, in effect, the concept itself.

The problem with circular synonymity is that it fails to facilitate generating a clear image of the concept. Rather, it obfuscates clarity by pitching the definition off to a synonym, whose definition is simply the original word. It is an extremely common phenomenon that encapsulates Western thinking. Examples:

  1. Causality. A cause is typically defined as an event that is responsible for producing, or bringing about, another event (effect). So causes are that which produce effects. If we define "produce," however, the common word to define it is "cause" - that is, to bring about. In other words, causes cause effects. This provides no clear picture by which we can understand what a causal process is.
  2. Desire. Desire is usually defined by "want": when you desire something you want it. How does one define "want"? Well, to want something is to desire it. To crave it. No clear picture of desire is actual communicated here; the buck is simply passed off between the synonyms.
  3. Probability. A probability is a calculation for likelihood or chance. For example, the probability that a coin will land heads or tails is 50%, meaning that it is just as likely to be heads as it is to be tails. And what does likelihood mean? Well, likelihood is precisely how probable something is. In other words, probability is a measure of probability.
The way out of circular synonymity is by focusing on describing the conditions under which the concept is expressed. If the conditions are describable, then, the concept can be defined. Sometimes this means that some concepts need to be abandoned because the conditions cannot be made clear. Other concepts will be transformed with a new understanding.

For example, let's consider the word "desire." What are the conditions under which desire occurs? In order for desire to occur, a behavior or activity must be expressed. When one eats, for instance, one desires to chew, swallow, and digest food. When one walks, one desires to have one's feet support one upright in motion by moving one foot in front of the other. Desire always occurs when there is an activity; one cannot do what one does not desire to do (even if that activity may not be the most "desirable" or preferrable thing the person wants to do). If there is activity, there is a desire to do that activity.

From this, we can define desire as the investment of oneself in a self-expressive activity. Whenever one expresses onself - eating, sleeping, jumping, running, talking, thinking, fantasizing, etc. - one is investing oneself in that activity, in bringing that activity about. There is always a measure of desire in self-expression.

This definition communicates a clear concept of desire - that is, one that is imaginable. Indeed, it provides a specific framework for looking at the world, which is what a concept is supposed to do.

So if you want to communicate clear concepts, concepts whose definitions are imaginable and thus understandable, avoid circular synonymity. Don't accept it.

tags: language; philosophy