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4 Dictionary and encyclopedia

In the previous chapter we saw, according to Russell, the dictionary and encyclopaedia give the official and socially sanctioned meaning of a word. Following an example I'll show the dictionary fails to give an unambiguous meaning. However, that is not a mistake of the dictionary, it is a consequence of the functioning of our conceptual system.


4.1 What exactly is a chair?

I return to the quotation from Russell discussed in the previous chapter: But although the dictionary or the encyclopaedia gives what may be called the official and socially sanctioned meaning of a word, no two people who use the same word have just the same thought in their minds.

Thus, according to Russell, the dictionary and encyclopaedia mention the official and socially sanctioned meaning of a word. How to understand the concept of meaning here? If I agree with Frege's notion of 'Bedeutung' the dictionary cannot help me much further. After all, a word X would refer to an object or a collection of objects in the actual world. However, the dictionary does not contain objects, just words. Someone who doesn't know the meaning of the word X and looks it up in the dictionary, doesn't find any references to actual objects, only references to other words, which he hopefully knows. If not, he has to search further. If he doesn't know the meaning of any word, the dictionary has no function for him.

Let's see how the dictionary defines a meaning in practice. I take as an example the description the online Cambridge Dictionary ('Make your words meaningful') gives of the concept 'chair'.

1) chair: a seat for one person that has a back, usually four legs, and sometimes two arms

This seems to be the objective description which fits in the realistic world view. Then we look how the various parts of the description are defined themselves. What is a seat?

muurstoel2) seat: a piece of furniture or part of a train, plane, etc. that has been designed for someone to sit on

Here a new element comes into the definition: it has been disigned to sit on. A strange description if you start from the realistic view. After all, the chair isn't anymore defined as an object with a number of objective properties. It's suddenly about its function, the purpose for which it is intended. Such a purpose doesn't fit in the realistic worldview, in that world the objectively existing objects should be described in objective terms which exclusively describe the material properties of the object. Instead, the dictionary describes the intention of the maker and the function for a possible user of the chair as the property of the material object. We are looking further. What is furniture?

3) furniture: things such as chairs, tables, beds, cupboards, etc. that are put into a house or other building to make it suitable and comfortable for living or working in

Now the function is even explicitly mentioned: an object put into a house or other building to make it suitable an comfotable for living or working in. Moreover we meet a circular definition. If we, after all, in the original description 1) successively substitute the descriptions 2) and 3), an interesting announcement comes out: a chair is a piece of things such as chairs (...). Notice the meanings: a chair is a piece of things such as tables, a chair is a piece of things such as beds, a chair is a piece of things such as cupboards are also sanctioned by the dictionary.
Florida electric chairWhile in 2) the seat was situated in a train, plane, etc in 3) the furniture is put in a house or other building; lawn chairs doesn't seem to exist. And, according to these definitions, has the electric chair been put into the prison to make it suitable and comfortable for living or working in?

What could be a leg the back and arms?


  1. one of the parts of the body of a human or animal that is used for standing or walking
  2. the part of a piece of clothing that you put your leg in
  3. one of the thin vertical parts that support an object


  1. the inside or outside part of an object, vehicle, building, etc. that is furthest from the front
  2. the part of your body that is opposite to the front, from your shoulders to your bottom: the part of your body that is opposite to the front, from your shoulders to your bottom

Arm: The arm of a piece of clothing or furniture is a part of it that you put your arm in or on

Here the dictionary fails to be explicit. I guess I've to use the description 3. and 1.

Totally unfamiliar with the meaning and use of 'chair' I substitute the different descriptions I've found in the dictionary into the original entree:

Chair: a  piece of furniture or part of a train, plane, etc. that has been designed for someone to sit on for one person that has a inside or outside part of an object, vehicle, building, etc. that is furthest from the front, usually four thin vertical parts that support an object, and sometimes two parts of it that you put your arm in or on. 

4.2 The 'failure' of the dictionary

It seems unlikely a person totally unfamiliar with the meaning and use of a word who consults the dictionary will become much wiser. It is clear the lemmas in the dictionary aren't drawn up with the intention to arrive at the final meaning with the help of formal substitution. Rather, they are suitable to clarify how words in the community using the language in question are used. The dictionary also mentions many things that have nothing to do with the object itself, all the more with the intentions of both human creators and users.

BoomstoelFormally, the here depicted models are not caught in the definitions of the Cambride Dictionary. Of course, the description in the dictionary can be extended, but with every description always an object can be constructed that does not fully comply with it and yet immediately recognized as a chair by us. Apparently it is not the function of a dictionary to give an 'exact' description, the idea that a chair is an object to sit on is actually sufficient, albeit the differences with corresponding objects must be indicated, so that it's clear what is the difference between a chair and for example a stool, an armchair or a couch.

The failure of dictionary and encyclopaedia to describe a material object as a chair in terms of objective properties is not a shortcoming of the dictionary, but confirms the inaccuracy of the realistic, objective world view. That which makes a chair into a chair is the way it is used by people. Form and material are important to the extent that the object must be suitable to meet the intended function - sitting. And the latter is precisely the objective, or at least intersubjective, aspect to the definition. After all, we are easily able to judge whether an object is a chair, by which we mean it is made and suitable for seating and that it stands out from, for example, a stool or a sofa. In daily practice, people agree on that as soon as one meets with the experience 'chair'.

boomstamstoelHowever, what happens when we observe the chair is complicated. When I say I see the chair I mean to say I see an image which I interpret as an object which is made to sit on. However obvious this may seem, it is a complex interpretation process. For there is nothing in the material object itself which makes it a chair and we need a lot of knowledge to be able to come to that interpretation. For example, one has to know objects are made on which you can sit and which are made exclusively for sitting on them. One has to know which materials and forms are usually used for this and one must be able to interpret the context: a tree trunk with the shape of a chair in a living room, a place where we expect a chair, will be interpreted as a special design chair, while in a forest we just see a tree stump which happens to have the shape of a chair.

However, the meaning of our term 'chair' goes far beyond the form. The feeling we pass through when we sit on it, for example, belongs to the chair as we experience it. Someone can experience a simple wooden chair with a wicker seat as 'the chairs on which we once sat together in the kitchen', but also as 'uncomfortable chairs such as those on which we had to sit in the church'. Aspects such as beautiful or old, worn or comfortable, modern or paintless, hard or soft to sit on are partly intersubjective, partly strongly individual. If there are several chairs in a room and we are free to decide which ones we want to sit on, we choose, depending on the situation, the most suitable or the most pleasant, which means that we are able to judge which chair it is best without having to try it out first.

Thus we connect a whole series of experiences to the image of the chair. We experience the chair as beautiful or old, worn or comfortable, modern or paintless, hard or soft to sit on, and so on. All those images are part of our concept 'chair' which can emerge as soon as we see a chair, or when we talk or think about it. If you and I say we see the same chair, we both receive visual impressions to which we each add our own connections, associations which are determined by our past and therefore partly different. This means you and my concept chair contain many similarities, but also differ in many aspects.

Analytical philosophers consider this as a shortcoming of the natural language and try to analyse sentences of the natural language in relationships between unambiguously defined concepts. A hopeless project, because the ambiguity of the concepts and the variation in meaning between different persons are not just a characteristic of the natural language, but even an essential aspect of the conceptual system of man. In trying to understand that system, the 'mistakes' of the natural language must not be brushed away. Instead those should be studied and one should try to understand how it's possible to communicate well with one another while the words used by each of them partially have different meanings.

4.3 Concepts

In order to do so I use the notion concept, a well-known notion in both linguistics, psychology and philosophy. It stands for an idea, a state of our mind. The philosophers describe the concepts mainly in relation between at one hand words - the names we use - and at the other hand objects which are indicated with them. For example this chapter's 'chair' is an idea or concept we have in our head in relation with both the word "chair" and the physical chair, the object.

However, I change the usual content of the notion concept.
First, I do not limit myself to so-called lexical concepts, concepts which are connected to a word or a sentence. For me, an unnamed dream is a concept too, as is a pebble on the street at which I focus my attention.
Secondly I don't make any connection between concepts with objects in reality. Thus, I don't answer the question whether or not the pebble is something in a truly existing world just as we observe in our mind the concept of a ghost without ever us wondering whether or not it has a relation with a real existing ghost. For me, a concept is just a state of my mind. If others possess concepts too, which I assume, it concerns concepts in their minds. By the way I'll define it, I create a fundamentally different meaning of concept than is known and common in philosophy.