Karl Popper on Definitions

Although it’s less common today, in the past, my peer community has engaged in what we call DTDT — “Defining the Damned Thing.” The term describes a discussion that devolves into the ​definition of terms. For example, a discussion about user experience design may lead someone to ask, “What do you mean by ‘experience’?” whereafter the conversation can go down a semantic rabbit hole.

Some folks have a strong aversion to DTDT. However, it’s crucial to ensure that we’re aligned on meaning — especially when we’re using relatively new terms. Despite its popularity among designers and techie folks, “user experience” is still a new term; I’d bet that most people don’t have a clear grasp of what it means. So there’s value to ensuring that everybody’s on the same footing with the language we’re using.

As my friend Andrew Hinton has eloquently written, definitions play an important role in a maturing discipline — and that necessitates these conversations. That said, there’s a flipside to DTDT: it can give the illusion that intelligent discussion is happening when, in fact, no progress is being made. I suspect this is what upsets most people who protest against DTDT.

I was reminded of this issue when I saw this clip from an interview with the philosopher Karl Popper:

In my opinion, it’s a task in life to train oneself to speak as clearly as possible. This isn’t achieved by paying special attention to words, but by clearly formulating theses, so formulated as to be criticizable. People who speak too much about words or concepts or definitions don’t actually bring anything forward that makes a claim to truth. So you can’t do anything against it. A definition is a pure conventional matter.

He goes on to expand on why he thinks definitions aren’t helpful to philosophy:

They only lead to a pretentious, false precision, to the impression that one is particularly precise. But it’s a sham precision, it isn’t genuine clarity. For that reason, I’m against the discussion of terms and definitions. I’m rather for plain, clear speaking.

That’s the goal: alignment through plain, clear speaking.

Karl Popper on Definitions (1974)