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An ostensive definition conveys the meaning of a term by pointing out examples. This type of
definition A definition is a statement of the meaning of a term (a word, phrase, or other set of symbols). Definitions can be classified into two large categories: intensional definitions (which try to give the sense of a term), and extensional definitio ...

definition
is often used where the term is difficult to define verbally, either because the words will not be understood (as with children and new speakers of a language) or because of the nature of the term (such as colors or sensations). It is usually accompanied with a gesture
pointing Pointing is a gesture specifying a direction from a person's body, usually indicating a location, person, event, thing or idea. It typically is formed by extending the arm, hand, and index finger, although it may be functionally similar to other ...

pointing
to the object serving as an example, and for this reason is also often referred to as " definition by pointing".


Overview

An ostensive definition assumes the questioner has sufficient understanding to recognize the type of information being given.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein ( ; ; 26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrians, Austrian-British people, British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy o ...

Ludwig Wittgenstein
writes:
So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means to explain a colour-word to me the ostensive definition "That is called 'sepia' " will help me to understand the word.... One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a thing's name. But what does one have to know?
The limitations of ostensive definition are exploited in a famous argument from the ''
Philosophical Investigations ''Philosophical Investigations'' (german: Philosophische Untersuchungen) is a work by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, published posthumously in 1953. ''Philosophical Investigations'' is divided into two parts, consisting of what Wittgens ...
'' (which deal primarily with the
philosophy of language In analytic philosophy, philosophy of language investigates the nature of language and the relations between language, language users, and the world. Investigations may include inquiry into the nature of Meaning (philosophy of language), meanin ...
), the
private language argument The private language argument argues that a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent, and was introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later work, especially in the ''Philosophical Investigations''. The argument was cent ...
, in which
Wittgenstein Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein ( ; ; 26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrians, Austrian-British people, British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy o ...
asks if it is possible to have a private language that no one else can understand.Wittgenstein, Ludwig. ''Philosophical Investigations'', §258. John Passmore states that the term was first defined by the British logician
William Ernest Johnson William Ernest Johnson, Fellow of the British Academy, FBA (23 June 1858 – 14 January 1931), usually cited as W. E. Johnson, was a British philosopher, logician and economic theorist.Zabell, S.L. (2008"Johnson, William Ernest (1858–1931)"I ...
(1858–1931):
"His neologisms, as rarely happens, have won wide acceptance: such phrases as "ostensive definition", such contrasts as those between ... "determinates" and "determinables", "continuants" and "occurrents", are now familiar in philosophical literature" (Passmore 1966, p. 344).


See also

* Comprehension * Enumerative definition *
Exemplification Exemplification, in the philosophy of language In analytic philosophy, philosophy of language investigates the nature of language and the relations between language, language users, and the world. Investigations may include inquiry into the na ...
* Extensional and intensional definitions *
Intension In any of several fields of study that treat the use of signs — for example, in linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objectiv ...
*
Ostension Ostension is the act of showing or demonstrating something. In communication In communication theory and especially in relevance theory, ''ostensive behaviour'' or ''ostension'' is a behaviour that signals the intention to communicate something. ...


Notes


References

* * * (in particular Sect.11)


Further reading

* Chad Engelland (ed.) '' Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind''. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014 Logic Pragmatics Semantics Semiotics Definition {{semiotics-stub