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A circular definition is one that uses the term(s) being defined as a part of the definition or assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined. There are several kinds of circular definition, and several ways of characterising the term: pragmatic, lexicographic and linguistic.

Circular definitions may be unhelpful if the audience must either already know the meaning of the key term, or if the term to be defined is used in the definition itself.

Approaches to characterizing circular definitions

Pragmatic

From a pragmatic point of view, circular definitions may be characterised in terms of new, useful or helpful information: A definition is deficient if the audience must either already know the meaning of the key term, or if the term to be defined is used in the definition itself. Such definitions lead to a need for additional information that motivated someone to look at the definition in the first place and, thus, violate the principle of providing new or useful information.[1] Here are some examples:

  • Suppose we define "oak" as a tree which has catkins and grows from an acorn, and then define "acorn" as the nut produced by an oak tree. To someone who does not know which trees are oaks, nor which nuts are acorns, the definition is inadequate.
  • If someone wants to know what a cellular phone is, telling them that it is a "phone that is cellular" will not be especially illuminating. Much more helpful would be to explain the concept of a cell in the context of telecommunications, or at least to make some reference to portability.
  • Similarly, defining dialectical materialism as "materialism that involves dialectic" is unhelpful.

Consequently, when constructing systems of definitions, authors should use good practices that avoid producing viciously circular definitions. In many learner's dictionaries, circular definitions are greatly reduced by writing definitions using only the words in a constrained defining vocabulary.[2]

Lexicographic

From a lexicographic point of view, the simplest form of circular definition in a dictionary is in terms of synonyms, and the number of steps for closing the definition chain into a circle is known as the depth of the circular definition: the circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an object" is a circular definition with a depth of two. The circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an entity" → "entity: an object" has a depth of three.

"Four legs" is a simple example of differentia specifica

The classic "genus-difference" dictionary definition is in terms of nearest kind (genus proximum) and specific differences (differentia specifica). This genus-difference description may be involved in producing circular definitions of part and kind relationships, for example: "rake: an implement with three or more tines" → "tine: a part of a rake". However, if more specific differences are added, then the effect of circularity may disappear: "rake: a gardening implement with a long handle with three or more tines arranged on crossbar at 90° to the handle and the tines at 90° to both crossbar and handle"; in this case, "tine" is most usefully defined with reference to "rake", but with additional differences providing points of comparison, e.g.: "tine: a sharp spike at the end of a rake". In practice, a pragmatic approach is often taken in considering the effects of circularity in dictionary definitions.[3]

Linguistic

From a linguistic point of view, some intuitively circular definitions in the derivation of words can easily be shown to be non-circular. For example, sometimes a definition like "musicality: the quality or state of being musical" is said to be circular. But strictly speaking, the condition "the term(s) being defined as a part of the definition or assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined" is false in this case. The definition chain "musicality: the quality or state of being musical" → "musical: associated with music" → "music: an acoustic art form" is a two-step derivation of the word "musicality" from the root "music", where the chain ends. A definition chain which ends is not circular. It may be objected that the term to be defined and one of the difference terms in the definition share the same root; the answer is that the objection requires prior analysis of the terms in order to identify identical parts, yet the terms themselves cannot be reduced to these parts: the meaning of "musicality" is composed of the meaning of "musical" and the meaning of "ity", the meaning of "musical" is composed of the meaning of "music" and "al". In each case, the terms to be defined and the terms in the definition are different.[citation needed]

Mathematical

Formal approaches to characterizing circular definitions

Circular definitions may be unhelpful if the audience must either already know the meaning of the key term, or if the term to be defined is used in the definition itself.

From a pragmatic point of view, circular definitions may be characterised in terms of new, useful or helpful information: A definition is deficient if the audience must either already know the meaning of the key term, or if the term to be defined is used in the definition itself. Such definitions lead to a need for additional information that motivated someone to look at the definition in the first place and, thus, violate the principle of providing new or useful information.[1] Here are some examples:

  • Suppose we define "oak" as a tree which has catkins and grows from an acorn, and then define "acorn" as the nut produced by an oak tree. To someone who does not know which trees are oaks, nor which nuts are acorns, the definition is inadequate.
  • If someone wants to know what a cellular phone is, telling them that it is a "phone that is cellular" will not be especially illuminating. Much more helpful would be to explain the concept of a cell in the context of telecommunications, or at least to make some reference to portability.
  • Similarly, defining dialectical materialism as "materialism that involves dialectic" is unhelpful.

Consequently, when constructing systems of definitions, authors should use good practices that avoid producing viciously circular definitions. In many learner's dictionaries, circular definitions are greatly reduced by writing definitions using only the words in a constrained defining vocabulary.[2]

Lexicographic

From a lexicographic point of view, the simplest form of circular definition in a dictionary is in terms of synonyms, and the number of steps for closing the definition chain into a circle is known as the depth of the circular definition: the circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an object" is a circular definition with a depth of two. The circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an entity" → "entity: an object" has a depth of three.

defining vocabulary.[2]

Lexicographic

From a lexicographic point of view, the simplest form of circular definition in a dictionary is in terms of synonyms, and the number of steps for closing the definition chain into a circle is known as the depth of the circular definition: the circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an object" is a circular definition with a depth of two. The circular definition "object: a thing" → "thing: an entity" → "entity: an object" has a depth of three.

genus proximum) and specific differences (differentia specifica). This genus-difference description may be involved in producing circular definitions of part and kind relationships, for example: "rake: an implement with three or more tines" → "tine: a part of a rake". However, if more specific differences are added, then the effect of circularity may disappear: "rake: a gardening implement with a long handle with three or more tines arranged on crossbar at 90° to the handle and the tines at 90° to both crossbar and handle"; in this case, "tine" is most usefully defined with reference to "rake", but with additional differences providing points of comparison, e.g.: "tine: a sharp spike at the end of a rake". In practice, a pragmatic approach is often taken in considering the effects of circularity in dictionary definitions.[3]

Linguistic

From a linguistic point of view, some intuitively circular definitions in the derivation of words can easily be shown to be non-circular. For example, sometimes a definition like "musicality: the quality or state of being musical" is said to be circular. But strictly speaking, the condition "the ter

From a linguistic point of view, some intuitively circular definitions in the derivation of words can easily be shown to be non-circular. For example, sometimes a definition like "musicality: the quality or state of being musical" is said to be circular. But strictly speaking, the condition "the term(s) being defined as a part of the definition or assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined" is false in this case. The definition chain "musicality: the quality or state of being musical" → "musical: associated with music" → "music: an acoustic art form" is a two-step derivation of the word "musicality" from the root "music", where the chain ends. A definition chain which ends is not circular. It may be objected that the term to be defined and one of the difference terms in the definition share the same root; the answer is that the objection requires prior analysis of the terms in order to identify identical parts, yet the terms themselves cannot be reduced to these parts: the meaning of "musicality" is composed of the meaning of "musical" and the meaning of "ity", the meaning of "musical" is composed of the meaning of "music" and "al". In each case, the terms to be defined and the terms in the definition are different.[citation needed]

Mathematical

Formal approaches to characterizing circular definitions are found in logic, mathematics and in computer science. A branch of mathematics called non-well-founded set theory allows for the construction of circular sets. Circular sets are good for modelling cycles and, despite the field's name, this area of mathematics is well founded. Computer science allows for procedures to be defined by using recursion. Such definitions are not circular as long as they terminate.[4]

Circular lexicographic (dictionary) definitions