What Are Theoretical Definitions?

Constructing a 'Theory' About the Nature of a Concept

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If a definition is supposed to help us better understand a concept, theoretical definitions are those which do the most of the heavy work in that regard. Lexical definitions strive to help us understand how a concept is used, but theoretical definitions attempt to help us understand how a concept is and should be used in all cases. 

What Are Theoretical Definitions?

Theoretical definitions occur whenever we try to characterize all entities or examples of a particular type, thing, or concept.

They are usually seen in philosophy or science and they can be among the most difficult to fully comprehend.

An example from philosophy would be a discussion about the nature of love. That is, any attempt to define “love” in a way that includes all actual instances of “love” while excluding all instances that aren’t really “love.” 

An example from science would be an attempt to define “cancer” in a way that eliminated any vagueness and any borderline cases. It is an attempt to make clear exactly what is and what is not truly cancerous.

The reason such definitions are called “theoretical” is because the definitions themselves attempt to construct a “theory” about the nature of the thing in question.

A theoretical definition of “justice,” for example, is not simply an attempt to point out what justice is or report on how people happen to use the word. Instead, it is an attempt to create a theory which argues for a particular conception of justice.

Comparing Theoretical and Other Definitions

Theoretical definitions are, for this reason, closely related to persuasive definition -- those intended to influence. They differ from each other because the theoretical definition does make use of regular lexical definitions. At the same time, it also tries to persuade people to adopt some particular position on the nature of the thing in question.

Theoretical definitions may be presented in a neutral manner. Yet, they are created with a specific agenda and purpose in mind.

Theoretical definitions are also similar to stipulative definitions -- any time a word is being defined for the first time or in a brand new way. Both types of definitions propose a new understanding of the concept involved. That is, a new theory which adequately explains the concept in all of its senses.

Like stipulative definitions, a theoretical definition cannot be judged true or false or be deemed entirely accurate or inaccurate. As proposals to understand an idea in a new way, theoretical definitions may be useful or not, fair or not, even fruitful or not — but accuracy is not a relevant attribute.

Using Theoretical Definitions

As with theories, theoretical definitions are mere educated guesses. We take what we know about a given subject, concept, or thing, and attempt to define it to the best of our current knowledge. Whether that definition is the truth in the end, is a matter of debate and, at the moment, irrelevant. 

There is also a certain amount of subjectivity in theoretic definitions. Because we are trying to encompass all forms of a single concept, there are going to be instances when it is not fully the truth.