Critical Thinking Tip #7: Try Using Aristotle’s Method of Definition to Get a Handle on What You’re Pondering

Critical thinking gets turbo-charged wherever terms are clearly defined. And it was Aristotle who first noticed that, if a definition is to be any good, it should say something general and something specific. Aristotle designated these two components the genus and diaphora (also known as the species or differentia) of a definition.  

Take, for example, the term human (or humans). What are human beings? To answer the genus question, we might set humans into the broad conceptual category of animals, or we may wish to say something a bit less obvious and more specific:

Humans belong to the small group of self-aware social mammals that includes chimps and dolphins. 

That’s a pretty clear answer to the genus question: humans are broadly or narrowly located within the hierarchy of living things, and most specifically within the kingdom of animals (or even more specifically, within the group of mammals that are self-aware and social).

Now for the differentia—the “species” designation. What distinguishes, in an essential manner, humans from other self-aware social mammals? In answer to this we might conclude the following: humans are uniquely characterized by their ability to reason, to speak, and to extend their influence and control over their environments via tools.

So this brings us to a pretty good definition for what it means to be human:

Humans are self-aware social mammals generally possessing the ability to reason, speak, and use complex tools.

We could even offer a very abbreviated definition of humans that still possesses a genus and a differentia:

Humans are animals characterized by rationality.

Or we might just say,

Humans are rational animals.

But what if we preferred not to define ourselves, as humans, just in relation to animals? There are, after all, other relations that we might wish to place humans in, and to do so would bring us to other definitions of what it means to be human. This is important to notice, for it reminds us that Aristotelian definition is always set into some broader conceptual hierarchy of our choosing.

We might, for example, wish to define what a human is within the hierarchy of conceivably conscious beings (gods, angels, etc), in which case we might arrive at an answer to the genus question in which we share key characteristics, not with gods or angels (who are, presumably, immortal and free of materiality), but with aliens:

Humans belong to the group of conscious beings that are carbon-based, solar system dependent, limited in knowledge, prone to error, and mortal.

Unless they are quite far in advance of us, most conscious life forms beyond Earth are likely to share these characteristics with us. Hence the saying, “To err is human”, is also almost certainly true of many aliens (“To err is alien”). What makes us different is that we are on Earth, and so we might reach, after thinking about it some more, a genus-differentia definition something like this:

Humans are Earth-bound and body-limited conscious mammals.

In the conceptual hierarchy of conceivable conscious beings, the above definition distinguishes humans from gods (who are not Earth-bound or body-limited) and aliens (who are not of this Earth and have not evolved as mammals on our planet). And, in a pinch, we might make a genus-differentia definition that is really compact:

Humans are conscious mortals.

Or:

Humans are conscious earthlings.

But, really, this is inadequate because now we are being tapped on the shoulder by the chimps and dolphins (who are also quite self-aware and live on earth). So we might try again:

Humans are conscious and speech-producing mortals (or earthlings).

In relation to the gods and aliens, our mortality and Earth-boundedness comes to the fore of definition; in relation to other social animals, our rational, speech, and tool-using attributes come to the fore. Definition is driven by the conceptual hierarchy we are trying to fit a thing into (and what we regard as essential to it).

For other critical thinking tips, see here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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