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Society of Mind

12.12 meaning and definition

What is a meaning? Sometimes we're told a definition of a word, and suddenly, we know a way to use that word. But definitions do not often work so well. Suppose you had to explain what game means. You could start like this:

GAME: An activity in which two teams compete to make a ball do something that results in a winning score.

This fits a certain range of games — but what of games that just use words, or keep no scores, or lack the element of competition? We can capture the nature of more kinds of games by using other definitions, but nothing seems to catch them all. We simply cannot find much in common to everything we call a game. Yet one still feels there is a certain unity that underlies the idea of a game. For example, we feel that we could recognize new games, and that game is more than an arbitrary accumulation.

But now let's turn our attention away from the physical aspects of games and focus on the psychological purposes that games can serve. Then it is much easier to find some qualities that are common to most adult games:

GAME: An activity that is engaging and diverting, deliberately detached from real life.

This second kind of definition treats a game, not as a kind of object-thing, but as a process in the mind. At first this might seem somewhat strange, but really it is nothing new — even our first definition already contained psychological elements, concealed in the words competing and winning. When seen this way, different kinds of games seem much more similar. This is because they all serve common purposes — despite the great diversity of their physical appearances. After all, there is virtually no limit to the variety of physical objects or structures that could be used to accomplish the same psychological purpose — in this case, to make an activity diverting (whatever that might mean). Naturally, then, it would be hard to specify the range of all the possible physical forms of games.

Of course, it is no great surprise to find that game has a more psychological character than does brick, which we can define in physical terms without referring to our goals. But most ideas lie in between. We saw this in the case of chair, which we cannot describe without referring both to a physical structure and to a psychological function.