Stipulative Definitions

Stipulative definitions are used to assign a meaning to a new (usually technical) term or to assign a new or special meaning to a familiar term. They have the following general form: “By such and such expression I (or we) will mean so and so.” Thus, mathematicians introduced the new term “googol” to stand for the number expressed by 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Physicists use words like “charm,” “color,” and “strangeness” to stand for certain features of subatomic particles. Stipulative definitions do not report what a word means; they give a new word a meaning or an old word a new meaning.

Notice that if I say, “I stipulate that . . . ” I thereby stipulate that . . . ; so such utterances are explicit performatives, and stipulation is a speech act. (See Chapter 2.) This explains why stipulative definitions cannot be false, since no performatives can be false. Stipulative definitions can, however, be criticized in other ways. They can be vague or ambiguous. They can be useless or confus- ing. Someone who stipulates a meaning for a term might go on to use the term with a different meaning (just as people sometimes fail to keep their promises). Still, stipulative definitions cannot be false by virtue of failing to correspond to the real meaning of a word, because they give that meaning to that word.

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