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Plastic Definitions

The Define/Destroy method makes, destroys, rebuilds definitions. A definition is, in other words, the key thing that is made, changed, discarded when applying the method. These definitions are unstable by design, and this makes them very different from ones in glossaries of mature domains of knowledge. In Define/Destroy, a definition is temporary, whereas in, say, the Oxford English Dictionary, or an ISO Standard, the purpose of the definition is not to change. This fundamental difference makes it necessary to call definitions in Define/Destroy differently. 

Because they are unstable, and intentionally so, because they change as and when needed, they are called plastic definitions. Calling them so simply follows the paradox at the basis of Define/Destroy, the opposition between stability and instability, the creation of temporary definitions, and of trying to be precise, accurate, and clear all the while knowing that this makes it easier to identify potential for change; precision, accuracy, clarity go, oddly enough, hand in hand with plasticity here.

A Plastic Definition is made to be shaped and reshaped easily, when and how we need it. Just like plastic objects, we want them to be easy and cheap to make, and to stay around for a long time if they have a use. (There remains a major, positive difference to plastic objects, which is that plastic definitions cannot end up floating in the sea for hundreds of years.)

Douglas Coupland’s Vortex. (Vancouver Aquarium) [Source]

A Plastic Definition is a precise, clear, and accurate definition which you make for someone else to change, by inviting five kinds of actions:

  • to keep what they agree with, in that definition,
  • to refine what they can make more precise, accurate, and clear,
  • to add what they are convinced in missing,
  • to remove what they disagree with, and
  • to choose among options which you were indecisive on.

Expectation of change is an essential property of Plastic Definition. This is what ”plastic” in Plastic Definition is meant to convey: these definitions are open to debate and completion, revision, or other kinds of changes we might want to make. Their plasticity is intended to underline that they are not meant to remain the same for long, that they are not immutable, but to the contrary, that they invite change.

The relationship between definitions in general, and Plastic Definition is not an easy one. Just from the name, you might think a Plastic Definition is a kind of definition, that of all definitions, some are plastic, others not. But this depends on what definitions are, in general, that is, how you define a definition, a big question on its own.

I discuss in other texts on this site the relationship between Plastic Definition and the concept of definition in common theories of definition, from Kant, Belnap, and some others. This should help clear out some of the many potential misunderstandings, and preempt some of the many expectations you may have about Plastic Definitions, and which I did not want to realize at all.

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