How to Make a Monster: Three Ways to Create a Definition

You think definitions are important. I just know it.

Don’t believe me? Look at the knock-down-drag-out arguments in your life and you’ll discover your zeal for definitions. Why was your statement last month not technically a lie? Why is Gina a racist even though she claims not to be ? Why don’t you qualify as a fundamentalist despite your similarity to such groups? How can it be that you did not insult your mother even though you called her “lazy” last Christmas? The answers to these all have to do with the nuances of definitions. (By the way, these sorts of second order questions are the sorts of questions philosophers are notorious for trying to answer.)

See? You love them because you care about boundaries, and how you (or others) stand in relation to those boundaries. You care about boundaries because, admit it or not, you want to know what is real. Even if you insist that we can’t know what is real (which just is to say something we do know about reality). What you don’t want, is to discover that “reality” is not as you see it. And so, as above, you care about drawing boundaries and discovering where you and others stand in relation to them. Given your interest in definitions, let me share with you how I go about creating definitions.

In the space below I want to explain how I understand definitions to fall into three types: anchored definitions, non-anchored definitions and mixed definitions.

Definitions are are our attempts to tame vagueness in language usage.

Vagueness problems are boundary problems. What constitutes “being bald” or “being rude”? Where does “thinning hair” end and “bald” begin. If a man has, literally, two hairs on his head is he not bald? Oh, he is bald after all? What about 10 hairs? 40 hairs? Similarly, where does “frankness” end and “rudeness” begin? If silence can count as rudeness, then perhaps rudeness is not about frankness at all. Sometimes silence is the most polite thing one can do, so perhaps rudeness not about silence either.

I find myself creating definitions with two parts:

(a) constituting conditions (neither necessary or sufficient conditions)
(b) anchoring conditions (necessary conditions but not always sufficient)

Sounds fancy, no? These are similar to what philosophers call necessary and sufficient conditions. However, they are slightly different.

Anchoring conditions are essential. They anchor a thing to its definition.

Anchoring conditions are essential for some definitions – so they are the same as necessary conditions. Anchoring conditions anchor the definition to its kind. Without these anchoring conditions a thing is no longer what it is, it is no longer inside the boundaries. For example, an anchoring condition for “being a human” might be to have human DNA (or perhaps a human soul). A thing may have two legs, human-like emotions and language, but is it really a human? If you say “yes” its as if you are saying that having human DNA (the wellspring of our human body design plan) is not essential. Let’s take another example.

What is a monster? How do you make one? Does a monster have to be mean? Not necessarily. Does it have to have sharp teeth? No. So what does one need to include in order to build a monster? It seems like one essential (i.e one anchoring condition) for being a monster is that monsters are not native/natural earth creatures (e.g. komodo dragons are scary and have sharp teeth but they aren’t monsters). There is something uncategorizable and foreign about monsters. If we bracket Disney’s movie “Monsters Inc”—a movie whose plot was all about making monsters less scary—evidence of the fact that monsters tend to be scary—then we can say that monsters are almost always frightening. Monsters don’t have to have claws (but many do). They don’t have to be hairy, but many are. They don’t have to be dangerous although they often are. These later points are all “constituting conditions” but not essential “anchoring conditions.”

Consider the adjective “loving.” If I don’t desire “the good” for an adopted child Xeno, do I really “love” Xeno? Perhaps I feed him well, buy him plenty of clothes, educate him well, provide a safe home environment, I act the doting father in public, etc… I do all these things, but deep inside I don’t desire the good for Xeno; I resent him and would not much care if bad things happened to him (so long as they didn’t inconvenience me). I would not miss him if he were gone. Despite all the actions, something essential is missing. For some definitions, there need to be a characteristic(s) that anchor it to its category despite all the other constituting conditions that might go along with it.

How do anchoring conditions relate to necessary and sufficient conditions?

  • All anchoring conditions are necessary conditions. Without them a thing is not that thing.
  • If you only have one anchoring condition then that condition is also a “sufficient condition.” If you have that characteristics/condition you’ve got all you need to drop a thing into a particular class/category.
  • You might need more than one necessary-anchoring condition. In this case, although an anchoring condition is a necessary condition it isn’t a sufficient condition. It alone is not sufficient to anchor that thing to a particular definition/category.

Constituting conditions mirror vagueness, they build up a thing out of non-essential parts.

If you pile enough constituting conditions up, something comes into focus. Having one of these qualities may not mean much. However, the more of them you have the more likely it is that a thing merits a certain definition. Consider the idea of being patriotic. If you vote are you patriotic? Not necessarily. What if you vote and prominently fly your country’s flag out front. That’s something. What if you vote, attend every national holiday parade you can, fly the flag out front, and make sure your children memorize the national anthem. Now add bumperstickers and standing at attention during national anthems. There are too many constituting conditions here to deny that patriotism characterizes this person.

Perhaps we can defeat all of these conditions by saying that the person above is a spy. Ok, but they succeeded as a spy by exhibiting lots of constituting conditions for patriotism. Perhaps we still need some anchoring condition after all like, “abiding positive concern for one’s country.” You get the point though. The more constituting conditions you pile on—the more you walk like a duck and quack like a duck—the more it seems you qualify as that thing; a duck, a patriot, or a monster. Perhaps deception is based in having most of the constituting conditions but lacking the anchoring condition.

Three Types of Definitions: Anchored, Non-Anchored, and Mixed.

Based on what has been said so far, it seems to me that there are three types of definitions.

  • Non-anchored definitions – Like the word “fisherman” (see below) non-anchored definitions lack an essential anchoring condition. In keeping with vagueness, the more constituting conditions you pile together the more a thing seems to qualify as belonging to a category.
  • Anchored definitions – are definitions that include an anchoring condition. Some definitions are sufficiently constituted by just their anchor. We might call these purely anchored definitions. These are not really my focus here.
  • Mixed definitions – these are anchored definitions that need constituting conditions to effectively describe a thing or practiced .

While I believe mixed definitions are just the sort of thing some philosophers will dislike, I feel that they carve reality at the joints by capturing the both-and nature that arises in reality.

Anchoring Condition + two or more constituting conditions

Why do we often encounter constituting conditions if a definition has anchoring conditions?

Often times we struggle to define terms like critical realism (below) or analytic theology (below) solely by their anchoring conditions. Anchoring conditions feel too vague (although not completely useless) in these cases. Here are two reasons why we typically encounter the need to add constituting conditions, even in the presence of anchoring conditions:

(a) Anchoring conditions provide such a low threshold, such a bare minimum, because they are rarely found alone in reality.
(b) We usually find an anchoring condition plus mixed and matched constituting conditions.

Consider an example of (a) alone. John is “patriotic” – but he never votes, he never flies the flag, he won’t attend any political parades or events, he doesn’t say the pledge, he is clueless about politics, he’s fine with any presidential candidate so long as his lot in life is good, etc.. However, John has “an abiding positive concern for his country” or so he claims. This feels like the anchoring condition without any constituting conditions. It is hard to buy the idea that just because there is an anchoring condition that John is in fact patriotic. Why the discomfort?

What is really going is here is that anchoring conditions tend to cause/promote/provoke/go-hand-in-hand-with/give rise to – constituting conditions.

Desiring the good of the beloved (an anchoring condition for love) tends to produce other behaviors (constituting conditions), such that in the absence of all those behaviors it seems right to question the presence of the anchoring condition. However people’s constituting conditions may differ.

Reality is stratified, therefore an anchoring condition produces constituting conditions at multiple strata.

I provide an example of this below, where being a Christian is possibly constituted by various conditions that happen to coincide with various strata of reality: mental, emotional, behavioral, and social. (See below).

Sometimes is constituting conditions all the way down. What does it take to qualify as a fisherman? Some dictionaries list “One who engages in fishing for work or pleasure.” This seems like it qualifies as an anchored definition. But wait. Let’s compare Rusty and Dusty.

a grayscale of a boy fishing with a net
Photo by Clive Kim on

(a) Rusty has a Bass Tracker boat, a high quality pole, and a tackle box. Rusty has gone fishing once in the last three years. For the most part Rusty doesn’t really catch fish.

(b) Dusty has a home full of fishing decorations. His coffee table is full of fishing magazines. He watches fishing shows. He knows all the boats, rods, reels. He attends all the local fishing competitions as a spectator. He eats, drinks, and sleeps fishing. However, Dusty has never actually been fishing except for decades ago as a little boy. Dusty hasn’t been fishing in 20 years. Dusty doesn’t actually catch fish. He seems to fail the essentialist definition of “one who engages in fishing” but it is hard not to recognize Dusty as a fisherman. Sure, we could create a new category “fishing enthusiast” – for one who is highly associated with fishing but doesn’t actually fish. But this is to just make up a phrase to treat a package of constituting conditions as an anchor.

Sometimes it is difficult to locate anchoring conditions because a definition is made entirely of constituting conditions.

Rusty has been fishing more than Dusty, but Dusty seems more of a fisherman than Rusty. It is very difficult to find an anchoring condition here. Its constituting conditions all the way down. “But wait” you say. Perhaps what makes a real fisherman is a desire to fish. Not so fast...

(c)Meet Crusty. Crusty has been fishing the north Atlantic waters for 35 years. He knows all every bend of the north Atlantic coastline. He knows how to catch fish like Picasso knows painting. Unfortunately Crusty hates fishing. He always had. He became a “fisherman” because he had to survive and feed his family. He dreams of escaping the sea and moving to the desert. He dislikes the cold, the stench, the sea. He does like getting paid though, and he loves providing for his family. Dusty is an excellent fisherman; he just happens to hate fishing.

Sometimes you don’t need constituting conditions – because someone has stipulated a definition. This is often the case in law. Someone might define a U.S. citizen directly: a person born in the U.S. or who passes a citizenship exam. Thats it. Legally, this person is a citizen. A homeowner – someone who owns a home. Legal definitions, for legal purposes, are often locked down and stipulated. The anchoring conditions are stipulated. These are essentialist type definitions.

People (unintentionally) favor a certain strata of reality as an anchoring condition.

Realizing this fact is helpful. Consider the question – what makes a person a Christian? I’ll give you three strata that constitute a Christian.

  • Mental Strata: trusted in, or exercised faith in Jesus gospel message.
  • Spiritual Strata: has been regenerated by God (i.e. born from above, born again) & indwelled to God’s Holy Spirit.
  • Emotional Strata: Has a life marked by desire for God and what God loves.
  • Social Strata: Life demonstrates love for neighbor and good works.
  • Behavior Strata: Regularly practices righteousness rather than unrighteousness.
  • Mental Strata: Does not believe heresy but believes true propositions about God & gospel.

What is a Christian? One can see how people have treated all six points, at one time or another, as anchoring (or sufficient) conditions. I would personally set the first or second as anchoring conditions. However, in the absence of the final four constituting conditions, it is hard to accept a definition of Christian as a person solely marked by the first point (a point all evangelicals hold out as an anchoring condition). It would be more natural to want to see an anchoring condition plus the presence of one or more constituting conditions.

I use all of the above as a means of thinking about how to define “critical realism” and “analytic theology.”

  • Critical Realism – in my dissertation I listed out certain anchoring conditions related especially to (a) being a realist and (b) believing in the mediated nature of knowledge. There were also several constituting conditions like (c) rejecting a one size fits all epistemology, (d) believing in the stratification of reality and (e) holding that epistemology should follow/model ontology.
  • Analytic Theology – similarly seems to need anchoring conditions (a) doing theology, as informed some way by (b) analytic philosophy. However there are several anchoring conditions, all of which may not be present in everyone’s understanding of analytic theology, such as (c) sharing the aims and values of analytic theologians, or (d) interacting with other analytic theologians and their literature (e) being a Christian.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *