, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 53–73 | Cite as

A perceptual account of definitions

  • Humphrey van Polanen PetelEmail author
Original Paper


The traditional definition per genus et differentiam is argued to be cognitively grounded in perception and in order to avoid needless argument, definitions are stipulated to assert boundaries. An analysis of the notion of perspective shows that a boundary is a composite of two distinctions: similarity that includes and difference that excludes. The concept is applied to the type-token distinction and percepts are shown to be the result of a comparison between a token as representing some phenomenon and a type as representing the kind of object the phenomenon might be. The Principle of Connection is proposed as the mental architecture that gives rise to percepts. The value of a percept is shown to be one of Identical, Similar, Different or Contrary and its perceptual aspects represent the cognitive schema of Essence, Quality, Quantity and Relation. The two notions of similarity and difference are claimed to constitute the necessary and sufficient conditions for definitions. Accordingly, the qualitative elements of a definition signify the genus as representing the similarity of the defined entity in terms of others of its kind and the quantitative elements signify the differentia as representing the difference it has from everything else. Paying proper attention to both qualitative and quantitative aspects will enable formulation of definitions that are ‘good’.


Boundaries Categorisation Cognition Definition Difference Perception Similarity 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linguistics ProgramMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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