Ostensive Definitions

  • Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

    With certain significant exceptions, every concept can be defined and communicated in terms of other concepts. The exceptions are concepts referring to sensations, and metaphysical axioms.

    Sensations are the primary material of consciousness and, therefore, cannot be communicated by means of the material which is derived from them. The existential causes of sensations can be described and defined in conceptual terms (e.g., the wavelengths of light and the structure of the human eye, which produce the sensations of color), but one cannot communicate what color is like, to a person who is born blind. To define the meaning of the concept “blue,” for instance, one must point to some blue objects to signify, in effect: “I mean this.” Such an identification of a concept is known as an “ostensive definition.”

    Ostensive definitions are usually regarded as applicable only to conceptualized sensations. But they are applicable to axioms as well. Since axiomatic concepts are identifications of irreducible primaries, the only way to define one is by means of an ostensive definition — e.g., to define “existence,” one would have to sweep one’s arm around and say: “I mean this.”