Definitions can seem so stable at times, but the truth is they change quite a lot across space and time. They play an important role in how we build our world-view, some have even theorized that our language shapes what we think.

These are some definitions I’ve collected over the years that have helped me to think about something in a way that has opened new meaning for me. If you’ve come across a new definition or a new way of thinking about something that changed your view that you’d like to share, send it in to [email protected]


“If we cannot communicate our listening in a way that lets the other person know we have truly understood, empathy has not occurred.”

– Dr. Henry Cloud as quoted by Lodro Rinzler, p.37 – A Buddha Walks into the Office


Timely (relevant), targeted (give me the feedback I need, don’t overwhelm me with too much information), actionable (what would you do?)

– As presented by Todd Rose (H107 2012, Feedback) class seems to be describing a “strategy of action” like that discussed by Ann Swidler – Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51(2), pp. 273-286.


“Integrity means being whole, unbroken, undivided. It describes a person who has united the different parts of his or her personality, so that there is no longer a split in the soul.”

– Rabbi Harold Kushner as quoted by bell hooks, p.155-156 – The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love

Learning from experience:

“Experience can both confirm what is already known (we see what we have learned to see) and upset what has been taken for granted (when different meanings are in conflict, we readjust our vision to take account of the conflict or to resolve it — that is what is meant by ‘learning from experience’ …)

– Joan W. Scott, 1991 essay on historiography as quoted by Darby English, p.6 – How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness


“I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word “love,” and was deeply relieved when I found one in psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Traveled, first published in 1978. Echoing the work of Eric Fromm, he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action.  Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Since the choice must be made to future growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.”

– bell hooks, p.4-5 – All About Love: New Visions


“When we talking about networking, we’re not talking about handing out business cards, but developing a human net that works.”

People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond training – Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute, New Orleans 7/15-8/15


“The active affirmation in the physical world of our inseparableness from the divine; and everything, especially the physical world, is divine.”

– Alice Walker, p.192 – The Universe Responds, Living By the Word


bell hooks talks about how the idea of “perfect love” was disturbing, feeling that to be perfect was unattainable, not human until she came across a definition that highlighted “Perfect” as in “to refine” — in this light “perfection” becomes a process for refinement. And perfect love is a process that changes …and casts out fear as it goes. In her words “As we love, fear necessarily leaves. Contrary to the notion that one must work to attain perfection, this outcome does not have to be struggled for — it just happens. It is the gift that perfect love offers. To receive the gift, we must first understand that “there is no fear in love.” But we do fear and fear keeps us from trusting in love.”

– bell hooks, p.93 – All About Love

Presence of mind:

“Presence of mind is an abstract of the future, and precise awareness of the present moment more decisive than foreknowledge of the most distant events.”

– Walter Benjamin, “Madame Ariane: Second Courtyard on the Left,” in One-Way Street (London: New Left Books, 1969), 98-99. – cited by George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness — Lipsitz, G. (2005). The possessive investment in whiteness. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (Ch 5). New York: Worth Publishers, pp. 67-90.


“Privacy can be defined in terms of having control over the extent, timing, and circumstances of sharing oneself (physically, behaviorally, or intellectually) with others.”

– According to the IRB Guidebook, published by the Office for Human Research Protections


“…I have written in praise of my grandfather, the man who loved me in my childhood consistently and unconditionally, in the memoir of my growing up, Bone Black: ” His smells fill my nostrils with the scent of happiness. With him all the broken bits and pieces of my heart come together again.” This is the true meaning of reunion, living the knowledge that the damage can be repaired, that we can be whole again.”

– bell hooks, p.167 – The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love

Redefine, revise, provide:

I tend to think of redefine being a word that is about transformation — about understanding a concept or the world in new ways. But interestingly, the root of the word de-fine means “to specify” or “to come to an end.” It’s about an act of closure, rather than of opening, the way I’ve always thought.
Revise on the hand is one of those words that has never seemed particularly exciting. It makes me think of working on a paper when I was in school or fine-tuning an email before sending it off. It’s definitely not fun and certainly not transformative. But strangely the root of re-vision is “to re-see” or “to see anew” coming from the Latin verb videre “to see” derived from a Sanskrit root that meant “to know.” So, oddly the roots of “revision” are about seeing and knowing in new ways, rather than an finding “an end.”
Most surprising of all to me was that the word “provide” that also comes from the Latin verb videre “to see.” The word “provide” is still is caught up in the gendered history of men as “providers” — caretakers, but from primarily a financial standpoint. The root of pro-vide means to be “forward looking” or “to look ahead.” It makes perfect logical sense, but when I think about the question “Can I provide for myself? or others?” I don’t tend to think of it as meaning “Can I look ahead at what I or others need?” But it does.

Redefine – Merriam-Webster, Revise – Merriam-Webster, Provide – Merriam-Webster


“Sacred just means let it be. Leave it alone. Don’t fix it. We think of everything in these subject-object relationships, but at some point that needs to dissolve and the native people understand that.”

– Monk interviewed by Jesal Kapadia in Gangtok, from her presentation at AND, AND, AND, Documenta, Kassel, 6-19-12


“Worship just means reverence for nature, for what is – just letting it be.”

– Monk interviewed by Jesal Kapadia in Gangtok, from her presentation at AND, AND, AND, Documenta, Kassel, 6-19-12

If you’ve come across a new definition or a new way of thinking about something that changed your view, send it in to [email protected]!

Photo credit: Romain Vignes

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