Defining Abstract Words
PROCEDURE. The words to be defined are _pity_, _revenge_, _charity_,
_envy_, and _justice_. The formula is, "_What is pity? What do we mean
by pity?_" and so on with the other words. If the meaning of the
response is not clear, ask the subject to explain what he means. If the
definition is in terms of the word itself, as "Pity means to pity
someone," "Revenge is to take revenge," etc., it is then necessary to
, but what does it mean to pity some one?_" or, "_What does it
mean to take revenge?_" etc. Only supplementary questions of this kind
SCORING. The test is passed if _three of the five_ words are
satisfactorily defined. The definition need not be strictly logical nor
the language elegant. It is sufficient if the definition shows that the
meaning of the word is known. Definitions which define by means of an
illustration are acceptable. The following are samples of satisfactory
and unsatisfactory responses:--
_Satisfactory._ "To be sorry for some one." "To feel
compassion." "To have sympathy for a person." "To feel bad for
some one." "It means you help a person out and don't like to
have him suffer." "To have a feeling for people when they are
treated wrong." "If anybody gets hurt real bad you pity them."
"It's when you feel sorry for a tramp and give him something to
eat." "If some one is in trouble and you know how it feels to be
in that condition, you pity him." "You see something that's
wrong and have your feeling aroused."
Of 130 correct responses, 85, or 65 per cent, defined _pity_ as
"to feel sorry for some one," or words to that effect. Less than
10 per cent defined by means of illustration.
_Unsatisfactory._ "To think of the poor." "To be good to
others." "To help." "It means sorrow." "Mercy." "To cheer people
up." "It means 'What a pity!'" "To be ashamed." "To be sick or
poor." "It's when you break something."
Apart from inability to reply, which accounts for nearly one
fourth of the failures, there is no predominant type of
_Satisfactory._ "To get even with some one." "To get back on
him." "To do something to the one who has done something to
you." "To hurt them back." "To pay it back," or "Do something
back." "To do something mean in return." "To square up with a
person." "When somebody slaps you, you slap back." "You kill a
person if he does something to you."
The expression "to get even" was found in 42 per cent of 120
correct answers; "to pay it back," or "To do something back," in
20 per cent; "To get back on him," in 17 per cent. About
8 per cent were illustrations.
_Unsatisfactory._ "To be mad." "You try to hurt them." "To
fight." "You hate a person." "To kill them." "It means hateful."
"To try again." "To think evil of some one." "To hate some one
who has done you wrong." "To let a person off." "To go away from
Inability to reply accounts for a little over 40 per cent of the
_Satisfactory._ "To give to the poor." "To help those who are
needy." "It is charity if you are poor and somebody helps you."
"To give to somebody without pay."
Of 110 correct replies, 72 per cent were worded substantially
like the first or second given above.
_Unsatisfactory._ "A person who helps the poor." "A place where
poor people get food and things." "It is a good life." "To be
happy." "To be poor." "Charity is being treated good." "It is to
be charitable." "Charity is selling something that is not worth
much." "It means to be good" or "to be kind."
When the last named response is given, we should say: "_Explain
what you mean._" If this brings an amplification of the response
to "It means to do things for the poor," or the equivalent, the
score is _plus_. "Charity means love" is also _minus_ if the
statement cannot be further explained and is merely rote memory
of the passage in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. Simply
"To help" or "To give" is unsatisfactory. Half of the failures
are due to inability to reply.
_Satisfactory._ "You envy some one who has something you want."
"It's the way you feel when you see some one with something
nicer than you have." "It's when a poor girl sees a rich girl
with nice dresses and things." "You hate some one because
they've got something you want." "Jealousy" (satisfactory if
subject can explain what _jealousy_ means; otherwise it is
_minus_). "It's when you see a person better off than you are."
Nearly three fourths of the correct responses say in substance,
"You envy a person who has something you want." Most of the
others are concrete illustrations.
_Unsatisfactory._ "To hate some one," or simply "To hate." "You
don't like 'em." "Bad feeling toward any one." "To be a great
man or woman." "Not to be nice to people." "What we do to our
Inability to respond accounts for 55 per cent of the failures.
_Satisfactory._ "To give people what they deserve." "It means
that everybody is treated the same way, whether he is rich or
poor." "It's what you get when you go to court." "If one does
something and gets punished, that's justice." "To do the square
thing." "To give everybody his dues." "Let every one have what's
coming to him." "To do the right thing by any one." "If two
people do the same thing and they let one go without punishing,
that is not justice."
Approximately 38 per cent of 102 correct responses referred to
treating everybody the same way; 25 per cent to "doing the
square thing", 12 per cent were concrete illustrations; and
4 per cent were definitions of what justice is not.
_Unsatisfactory._ "It means to have peace." "It is where they
have court." "It's the Courthouse." "To be honest." "Where one
is just" (_minus_, unless further explained). "To do right"
(_minus_, unless in explaining _right_ the subject gives a
definition of _justice_).
It is very necessary, in case of such answers as "Justice is to
do right," "To be just," etc., that the subject be urged to
explain further what he means. "To do right" includes nearly
12 per cent of all answers, and is given by the very brightest
children. Most of these are able, when urged, to complete the
definition in a satisfactory manner.
REMARKS. The reader may be surprised that the ability to define common
abstract words should develop so late. Most children who have had
anything like ordinary home or school environment have doubtless heard
all of these words countless times before the age of 12 years.
Nevertheless, the statistics from the test show unmistakably that before
this age such words have but limited and vague meaning. Other vocabulary
studies confirm this fact so completely that we may say there is hardly
any trait in which 12- to 14-year intelligence more uniformly excels
that of the 9- or 10-year level.
This is readily understandable when we consider the nature of abstract
meanings and the intellectual processes by which we arrive at them.
Unlike such words as _tree_, _house_, etc., the ideas they contain are
not the immediate result of perceptual processes, in which even childish
intelligence is adept, but are a refined and secondary product of
relationships between other ideas. They require the logical processes of
comparison, abstraction, and generalization. One cannot see justice, for
example, but one is often confronted with situations in which justice or
injustice is an element; and given a certain degree of abstraction and
generalization, out of such situations the idea of justice will
gradually be evolved.
The formation and use of abstract ideas, of one kind or another,
represent, _par excellence_, the "higher thought processes." It is not
without significance that delinquents who test near the border-line of
mental deficiency show such inferior ability in arriving at correct
generalizations regarding matters of social and moral relationships. We
cannot expect a mind of defective generalizing ability to form very
definite or correct notions about justice, law, fairness, ownership
rights, etc.; and if the ideas themselves are not fairly clear, the
rules of conduct based upon them cannot make a very powerful appeal.
Binet used the words _charity_, _justice_, and _kindness_, and required
two successes. In the 1911 revision he shifted the test from year XI to
year XII, where it more nearly belongs. Goddard also places it in
year XII and uses Binet's words, translating _bonte_, however, as
_goodness_ instead of _kindness_. Kuhlmann retains the test in year XI
and adds _bravery_ and _revenge_, requiring three correct definitions
out of five. Bobertag uses _pity_, _envy_, and _justice_, requires two
correct definitions, and finds the test just hard enough for year XII.
After using the words _goodness_ and _kindness_ in two series of tests,
we have discarded them as objectionable in that they give rise to so
many doubtful definitions. Even intelligent children often say:
"Goodness means to do something good," "Kindness means to be kind to
some one," etc. These definitions in a circle occur less than half as
often with _pity_, _revenge_, and _envy_, which are also superior to
_charity_ and _justice_ in this respect.
The relative difficulty of our five words is indicated by the order in
which we have listed them in the test (i.e., beginning with the easiest
and ending with the hardest). On the standard of three correct
definitions, these words fit very accurately in year XII.