A stipulative definition is a type of definition in which a new or currently-existing term is given a specific meaning for the purposes of argument or discussion in a given context. When the term already exists, this definition may, but does not necessarily, contradict the dictionary (lexical) definition of the term. Because of this, a stipulative definition cannot be "correct" or "incorrect"; it can only differ from other definitions, but it can be useful for its intended purpose.
For example, in the riddle of induction by Nelson Goodman, "grue" was stipulated to be "a property of an object that makes it appear green if observed before some future time t, and blue if observed afterward." "Grue" has no meaning in standard English; therefore, Goodman created the new term and gave it a stipulative definition.
A governmental example is from the USNRC Final Safety Culture Policy Statement, which defines "nuclear safety culture" as: “Nuclear safety culture is the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.” By this definition there can never be bad, poor, weak, or otherwise problematic nuclear safety culture[improper synthesis?]. It is, by definition, always good[improper synthesis?].
On stipulative definitions
Stipulative definitions of existing terms are useful in making theoretical arguments, or stating specific cases. For example:
- Suppose we say that to love someone is to be willing to die for that person.
- Take "human" to mean any member of the species Homo sapiens.
- For the purposes of argument, we will define a "student" to be "a person under 18 enrolled in a local school."
Some of these are also precising definitions, a subtype of stipulative definition that may not contradict but only extend the lexical definition of a term. Theoretical definitions, used extensively in science and philosophy, are similar in some ways to stipulative definitions (although theoretical definitions are somewhat normative -more like persuasive definitions).
Many holders of controversial and highly-charged opinions use stipulative definitions in order to attach the emotional or other connotations of a word to the meaning they would like to give it; for example, defining "murder" as "the killing of any living thing for any reason." The other side of such an argument is likely to use a different stipulative definition for the same term: "the premeditated killing of a human being." The lexical definition in such a case is likely to fall somewhere in between.
When a stipulative definition is confused with a lexical definition there is a risk of equivocation.
- About.com, Logical Arguments, "Stipulative Definitions"
- A Concise Introduction to Logic by Patrick J. Hurley. 2007. Cengage learning. Entry on "Theoretical Definitions" may even be available through google books