Skip to comments.A Freeper's Introduction to Rhetoric (Part 9, Fallacies of Ambiguity and Equivocation)
Posted on 01/02/2004 1:01:51 PM PST by general_re
The meaning of words or phrases may shift as a result of inattention, or may be deliberately manipulated within the course of an argument. A term may have one sense in a premiss, quite a different sense in the conclusion. When the inference drawn depends upon such changes it is, of course, fallacious. Mistakes of this kind are called "fallacies of ambiguity" or sometimes "sophisms." The deliberate use of such devices is usually crude and readily detected but at times the ambiguity may be obscure, the error accidental, the fallacy subtle. Five varieties are distinguished in the following.
Most words have more than one literal meaning, and most of the time we have no difficulty in keeping those meanings apart by noting the context and using our good sense when reading and listening. Yet when we confuse the several meanings of a word or phrase accidentally or deliberately we are using the word equivocally. If we do that in the context of an argument, we commit the fallacy of equivocation.
Sometimes the equivocation is obvious and absurd and is used in a joking line or passage. Lewis Carroll's account of the adventures of Alice in Through the Looking Glass is replete with clever and amusing equivocations. One of them goes like this:
"Who did you pass on the road?" the King went on, holding his hand out to the messenger for some hay.
"Nobody," said the messenger.
"Quite right," said the King; "this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you."
The equivocation in this passage is in fact rather subtle. As it is first used here the word "nobody" simply means "no person." But reference is then made using a pronoun ("him"), as though that word ("nobody") had named a person. And when subsequently the same word is capitalized and plainly used as a name ("Nobody"), it putatively names a person having a characteristic (not being passed on the road) derived from the first use of the word. Equivocation is sometimes the tool of wit and Lewis Carroll was a very witty logician.1
Equivocal arguments are always fallacious, but they are not always silly or comic, as will be seen in the example discussed in the following excerpt:
There is an ambiguity in the phrase "have faith in" that helps to make faith look respectable. When a man says that he has faith in the president he is assuming that it is obvious and known to everybody that there is a president, that the president exists, and he is asserting his confidence that the president will do good work on the whole. But, if a man says he has faith in telepathy, he does not mean that he is confident that telepathy will do good work on the whole, but that he believes that telepathy really occurs sometimes, that telepathy exists. Thus the phrase "to have faith in x" sometimes means to be confident that good work will be done by x, who is assumed or known to exist, but at other times means to believe that x exists. Which does it mean in the phrase "have faith in God"? It means ambiguously both; and the selfevidence of what it means in the one sense recommends what it means in the other sense. If there is a perfectly powerful and good god it is selfevidently reasonable to believe that he will do good. In this sense "have faith in God" is a reasonable exhortation. But it insinuates the other sense, namely "believe that there is a perfectly powerful and good god, no matter what the evidence." Thus the reasonableness of trusting God if he exists is used to make it seem also reasonable to believe that he exists.
One kind of equivocation deserves special mention. This is the mistake that arises from the misuse of "relative" terms, which have different meaning in different contexts. For example, the word "tall" is a relative word; a tall man and a tall building are in quite different categories. A tall man is one who is taller than most men, a tall building is one that is taller than most buildings. Certain forms of argument that are valid for nonrelative terms break down when relative terms are substituted for them. The argument "an elephant is an animal; therefore a gray elephant is a gray animal" is perfectly valid. The word "gray" is a nonrelative term. But the argument "an elephant is an animal; therefore a small elephant is a small animal" is ridiculous. The point here is that "small" is a relative term: a small elephant is a very large animal. The fallacy is one of equivocation with regard to the relative term "small." Not all equivocation on relative terms is so obvious, however. The word "good" is a relative term and is frequently equivocated on when it is argued, for example, that so-and-so is a good general and would therefore be a good president, or is a good scholar and must therefore be a good teacher.
1 This passage from Alice in Wonderland very probably inspired David Powers, who formally changed his name to Absolutely Nobody, and ran as an independent candidate for lieutenant governor of the State of Oregon. His campaign slogan was: "Hi, I'm Absolutely Nobody. Vote for me." In the general election of 1992 he drew 7% of the vote.
Part 1 - Introduction and the Argument From Ignorance
Part 2 - the Appeal to Inappropriate Authority
Part 3 - the Argument Ad Hominem
Part 4 - the Appeal to Force and the Appeal to Emotion
Part 5 - the Irrelevant Conclusion
Part 6 - Fallacies of Presumption and the Complex Question
Part 7 - False Cause and Begging the Question
Part 8 - Accident and Converse Accident
Part 10 will discuss the fallacies of amphiboly and accent, and the final installment, part 11, will discuss the fallacies of composition and division.
Nothing is better than realizing all of one's desires.There is a subtle shift in the meaning of "nothing." And one again, as Lewis Carroll did in the Looking Glass example, the speaker makes "nothing" an object in a hierarchy of rank.
A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than realizing all of one's desires.
Yepp, the good old Odyssean fallacy: reification of nothing ;)
I identified this as an example of the error of equivocation, and pointed out that he meant two different things by "design" in the same setence. What he was really asking was, "can a system without conscious planning bring about functional complexity?".
The question becomes a lot more ordinary, and less "self-contradictory" (and thus less "loaded") when restated more precisely.
The use of "create" in the original sentence was carrying a lot of baggage as well, since it carries strong connotations of intentional purpose (as does "design" itself).
What followed was the fallacy of "equivocation" -- where are the other four fallacies of ambiguity?
300,000 kilometers per second.
It's not just a good idea,
It's the law!
Well, I have to tell you, the leftover ham sandwiches I had from XMAS where pretty close to realizing every desire I have every had in life. LOL! 8^)
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