Meaning Analysis Continued

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: PHIL102: Introduction to Critical Thinking and Logic
Book: Meaning Analysis Continued
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Date: Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 11:47 AM


Thinking needs to be precise and clear, but the language we use to express our thoughts is often imprecise and misleading. In this section, you will read about identifying common ways in which language can lead us astray.

Complete all exercises and check your answers.


 Exercise #1

See if you can identify the ways in which these examples are ambiguous.

  1. For sale - an antique table suitable for lady with thick legs.
  2. For sale - ten puppies from an Australian terrier and a Boston terrier.
  3. He left the bomb fifty yards to the right of the car in front of the house.
  4. Mary loves Peter and Paul and Susan loves him too.
  5. It is not advisable to take aspirin and alcohol after a meal.
  6. I saw her duck.
  7. The teacher hit the student with a stick.
  8. Tiffany worries about annoying taxi drivers.
  9. The old men and women sat at the front of the hall.

Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.


Generally speaking, distortion is a matter of using words in such a way that deviates from its standard meaning in an inappropriate manner.

One example of distortion is the use of inappropriate emotive connotations. Many expressions in the language are not purely descriptive but carries positive or negative connotations. When using such terms, it is important to check whether the connotations are appropriate. Here are some examples :

  • Defining "religion" as a superstitious belief in the existence of God.
  • Calling abortion "murder" in a debate about the morality of abortion.
  • Describe something as a "valuable learning opportunity" when in fact "mistake" is more appropriate.

In scientific theorizing, one should of course try to decribe and explain phenomena using factual language that is value-neutral as far as possible. For example, terms such as "blackhole", "ethanol", "DNA" have no positive or negative connotation. In other contexts, such as news reporting, it is also important to distinguish between a factual description of a state of affairs from one's value judgments. It is of course not entirely easy to completely avoid using terms that carry connotations of one kind or another. Whether you describe a person as "independent" or "uncooperative" reflects your very different judgement of the person. But at the very least, we should be alert to the connotations of the words that we use. 

The use of weasel words is also an example of distortion. These are cases where the ordinary meaning of a word is changed inappropriately in the middle of a discussion, usually in response to some counterexample or an objection. See the following exchange :

Teacher : You did not get an "A" in the course because you were not hardworking.
Student : But I was studying all the time and slept for only 5 hours a day!
Teacher : No. If you were really hardworking, you would have got an "A".

Here, "hardworking" is the weasel word. The teacher is suggesting that to be hardworking one must be able to get an "A". But this not only distorts the ordinary meaning of the term. It also makes his first statement empty. This is because what the teacher means by "hardworking" is "a person who could get an A." So in effect, his first statement is equivalent to: "You did not get an "A" in the course because you were not a person who could get an A."

§1. Reification

The word "reify" came from the Latin word "res", which means thing. Reification is treating an abstract idea or property as if it were a concrete physical object. 

For example, one slogan on a popular TV programme says "The truth is out there." This treats truth as if it were a physical object that can either be in here or out there somewhere. But truth is an abstract property of claims and theories and is not located anywhere. So this is an example of reification. Of course, we know roughly what the intended meaning is. What is meant is probably something like "the truth about a certain issue is something that we can discover if we try hard enough." For a different example, consider the popular claim that "History is just." A person or a system of rules or laws can be just or unjust, but justice is not really a property of history, taken as a body of facts about what has happened in the past. But again we can guess what the speaker might have in mind when the statement is made. Perhaps the intended meaning is something like "in time people will make the correct and fair opinion on the matter under discussion."

The two examples here show that reification in itself need not be objectionable. It increases dramatic impact and is often used in poetry and metaphors. However, if our purpose is to convey information clearly and simply, then reification should perhaps be avoided. If a claim that involves reification constitutes a meaningful and informative claim, then it can be expressed more clearly in simpler language without using reification. When it is difficult if not impossible to carry out this translation, this is a good sign that the original statement does not actually have a clear meaning. So, in general, unless you want dramatic impact, avoid using reification. But if you have to, make sure you know what you really intend to say.

§2. Category mistakes

Inappropriate uses of reification is an example of category mistakes. This is the mistake of ascribing to something of one category a feature that only applies to another, or more generally, misrepresenting the category to which something belongs. Consider the famous sentence "colourless green ideas sleep furiously". Although grammatical, this sentence contains a number of category mistakes, since green ideas cannot be said to be colorless, and ideas are not the kind of things that can sleep.

Here is perhaps a less obvious example that has found its way into a journal article:

What we see at any given moment is in general a fully elaborated representation of a visual scene.

Churchland, Ramachandran, and Sejnowski (1994) "A critique of pure vision" in Large-Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain, edited by Christof Koch and Joel Davis, MIT Press. 

Think for a moment and see if you can identify the category mistake in this sentence.

§3. Philosophical arguments and distortion of meaning

Many bad philosophical arguments gain their plausibility through distortion. For example, the following argument is not uncommon : "Everyone is selfish, including people who help others. This is because everyone does what he or she wants to do.." In this argument it is implicitly assumed that a selfish person is to be defined as someone who does what he or she wants. But this is a distortion of the ordinary meaning of "a selfish person", which is more like "someone who wants to do only those things that are to his or her advantage." A person might want to do something in order to help other people, not because it is to his or her advantage.

Here is a real example of bad philosophy that relies on distorting meaning:

Language is legislation, speech is its code. We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive.

Roland Barthes (1915-80), famous French social and literary critic. Quote take from his inauguration lecture of the Chair of Literary Semiology, College de France.

Here "legislation" is presumably used to describe language because language is governed by rules. But this is not what is ordinarily meant by "legislation". Furthermore, the fact that an activity is governed by rules does not make it oppressive. For example, it would be silly to say that football is an oppressive activity because there are rules in the game. Without rules there cannot be games! Incidentally, we might observe that to label language as legislation is presumably an act of classification, since he is saying that language belongs to the class of legislations rather than the class of things that are not legislations. Likewise, to say that classifications are oppressive is also an act of classification. To be consistent then, Barthes should conclude that his very assertion is also an oppressive act! If this is supposed to be true one can only conclude that Barthes is simply distorting the meaning of "oppression".

Empty Content

An empty statement is any statement that is purported to provide information, but in reality it provides no information at all in the relevant conversational context.

In ordinary situations, tautologies or tautological statements are all empty. A tautology is a statement that is true in virtue of the meaning of the logical connectives present in the statement. These connectives are connectives like "not", "and", "or", "if ... then ...", "there is", "every", "none" and the like.

For example, suppose Helen asks whether Francine will come to the party, and Francine replies, "If I come, I will come." This is a tautology as it is necessarily true given the meaning of "if then". But the statement provides no information as to whether Francine will attend the party. So it is indeed an empty statement.

Similarly, the statement that "either it will rain tomorrow, or it will not" is also a tautology. Obviously, if we want to communicate information, we should avoid using tautologies as they provide no useful information about the world. This is not to say that they are completely useless. Tautologies can be useful in logic, and sometimes they serve as reminders about available courses of actions (e.g. "Either we get married, or we don't").

A tautology is a special case of what we might call analytic statements. These are statements that are true solely in virtue of their meaning. Here are some examples:

  • A bachelor is an unmarried man.
  • Anything that is large is not small.
  • Nothing that is running is still.

If a statement is analytic, then its truth depends solely on its meaning and not on any other empirical fact. Note that all tautologies are analytic truths, but not vice versa. A tautological sentence is a sentence that is true in virtue of the meaning of the logical words in the sentence. An analytic sentence is a sentence that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words in the sentence. The three examples above are analytic truths but not tautologies. Why? Take the first example, it is true because "bachelor" has the same meaning as "unmarried man", but the word "bachelor" is not a logical word. Unlike words like "and", "or", "if then", "not", it does not describe any logical connections.

If a competent English speaker asks whether Tom is a bachelor, and you answer, "a bachelor is an unmarried man", then your statement can be regarded as an empty statement. Although your statement is necessarily true, it offers no information relevant to the enquiry. On the other hand, if a student is learning English and is wondering what a bachelor is, then your answer does provide some useful information, so in such a case we should not say that the answer is empty.

If we want to communicate information clearly and precisely, then of course we should avoid empty statements. On the other hand, there might be occasions where we want to be evasive and non-committal. In such situations, empty statements might be very useful indeed.