Thursday, May 28, 2009

Logic Primer 4: A Look at Language

In the study of logic, language plays a key role. Clarity in language is essential in order to communicate accurate meaning. The goal when looking at language is to determine the intent of the communication. Determining the intent or goal of your communication and understanding the intent of the one you are communicating with is the crucial first step in gaining clarity.

Language, according to Copi, can serve three functions. The first function is to communicate information. The second function is express emotions or feelings. The third function is to cause or to prevent action.1 All communication will fall into these categories. Is the speaker informing, expressing, or directing?

Exactly what are you trying to communicate? Choose words and language that is as precise and accurate as possible to convey that meaning. “If our aim is to communicate information, and if we wish to avoid being misunderstood, we should use language with the least possible emotive impact.”2

Defining words is the next critical part of clear communication. Many times communication gets muddled because the words and meanings are simply unclear, vague, ambiguous, or otherwise confusing. In response, a number of definitions can be used to bring clarity of meaning.

First, lexical definitions are used to define words that are already commonly known. This eliminates ambiguity in communication by simply citing the common definition of a word in use. Second, stipulative definitions act to assign a particular meaning to terms newly introduced to the dialogue. Again, this sort of definition eliminates ambiguity. It simply assigns (stipulates) a definition to a new term being used. A third method of clarifying language is the precising definition, which reduces vagueness by bringing a more specific meaning to a term. This sort of definition increases accuracy and exactness.

Other types of definitions can be presented, but for our purposes it will suffice to simply point out that defining terms is of utmost importance when seeking to communicate clearly and think logically. When language is clear and the terms are clearly understood, then the arguments can be evaluated.

Clarifying through questions is another crucial part of good communication. In a dialogue it is common that words and phrases are used that could be taken a number of different ways. If someone says that something was “interesting,” the meaning here could be difficult to discern. It falls short of adding much description. Does the person mean they didn’t like it? Do they mean they were captivated? This word is vague.

When vague words are used, clarifying questions such as, “How do you mean?” “What do you mean by that?” and “Could you explain?” add more depth and detail to the communication.
When someone uses words that can be taken in different ways, their words are ambiguous. If someone describes a concert as “bad,” do they mean “cool” or “not good?” Of course, in personal verbal communication the meaning can usually be easily discerned from the context, tone, and body language of the communicator. However, in written communication, such indicators are missing. One must depend on context alone to discern the meaning. That is why clarity is essential.

Another variant of ambiguous use of words is equivocation. This happens when the communicator uses a particular word X with meaning Y, but then later uses word X with meaning Z. For instance, one could use the term evolution to mean “change over time,” but then later in discourse the meaning has shifted to “molecules to man.” When someone asks the question, “do you believe in evolution?” it is important to eliminate ambiguity and define the use of the word for the conversation in order to prevent equivocation and confusion.

Amphibole happens when a phrase is said (or written) that is ambiguous. For instance, the sentence, “I live by the river; drop in some time”3 is an amphibole because of ambiguity in grammatical construction. The clear communicator avoids ambiguity.

The rule of thumb as a listener is to ask clarifying questions whenever you are unsure of the meaning, if the communication is unclear, and when you need more information. If you are the communicator, seek as much clarity as possible so that your meaning is understood. Clear communication is essential to accurate understanding.

Here are some resources that will get you started:

Audio resources:
- Critical Thinking audio course

Helpful books:
- Asking the Right Questions by Browne & Keeley
- Informal Logic by Douglas Walton

Web Sites on this topic:
- Critical Thinking Web
- Critical thinking on wikipedia
- Critical Thinking on the Web

Tomorrow we will look at logical fallacies.

1 Geisler and Brooks, pp. 72-73.
2 Ibid., p. 96.
3 Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies (Mount Jackson, VA: Axios Press, 2002), p. 91.


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