Module: Meaning analysis
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Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.
- John Dewey
Language can be used to mislead and confuse, or to make certain ideas seem more profound than they really are. One main task of critical thinking is to identify these linguistic pitfalls. Let us start with the first major pitfall - obscurity.
"Obscurity" here refers to unclear meaning. A concept or a linguistic expression can be unclear for various reasons. One reason is that it might be ambiguous, i.e. having more than one meaning. The other reason is that it might be vague. A term is said to be vague if there are borderline cases where it is indeterminate as to whether it applies or not. Finally, a term might also have an unclear meaning in that its meaning is incomplete. Let us look at these cases one by one.
There are actually different kinds of ambiguity:
This is a single word or term having more than one meaning in the language. For example, the word "deep" can mean profoundity ("What you have said is very deep."), or it can be used to describe physical depth ("This hole is very deep"). Similarly for words like "young" (inexperienced or young of age), "bank" (river bank or financial institution), etc.
It is not clear which thing or group is being referred to. This often arises when the context does not make it clear what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to.
This means having more than one meaning because there is more than one way to interpret the grammatical structure. This can happen even when it is clear what the meanings of the individual words are.
An term is vague if it has an imprecise boundary. This means that there are cases where it is indeterminate whether the term applies or not. For example, a small but closed room with no windows or doors and no light inside is certainly dark. If we switch on a 100W lightbulb inside it will become bright. But we turn on the dimmer for the light and dim the light slowly until it goes out, then the room will gradually change from a bright room to a dark one. But there is no precise point at which the room suddenly ceases to be bright. Similarly, there is no precise point at which the room suddenly becomes dark. The terms "dark" and "bright" do not have clear boundaries of applications in this situation, and we say that these terms are vague.
The term "a tall person" is also vague in that there are certain cases where it is hard to say whether a person is tall or not, but this indecision is not due to lack of knowledge about that person's height. You might know exactly how tall that person is, but still you don't know whether he is tall or not. This is because the meaning of the term is not precise enough. Other examples of vague terms : "heavy", "dark", "mountain", "clever", "cheap".
Notice that we should make a distinction between vagueness and ambiguity. A word can be vague even though it is not ambiguous, and an ambiguous term having more than one meaning would not be said to be vague if the different meanings it has are very precise.
Vague terms can be useful in everyday life because often we do not have to be too precise. How precise we should be depends of course on the context.
Here is a form of bad argument about vagueness which we often encounter. The argument's conclusion is that there is really no difference between X and Y, and the reason is that there is no sharp difference between them.
This is a bad argument because even though a distinction might have borderline cases, it does not follow that the distinction is not real. For example, it might sometimes be unclear whether a room is dark or bright. But (a) there is still a real distinction between dark and bright rooms, and (b) there can be clear cases where we have one but not the other.
Vagueness should be avoided when we want to speak precisely, as vagueness decreases the informational content of a claim. For example, compare these sentences :
Many students often like to ask questions such as :
But of course words like "difficult" and "a lot" are vague.
Vague terms can make a claim vague and impossible to confirm or disprove.
But of course one might try to use vagueness to one's advantage in order to be non-committal or imprecise.
A term has an incomplete meaning if the property or relation it expresses depends on some further parameter to be specified by the context, either explicitly or implicitly. This includes terms such as "useful", "important", "similar" and "better". Practically all objects are useful and important only in some respects but not others. For example, is love more important than money? Well, it depends. If you are starving to death, then money is more important. But if you are trying to determine which of the two contributes more to a happy and fulfilling life, then the answer might be different.
So just saying that something is useful or important is empty unless it is made clear in what way it is so. This is also necessary if we want to evaluate whether what is said is true or not.
See if you can identify the ways in which these examples are ambiguous.
How would you improve the precision or clarity of these claims?
There is a lot of pseudo-aphorisms which seem to be profound, but close to being nonsensical. They have little content because of their obscurity, but are not quite nonsensical because they are grammatical and contain a lot of buzzwords. Here are some examples:
Some of these quotes were actually randomly generated by a computer (see http://sebpearce.com/bullshit/). Two are actual quotes from a popular new-age guru Deepak Chopra. Can you tell them apart?
Some scientists have found that people who are more receptive to this kind of statements are less analytical and reflective. See Pennycook et al. (2015) On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, pp. 549–563.