[M09] Distortion

Module: Meaning analysis

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The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great.

- Michael Faraday

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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 describe 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".

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