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Fallacy of Equivocation

I have mentioned that there are fallacies of language and fallacies of argument. In order to properly respond to fallacies they must be identified, understood and explained. There are a number of different fallacies of language. Fallacies of language happen when we do not clearly say what we mean. There are two fallacies of language: equivocation and misuse of metaphor. Every argument always involves a single claim about a single thing. Fallacies of language are ones in which the language you are using confuses this. By listing these fallacies, we can learn to identify the fallacies of language.

One kind of fallacy is called equivocation. In this fallacy a word or phrase has more than one meaning. In the argument, it is not clear which meaning you are using. For example, I might claim that “If we put money in the bank next to the river, it will get wet” and “I put my money in the Royal bank”. We cannot conclude from this that “My money will get wet”! This is because the word ‘bank’ means one thing in the first sentence, and something completely different in the second sentence. If I did conclude that the money would get wet, then I would not be arguing for a single claim about a single thing. Since river banks and banks that we store money in are different things, this is a fallacy. This is a case of arguing for a different claim about the same thing. I could also be arguing for the same claim about different things. If I told you that I named a rose bush “George Bush”, and later on said “George Bush likes the rain”, I could be making a claim about either the former president or my rose bush. I should be clear and say which one I meant.

Another kind of fallacy is the misuse of metaphor. In this fallacy, the words and phrases that you are using do not have different meanings. However, you are using them in a non-literal fashion. For example, “I like Coke”. ‘Coke’ can refer either to the specific brand name ‘Coke’ or to any kind of cola at all. Does this mean that he likes Pepsi? It depends on what he is referring to by the name “Cola”. In another example, “Do you see that he was right?” might mean either “Do you understand?” or “Do you see (with your eyes) what he was claiming?”. The words have a single meaning, but they are used in a different way so that an extra meaning is given to them. So we might call understanding “seeing” because it is like seeing, but seeing does not mean “understanding”. When an argument uses some sort of metaphor and it is not clear about it, the argument might depend on taking a metaphor literally or something that is not a metaphor metaphorically. In that case, this is a fallacy.

If each word and phrase clearly refers to a single claim about a single thing and every metaphor is treated metaphorically while non-metaphors are treated literally, then there will be no fallacies of language. In that case, there is no further way for language to confuse the issue. If the language is clear, then any further fallacies will be fallacies of argument rather than fallacies of language.