Monday, March 11, 2013

Fuzzy Language

From pgs. 205-206 of A Christian View of Men and Things:
Now, any given word must signify one thing, or a finite number of things, or an infinite number of things. If the word has a finite number of meanings, then it would be possible to invent a name for each meaning, so that all words would have a single meaning. But if each word has an infinite number of meanings, reasoning and conversation have become impossible, because not to have one meaning is to have no meaning. But if a word has a meaning, the object cannot be both man and not-man. If the skeptic attempt to avoid the arguments, he might do so by saying nothing. In this case, however, there is no skeptical theory awaiting refutation. Or he might accuse Aristotle of begging the question by using the law of contradiction. But, then, if he says this, he has said something, and has himself admitted the force of logic.
While true, I don’t think the above is meant to suggest fuzziness in language is entirely useless. In some cases, ambiguity seems preferable. In particular, I’m thinking about instances of justified deception. A Nazi shows up on my door asking if I am hiding Jews. I respond, “there are no Jews here.” Now, through no fault of my own, the Nazi might interpret this to mean I am not hiding any Jews “at all,” whereas I actually meant I am not hiding Jews “in the visible vicinity.” The fuzziness lies in the meaning of “here.” Obviously, I didn’t answer the question the Nazi asked, but then again, I am under no obligation to answer him in the first place.

Now, if there were no ambiguity in language, I obviously could not deceive a Nazi. At best, I could say “search for yourself.” But if he persisted in questioning me, he would come to realize I was intentionally avoiding his question. What would follow I would consider to be less than desirable. So there is good reason for language to be fuzzy, though in an ideal world – a world without Nazis – clarity would be a worthy goal.


Max said...

I like Clark's funny answer to the nazi: "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."

Drake Shelton said...


Hey Ryan, whatever happened to the Much dudes who were going to humiliate us with a full rebuttal of our Theology Proper?

Ryan said...

Heh. I forgot about that.