Equivocation Fallacy

Equivocation Fallacy

Postby mtbturtle on February 25th, 2014, 6:38 pm 

Fallacy Files Equivocation


Equivocation is the type of ambiguity which occurs when a single word or phrase is ambiguous, and this ambiguity is not grammatical but lexical. So, when a phrase equivocates, it is not due to grammar, but to the phrase as a whole having two distinct meanings.

Of course, most words are ambiguous, but context usually makes a univocal meaning clear. Also, equivocation alone is not fallacious, though it is a linguistic boobytrap which can trip people into committing a fallacy. The Fallacy of Equivocation occurs when an equivocal word or phrase makes an unsound argument appear sound. Consider the following example:

All banks are beside rivers.
Therefore, the financial institution where I deposit my money is beside a river.

In this argument, there are two unrelated meanings of the word "bank":

A riverside: In this sense, the premiss is true but the argument is invalid, so it's unsound.
A type of financial institution: On this meaning, the argument is valid, but the premiss is false, thus the argument is again unsound.

In either case, the argument is unsound. Therefore, no argument which commits the fallacy of Equivocation is sound.

Introduction to Logic
Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen & Kenneth McMahon
Fourteenth Edition 2014

[/quote]Most words have more than one literal meaning, and most of the time we have
no difficulty keeping those meanings separate by noting the context and using
our good sense when reading and listening. Yet when we confuse the several
meanings of a word or phrase—accidentally or deliberately—we are using the
word equivocally. If we do that in the context of an argument, we commit the
fallacy of equivocation (144).[/quote]

Equivocation Fallacy


The fallacy of equivocation is committed when a term is used in two or more different senses within a single argument.

For an argument to work, words must have the same meaning each time they appear in its premises or conclusion. Arguments that switch between different meanings of words equivocate, and so don’t work. This is because the change in meaning introduces a change in subject. If the words in the premises and the conclusion mean different things, then the premises and the conclusion are about different things, and so the former cannot support the latter.

Critical Thinking:
A Student's Introduction - 4th Edition
Gregory Bassham


The fallacy of equivocation is committed when a key word is used in two or more senses in the same argument and the apparent success of the argument depends on the shift in meaning (page 131).

Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies Equivocation

Definition: The same word is used with two different meanings.

Attacking Faulty Reasoning
A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments
T. Edward Damer

Definition Directing another person toward an unwarranted conclusion by making a word or phrase employed in two different senses in an argument appear to have the same meaning throughout.

In a good argument, the words or phrases used must retain the same meanings throughout the argument, unless a shift in meaning is understood or specified. One who equivocates has either intentionally or carelessly allowed a key word to shift in meaning in mid-argument. A shift of this kind is particularly difficult to detect in long arguments in which the transition in meaning can be more easily concealed.

One who uses a word or phrase that functions in one part of an argument in a very different way from how it functions in another part may cause an opponent to draw an unwarranted conclusion because it looks like support is being given to the claim at issue simply because the words have the same appearance. Because the key term lacks a uniform meaning, the logical connection that was assumed to exist between the parts of the argument has been severed; but such a connection is required if the premises are to support the conclusion. Such confusion renders the premises unacceptable, and no conclusion can be inferred from them (page121).
Last edited by mtbturtle on December 4th, 2014, 4:40 pm, edited 6 times in total.
Reason: added reference
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Re: Equivocation

Postby AllShips on February 25th, 2014, 9:48 pm 

Can kiwis fly?

"Kiwi", like many words, has more than one meaning. It can refer to our friends from New Zealand of both the feathered and non-feathered variety. The answer to the question in either case, though, would appear to be negative.

Well, that is if we interpret "fly" to mean engage in self-powered aeronautics. But fly can also mean to travel by airplane, in which case the answer would appear to be positive in both cases, although the feathered type is unlikely to qualify for any frequent flier discounts.

Equivocation occurs when a speaker (no, not a loudspeaker) switches from one meaning to another of the same word, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or inadvertently.

Equivocation, like many jokes and riddles, is "language sensitive". Confusion over kiwi aerial antics would never arise in Chinese, say, since Chinese has separate words for Kiwi (bird) and Kiwi (person), as well as different verbs for both of the English "fly"s.

The main object of equivocation I have in the crosshairs right now is the superficially plausible slogan, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people". Well, are you convinced? I'll argue that the plausibility rests on an equivocation between two meanings of "kill" in English, both contained within the slogan, and that when the equivocation is exposed, the plausibility dissipates.

The kill1/kill2 distinction is much subtler than the kiwi1/kiwi2 dichotomy, in fact, one is a subset of the other. You may not even have recognized a distinction. The subtlety renders "kill" much more susceptible to insidious equivocation than, say, "kiwi". Once again, interestingly, this would be more obvious to a Chinese speaker inasmuch as Chinese does differentiate between the two. Allow me to elaborate:-

kill1 - to cause death through mental causation or "intentionality"
kill2 - to cause death

{The common verb "sha" (殺) in Mandarin applies only to kill1.}

Clearly, only entities with a mind can perpetrate kill1. On the other hand, kill2 could be a result of poison, a typhoon, an earthquake, cancer, falling pianos, or even a falling window-cleaner. Meanwhile, a malevolent kamikaze window-cleaner could both kill1 you AND kill2 you!

So getting back to these nice 44-Magnums, do guns kill people?

Well, if we mean kill1, then of course they don't. Neither do they commit adultery or cheat on their taxes. The statement is trivially true and entirely uninformative.

Do guns kill2 then? Of course they do. Or if you want to argue that they don't, you'd have to argue that tsunamis don't either. And a million headlines say otherwise.

Good luck with that!

And for those of you out there like myself who are getting a bit thin on top, beware not to succumb, as Aeschylus did, to death by tortoise. These things DO kill, but one can only assume (and hope) that their terminations are of the kill2 variety.

Re: Equivocation

Postby AllShips on February 26th, 2014, 4:10 am 

On further reflection - and I ain't talking mirrors - the gun slogan works not by virtue of simple equivocation on the part of the speaker. It's more deliciously convoluted than that. When our rifle-toting friend declares "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" both instances of "kill" must surely be kill1, otherwise the first half is false and no one will be persuaded.

Thus construed, the slogan is in fact true, but as I pointed out, the first half is a trivial truth, as banal as "chisels don't join SCF". But the slogan doesn't sound entirely banal, does it? At least on first hearing it seems as if something substantive is being asserted.

The superficial plausibility of the slogan, I now suggest, lies not in an equivocation on the part of the speaker, but the listener. The thought process of the person swayed by the argument goes like this:-

"People kill (1) people"? Yes, of course they do, evil creatures that we are. "Guns don't kill (1) people"? By Jove! He's right! They don't! A gun has never killed (1) anyone. Guns aren't dangerous. Guns don't kill(2) people!!

And we see the insidious switch. Each one of these thoughts is quite true, except the final two which arise from an illegitimate inference. The fallacy here lies in a conflation of the two meanings of "kill". In the thought process outlined above, the first kill (kill1) arrives with a stowaway (kill2) who, upon entry into the listener's brain subdues his host and takes over the show. The result is an absurd conclusion.

Or in simple terms, it is illegitimate to infer from "guns don't kill people" to "guns don't kill people".

Um, excuse me?

I mean, you can't infer from "guns don't kill1 people" that "guns don't kill2 people"


Is my analysis plausible? Do other members have any thoughts on this?

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