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Language and Logic

Functions of Language

The formal patterns of correct reasoning can all be conveyed through ordinary language, but then so can a lot of other things. In fact, we use language in many different ways, some of which are irrelevant to any attempt to provide reasons for what we believe. It is helpful to identify at least three distinct uses of language:

  1. The informative use of language involves an effort to communicate some content. When I tell a child, "The fifth of May is a Mexican holiday," or write to you that "Logic is the study of correct reasoning," or jot a note to myself, "Jennifer—555-3769," I am using language informatively. This kind of use presumes that the content of what is being communicated is actually true, so it will be our central focus in the study of logic.
  2. An expressive use of language, on the other hand, intends only to vent some feeling, or perhaps to evoke some feeling from other people. When I say, "Friday afternoons are dreary," or yell "Ouch!" I am using language expressively. Although such uses don't convey any information, they do serve an important function in everyday life, since how we feel sometimes matters as much as—or more than—what we hold to be true.
  3. Finally, directive uses of language aim to cause or to prevent some overt action by a human agent. When I say "Shut the door," or write "Read the textbook," or memo myself, "Don't rely so heavily on the passive voice," I am using language directively. The point in each of these cases is to make someone perform (or forswear) a particular action. This is a significant linguistic function, too, but like the expressive use, it doesn't always relate logically to the truth of our beliefs.

Notice that the intended use in a particular instance often depends more on the specific context and tone of voice than it does on the grammatical form or vocabulary of what is said. The simple declarative sentence, "I'm hungry," for example, could be used to report on a physiological condition, or to express a feeling, or implicitly to request that someone feed me. In fact, uses of two or more varieties may be mixed together in a single utterance; "Stop that," for example, usually involves both expressive and directive functions jointly. In many cases, however, it is possible to identify a single use of language that is probably intended to be the primary function of a particular linguistic unit.

British philosopher J. L. Austin developed a similar, though much more detailed and sophisticated, nomenclature for the variety of actions we commonly perform in employing ordinary language. You're welcome to examine his theory of speech acts in association with the discussion in your textbook. While the specifics may vary, some portion of the point remains the same: since we do in fact employ language for many distinct purposes, we can minimize confusion by keeping in mind what we're up to on any particular occasion.

Literal and Emotive Meaning

Even single words or short phrases can exhibit the distinction between purely informative and partially expressive uses of language. Many of the most common words and phrases of any language have both a literal or descriptive meaning that refers to the way things are and an emotive meaning that expresses some (positive or negative) feeling about them. Thus, the choice of which word to use in making a statement can be used in hopes of evoking a particular emotional response.

This is a natural function of ordinary language, of course. We often do wish to convey some portion of our feelings along with information. There is a good deal of poetry in everyday communication, and poetry without emotive meaning is pretty dull. But when we are primarily interested in establishing the truth—as we are when assessing the logical merits of an argument—the use of words laden with emotive meaning can easily distract us from our purpose.

Kinds of Agreement and Disagreement

In fact, an excessive reliance on emotively charged language can create the appearance of disagreement between parties who do not differ on the facts at all, and it can just as easily disguise substantive disputes under a veneer of emotive agreement. Since the degrees of agreement in belief and attitude are independent of each other, there are four possible combinations at work here:

  1. Agreement in belief and agreement in attitude: There aren't any problems in this instance, since both parties hold the same positions and have the same feelings about them.
  2. Agreement in belief but disagreement in attitude: This case, if unnoticed, may become the cause of endless (but pointless) shouting between people whose feelings differ sharply about some fact upon which they are in total agreement.
  3. Disagreement in belief but agreement in attitude: In this situation, parties may never recognize, much less resolve, their fundamental difference of opinion, since they are lulled by their shared feelings into supposing themselves allied.
  4. Disagreement in belief and disagreement in attitude: Here the parties have so little in common that communication between them often breaks down entirely.
It is often valuable, then, to recognize the levels of agreement or disagreement at work in any exchange of views. That won't always resolve the dispute between two parties, of course, but it will ensure that they don't waste their time on an inappropriate method of argument or persuasion.

Emotively Neutral Language

For our purposes in assessing the validity of deductive arguments and the reliability of inductive reasoning, it will be most directly helpful to eliminate emotive meaning entirely whenever we can. Although it isn't always easy to achieve emotively neutral language in every instance, and the result often lacks the colorful character of our usual public discourse, it is worth the trouble and insipidity because it makes it much easier to arrive at a settled understanding of what is true.

In many instances, the informal fallacies we will consider next result from an improper use of emotionally charged language in the effort to persuade someone to accept a proposition at an emotional level, without becoming convinced that there are legitimate grounds for believing it to be true.

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Last modified 12 November 2011.
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