Unmeaning: Fallacies of confusion

1. Meaning and Unmeaning

Logical, formal and scientific languages are distinguished from natural language by their univocity and stability.To each signifying chain (term or expression), simple or complex, corresponds one and only one meaning. There is no need for interpretation.
Their meaning is not influenced by the context. It remains stable it throughout any speech developped in the domain of reference.
Such chains are neither void of meaning (nonsense), nor obscure, vague, or ambiguous (multiplicity of meanings)

In ordinary language, the interpretability of signifying chains is not guaranteed. A signifying chain of existing words  can be syntactically well formed and nonetheless:

– Meaningless, or uninterpretable (nonsense).

In the most extreme case, it is impossible to attribute any plausible meaning to the linguistic segment, that is, it cannot receive any satisfactory paraphrase acceptable or relevant in this context. It is inoperable by the receiver, interpretation is powerless.
The chain can nevertheless be explained away as a a poem, as a coded language, as a metaphor, as the product of search for meaninglessness

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (Chomsky)

– Obscure, enigmatic, weakly meaningful.
It is difficult to formulate any interpretation; or it admits of several equally weakly motivated and inconclusive interpretations. S. Interpretation, Hermeneutics, Exegesis.

– Ambiguous.
The discourse admits of two or more clearly distinct and incompatible interpretations, S. Ambiguity.
The coexistence in the same discourse of incompatible orientations is a major cause of pragmatic obscurity.

– Vague.
Vagueness appears about borderline inter-categorical phenomena. Vagueness can also be related to over-generalization making the discourse irrelevant for the specific issue under discussion, S. Vague

– Unstable.
The meaning of the same string can vary or become obscured, in the same discourse, S. Syllogism; Ambiguity.


These are the some of the perils of natural expression, when compared with the rigorous requirements of scientific discourse. The plasticity of meaning in ordinary discourse certainly makes natural language a tricky environment for the development of scientific reasoning.
On the other hand, this same plasticity makes that natural language can generate other forms of language, S. Demonstration and argumentation.

Logical languages develop according to its own laws, scientific  language according to  the law of “things themselves ».
Natural discourse develop under the constraints of its own laws, the pressure of reality, and according to the specific needs,  interests, values that makes up the speaker’s subjectivity.
The above mentioned “perils of expression” are first of all  resources for the covert intentions and indirect motives,  ruse and crafts of the speaker.

2. Argumentative exploitation of semantic uncertainty: Fallacies of confusion

The feeling of indeterminacy is materialized by a judgment carried by the audience, or by the speaker herself, considered the first member of her audience.  Like the judgment of clarity, it can vary with the hearer.

In the case of argumentative speeches, the uncertainty judgment made on a speech is an evaluative judgment that serves to refute it as fallacious, S. Rules.

Rule 3. All expressions which are unmeaning or without effect in regard to the subject in debate should be strictly avoided.
Levi Hedge 1838, « Rules for Honorable Controversy”

Commandment 10, Language use rule: Discussants may not use any formulations that are insufficiently clear or confusingly ambiguous, and they may not deliberately misinterpret the other party’s formulations.
van Eemeren, Grootendorst “Ten Commandments for Reasonable Discussants” (2004, p. 190).

The discourse is criticized as

unmeaning”, that is, “ lacking intelligence, vapid ” and “ having no meaning, senseless” (MW).
insufficiently clear
confusingly ambiguous”.

The interpretive condition, “they may not deliberately misinterpret the other party’s formulations” guarantee the fairness of the criticism

These fallacies belongs to the “fallacy of expression” family. They target the semantic roots of the discourse, S. Discourse destruction.

Under this verdict, the  discourse is dismissed as semantically void, logically unassessable, so irrelevant for the discussion and interactionally rejected. Like all evaluative judgments, these judgments, valid or not, can be disputed and need justification.

The meaning of a discourse is the product of an activity of expression (rhetoric) and an activity of interpretation (hermeneutics). The feeling of uncertainty of the meaning, can thus have its source in the uncertainty/ruse of the expression (proponent side) or of the interpretation (opponent side).