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Language, Meaning, and Communication

The Role of Language in Constructing Arguments

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Although it might sound trivial or even irrelevant to bring up such basic matters as language, meaning, and communication, these are the most fundamental components of arguments — even more fundamental than propositions, inferences, and conclusions. We cannot make sense of an argument without being able make sense of the language, meaning, and purpose of what is being communicated in the first place.

Language is a subtle and complex instrument used to communicate an incredible number of different things, but for our purposes here we can reduce the universe of communication to four basic categories: information, direction, emotion, and ceremony. The first two are often treated together because they express cognitive meaning while the latter two commonly express emotional meaning.

The communication of information may be the most frequently thought-of use of language, but it probably isn’t as dominant as most believe. The basic means of conveying information is through statements or propositions (a proposition is any declaration that asserts some matter of fact, as opposed to an opinion or value) — the building blocks of arguments. Some of the “information” here might not be true because not all arguments are valid; however, for the purposes of studying logic, information being conveyed in a statement may be either false or true.

The informative content of a statement may be direct or indirect. Most statements in arguments will probably be direct — something basic like “all men are mortal.” Indirect information may also be communicated if you read between the lines. Poetry, for example, conveys information indirectly through techniques such as metaphors.

Communicating direction occurs when we use language to cause or prevent an action. The simplest examples would be when we yell “Stop!” or “Come here!” Unlike the communication of information, commands can’t be true or false. On the other hand, the reasons for giving commandd may be true or false and hence be amenable to logical critique.

Finally, language may be used to communicate feelings and emotions. Such expressions may or may not be intended to evoke reactions in others, but when emotional language occurs in an argument the purpose is to evoke similar feelings in others in order to sway them to agreeing with the argument’s conclusion(s).

I indicated above that the ceremonial use of language is used to communicate emotional meaning, but that isn’t entirely accurate. The problem with ceremonial language is that it can involve all three other categories at some level and can be very difficult to interpret properly. A priest using ritual phrases may be communicating information about the religious ritual, invoking predicted emotional reactions in religious adherents, and directing them to begin the next stage of the ritual — all at once and with the same half dozen words. Ceremonial language cannot be understood literally, but neither can the literal meanings be ignored.

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