Letters to the Editor

Logical fallacies

Two egregious fallacies made their way into last Friday’s (Sept 21) edition of The Journal. As a devoted professor of logic, it would be remiss of me not to correct them.

The first occurs in the following passage from the front page article “Queen’s Criticized: University violated academic freedom, report says”, where it is stated: “Students complained to the department about Mason’s USE [sic] of the term [sic] ‘towelhead’, ‘rag head’, ‘japs’, ‘little yellow bastards’ while teaching about post-imperialist subject matter.” Professor Mason used no such terms.

Philosophy of Language 101 teaches the basic and quintessentially important distinction between using a word and mentioning it. (It is apparent that some Queen’s administrators, Heads of departments, and Journal editors, need remedial philosophy of language.) To use a word is to refer to what it denotes. It is a linguistic activity. To MENTION a word is a radically different activity. It is a metalinguistic activity. To mention a word is to refer, not to the thing the word denotes, but to the word itself.

In “Cicero was a Roman orator”, the word ‘Cicero’ is used to refer to Cicero. (Note the MENTION of the word ‘Cicero’ in the latter clause, noted by the single mention quotes, as well as its USE later in the clause.) The sentence is true because Cicero was indeed a Roman orator. (Note the USE of the word ‘Cicero’ in the previous clause, and its mention in this one.) The sentence “ ‘Cicero’ has three syllables” is true. The sentence “Cicero has three syllables” is false. In spoken language, mention quotes are not pronounced; they must be inferred from context. Unfortunately, there is no escaping the fact that this requires thought.

The great logician W.V.O Quine admonished against “playing fast and loose with mention and use”. Professor Mason was the victim of just such reactionary thoughtlessness. The intelligent thing to do would be for the many who succumbed to this fallacy to apologize to him.

The second fallacy, no less egregious for being popular, is committed on the anti-abortion side of the article “Two sides of Motion 312” [p. 8], when its author moves from the claim “The question of when human life begins isn’t a religious or moral question –it’s a scientific question” to the claim “Canada’s definition of when a child becomes a human being is outdated, and in this 21st century –dishonest.”

This is a good example of the fallacy of equivocation. I like to call it “bait and switch.” ‘When life begins’ is a scientific question, and ‘when human life begins’ is a biological question. Both questions have been answered: at conception. (Although sperm, being self-locomoted, have some claim to being “alive,” as do ova for different reasons, but let that pass.)

Here comes the switch. ‘Canada’s definition of when a child becomes a human being’, apart from being badly formulated, equivocates: nor the nth time, the relevant question is not when a zygote becomes a life. Carrots are alive and we still eat them. The relevant question (as Bertha Wilson clearly put it) is ‘when the state’s interest in protecting human life becomes compelling’ (or more compelling than other of the state's interests, like protecting some of its citizen's bodily integrity). That is a moral question, not a scientific question. And though moral questions may be clarified by scientific understanding, they are not the same.

Adele Mercier
department of philosophy


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