By: Garth Kemerling
We've seen that sloppy or misleading use of ordinary language can seriously limit our ability to create and communicate correct reasoning. As philosopher John Locke pointed out three centuries ago, the achievement of human knowledge is often hampered by the use of words without fixed signification. Needless controversy is sometimes produced and perpetuated by an unacknowledged ambiguity in the application of key terms. We can distinguish disputes of three sorts:
Genuine disputes involve disagreement about whether or not some specific proposition is true. Since the people engaged in a genuine dispute agree on the meaning of the words by means of which they convey their respective positions, each of them can propose and assess logical arguments that might eventually lead to a resolution of their differences.
Merely verbal disputes, on the other hand, arise entirely from ambiguities in the language used to express the positions of the disputants. A verbal dispute disappears entirely once the people involved arrive at an agreement on the meaning of their terms, since doing so reveals their underlying agreement in belief.
Apparently verbal but really genuine disputes can also occur, of course. In cases of this sort, the resolution of every ambiguity only reveals an underlying genuine dispute. Once that's been discovered, it can be addressed fruitfully by appropriate methods of reasoning.
We can save a lot of time, sharpen our reasoning abilities, and communicate with each other more effectively if we watch for disagreements about the meaning of words and try to resolve them whenever we can.