Sorting Through Sophistries:
Disfigures of Speech

By Gabriel Blanchard

Today, we conclude our review of the first great genus of fallacies with a glance at fallacious treatment of idioms.

In Which Aforesaid Fallacies of Diction Are Reviewed

So far, we have examined two groupings of what Aristotle called “fallacies of diction.” The first group were flawed due to some key word or idea in them being left ambiguous, allowing a sophist to move back and forth between different senses of the word, or versions of the idea, according to what suits him at the moment (instead of arguing consistently). The second group were a little more complex from a logical perspective, but they essentially amounted to the rule that one should not unduly generalize.

One fallacy of diction remains. Like the others, it can occur either as an honest mistake or a dishonest one. It is sometimes called the “fallacy of figure of speech,” and there is a reason for this, but all the same, the present author finds the expression misleading—quotations, metaphor, and other idioms* are hardly fallacious in themselves, after all. We therefore propose to instead call these fallacies disfigures of speech.

In Which the Last Fallacy of Diction,
Being This “Disfigure of Speech,” Is Propounded

The basic error here is that of taking figures of speech literally. Of course, most of us have made this mistake at one time or another, typically due to youth and unfamiliarity (the latter of which can occur even among the aged), and a simple mistake, once detected, is simple enough to correct.**

What can be fallacious here is either the misuse of an idiom, pretending to mean it overly literally, or else the misinterpretation of an idiom used by someone else, feigning to understand it too literally—perhaps as a stalling technique, or because the literal meaning of a phrase would make our opponents look bad by association with it. It is distantly akin to, and may appear as a part of, the strategy of “sea-lioning“: wearing an opponent down with an excess of bad-faith questions (e.g. trivial, tangential to the topic, common knowledge, or already answered), while maintaining a superficially polite demeanor that enables the “sea lion” to act aggrieved at the irrationality of the target if they express any annoyance. (The chief difference is that “sea-lioning” is describing a strategy, while disfigures of speech are a technique, something that can be used as a component of various strategies.)

In Which, by a Brief Excursus,
Rhetoric Is at Once Introduced and Postponed

This is not to say that there is no gain to be had by occasionally taking figures of speech in a literal sense. As a matter of fact, at least when handled well, that can be not only entertaining but interesting, even edifying.

Maj.-Gen. Stanley: I'm very well-acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse!
Chorus: With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse!
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse!
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypote-potenuse!

But none of those things were the issue. The issue is what it’s not; because what it is not is sound logical reasoning. And it is to test for that quality that we study fallacies and logic in the first place. There are other means of obtaining knowledge and wisdom and of analyzing the world; of those, if we ever run a series on classical rhetoric here at the Journal, we’ll cover several. But those are a subject unto themselves.

Exemplars of the Disfigure of Speech

This may still sound abstract. Let us take a concrete example. There is a traditional legend (perhaps derived from Pliny the Elder‘s Natural History) that the ostrich buries her head in the sand to stop from seeing danger and thus feel safer. Now, this is one we are familiar with, and which communicates a reality of human behavior, whether or not it is true of ostriches.† It was therefore likely to become a figure of speech, as indeed it did. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out: “the public speaker who warns me not to hide my head in the sand like an ostrich, is not really thinking, and does not want me to think, about ostriches.”

Suppose a speaker, Mr. A, had used this figure of speech during a debate. Most opponents would let the familiar idiom pass without comment; an under-informed opponent like Mr. B, or a stupid one like Mr. X, might ask what ostriches have to do with the price of eggs. But suppose Mr. A had a different sort of opponent—the infamously dishonest and sophistical Mr. Y. Y might deliberately zero in on the figure of speech, ignoring corrections or other issues, as a way of wasting A’s time, and perhaps even (with a little luck) making everyone sick of the whole discussion. That then leaves Mr. Y with a lot more elbow room; because, at one and the same time, everyone knows who he is (so that he can probably command some percentage of the votes in the upcoming election for the Ostrich Affairs Commissioner), and no one is paying attention.

Of course, here we have strayed from the logical issues with sophistries to the political danger they can pose when used. That may be a legitimate topic of discussion, quite as much as rhetoric (and for a lot of the same reasons), but it is once more a different subject. And, having explored the three species within the genus of fallacies of diction, we’re now better prepared to move on to the wider sophistical dreamworld.

*An idiom in this context is any set way of expressing something. A figure of speech in the strict sense refers to a non-literal way of saying something (metaphors are a good everyday example), though it is sometimes loosely used as a near-synonym of “idiom.”
**Which is why being on the lookout for erroneous reasoning is good, but needs to be tempered with courtesy—innocent mistakes do not carry the same implications about somebody that deliberately using a fallacy does, and the distinction should be respected. To treat a mere mistake as an intentional deception is a great way to lose friends and lack influence with people
†It’s not.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and is an uncle to seven nephews.

Thank you for reading the Journal today. If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to take a look at some of our other material, like our just-wrapped series on the men and women of our Author Bank.

Published on 1st February, 2024. Page image of The Tower of Babel, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1563. Author thumbnail taken from Sisyphus, painted by by Franz von Stuck (1920).

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