The LSAT podcast that randomly came up during my jog to-day was about equivocation. The podcast defines this as when an ambiguous word is used across its different meanings. The example offered is the following syllogism:

Nothing is better than a juicy hamburger.
Brussels sprouts are better than nothing.
Therefore, Brussels sprouts are better than a juicy hamburger.

There is a simple test to see if the meaning is a shifting meaning, substitute ‘nothing’ for what it could mean: ‘no food.’ Now let us rerun the syllogism.

No food is better than a juicy hamburger.
Brussels sprouts are better than no food.
Therefore, Brussels sprouts are better than a juicy hamburger.

So, the poetry is lost, but notice that the syllogism is the same in either case. Therefore, the fallacy is not one of equivocation, but rather it is in a misunderstanding of ‘better.’ Notice that the first term in the comparison is placed above the second term in a hierarchy. If the fallacy was equivocation then switching the order of the terms would not matter, but since ‘better’ is a conditional term, the order is what determines the meaning and consequently that is the fallacy of the syllogism. The folks at Princeton review should be ashamed.

So, what then does equivocation look like? I like the confusion over the ‘realism’ debates. There are two different debates and two different meanings for realism, but these distinctions are often lost and literature in one conversation is often introduced improperly into the other debate.

The first realism is an epistemological question: how do we know what is real? The realist assumes that reality can be measured and accurately perceived. The usual criticism is that reality is not measurable, rather, reality presents us with data which we must then filter through and interpret. The different schools of philosophy will then disagree about how we go about with that interpretation, but the need to interpret dispels the real of reality.

The second realism is in international studies and is a theory of how nations interact with other nations. Realism maintains that a nation’s foreign policies are the result of exogenous factors, usually the foreign policies of another nation. The usual criticism of this realism is that nations make foreign polices based upon internal constituencies. For example, President Bush goes to war to secure re-election or to gain political capital for domestic programs or because he believes he was elected to go to war. The realist would say the decision was in response to the security dilemma.

An example of equivocation comes when someone is armed with an international realist’s response to criticisms, for example John Mearsheimer argues that the anti-realists are chasing a pipedream because ultimately all states will make security policies based on foreign threats, regardless of what constituents want. ‘Realism is inevitable’ is a simple way to characterize this argument.

So, let us now return to the first debate. The psychoanalyst would tell the analysand to stop calling the significant other passive-aggressive, when she says she has no preference of where to eat dinner. The psychoanalyst will then interpret the passive-aggressive interpretation as a projection of the analysand’s anxieties upon the significant other. Being passive-aggressive would be the realist take on things, whereas the realist critic says (that while the person may be passive-aggressive) that diagnosis is an interpretation of data and not an objective measure. The lesson of the psychoanalyst (one of the schools that criticizes realism) is: your diagnosis of the other is not real, but rather a projection of something in yourself onto the other.

Back to equivocation. We now have the first realism debate and then enters the confused realist in response. The realist invokes Mearsheimer’s argument: realism is inevitable. This response does not measure up and is a non-sequitor. I am told to not try to improve my relationship with my girlfriend because I will inevitably be a realist and forget the lesson of the psychoanalysis. But, even if I will forget I should still employ the lesson for the added happiness it can bring me. Trust me, it brings happiness because my girlfriend hates being called passive-aggressive.