Persuasive definition

Last updated

A persuasive definition is a form of stipulative definition which purports to describe the true or commonly accepted meaning of a term, while in reality stipulating an uncommon or altered use, usually to support an argument for some view, or to create or alter rights, duties or crimes. [1] The terms thus defined will often involve emotionally charged but imprecise notions, such as "freedom", "terrorism", "democracy", etc. In argumentation the use of a persuasive definition is sometimes called definist fallacy. (The latter sometimes more broadly refers to a fallacy of a definition based on improper identification of two distinct properties.) [2] [3] [4]


Examples of persuasive definitions (definist fallacies) include:

Persuasive definitions commonly appear in controversial topics such as politics, sex, and religion, as participants in emotionally charged exchanges will sometimes become more concerned about swaying people to one side or another than expressing the unbiased facts. A persuasive definition of a term is favorable to one argument or unfavorable to the other argument, but is presented as if it were neutral and well-accepted, and the listener is expected to accept such a definition without question. [1]

The term "persuasive definition" was introduced by philosopher Charles Stevenson as part of his emotive theory of meaning. [5]


Language can simultaneously communicate information (informative) and feelings (expressive). [6] Unlike other common types of definitions in logic, persuasive definitions focus on the expressive use of language to affect the feelings of readers and listeners ultimately with an aim to change their behavior. [7] With this fundamentally different purpose, persuasive definitions are evaluated not on their truth or falsehood but rather on their effectiveness as a persuasive device. [8] Stevenson [9] showed how these two dimensions are combined when he investigated the terms he called "ethical" or emotive. [10] He noted that some words, such as peace or war, are not simply used to describe reality by modifying the cognitive response of the interlocutor. They have also the power of directing the interlocutor's attitudes and suggesting a course of action. For this reason, they evoke a different kind of reaction, emotive in nature. As Stevenson [11] put it "Instead of merely describing people's interests, they change and intensify them. They recommend an interest in an object, rather than state that the interest already exists." These words have the tendency to encourage future actions, to lead the hearer towards a decision by affecting his or her system of interests. [12] Stevenson distinguished between the use of a word (a stimulus) and its possible psychological effects on the addressee's cognitive and the emotive reactions by labeling them as "descriptive meaning" and "emotive meaning". [13] Applying this distinction reveals how the redefinition of an ethical word is transformed into an instrument of persuasion, a tool for redirecting preferences and emotions: [12]

Ethical definitions involve a wedding of descriptive and emotive meaning, and accordingly have a frequent use in redirecting and intensifying attitudes. To choose a definition is to plead a cause, so long as the word defined is strongly emotive.

In persuasive definitions the evaluative component associated with a concept is left unaltered while the descriptive meaning is modified. In this fashion, imprisonment can become "true freedom", [14] and massacres "pacification". [15] Persuasive definitions can change or distort the meaning while keeping the original evaluations that the use of a word evokes. Quasi-definitions consist in the modification of the emotive meaning of a word without altering the descriptive one. The speaker can quasi-define a word by qualifying the definiendum without setting forth what the term actually means. For instance, we can consider the following quasi-definition taken from Casanova's Fuga dai Piombi. In this example (1), the speaker, Mr. Soradaci, tries to convince his interlocutor (Casanova) that being a "sneak" is an honorable behavior: [16]

I have always despised the prejudice that attaches to the name "spy" a hateful meaning: this name sounds bad only to the ears of who hates the Government. A sneak is just a friend of the good of the State, the plague of the crooks, the faithful servant of his Prince.

This quasi-definition employed in the first case underscores a fundamental dimension of the "emotive" meaning of a word, namely its relationship with the shared values, which are attacked as "prejudices." This account given by the spy shows how describing the referent based on a different hierarchy of values can modify emotive meaning. The value of trust is not denied, but is placed in a hierarchy where the highest worth is given to the State. [17]

Stevenson provides us with two definitions of the word culture in order to illustrate what a persuasive definition can accomplish:

Both carry with them the positive emotive meaning of culture; it is still a good thing to be cultured no matter which definition is used. What they change is what exactly it means to be called "cultured." Because being cultured is a positive trait, the society views being well read and acquainted with the arts as positive traits to have. By promoting a persuasive definition of "imaginative sensitivity" the society begins to views those qualities positively because they are attached to a word with a positive emotive meaning. [18]

Unclear, figurative language is often used in persuasive definitions. [19] Although several techniques can be used to form such a definition, [10] the genus and difference technique is the usual one applied. [20] Both definitions in the taxation example above agree that the genus is a procedure relating to governance but disagree on the difference. Persuasive definitions combine elements of stipulative definitions, lexical definitions, and sometimes theoretical definitions. [8]

Persuasive definitions commonly appear in political speeches, editorials and other situations where the power to influence is most in demand. [8] They have been dismissed as serving only to confuse readers and listeners without legitimate purpose. [21] Critical scrutiny is often necessary to identify persuasive definitions in an argument as they are meant to appear as honest definitions. [8] [22] [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Ad hominem</i> Argumentative strategies, usually fallacious

Ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, refers to several types of arguments, most of which are fallacious.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Definition</span> Statement that attaches a meaning to a term

A definition is a statement of the meaning of a term. Definitions can be classified into two large categories: intensional definitions, and extensional definitions. Another important category of definitions is the class of ostensive definitions, which convey the meaning of a term by pointing out examples. A term may have many different senses and multiple meanings, and thus require multiple definitions.

Ethical non-naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world are not reducible to any set of non-moral features.

Fallacies of definition are the various ways in which definitions can fail to explain terms. The phrase is used to suggest an analogy with an informal fallacy. Definitions may fail to have merit, because they: are overly broad, use obscure or ambiguous language, or contain circular reasoning; those are called fallacies of definition. Three major fallacies are: overly broad, overly narrow, and mutually exclusive definitions, a fourth is: incomprehensible definitions, and one of the most common is circular definitions.

Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false. A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world". If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.

In philosophical ethics, the naturalistic fallacy is the claim that any reductive explanation of good, in terms of natural properties such as pleasant or desirable, is false. The term was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Begging the question</span> Logic founded on unproven premises

In classical rhetoric and logic, begging the question or assuming the conclusion is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it.

A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning, or "wrong moves," in the construction of an argument which may appear stronger than it really is if the fallacy is not spotted. The term in the Western intellectual tradition was introduced in the Aristotelian De Sophisticis Elenchis.

Loaded language is rhetoric used to influence an audience by using words and phrases with strong connotations. This type of language is very often made vague to more effectively invoke an emotional response and/or exploit stereotypes. Loaded words and phrases have significant emotional implications and involve strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning.

Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory. Influenced by the growth of analytic philosophy and logical positivism in the 20th century, the theory was stated vividly by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic, but its development owes more to C. L. Stevenson.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Stevenson (philosopher)</span> American analytic philosopher (1908-1979)

Charles Leslie Stevenson was an American analytic philosopher best known for his work in ethics and aesthetics.

The fallacy of four terms is the formal fallacy that occurs when a syllogism has four terms rather than the requisite three, rendering it invalid.

In meta-ethics, expressivism is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, "It is wrong to torture an innocent human being" – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as "wrong", "good", or "just" do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.

An etymological fallacy is committed when an argument makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on that word's etymology. It is a genetic fallacy that holds a word's historical meaning to be its sole valid meaning and that its present-day meaning is invalid. This is a linguistic misconception, and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription.

The definist fallacy is a logical fallacy, identified by William Frankena in 1939, that involves the definition of one property in terms of another.

Douglas Neil Walton was a Canadian academic and author, known for his books and papers on argumentation, logical fallacies and informal logic. He was a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation, and Rhetoric (CRRAR) at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and before that (2008–2014), he held the Assumption Chair of Argumentation Studies at the University of Windsor. Walton's work has been used to better prepare legal arguments and to help develop artificial intelligence.

An argument is a statement or group of statements called premises intended to determine the degree of truth or acceptability of another statement called a conclusion. Arguments can be studied from three main perspectives: the logical, the dialectical and the rhetorical perspective.

This is an index of Wikipedia articles in philosophy of language


  1. 1 2 Bunnin, Nicholas; Yu, Jiyuan (2004). "Persuasive definition". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN   978-1-4051-0679-5 . Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  2. Bunnin, Nicholas; Yu, Jiyuan (2008). "Definist fallacy". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. p. 165. ISBN   978-0-470-99721-5 . Retrieved 2014-10-15.
  3. 1 2 Dowden, Bradley (December 31, 2010). "Fallacies: Persuasive Definition". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Archived from the original on October 9, 2014. Retrieved 2011-04-10.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  4. 1 2 Dowden, Bradley (December 31, 2010). "Fallacies: Definist fallacy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Archived from the original on October 9, 2014. Retrieved 2011-04-10.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. Copi & Cohen 1990, p. 82.
  6. Copi & Cohen 1990, p. 67, 137.
  7. Copi & Cohen 1990, p. 137.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Hurley 2008, p. 94.
  9. Stevenson 1937.
  10. 1 2 3 Macagno & Walton 2014.
  11. Stevenson 1937, p. 18–19.
  12. 1 2 Stevenson 1944, p. 210.
  13. Stevenson 1944, p. 54.
  14. Huxley 1936, p. 122.
  15. Orwell 1946.
  16. Casanova 1911, p. 112.
  17. Walton & Macagno 2015.
  18. Stevenson, Charles Leslie (1938-01-01). "Persuasive Definitions". Mind. 47 (187): 331–350. doi:10.1093/mind/XLVII.187.331. JSTOR   2250337.
  19. Copi & Cohen 1990, p. 154.
  20. Hurley 2008, p. 103.
  21. Kemerling, Garth (2001-10-27). "Definition and Meaning". Philosophy Pages. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
  22. Copi & Cohen 1990, pp. 137–138.