All the world is logical today, so another meta-post. I wonder if anyone has any examples of amphiboly. Here's a famous example:

"This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got there I'll never know. . . "

But maybe I should give a definition. Here, by way of historical edification, is Ockham's:

Circa quam primo sciendum est quod sicut fallacia aequivocationis accidit ex hoc quod alia dictio potest diversimode accipi, ita fallacia amphiboliae accidit ex hoc quod aliqua oratio potest diversimode accipi, absque hoc quod alia dictio primo diversimode accipiatur; ita quod sicut dictio est multiplex, ita tota oratio est multiplex. (Summa Logicae III-4, cap. 5, 2-7, p. 764/5)

He says more (but I can't find an electronic version other than the one above). We all know that equivocation regards single words, Ockham tells us that amphiboly regards ambiguous phrases. I must confess that with all of my fallacy searching in recent years, I can't remember having spotted one in the wild. It would be great if some of you could come up with real or real-life examples of this.

4 thoughts on “Amphiboly”

  1. how about the in the Constitution: ? specifically the 2nd and 5th amendments.

    2nd Amendment:
    A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

    here, because the framers did not insert an “and” between “free state” and “the right of the people,” two possibly fallacious conclusions are drawn: one, that the right to bears arms inheres only to state militas, not to any private citizen, or two, that this ambiguity allows for an all inclusive right to bear arms, so that jim bob can mount his barrett .50 cal to the bed of 76 chevy siverado. each conclusion leans on the ambiguity in the premise.

    5th Amendment:
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger

    here again, the ambiguity in the amendment leads us to question whether “when in actual…time of war or public danger” refers to anyone during that time or refers solely to those “in the land or naval forces, or in the militia.” this can make military prosecutions for so-called ‘war crimes’ that occur in the time of peace particularly difficult to prosecute.

    And don’t even get me started on the Necessary and Proper clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 18):

    The Congress shall have power …To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

    Some lawyers have enumerated the damage that the ambiguity in this clause has effected in a manner far beyond my feeble powers:

  2. Hmmm… I don’t think I’m willing to accept that the definition of amphiboly simply means the existence of an ambiguous phrase or phrases in a sentence. If that was the case then I believe I could submit selections from each of the philosophy papers I have ever written as being examples of the amphiboly fallacy. I don’t agree that the two examples Philip gives are true examples of amphiboly.

    I don’t know the exact definition that Ockham is giving since I can’t really read Latin. Nevertheless, I think that amphiboly deals with not only ambiguous phrases but also with there specific placement within a sentence (proposition). I think amphiboly is typically thought of as a fallacy that occurs when almost everyone knows what is really attempting to be communicated, but simply by virtue of the placement of a certain phrase combined with the rules of grammar lead one to conclude that something else is being said. Drawing conclusions from the ambiguity where the conclusion uses one interpretation and the premise another leads to the fallacy.

    In the example that jcasey uses what seems to be meant is that a person shot an elephant while this person was wearing his pajamas. And the person who shot the elephant is confused about how the elephant got to its present location. However, because of the way English grammar works it appears that the phrase “how he got there I’ll never know…” is referring back to the entire phrase that comes before it. If that was the case then one could read the entire statement as meaning that a person shot an elephant this morning and that elephant was wearing the man’s pajama’s at that time, which is clearly absurd.

    I think Philip’s examples from the Bill of Rights are just cases of poor wording which can lead to multiple interpretations of the text, none of which clearly seem absurd. The original second amendment that was passed by the House and Senate and later ratified by the states reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This still isn’t good grammar but it is better than the version that appears in the hand written copy of the Bill of Rights, which Philip quoted above. Note the dropping of two commas and the addition of the capitalization of “people.” He’s right that there could be multiple interpretations of this passage but I don’t believe that one interpretation clearly stands out over the others. We really aren’t certain of what is being said. This ambiguous formulation may actually have been intentional.

    The Fifth Amendment I don’t believe is ambiguous at all. What is being claimed to be an ambiguous phrase is clearly modifying what comes right before it, which is the way English grammar is suppose to work. Perhaps this could be made clearer if we look at the passage without all the qualifications. “No person shall be held for a capital crime, unless on an indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the military forces, when in actual time of war or public danger. It appears to be just poor comma use, unless one is arguing that there should be an “and” in between “forces” and “when” making the last phrase another separate type of exception. The ambiguity here stems solely from comma usage rather than the placement of the phrases within the sentence.

    Here is what I believe is a good example of amphiboly from history: “If Croesus went to war with Cyrus he would destroy a mighty kingdom.” This was the statement given to Croesus, king of Lydia, by the Oracle at Delphi. Of course, good ole Croesus took this to mean he would destroy the Persian kingdom so he went to war. His army took heavy losses and he ended up losing the war. He then went and complained to the Oracle. The reply from the Oracle was simple, “You did go to war and destroy a mighty kingdom, your own!” Of course, Croesus is the one guilty of committing the fallacy of amphiboly because he used it as the premise to his argument that had “therefore, I will destroy the Persian Kingdom” as the conclusion. I also recall a story from Thucydides that told of a general who was besieging a town and went to the gates and asked if they would surrender their city. The leader of the town told him to come and they could talk it over. The general was wise enough to ask how his safety could be guaranteed while he was inside. The leader of the town replied that he would not harm the general while he was within the walls of the city. So the general went inside and was then promptly dragged out another gate and killed. Of course, the leader of the city kept his word about not killing while in the city, but he used an ambiguous word formulation to hide his true intentions. The poor general committed the fallacy of amphiboly when he concluded from the ambiguous formulation that he would be safe.

    I have rarely seen amphiboly being used in a serious argument.

  3. on the ‘nature’ podcast, chris smith always advertises his ‘naked scientists’ podcast by saying something like ‘if you want more up to the minute science news then visit the naked…”.
    the context is ambiguous in the sense of do ‘more quantity’ or ‘more recent’ news. He also uses a lot of puns.
    I think puns can be a kind of amphiboly.

  4. Matt K–

    i didn’t mean to imply that the mere existence of ambiguity was an instance of amphiboly, but that the use of that ambiguity to draw an obviously flawed conclusion, as per Bob Hurley:

    “[Amphiboly] is an informal fallacy that occurs when the conclusion of an argument depends on the misinterpretation of a statement that is ambiguous owing to some structural defect.”

    a better objection to my initial claim might be that the structural “defect” exploited by interpreters of the Constitution is an ambiguity purposely placed in the document that ensures it remains an organic document. however, that would depend more on one’s particular school of Constitutional hermeneutics than on the definition of amphiboly. i think in the cases i’ve cited above, the ambiguity in these particular statutes has been abused to render unreasonable conclusions, thus committing the fallacy of amphiboly.

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