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Aristotle - The Organon TOPICA Book 6 Part 2

Obscurity

1. One commonplace rule, then, in regard to obscurity is, See if the meaning intended by the definition involves an ambiguity with any other, e.g. 'Becoming is a passage into being', or 'Health is the balance of hot and cold elements'. Here 'passage' and 'balance' are ambiguous terms: it is accordingly not clear which of the several possible senses of the term he intends to convey. Likewise also, if the term defined be used in different senses and he has spoken without distinguishing between them: for then it is not clear to which of them the definition rendered applies, and one can then bring a captious objection on the ground that the definition does not apply to all the things whose definition he has rendered: and this kind of thing is particularly easy in the case where the definer does not see the ambiguity of his terms. Or, again, the questioner may himself distinguish the various senses of the term rendered in the definition, and then institute his argument against each: for if the expression used be not adequate to the subject in any of its senses, it is clear that he cannot have defined it in any sense aright.

2. Another rule is, See if he has used a metaphorical expression, as, for instance, if he has defined knowledge as 'unsupplantable', or the earth as a 'nurse', or temperance as a 'harmony'. For a metaphorical expression is always obscure. It is possible, also, to argue sophistically against the user of a metaphorical expression as though he had used it in its literal sense: for the definition stated will not apply to the term defined, e.g. in the case of temperance: for harmony is always found between notes. Moreover, if harmony be the genus of temperance, then the same object will occur in two genera of which neither contains the other: for harmony does not contain virtue, nor virtue harmony. Again, see if he uses terms that are unfamiliar, as when Plato describes the eye as 'brow-shaded', or a certain spider as 'poison-fanged', or the marrow as 'boneformed'. For an unusual phrase is always obscure.

3. Sometimes a phrase is used neither ambiguously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the 'measure' or 'image' of the things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for the latter does make its meaning to some extent clear because of the likeness involved; for those who use metaphors do so always in view of some likeness: whereas this kind of phrase makes nothing clear; for there is no likeness to justify the description 'measure' or 'image', as applied to the law, nor is the law ordinarily so called in a literal sense. So then, if a man says that the law is literally a 'measure' or an 'image', he speaks falsely: for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If, on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an unclear expression, and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

4. Moreover, see if from the expression used the definition of the contrary be not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines: just as in the works of the old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used to be unrecognizable.


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