Notes on 2.1 and 2.2


Emotive meaning and cognitive meaning

In the literary (English class) sense, the “connotation” of a word means the conventional associations that come with the word.   Often these associations have an emotional tone.  Some words have positive connotation: “fresh”, “new”, “natural”, “friend”, etc.  Think how often you hear words like that in advertising, and in product names and descriptions.  Some words have negative connotations also. 


People often use words with positive or negative connotation in order to to express or evoke emotion.   Expressing or evoking emotion is not a bad thing in itself, but emotions can take over — Hurley says they have a “steamroller effect” — and interfere with people’s reason and judgment.  In logic, we try to analyze reasoning, to determine which arguments are objectively better.  So when we hear an arguer using emotionally-loaded language, we should be careful not to get sucked into the emotions.  This can be hard, especially if we have our own strong views on the topic being discussed.  Our brains are already grooved to hop on board the emotion train.


Linguists and philosophers of language do NOT use the word “connotation” in the literary sense.  (We will see what philosophers and linguists mean by “connotation” shortly.) To express the concept of connotation in the literary sense, philosophers and linguists use the expression “emotive meaning”. 


Governments and advertisers tend to use emotive language and images in very subtle ways. We should be on the lookout for propaganda and slanting.  Think of the term “harvest” used in connection with hunting; or the recent “surge” in Iraq.  Think of the images of TV commercials.


In the literary sense, the “denotation” of a word means the exact meaning of a word without the attached feelings or associations.  People use words denotatively when they want to convey information, rather than evoke or express emotion.


Linguists and philosophers of language do not use the word “denotation” in the literary sense.  To express the concept of denotation in the literary sense, philosophers and linguists use the expression “cognitive meaning”.


The order of discussion in these notes

I think it is easier to understand the rest of section 2.1 if we first learn the terminology of section 2.2.  So I’m going to now proceed to section 2.2 and return to 2.1 in a bit.


Section 2.2 Notes

Hurley defines “term” as “a word or group of words that can serve as the subject of a statement”.  The subject of a statement is always a noun or noun phrase. So you can think of terms as nouns or noun phrases.  Mathematically speaking, nouns and noun phrases designate classes, or sets.  For example, the noun “dog” designates any one of a class of things we call dogs. So for philosophers, terms are words or phrases that designate classes. 


There are three kinds of terms:


  1. General terms designate classes with more than one member, e.g., common nouns such as “dog” or “book” or “tree.”


  1. Singular terms designate individuals, e.g., proper nouns (“The Taj Mahal”), or proper names (“Barack Obama”). Mathematically speaking, individuals comprise classes also; they are classes with a single member. In other words, the class corresponding to the term “The Taj Mahal” is the class containing the Taj Mahal as its only member.


  1. Non-denoting terms refer to the empty class (also known as the “null set”), e.g., “mermaid.”  Mathematically speaking, all non-denoting terms refer to the same class, the empty class.


In the usage of philosophers and linguists, the denotation of a term is the class of things in the world to which the term correctly applies. For example, the denotation of the term “book” is all the books. Philosophical synonyms for “denotation” are “extensional meaning”, “reference” and “extension”. Note this sense of “denotation” is not the literary sense.


The denotation (extension) of the general term “square” is all squares.  The denotation (extension) of the term “inventor” is the class consisting of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel F. B. Morse, the Wright brothers, etc.


“A set of terms is in the order of increasing extension when each term in the series (except the first) denotes a class having more members than the class denoted by the term preceding it.”  For example, the following set of terms is in the order of increasing extension: tiger, feline, mammal, animal.


In the usage of philosophers and linguists, the connotation of a term is the list of membership conditions for the denotation.  It is the properties or characteristics or attributes that a thing must have in order to be a member of the denotation, i.e., it is a list of necessary conditions. Philosophical synonyms for “connotation” are “intentional meaning”, “sense”, “intension”, and “real definition”. Note this sense of “connotation” is NOT the literary sense.


The connotation (intension) of “square” is the attributes “rectangular” and “equilateral”.  The connotation (intension) of the term “inventor” includes attributes such as “clever”, “intuitive”, “creative”, “imaginative”, etc.


“A set of terms is in the order of increasing intension when each term in the series (except the first) connotes more attributes than the term preceding it.” When a term connotes more attributes, more membership conditions must be met, so the term is more specific and less general.  The following set of terms is in the order of increasing intension: animal, mammal, feline, tiger.


Now I’ll go back to Section 2.1.


Value claims

People often use arguments to establish value claims. Value claims are not merely expressive, or “matters of opinion”, or “subjective”.  Value claims convey (or are intended to convey) cognitive meaning.


Value claims require argument (evidence or support).


People usually think of value claims as ethical or moral claims, but value claims also include aesthetic and political claims: e.g., claims about which movie is better, which team is better, which form of government is better, which laws are better, which public enterprises are better, which wars or taxes are better, etc. – everyday arguments people have all the time.


If you think (as many students do) that value claims are merely subjective and matters of opinion, you may be surprised to learn that philosophers often think value claims are objective matters of fact. For example, the claim “You should eat vegetables” is a value claim.  But it is not merely a matter of opinion, or “subjective”.  As a matter of fact, it is true (to the best of our knowledge at this point) if you want to optimize your health.  But people do want that.  The claim “Steve Young plays football better than Hillary Clinton” is a value claim. But it is not merely a matter of opinion.  It is true if we agree what it means to be a good football player.  But people do agree on that. 


Value claims involve very interesting and important philosophical issues, discussed in the notes “Thinking Critically About the Subjective-Objective Distinction”.


When people argue for value claims, they often get emotional, and tend to overuse emotive terminology and/or images, so their arguments are often problematic.  Value arguments require especially careful analysis.  It IS possible to have reasoned debate about value claims, but we need to untangle and separate the cognitive and emotive meanings.


Closed concepts

The distinction between open and closed concepts is usually discussed at length in Introduction to Philosophy courses.  It is not in your logic book, but I think it helps to understand much of the material of Chapters 2 and 3. 


A closed concept is one for which it is possible to precisely specify the membership conditions for getting into the class of things denoted by a term (the denotation). (Another more technical way to say this is that a concept is closed if it is possible to precisely specify its connotation, in the linguistics/philosophy sense.) For example, the concept “square” (in the geometric sense) is closed. The set of squares has two membership conditions: being equilateral and being rectangular. For something to be in the denotation of “square,” it must satisfy both conditions; in other words, it must be both equilateral and rectangular. Each condition is necessary and together the conditions are sufficient to make something a member of the denotation of “square.” 


Few concepts are closed.


Open concepts (more or less vague)

Most concepts are open (i.e., more or less vague). This is not a big deal. Open concepts still define classes; it’s just that the borders of these classes are fuzzier and, for some very important concepts (like “person”) these borders are liable to change as we continue to reason and solve new problems. Examples of open concepts: beard, rich, disabled, obscene, unselfish, healthy, sexual harassment, date rape, person, etc.


With open concepts, we don’t define by listing membership conditions.  Rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept, but it is often difficult to specify the connotation precisely.


Example:  “person”

The old paradigm of a person was a white straight man of property.  A conceptual paradigm shift occurred and now women, children, and former slaves count as paradigms of persons. Undoubtedly there will be more changes.


Example: “disabled person”

We know the paradigms of disabled persons (people like Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve), and we judge whether or not another individual should be called “disabled” on the basis of the resemblance between this person and the paradigms. (I.e., we argue by analogy.)


When we say that the concept “disabled person” is open, we mean simply that it is hard to decide in some cases whether that concept should be applied to an individual person. We do NOT mean to say that the concept is useless. Just because it’s hard to say in some cases doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a disabled person! Arguing that way would be committing the continuum fallacy (see separate notes).


Most of the interesting social, legal, and philosophical debates concern are open concepts, and require argument by analogy to decide borderline cases: “person,” “good,” “religion,” “rich,” “sexual harassment,” “obscenity,” “minority,” “educated”, etc. Such argument is important because it matters what we as a community decide to call things: social realities exist, in fact, only because we decide they do.  Social realities include money, marriage, weeds, national parks, citizenship, etc.


Concept Currently IN Currently OUT Currently Borderline
(Current Paradigms) (Opposite Paradigms)
Bearded Santa Claus Bill Clinton Tower Records employee
Rich Bill Gates Starving child Cupertino homeowner
Disabled Stephen Hawking Michael Jordan Diabetic
Obscene Snuff film Barney Bodice ripper
Unselfish Mother Teresa Scrooge Tax break seeker
Person You and me Eiffel Tower ET, Cmdr Data, whales




A term is ambiguous if it has multiple denotations.  For example, the term “bank” is ambiguous because it correctly denotes at least two completely different classes of things: (1) the class of financial institutions; and (2) the class of slopes immediately bordering streams of water. The term “light” is ambiguous because it correctly denotes at least three different classes: (1) the class of things that are not heavy; (2) the class of things that are not dark; and (3) the class of things that are low in calories.


Ambiguous terms sometimes cause problems with understanding a person’s meaning, but often we can determine from context which meaning a speaker has in mind.  For example, if a person says he is going to put his money in a bank, we are unlikely to be confused.  On the other hand, if we work in a bar where the options include light (as opposed to dark) beer, as well as light (as opposed to regular-calorie) beer, we might have to ask the customer for clarification of his “light beer” order.



Verbal disputes and factual disputes

Sometimes people do not agree about what actually is the case.  For example, many people believe (incorrectly) that Toronto is the capital of Canada.  If Jack says Toronto is the capital of Canada, and Jill says Ottawa is the capital of Canada, Jack and Jill are disagreeing about a fact, and their debate is called a factual dispute.


In philosophy and law and academia and politics, verbal disputes are common. A verbal dispute arises because a term is vague or ambiguous. 


Philosophically interesting verbal disputes arise when we don’t know what to call something, or how to classify something.  I.e., interesting verbal disputes arise when we are dealing with open concepts, i.e., where a term is vague, i.e., term’s denotation has fuzzy borders and we need to figure out where to draw a line. 


When doing the homework for Section 2.2, Group III, it is sufficient to distinguish whether the dispute is verbal or factual. You do not need to determine if verbal disputes are the result of vagueness or ambiguity, since that is often not obvious.



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