Chapter 33Extensional pruning


We  are guilty  of  extensional  pruning   if we  use words  in their commonly  accepted meaning,  but retreat when challenged  into a strictly  literal definition.  The fallacy becomes possible because there are two ways of understanding  what words mean. We can describe  the  properties  of  what  we  refer to,  or  we  can  give examples. The first is called the 'intension',  and the second is the 'extension'   of  the  word.   We  could  convey  the  sense of  an expression such as 'movie  star', for example, either by describing the role of lead actors and actresses in films, or by listing several well-known  stars.

Words carry nuances of meaning  by their  associations. Little tendrils of thought  ripple around them,  evoking all kinds of ideas dependent  on past associations. These nuances are part of the meaning of the word,  provided they are understood  by user and hearer alike. The fallacy of extensional pruning  takes place when the  user subsequently  retreats from  that  meaning  by  insisting upon  only a literal 'intentional'   definition.

While I said I would accept an inquiry, I at no time said that it would be independent, that it would be a public one, or that its findings would be published.

(He might  be correct  in a limited,  technical  definition   of the word. But  this  is not  what   most  people  normally   understand  from  the associations they  make with  previous inquiries.)

The fallacy is committed   by saying one thing,  but permitting another  to  be understood.  A contention   must  be the same to both  user and  hearer,  or  no  reasoned  discussion  is possible. There are two ways of committing   this fallacy: one is to mislead at the outset, the other  is to retreat to a restricted definition   in order to escape weaknesses in the position.

All we said was that we'd install a switchboard.  We didn't  say it would work.

(Nor  did they.)

Advertisers  often  take  pruning   shears over  the  extravagant claims they have made.

We'll take your one-year-old car as trade-in  at whatever you paid for it.

(Strictly speaking, you paid one sum for the car, and another sum for the  tax.  They  are not  offering  to  give  you  the  tax  back  as well, whatever  you might  have thought.)

Friends who are free with  advice often cut back the meaning  in a similar way, after the consequences have emerged.

Look, I know I said you'd feel like a millionaire. I know lots of millionaires who feel pretty miserable. Stop complaining.

(You would  feel like a swine if you  hit  him,  but you  probably  know lots of swine who'd  enjoy it.)

The extensional  pruner  announces  his activity.  Like the  bow wave of an advancing ship, his utterances mark his passage. The inevitable 'alii  said was ... ' and 'if you examine my exact words ... ' show him to be a man of great qualifications.  You recognize him as the man who  never really said at all what  most  people took him to be saying. The fine print one always watches for is in this case in the dictionary.

You can add extensional  pruning  to your repertoire once you are adept at making a limited  statement  pass itself off as a wider one.  Gather yourself  a collection  of phrases whose  meaning  is understood  by everyone, even though  the words themselves are more restricted.
I said I'd get you another drink if I was wrong: water is another drink. tsaid  I wouldn't  have any more cigarettes until later in the week. Five
minutes afterwards was later in the week

(Speak softly, and carry a big dictionary.)

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