Concepts Out Of Context

A person forms a concept by looking at a set of objects and seeing how some of the members of the set stand out against the other members. The concept names a new subset of the original set; the original set is the context of the concept.

Proof of existence: when the same word denotes two concepts (as in "red" color and "red" Communist), it is the context that makes it clear which concept is in use.

It is possible for a fallacious argument to apply a concept outside of the context to which it belongs -- to try to get the listener to assume that an object falls inside the scope of the concept when it really does not.

For example, saying that the sun is "unearned" (with the implication that it is therefore just to take it away) is a fallacy. The concept "unearned" is applied to things that are the results of labor, and is used to distinguish the results that go to the people who worked for them ("earned") from the ones that go to people who did not work for them ("unearned"). Since no one works to keep the sun in existence, it is neither earned nor unearned. It is similarly fallacious to say that the sun is "unintelligent" (it has no thoughts whose quality can be assessed) or "evil" (it has no choice but to do what it does).

-- EdwardKiser [revised Mon Apr 9 1:52 PM UTC]

See also StolenConceptFallacy, UniverseOfDiscourse, StolenConceptFallacyDiscussion, StolenConceptIsNotFalseDichotomy, WhatMakesaThingProperty.


ConceptsOutOfContext is related to (but not the same as) misuse of an analogy. In the take-away-the-sun example, a false (if you are not an ecologically minded alien) analogy is being drawn between goods which are earned (such as lightbulbs?) and objects which are part of the environment. It is not always a mistake to use concepts out of context. Just as pushing the boundaries of an analogy can be useful, so too can pushing the boundaries of a concept.

The Law of The Excluded Middle vs. Concepts Out Of Context

The Law of the Excluded Middle requires that for any proposition A, either A or not-A must be true. So either the Sun is intelligent, or the Sun is unintelligent ("not intelligent"). Technically, therefore, one or the other should be correct, and not a fallacy.

However, saying "The sun is unintelligent" becomes an instance of ConceptsOutOfContext when the characteristics of unintelligent people (the set the "intelligent" / "unintelligent" partitioning was meant to apply to) are then assumed to apply to the Sun. For example, "The unintelligent are gullible. The sun is unintelligent. Therefore, the Sun is gullible."

I take the use of the word "unintelligent" to imply that whatever is "unintelligent" is a member of the set which can be partitioned into "intelligent" and "unintelligent." The Sun is not a member of the "intelligent / unintelligent" set. Therefore, I hold that it is not the whole truth to say that "the sun is not intelligent."

-- EdwardKiser [Mon Apr 9 2001 2:06 PM UTC]

The LawOfTheExcludedMiddle? applies only to certain formal systems; it does not apply to natural language.


Discussion of OntologicalArgument moved to OntologicalArgument.
Edward: What is the simplest way you could communicate this idea?

I think this is it. -- Ed

Space aliens, a big argument about whether the Sun is earned, an extreeeeemely subtle distinction between an epistemological fallacy and a logical fallacy, advice to consult a dictionary, a mention of equivocation on the word "bug" (equivocation is a different fallacy), and evil places in Stephen King novels. There must be a simpler way. What is the least you could say to get the idea across?

Those are the examples. I think I have an intuitive grasp of the idea, but it is hard to put into words. That's why there are so many examples -- and they don't seem to be enough.

What is the simplest example that could get the idea across?

Okay, I did a rewrite above. Is it better?

Good try, but no, it's not better. The new version is longer, not shorter. Writing simply is difficult, eh? ;) It usually takes me several iterations to make it happen, and sometimes even then I can't do it. Sometimes I need outside help. (And I used to do this professionally.)

Here are two things that might help.

1. What you are describing above is known as "mixing categories", not concept-stealing.

2. Here are a definition and example that are so simple, I remember them even though it's been fifteen years since I read them. Concept-stealing is using a concept while denying its logical roots. For example, saying that there is motion while denying that there are physical objects that move.

You may be right. I need to get away from the Wiki for a couple of days to avoid WikiAddiction. I might come back with better perspective. -- Ed

Might be a good idea. That's a great thing about Wiki: there's no rush, and you can always rewrite. Or not, as you see fit. --BenKovitz

I don't think the 'aliens take the sun' example supports your point well. After all, I think there are many ecologists who would want us all walking around and asking ourselves if we've earned our sun today. Perhaps they would see aliens coming to take it to give it to a race who's sun had broken down and who generally treated their sun better than we had treated ours as being some kind of universal karmic retribution.

That would be an instance of this fallacy.


Its when there _is_ only one proper domain that people get confused --

the term "proper domain" causes problems for me, let alone whether or not there is more than one proper domain for some concept or other.

For a concept to be "stolen" from its proper domain, the implication is that there is clear ownership of the concept by the said domain in the first place, as well as the right of appeal to some authority regarding potential retribution regarding the purported theft.

My suggestion is that theft is not a good metaphor in this case -- RichardCollins

Each person has to be the authority over the concepts in her own head. If she wants to make sure she (and everyone else she deals with) is using concepts correctly, she has to make sure they are not taken out of context. But you may be right; sometimes concepts are merely "lost." Should the page be retitled to ConceptsOutOfContext? -- EdwardKiser

Your suggestion for an alternate name is a good one, but I would not go as far as retitling the page. It now has a life and history of its own, as well as progeny, and could become quite famous! Starting another page with that name could be a good place for short and clear examples of the sorts of problems this page is dealing with. -- RichardCollins


[in reply to the very first sentence]

''No it isn't. Just because a concept wasn't ever intended to be <<used in a place>>, doesn't mean that it is necessarily inappropriate or incorrect to do so.''

It isn't possible, or it isn't fallacious?

Oh, AynRand. No wonder.

But to use a concept outside its intended place, you have to justify the new usage.
Moved from TragedyOfTheCommons

Again, in order:

TragedyOfTheCommons is not a common belief, it's an abstract analysis -- and there's nothing in that analysis that precludes a commons existing for several centuries. Indeed, as long as the demands placed upon a commons are smaller than the commons' powers of self-renewal, nothing will change at all. It is precisely when the demands do exceed the commons' supply that the "tragedy" occurs.

The pages you cited say nothing about Hayek's argument, and I'm not going to comment further on the views of these "right-libertarians" you speak of until you tell me who they are.

Tell me, if you can, why ''The fact that I am my body negates all claims upon my body is true, but The fact that a tract of land is itself negates all claims upon it'' is false. As far as I can see, classing human beings as "not ownable" leads not where you want to be, but to humans as commons -- meaning that anyone who meets you can make use of you in any way they see fit (and, of course, vice-versa.) That leaves us with no good choices: human self-ownership, communal ownership of humans, and no ownership of humans all end in absurdity. Is there a fourth alternative? -- mb

Tragedy of the commons is more than a mere analysis. It is the common belief that the analysis applies to the commons in the past. It does not. Alternatively, the "mere" analysis is unsound and its conclusions wrong. The "abstract analysis" assumes that commons are unowned, like garbage dumps, instead of communally owned, like parks. Systems of rationing need not be explicitly formulated in order to be widely understood, nor need they be obnoxiously policed in order to be widely observed.

In ConceptsOutOfContext, Hayek's assertion is stated and an attempt is made to justify it. In the pages I pointed you to, this attempt is shown to fail and it is further shown that all such attempts must fail. It is in fact meaningful to ask whether stones are stupid or the sun is happy (the answer is no in both cases). In any case, Hayek's argument is infinitely more obnoxious and disingenuous than the one found on ConceptsOutOfContext. If mass starvation is not subject to the question of fairness then nothing is and the concept of fairness is null. Only a right-wing academic would deny that this is ludicrous.

I regret that I do not remember where the argument was made that all rules systems are unjust. I do recall that it was made by a right-libertarian. I wonder why you believe it strange. It is clear to me that right-wingers reject any notion of fairness based on outcome. That leaves only fairness based on process. Further, it is common to reject fairness based on process because of the fundamental unfairness of initial conditions. This explains why right-wing academics do not overly concern themselves with fairness or justice, except for arguing that any deviation from the status quo is unfair. In any case, they are correct that injustice is inevitable in any rules system. Any sufficiently complex system of rules is subject to incompleteness (analogous to GoedelsIncompletenessTheorem) and each addition to the system of rules is arbitrary (undecidable from the previous rules). Injustice is inevitable.

Humans are not objects but moral beings. Claims of use or ownership are made by moral beings upon objects. To consider human beings as ownable or even useable radically violates the autonomy and self-direction inherent in moral beings. To consider human beings as ownable, even by themselves, is to degrade them to mere objects. The only claims moral being can place upon one another consistent with their autonomy are the claims they recognize for themselves. This is what justifies rights in RawlsMoralPhilosophy?, the fact that free moral beings would accept such claims (the duty to suppress violations of others' rights) on themselves. -- rk

The subject of TragedyOfTheCommons is, quite simply, what happens to a natural resource that is not owned at all. Whether, and how far, the analysis applies to a historical situation is really not relevant to any point I was making.

Has it perhaps occurred to you that a thing can be appalling, without being unfair? If, for instance, everyone on Earth starved to death, it would be appalling, but scarcely unfair.

It is quite true that the Right in general defines "fairness" in terms of processes (and that the Left defines it in terms of results.) But when you say it is common to reject fairness based on process, you're pulling a fast one -- to do so, for the reason stated or any other, is common only to the Left. And (in case you haven't realized it) if fairness and justice are attributes of processes, and not of results, then clearly demanding fairness of results is nonsensical (which was Hayek's point.)

Given what I know of your metaphysical views, I don't see how you can justify drawing this distinction between "moral beings" and mere "objects" but that's an argument for another day. -- mb


See other FallaciousArguments.

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