Tuesday, May 25, 2004

On the Misuse of Superlatives and Two Other Fallacies

Adjectives admit of three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative. The first refers to the zero case of comparison: Tom is tall. The second refers to a situation in which two things are compared: Tom is taller than Tim. The third refers to a situation in which a thing is compared to all the other members of its reference class: Tom is the tallest man in Fargo. It is easy to see that if Tom is the tallest man in Fargo, then (a) there cannot be a man taller than him in that reference class, and (b) he is unique in respect of tallness in that reference class. (I.e., there cannot be two tallest men in the same reference class. Diana Ross should have thought of this when she named her vocal outfit ‘The Supremes,’ unless she intended that each singer is supreme in respect of a different attribute, say, body, soul, voice.)

Therefore, if the WWII generation is the greatest generation (relative to some agreed-upon criteria of generational greatness), then (i) there is no greater generation, and (ii) the WWII generation is unique in respect of greatness. Now does Tom Brokaw really want to affirm both (i) and (ii)? Is the WWII generation the greatest generation of any country in the whole of recorded time? Or is it merely the greatest generation in American history? The latter is clearly
dubious if not outright false: the generation of the founders is arguably the greatest generation of Americans. A fortiori, for the former.

What Brokaw is doing when he speaks of the WWII generation as the greatest is misusing the superlative ‘greatest’ to mean the positive ‘great,’ or perhaps the comparative ‘greater.’ Perhaps what he really wants to say is that the WWII generation is greater than the Baby Boomers. But instead of saying what he means, he says something literally false or else meaningless. One might think that a news anchor would have higher standards.

Perhaps the underlying problem is that people love to exaggerate for effect, and see nothing wrong with it. Not content to say that Bush was wrong about WMDs, his opponents say he lied – which is a misuse of ‘lie.’ Not content to say that she is hungry, my wife says she is starving. Not content to say that Christianity is more than a doctrine, Kierkegaard and fellow fideists say that Christianity is not a doctrine. Not content to use particular quantifiers ‘Some’, ‘Most’),people reach for universal quantifiers such as ‘Every,’ ‘All,’ ‘No,’ and ‘Never.’ Thus instead of saying that one must be careful when one generalizes, one says, ‘Never generalize,’ which refutes itself.

I have exposed three mistakes that the truth-oriented will want to avoid. We have the misuse of superlatives, the misuse of universal quantifiers, and the mistaken notion that if X is not identical to Y, then X and Y have nothing to do with each other. Let me expatiate a bit further on the last mentioned mistake. If X is not identical to Y, it does not follow that X and Y are wholly diverse from each other. A book is not identical to its cover, but the two are not wholly diverse in that the cover is proper part of the book. Regretting is not identical to remembering, but the two are not wholly diverse: Every regretting is a remembering, but not conversely. A melody is not identical to the individual notes of which it is composed, but it is obviously not wholly diverse from them.