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Failure to Elucidate

obscurum per obscurius

Description: When the definition is made more difficult to understand than the word or concept being defined.

Logical Form:

Person 1 makes a claim.

Person 2 asks for clarification of the claim, or a term being used.

Person 1 restates the claim or term in a more confusing way.

Example #1:

Tracy: I don’t like him because of his aura.

TJ: What do you mean by that?

Tracy: I mean that he is projecting a field of subtle, luminous radiation that is negative.

Explanation: This is such a common fallacy, yet rarely detected as one.  Usually, out of fear of embarrassment, we accept confusing definitions as legitimate elucidations, that is, we pretend the term that was defined is now clear to us.  What exactly is the field?  How is it detected? Are there negative and positive ones? How do we know?

Example #2:

Linda: We live in a spirit-filled world; I am certain of that.

Rob: What is a “spirit”?

Linda: A noncorporeal substance.

Explanation: Many times, we fool ourselves into thinking that because we know other words for the term, we better understand what the term actually represents.  The above example is an illustration of this.  We can redefine, “spirit” as many times as we like, but our understanding of what a spirit actually is will still be lacking.

Assuming we did not really understand what was meant by “spirit”, the definition, “noncorporeal substance” might or might not shed any light on what is meant by the term.  In this case, it might be more clear now that Linda is not referring to alcoholic beverages, but conceptually, what is a non-physical substance?  If “substance” is defined as being physical matter or material, does a “non-physical” substance even make sense?

We fallaciously reason that we now understand what the term represents when, in fact, we don’t.

Exception: Some may actually just lack the vocabulary needed -- this is not your fault, but you should do your best to attempt to elucidate using words understandable to your audience.

Tip: Failure to elucidate often results in endless and pointless debates. Take, for example, the common claim "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." What this needs is a "therefore," followed by a conclusion. For example, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Therefore, we should be focusing more on what makes people use guns violently and less on just banning the use of guns." This is very different from, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Therefore, anyone should be allowed to carry any kind of gun with no restrictions." Don't waste your time imagining the argument or point the other person is trying to make—ask for clarification.


Cederblom, J., & Paulsen, D. (2011). Critical Reasoning (7 edition). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing.

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