Any statement can be interpreted to mean anything.

This is surely true in a strict sense, but would render all logical investigation impossible, and in common sense terms is surely false (there may be several interpretations of a statement, but that does not mean that infinite interpretations have been, or are, taken).

The legal system encouters arguments (sincere and frivolous) that rely on the subjectivity of terms all the time, leading to famous ripostes like "I know it when I see it", but is there a term for relying on it as an argument beyond the bounds of common sense? (Or is it just known as being unreasonable? ;-)

I've found plenty of fallacies that are close (if by whisky, equivocation, Loki's wager, moving the goalposts) and is possibly a case of begging the question (they should prove it can be interpreted in any way), but I haven't found a specific term for it.

Any help much appreciated.

  • "a term for relying on it" - what exactly does "it" refer to?
    – user20153
    Aug 13, 2016 at 21:49
  • "I'll know it when I see it" is not usually interpreted as radical relativism, but rather as making distinctions based on vague terms, it was originally used in 1964 by US justice Stewart to describe his "test" for obscenity. Relativistic denial of distinctions based on vague boundaries between them is known as the line-drawing fallacy or the sorites paradox en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_fallacy "I'll know it when I see it" is considered a valid response to that.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2016 at 22:41
  • @mobileink "it" is the subjectivity of terms.
    – ian
    Aug 14, 2016 at 2:03
  • @Conifold Ah, I perhaps should've been clearer, I meant that he was rebutting the subjectivity with his "I'll know it when I see it" remark, not supporting it, but thanks for clarifying it for me. I did wonder about the continuum fallacy, but as the emphasis was on steps between 2 (or more) points I dismissed as not quite right, but I'll give it another mull over. I think you should definitely add it as an answer though, to let people vote.
    – ian
    Aug 14, 2016 at 2:37
  • 1
    Thanks. I wrote an earlier post on the use of soritic reasoning to support relativism, and on how to counter it systematically using Kant's resolution of the antinomy of taste or Wittgenstein's family resemblance philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/31879/…
    – Conifold
    Aug 15, 2016 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


You write:

Any statement can be interpreted to mean anything

This is surely true in a strict sense

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation of texts, which might be relevant; here, they start off with the proposition:

Not every interpretation of a text is equally valid

The question then is to determine which interpretations are valid, and why.

  • 1
    That's really interesting, I didn't know that branch of study existed in its own right. Thanks! Since it's not technically the answer to the question, but I still think it's a correct answer, I'll see if anyone can produce an actual fallacy, otherwise I'll give you the mark.
    – ian
    Aug 17, 2016 at 13:34
  • This is, of course, my subjective opinion on the meaning of technical and correct :)
    – ian
    Aug 17, 2016 at 13:35
  • Michael Forster (University of Chicago) writes wonderfully about this. You can get some of his papers on his homepage.
    – user20153
    Aug 17, 2016 at 19:13
  • 1
    @iain: well, there's the spirit of the law vs the technicalities of the law - which is usually a matter of interpretation ;). Aug 20, 2016 at 7:39

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