Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation


This book offers a new theory of begging the question as an informal fallacy, within a pragmatic framework of reasoned dialogue as a normative theory of critical argumentation. The fallacy of begging the question is analyzed as a systematic tactic to evade fulfillment of a legitimate burden of proof by the proponent of an argument. The technique uses a circular structure of argument to block the further progress of dialogue and, in particular, the capability of the respondent to ask legitimate critical questions in reply to the argument. To support his analysis, Walton provides a chapter on the concept of burden of proof in argument, and there are chapters on the use of argument diagramming as a technique of argument reconstruction.


The fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, also sometimes known as circular reasoning or arguing in a circle, is one of the standard, informal fallacies that have traditionally been included for treatment in the logic curriculum. This particular fallacy has a long history, going back to Aristotle's discussion of it as a "sophistical refutation," or deceptive tactic of contentious disputation used when two parties "reason together." Due to the neglect of the study of the fallacies in favor of the study of formal logic in the modern period, however, no improvement on Aristotle's analysis of this important fallacy has been made, even in the twentieth century. In fact, in some ways we are worse off, because the Aristotelian context of the fallacy has survived into the modern texts in a garbled and incoherent form that makes the fallacy less comprehensible than it may have appeared to the Greeks.

According to the standard treatment, the basic fallacy is "assuming what is to be proved," but most texts recognize a subcategory of this same error called the fallacy of question-begging epithet. The etymological origin of the term "beg the question" (along with its Latin and Greek counterparts) is problematic, and in fact the term is often misunderstood and misused. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century three authors of noted logic textbooks, John Stuart Mill, Augustus DeMorgan, and Alfred Sidgwick, raised some insightful questions about the fallacy of begging the question that merit careful attention. Beginning in 1971, two series of analytical articles appeared that tried to grapple with the problem of begging the question as a logical fallacy. These articles opened up the field for further serious, scholarly investigations, but posed more problems than they solved.


The standard treatment of the fallacy of begging the question can be found in its barest, quintessential form in the one page of text Copi (1986) . . .

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