Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

By Douglas N. Walton | Go to book overview

Preface

According to a story told by the French comedian Sacha Guitry, three thieves were arguing about how to divide up seven pearls they had just obtained. One of the thieves cut off the discussion by handing two pearls to each of the other two, and announcing, "I will keep three!" The other two thieves were not too happy with this arrangement, and one of them asked, "Why do you get to keep three of the pearls?" The reply: "Because I am the leader." The questioner was still not satisfied by this reply, and asked another question: "Why are you the leader?" To this the man with the three pearls responded, "Because I have more pearls."1

According to the story, this argument satisfied the two thieves. It seems that they were both pretty gullible, however, for most of us would agree with Fearnside and Holther ( 1959) classification of the argument used to persuade them as an instance of the fallacy of begging the question. We see that the thief's argument is circular. And you have to be pretty dull not to realize that this circular sequence of argumentation is being used as a sophistical tactic to cheat the other two thieves out of their fair share of the pearls.

It has been known at least since the time of the classical Greek philosophers that circular reasoning can be used as a deceptive tactic of argumentation. Logic textbooks since the time of Aristotle have identified begging the question (petitio principii) as a fallacy. Curiously, however, there has always been a good deal of confusion and uncertainty regarding the identification of this fallacy. The logic textbooks have never explained very clearly just what is wrong with arguing in a circle, or in determining when an argument is fallaciously circular. More curiously still, there appears even to be very little agreement about the meaning and etymological origins of the phrase "to beg the question." And the texts appear to exhibit very little or no clear agreement on what the expression should properly mean. Indeed, many texts use the phrase in such a broad and sweeping manner that it could be taken to refer critically to virtually any argument that contains an unwarranted presupposition or inadequately supported premise.

-xiii-

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Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in Philosophy ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Preface xiii
  • Note xv
  • 1 - Origins, Preconceptions, and Problems 1
  • Notes 33
  • 2 - Contexts of Dialogue 35
  • Notes 85
  • 3 - Argument Diagramming 87
  • Notes 123
  • 4 - Shorter Case Studies 125
  • Notes 180
  • 5 - Longer Case Studies 183
  • Notes 212
  • 6 - Fallacies, Faults, Blunders, and Errors 215
  • Notes 246
  • 7 - Revising the Textbooks 249
  • Notes 283
  • 8 - A Theory of Begging the Question 285
  • Notes 325
  • Bibliography 327
  • Index 335
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