Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

By Douglas N. Walton | Go to book overview

argument reconstruction, no trivial job when we confront a realistically controversial argument. Many of the same problems of argument reconstruction are also present when an argument that may be circular, but has not definitely been accused of committing the fallacy of begging the question, is to be evaluated. In fact, the longer and more complex the argument is, the more likely a hidden circle is to go undetected. Therefore, the most interesting, persuasive, and really troublesome instances of circular reasoning, where begging the question is not just a textbook example, but a seriously misleading error, tend to occur in longer, extended sequences of argumentation. As in the case of many of the argument criticisms previously studied, the first job is to pin down exactly what the argument is. Only then can we go on to evaluate alleged criticisms of it, based on the evidence of the corpus of dialogue.

Once we sort out what the argument is, then the criticism of circularity can be dealt with. But sometimes an argument can be modified or improved, as a response to the criticism of circularity. Hence, if the context of argument is left open, as in the cases in this chapter, there may be room for possible continuation of the sequence of dialogue. If, however, such surrounding context of dialogue is not given, any criticism that the argument begs the question must be provisional--the criticism must be treated more as a point of order or request for clarification than as a decisive refutation, or objection that a fallacy has been committed. Such a cautionary evidence-based approach, based on burden of proof, stems from the obligation of a critic to be fair and impartial, especially where the need for judgment arises because the textual or contextual evidence is incomplete.

Cases 4.9 to 4.14 represent an interesting range of arguments that are somewhat complex, and would all be traditionally taken by the textbooks to be instances of the fallacy of begging the question. Yet there is a range of judgments possible here--some of them are clearly more susceptible to this kind of criticism than others. And there seems to be a complex of factors involved in our judgment of whether this criticism can be justified and pinned down.

The remaining cases, the borderline cases 4.15 to 4.18, are even more radically problematic for the analysis of petitio. They are test cases for any theory of begging the question as a fallacy.


NOTES
1.
Hamblin ( 1970, p. 32).
2.
See chapter twosupra.
3.
See Harary ( 1969, p. 10).
4.
See Walton ( 1989a, chapter 7).
5.
In the exercise manual, Solutions to Exercises: Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi ( New York: Macmillan, and London: Collier Macmillan, 1982, p. 95), the example in question is identified as a case of petitio principii (begging the question), with no further comment or explanation offered.

-180-

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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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