Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation

By Douglas N. Walton | Go to book overview

fallacy of petitio principii or not. The best we have been able to conclude, using the method of argument reconstruction, is that Descartes does have the basis of a point for replying to Arnauld's objection that his argument is that he cannot avoid reasoning in a circle. Whether Arnauld could come back with further support of his objection, or whether Descartes' reply can be deepened or confirmed by his larger viewpoint as a whole, remains unanswered.

Case 5.3 seems to be on a better footing in this regard, because it has been explicitly limited to a fixed text of argument. It is not identified with St. Anselm's version of the ontological argument, Descartes' version, or any other version that can be tied in to a known or documented philosophical corpus of writings. Otherwise, it might become much more open to extended textual disputation, like the case of the Cartesian circle.

Even so, case 5.3 exhibited a kind of expansion of complexity of interest in its own right. First there was Reconstruction A, and then the more complex and subtle Reconstruction B arose from the same initial argument. In principle, we appear to have no way of ruling out an even more subtle Interpretation C, and so forth. When an argument reconstruction can be declared complete or fully adequate remains an open question.

Since this chapter has shown that an argument reconstruction cannot be declared complete, by the methods available so far, the judgment of the criticism of begging the question is best treated as a matter of burden of proof. It helps a lot if, when such a charge is made, both the text and the context of the argument can be reasonably fixed or limited so they do not run out of control, in relation to the intended scope of the evaluation. But even given firm control in this regard, there are inherent reasons why some arguments cannot be given a complete and binding analysis by the method of argument reconstruction.

Hence the judgment of whether an argument commits the fallacy of begging the question is subject to the limitations of the method of argument reconstruction. This method works most easily in the simpler types of cases, studied in chapter four, where the argument is not too intimately involved with scientific or technical reasoning in a specialized domain of knowledge, or hardnosed philosophical argumentation on a highly contentious passage attributed to an author of a body of philosophical works. The method is still useful in these more difficult cases, but the conclusion it results in should not be expected to be a definitive and final ruling that a fallacy of petitio has, or has not, been committed.

Instead, in these contexts, the charge of petitio functions more like a procedural objection in the dialogue, a critical questioning of a point in the argument that is open to challenge.


NOTES
1.
Bates ( 1983).
2.
See Hoffman ( 1979).
3.
Walton ( 1987a, chapter 7).

-212-

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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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