Fallacies 4: A Moral and Anthropological Perspective

Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole conclude the third part of their Logic, or the Art of Thinking (1662) with two chapters devoted to sophisms and bad reasoning. Chapter XIX, “Of the different ways of reasoning which are called Sophisms”, takes up the Aristotelian fallacies; Chap. XX, “Of the bad reasonings which are common in Civil Life and in Ordinary Discourse” repositions the concept of fallacious reasoning an anthropological and moral issue about fallacious discourse and discussion.

1. The Aristotelian fallacies

The list of “ways of evil reasoning that we call sophisms” merges the Aristotelian linguistic and non-linguistic fallacies, S. Fallacies (3).

The linguistic fallacies are grouped under two headings. The list does not mention the fallacy of many questions, and adds two new types of fallacies independent of language, “incomplete enumeration”, and “defective induction”.

2. On the bad reasonings in civil life

Chapter XX “Of the bad reasonings which are common in Civil Life and in Ordinary discourse” is much more original. Its consists of two parts:

Of the sophisms of self-love, of interest, and of passion.
Of the false reasonings which arise from objects themselves.

These sophisms and bad reasoning no longer reflect logical or scientific concerns, and have no connection with dialectics. On the basis of a thorough and hypercritical description of the discussant’s concrete behavior, they emphasize the difficulties in bringing a debate to a successful completion and show how deceitful and useless dispute can be when truth is at stake. More than an appeal to follow rules for discussion, the conclusion is an ascetic appeal to moral reformation of the disputants. It should be kept in mind that the religious and philosophical disputes over Jansenism and Cartesianism form the background of the disillusioned discussions mentioned in this chapter.

In the following, the various sophisms and bad reasoning are designated by an expression extracted from their definition.

2.1 “Of the sophisms of self-love, of interest, and of passion”

(1) “To take our interest as the motive for believing a thing” — The first of the causes which determine belief is the spirit of belonging to “some nation, or profession, or institution” (Id., p. 268). Beliefs are not determined by truth and reality, but by the social position of the believer. The disputant borrows his beliefs from the group in which he finds “his interest” and his identity.

(2) “[The] delusions of the heart” (Id., p. 269) — This sophism expresses the ad passiones fallacies of love and hate (ad amicitiam, ad amorem, ad odium), it is a variant of pathetic argumentation:

 ‘I love him, therefore, he is the cleverest man in the world; I hate him; therefore, he is nobody’. (Ibid.)

(3) Those “who never distinguish their authority from reason”, and

decide everything by a very general and convenient principle, which is, that they are right, that they know the truth; from which it is not difficult to infer that those who are of their opinion are deceived, — in fact, the conclusion is necessary. (Ibid.)

The claim to the truth of the self-centered person comes from immediate certainty (in the profane as in the sacred domain), whereas it would require an argument, S. Authority; Modesty. This can be read as a criticism of the Cartesian’s criterion of truth, as clear and distinct ideas. Interest and self-love better determine clarity and distinctness than truth does.

(4) “The clever man[‘s]” sophism is related to the preceding one:

If this were so, I should not be a clever man; now, I am a clever man; therefore, it is not so.’ (Id., p. 270)


What,’ said they, ‘if the blood circulates, […] if nature does not abhor a vacuum […] — I have been ignorant of many important things in anatomy and in physics. These things, therefore, cannot be’.  (Ibid).

This is another fallacy ad passiones, the fallacy of pride, ad superbiam.

These first four “sophisms” are not precisely sophisms insofar as they are self-deceiving as well as other-deceiving. Nor are they correctly called fallacies insofar as they are not public reasoning, propositionally expressed. Their premises remain unsaid, perhaps unconscious:

I’m a Syldavian, Syldavians are always right, therefore, I’m right.
I’m right, therefore my opponent is wrong.
I hate him; therefore, he is a nobody.
I know everything, thus what I don’t know is false.
Interests, inflated egos and passions, are epistemological obstacles ingrained in human nature.

Chapter XIX reiterates the classical belief that education about argument requires thorough knowledge of language and a good training in logic. Chapter XX adds that first of all, the arguer has to work on himself (sophisms (1)-(4) and avoid the pitfalls of argumentative interactions (sophisms (5)-(9)): This is the substantial content of the following subset, which complements the first moral and psychological subset with factual observation of the interactional behavior of seasoned arguers.

(5) “Those who are in the right, and those who are in the wrong, with almost the same language make the same complaints and attribute to each other the same vices” (Id., p. 271). From this empirical observation follows a recommendation to the wise and thoughtful, about how to properly advocate truth in a controversy.

First Recommendation to the arguers: don’t start a debate before having “[thoroughly establish] the truth and justice of the cause which they maintain”.

Only when these rules have been correctly applied can one shift to a meta-discussion about the bad argumentative manners of the opponent. This of course presupposes that one can decide that the rules have been correctly applied.

(6)“The spirit of contradiction”, is a “malignant and envious disposition”:

Someone else said such a thing; it is therefore false. I did not write that book; it is, therefore, a bad one”. This is the source of the spirit of contradiction so common amongst men, and which leads them, when they hear or read anything of another, to pay but little attention to the reasons which might have persuaded them, and to think only of those which they think may be offered against it. (p. 272)

(7) “The spirit of debate”

Thus, unless at least we have been accustomed by long discipline to retain the perfect mastery over ourselves, it is very difficult not to lose sight of truth in debates, since there are scarcely any exercises which so much arouse our passions. (p. 277),
Observations (6) and (7) have a clear link with the sin of contentio, S. Fallacies as Sins of the Tongue.
From the observation that “speaking of ourselves, and the things which concern us” can “excite envy and jealousy” comes a new recommendation: when advocating truth, self-exposure should be minimized, and the arguers should rather “seek, by hiding in the crowd, to escape observation, in order that the truth which they propose may be seen alone in their discourse” (p. 273).

(8) “The Complaisant”

For as the controversial hold as true the contrary of what is said to them, the complaisant appear to take as true everything which is said to them. (p. 278)

This sophism of acceptance without examination, at least of refusal to take a position, corresponds exactly to the ad verecundiam fallacy of Locke, S. Modesty. This is different but nonetheless related with the blamed character alluded to in (7), who “in the midst of [the discussion] become obstinate and are silent, affecting a proud contempt, or a stupid modesty of avoiding contention” (p. 277). S. Modesty; Contempt.

(9) “The determination to defend our opinion” leads us to

no longer to consider whether the reasons we employ are true or false, but whether they will avail to defend that which we maintain. We employ all sorts of reasons, good or bad, in order that there may be some to suit everyone. (p. 279).

The whole section closes with a kind of final recommendation:

To have no end but truth, and to examine reasonings with so much care, that even prejudice shall not be able to mislead us. (p. 276)

As observed in (5), each discussant will say that is precisely what he or she does. The attempt to expose the sophism seems to be doomed from the start, as if, in a conflictual dialogue, we were condemned never to know who speaks the truth.

2.2 “Of the false reasoning which arise from objects themselves”

This section focuses on the following points:

— There is only a small margin between truth and error; cf. supra (5):

In the majority of cases, there is a mixture of truth and error, of virtue and vice, of perfection and imperfection (p. 277)

— Rash induction also applies to human affairs; cf. supra §1, “incomplete enumeration”, and “defective induction”:

[Men] judge rashly of the truth of things from some authority insufficient to assure them of it, or by deciding the inward essence by the outward manner. (p. 284)

Decisions are made on the basis of “exterior and foreign marks.” (ibid.), that is peripheral arguments.

— “We rarely avoid judging purposes by the event”, a very relevant point:

If somebody succeeds, he had carefully planned his deeds; if he fails, he miscalculated. (p. 283)

No distinction is made between “the fortunate and the wise.” (Ibid)

— About “pompous eloquence”, S. Verbiage.