Fallacies 1: Contemporary approaches

1. Fallacy: The word

1.1 The Latin word fallacia

Etymologically, the noun fallacy and the adjective fallacious come from the Latin fallacia, which means “deceit”, referring to a “trick”, or even a “spell”. This deceit can be defined as a verbal deceit, as expressed by the adjective fallaciloquus, “[he] who deceives by words, astute” (Gaffiot [1934], Fallaciloquus). The corresponding verb fallo, fallere means “to deceive someone”, and according to the contexts, “to disappoint the expectations of someone, to betray the word given to the enemy, to break his promises” (id., Fallo). These meanings show that etymologically the word fallacy does not refer to a logical or dialectical mistake but to an interactional manipulation.

1.2 Paralogism, sophism, fallacy

Fallacy The word fallacy has at least two meanings. On the one hand, the very general meaning of “erroneous belief, false idea” (Webster, Art. Fallacy). On the other hand, it refers to an “invalid” argumentation or reasoning, the conclusion of which does not follow from the premises, and which may therefore be misleading or deceptive (ibid.).

Being an ordinary word, there is no guarantee that fallacy refers to a unique stable, highly connected domain of reality that can be systematized. It is not a priori obvious that fallacies can be theorized more coherently than, for example, errors, deceptions, blunders or carelessness, just to mention some relatively close terms.

Paralogism has a precise and restricted technical use, in which it refers to a formally invalid syllogism. This term is of little use outside this specialized field.

Sophism refers to a deliberately misleading discourse, using paralogism or any other maneuver. This imputation of bad intention is not necessarily present when one speaks of paralogism or fallacious discourse.

2. Hamblin, Fallacies, 1970

Hamblin revived the theory of fallacies in his book, Fallacies (1970). As Perelman revived ancient rhetoric, or rhetorical argumentation, from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Hamblin reactivated the other Aristotelian source of argumentation as a critical theory from the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations. Following Hamblin, the study of argumentation developed as a critique of bad reasoning, fallacious and specious arguments.

The Argumentation within Language or the Natural Logic theories do not approach the critical question. The New Rhetoric proposes an ideal critical instance, the universal audience, in a different perspective from that generally implemented in fallacy theories.

Hamblin gives the following definitions of fallacy. It should be noted that this conceptual definitions is parallel to the lexicographical definition given above.

Fallacy1  The ordinary meaning of “erroneous belief” has been dismissed by Hamblin: “a fallacy is a fallacious argument. […] In one of its ordinary uses, of course, the word ‘fallacy’ means little more than ‘false belief’; but this use does not concern us.” (1970, p. 224; italics in the text).

Hamblin adds that, “there are several varieties of fallacies, or particular fallacies which have received special names, but which are not really logical fallacies at all, but merely false beliefs” (id., p. 48; capital in the text). In this sense, the word corresponds to a “false concept”, which may clearly be itself deceitful, S. Expression.

Fallacy2 — In this second sense, the word fallacy designates the counterfeit of argument[1]:

A fallacious argument, as almost every account from Aristotle onwards tells you, is one that seems to be valid but is not so. (Id.., p. 12)

This definition brings up some questions, the first one being:

What it is for an argument to seem valid? The term ‘seems’ looks like a psychological one, and has often been passed over by logicians, confirmed in the belief that the study of fallacies does not concern them. (Id.., p. 253)

Following Frege, mathematicians have de-psychologized logic. Axiomatized logic is no longer a theory of thought. From this point of view, truth is one, and if error is multiple, it is precisely because it is related to psychology. There is no logical theory of error. In short, a fallacious argument is an argument or argument that seems valid to a negligent or untrained reader; it is the reader who has a problem.

In the definition of a “fallacious argument” given above, Hamblin refers to a fallacious argumentation, since he speaks of validity. In English however, the word argument can also denote an argumentation. A fallacy1 is an “erroneous belief” which can obviously serve as a premise for an argumentation. Since ordinary argumentation demands the truth of the arguments, an argumentation based on a false premise is legitimately deemed to be fallacious; this is an authentic fallacy2. In other words, from this fallacious argument (erroneous belief), derives a fallacious2 argumentation, a fallacy2. “To appear to be true or valid”, “to look honest, solid, admissible, credible” is a property common to arguments and argumentations. There is no difference between the first former and the latter which would enable us to reject one without forcibly rejecting the other. Like argumentation, fallacy is a unitary phenomenon, both substantial and formal.

The lexical / conceptual distinction between substantial fallacies (fallacy1) and formal fallacies (fallacies2) is generally taken up in the theory of argumentation, as in the following text:

Assumptions, principles, and ways of looking at things are sometimes called fallacies. Philosophers have spoken of the naturalistic fallacy, the genetic fallacy, the pathetic fallacy, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the descriptive fallacy, the intentional fallacy, the affective fallacy, and many more. And outside of philosophy, we also hear sophisticated people using the term ‘fallacy’ to characterize things which are neither arguments nor substitutes for arguments. For example, the China expert Philip Kuhn speaks of the hardware fallacy. This, according to him, is the mistaken assumption common among Chinese intellectuals that China can import Western science and technology without importing with it Western (i.e., decadent) values as well. (Fogelin, Duggan 1987, p. 255-256)

The distinction between form and substance is not easy to maintain. For example, the genetic fallacy, given here as an example of “a way of looking at things”, that is, a substantial fallacy (fallacy1) can be seen as referring to an argumentation (fallacy2) which evaluates beings and things according to their origin, and which Hamblin admits in his list of authentic formal fallacies.

3. Lists of fallacies

In the chapter entitled “Standard Treatment”, Hamblin proposes four lists of fallacies.

— The list of Aristotle in the Sophistical Refutations, S. Fallacy (2).
— The fallacies or arguments ad —, a list of modern fallacies, designated by Latin labels of this form, S. Ad — Arguments.
— The syllogistic paralogisms.
The fallacies of scientific method.

Under this last heading Hamblin proposes the following six cases:

Fallacy of simplism or pseudo-simplicity, (id., p. 45), according to which the simplest explanation is necessarily the best.
The fallacy of exclusive linearity (ibid.), assumes that a series of factors is ordered according to a strictly linear progression. The fallacy of linearity neglects the existence of thresholds and ruptures in the development of phenomena. This is an extrapolation fallacy: for example, the conductivity of a metal or a solution decreases steadily and then drops abruptly when approaching absolute zero temperature.
The genetic fallacy (ibid.), ostracizes an idea or a practice on the basis of their source or origin: “This is exactly what the Bad Guys Group says”, S. Authority.
— Fallacy of invalid induction (id., p. 46), S. Induction; Example.
— Fallacy of insufficient statistics (ibid.).
Hasty generalization (ibid.), which may correspond to the fallacy of accident or induction, S. Accident; Induction.
— The naturalistic fallacy (id., p. 48). Moore defines this fallacy of valuing the “natural” as follows:

To argue that a thing is good because it is “natural,” or bad because it is “unnatural,” in these common senses of the term, is therefore certainly fallacious; and yet such arguments are very frequently used. (Moore, 1903, §29; italics in the original)

This amounts to saying that the word natural has a generally positive argumentative orientation, but not for the author’s group. The naturalistic fallacy goes hand in hand with a range of reciprocal fallacies, named after the antonyms of “natural”: culturalist fallacy, etc. S. Orientation.

Fogelin (see above) adds:

— The descriptive fallacy, a form of fallacy of expression, S. Expression.
— The fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Whitehead introduced this expression in the field of the philosophy of science, to denote the error of forgetting the distinction between the model and reality, and more generally between words and things.
— The intentional fallacy, is invoked in literary analysis, to condemn the interpretation of a work based on intentions attributed to the author. It should be noted that, conversely, in the field of law, the argument based on the intentions of the legislator is recognized as being entirely valid.
— The emotional and pathemic fallacies, S. Emotion; Pathos; Pathetic fallacy

Many of these so-called fallacies view scientific language as the norm of ordinary language, and represent ordinary arguments as unsatisfactory scientific arguments.

4. Informal Logic and Pragma-Dialectic

From the 1970s onwards, following Hamblin, the literature on fallacies underwent considerable developments, particularly within the theoretical frameworks of Informal Logic and Pragma-Dialectic. These works have clearly highlighted the necessity of systematically taking the pragmatic conditions under which ordinary language reasoning operates into account.

In the Informal Logic framework, Woods and Walton represent the first generation to follow on from Hamblin. They questioned the logical and pragmatic conditions of validity ordinary arguments (Woods and Walton 1989, 1992). Woods (2013) focuses on “errors of reasoning”, insisting on the necessity of formalism (Woods 2004). Walton has in particular developed and systematized a new vision of argument schemes including their “rebuttal factors” (Walton & al., 2008). Argumentation is consequently defined as a default reasoning process, which is both consistent with, and goes beyond Toulmin’s approach, S. Layout.

This development of a counter-discourse based criticism of argument is different from the rule-based criticism of argument developed by the pragma-dialectical school. The Pragma-Dialectic orientation can be read as follows, “if you want your discussion to progress towards a decent resolution, you had better follow such and such a procedure and avoid such and such counter-productive, that is, fallacious, maneuvers”. The felicity conditions of the argumentative exchange are dependent upon the observation of ten rules.

In principle, each of these ten discussion rules constitutes a separate and different standard or norm for critical discussion. Any infringement of one or more of the rules, whichever party commits it and at whatever stage in the discussion, is a possible threat to the resolution of a difference of opinion and must therefore be regarded as an incorrect discussion move. In the pragma-dialectic approach, fallacies are analyzed as such incorrect discussion moves in which a discussion rule has been violated. A fallacy is then defined as a speech act that prejudices or frustrates efforts to resolve a difference of opinion and the use of the term “fallacy” is thus systematically connected with the rules for critical discussion. (van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 1995, no pag.)

5. Methodological remarks

Natural argumentation develops in contexts where the question of truth is suspended. It might also arise when a decision has to be taken as a matter of urgency, even when all necessary information is not available.

Wanting to solve a dispute rationally is the manifestation of a specific and legitimate desire, which is obviously not a prerequisite for arguing. One can also argue to solve the dispute to one’s own advantage, at all cost, to end this affair; or to uphold the truth, or to protect one’s interests; to spread one’s emotions, to satisfy one’s ego, to fill time, for enjoyment… One might also be interested not in solving but rather in deepening the difference of opinion. If a new issue has just arisen, for example, it may be more productive and more rational, to properly articulate the problem, rather than to prematurely seek to eliminate it.

One might also be interested not in solving, but rather in increasing the difference of opinion. If a new issue has just arisen, for example, it may be more productive, even more rational, to properly articulate the problem and the dispute, rather than seeking to eradicate any discussion.

There are interesting arguments, which contain a portion of truth, the whole truth being unknown and not entirely in a single camp. On the other hand, a speaker can put forward a weak or even doubtful argument, in an exploratory way, while explicitly emphasizing its uncertain character. It is therefore impossible to introduce a definition of fallacies based on truth and validity as a single regulatory ideal in all argumentative situations.

5.1 Discursive atomism

To criticize an argument, the analyst must first delineate the discursive passage in which this argument is intuitively seen. This basic operation must itself be technically justified, S. Tagging; Indicators. On the other hand, the quality of the argument must be assessed in relation to the argumentative question on which it depends, including the replicas introduced by opponents, S. Stasis; Question; Relevance.

2. The arbitrator is also a player

The diagnosis of fallacy is supposedly made by the logician who has the role of fulfilling the evaluator’s “meta” function in a neutral and objective way. That is to say that he or she must fulfill this role as if he or she had no interest in the controverted issue, but only an interest in the correction of discourse evaluated according to a priori rules and principles. As Hamblin points out, this position is untenable in the case of “actual practical argument’, (1970, p. 244), S. Norms; Rules; Evaluation. The evaluators of social arguments are by no means excluded from the argument; they are also participants like any others.

3. Natural language cannot be eliminated

These elements — an atomistic approach, an unbiased arbitrator, augmented by a strong reductionist tendency —, all feature in the practical advice by which the Encyclopedia of Philosophy concludes the entry on fallacies:

As Richard Whately remarked “…a very long discussion is one of the most effective veils of Fallacy: … a Fallacy which when stated barely… would not deceive a child, may deceive half the world if diluted in a quarto volume.” (Elements of Logic, p. 151). Consequently, an important weapon against fallacy is condensation, extracting the substance of the argument from a mass of verbiage. But this device too has its dangers; it may produce oversimplification, that is, the fallacy a dicto secundum quid, of dropping relevant qualification. When we suspect a fallacy, our aim must be to discover exactly what the argument is; and, in general the way to do this is first to pick out its main outlines, and then to take into account any relevant subtleties or qualifications. (Mackie 1967, p. 179; italics in the original).

Even if one were to agree with the method, the problem of implementing the proposed solution would remain unsolved, nothing being said about how to deal with natural language and speech, seen somewhat contradictorily as an insubstantial and vicious medium.

Natural language, the common vehicle of argument, is accused of dissolving logic in an insignificant verbiage which serves to mask unsavory human interests. Thus, a sustained war against language would be the price to pay for a correct determination of sound arguments, that is, for eliminating fallacies. Nonetheless, it may be noted that natural language is to natural argument what air resistance is to the flight of the “light dove”:

The light dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space. Likewise, Plato abandoned the world of the senses because it posed so many hindrances for understanding, and dared to go beyond it on the wings of ideas, in the empty space of pure understanding. (Kant, [1781], p. 129).

Natural language is not an obstacle, but the condition of ordinary argumentation.

4. The diagnosis of fallacy is an argumentative issue

Criticism of argument does not escape argumentation. First, it has to be justified. This justified diagnosis is just a move in a longer game, not the final one, not the terminal charge. This justified diagnosis is just one move in a longer game, it is by no means a final, conclusive or terminal act. In a subsequent move, the so-called “fallacious arguer” can exercise his or her right of reply, and try to rebut the accusation of fallacy. This reply can itself be challenged, and there is no rule as to who closes the game.

[1] To use a title of W. Ward Fearnside & William B. Holther (1959). Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument, quoted in Hamblin 1970. P. 11.