Many Questions

1. Many questions as a dialectical fallacy

Dialectical games use an ortho-language (S. Logics for Dialogue), that is to say a language game derived from ordinary language and interaction supplemented by a system of conventional rules. The problem about the so-called fallacy of “many questions” originates first in two specific rule of the dialectical game, as exposed in Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutation (RS), S. Fallacies . In ordinary language, one single interrogative sentence may contain many questions and many answers, a property derived from the fact that sentences have several layers of meaning. Logical dialectical game prohibits the exploitation of this linguistic resource, and requires the use not of ordinarily phrased sentences, but of propositions, a proposition being defined as “a single statement about a single thing” (Aristotle, RS, 169a6; Tricot, p. 30). Secondly, logical dialectical game authorizes only yes/no answers.

The linguistic phenomenon of loaded questions (also known as many or multiple questions) is examined by Aristotle in the context of a dialectical exchange, where they are considered a fallacious discursive maneuver, S. Fallacies. It consists in “the making of two questions into one” (id. 167b35; p. 22).

Consider a set composed of bad things and good things (id., §5). The misleading question is: “is the set good or bad?”. The answer “good” will be rejected by alleging a bad thing, and the answer “bad” by alleging a good thing. (ibid.). The correct answers are yes for the first component and no for the second one; but the smart sophist will refute the yes by alleging the second component, and vice-versa.
The case of the half white and half black picture might be more convincing. The sophistical dialectical question is: “is it (=the picture) black (resp. white)?”. As there are only two authorized answers “yes” or “no”, they will be refuted respectively by focusing on the white (resp. black) part of the picture (id., §5).

Ordinary speakers would simply give the sensible non-dialectal answer, “this part is white and the other black”.
One can imagine that the question “is anger a good thing?” exhibits that kind of problem. The answer yes is refuted by any negative aspects of anger such as violence or lack of self-control, whilst the no is undermined by any case of “righteous anger”.

The fallacy of many questions is thus a clear example of fallacy defined as a breach of dialectical rules, S. Fallacies (2). The issue of many questions arises as a by-product of the rules of the dialectical game, and there is no need to import it as such in the analysis of ordinary argumentation. Rhetorical argumentation has no problem with confusing questions; they are answered with a conceptual dissociation or a distinguo.

2. Presupposition

Natural language questions might concern statements containing presuppositions that are, or are not, considered acceptable by their recipient:

S1: — You should think about the reasons for the failure of your policy.
S2: — But my policy has not failed!

S2 rejects the presupposition of S1 “your policy has failed”.
The imposition of a presupposed judgment is contrary to the logical principle that a statement expresses a single judgment (if it contains several judgments, each must be asserted separately). Consequently it contradicts the dialectical rule requiring that each proposition be explicitly accepted or rejected by the respondent. S1 could therefore ask S2 the question “why P?” only if S1 and S2 previously agree on the existence of P. From a Perelmanian perspective, the question of presuppositions should be settled within the framework of prior agreements, S. Conditions for discussion.

The problem is that, in ordinary language, all statements are more or less “loaded” not only by their orientation, but also by their implicit contents of various kinds, some of them inferred from oriented words. In reality, it is always possible to extract litigious presupposed or infer propositional contents from a statement and to subsequently hold the interlocutor liable for it. Let us consider a discussion between a banker and a recriminating customer trying to get a better interest rate:

S1_1:   — I went to the bank just across the street from my house, and they immediately offered me a loan at a lower rate than the one you proposed to me!
S2:      — It’s because they wanted to have you as a customer.
S1_2:   — Because you do not want to keep me as a customer?

S1_2 extracts from or infers from S2’s intervention an implicit content that S2 certainly rejects, but nevertheless shows the banker that a different explanation is needed. This move can be considered to be a special straw man maneuver (de Saussure 2015).