Who is afraid of Aristotle?
Author: Charles L. Hamblin
Publisher: Vale Press
Year: 1983 [first edition 1970]
Chapter II: Aristotle’s List
I will try and skip some enormously boring parts by not describing (as usual, and maybe appropriate) Aristotle’s works, “place in time”, his good-humoured nature or heart-killing sorrow caused by Plato choosing his nephew (or something) over him, the copiously wiser one. Wikipedia has pretty much covered the field here. What I intend here is a brief description of Aristotle’s work on fallacies – based on Hamblin’s chapter two –, then an even briefer outline of what Hamblin calls “The Aristotelian Tradition” and finally I will stop on begging the question, a quite interesting fallacy.
Funny thing about Aristotle, he wrote the Sophistical Refutations before Prior Analytics which means that he treated fallacies “before Formal Logic had been invented” (Hamblin, 52). Despite some degree of curiosity, this was not such a big problem because he hadn’t meant the Sophistical Refutations to be a logic-based treatment of fallacies, but, let’s say, a ‘dialectical’ one that would serve citizens in ‘contentious arguments’[a]. Another funny thing about Aristotle is that, well … there is life after fallacies and so he had to write many other books later in time in which the treatment from Sophistical Refutations got severely disorganized. Then of course, after decades of tradition-following, some scholars managed to criticize this ‘inconsistency’ and claimed better endeavours on the subject.
I feel like the elephant is right at the dinner table and he’s staring at me. An obvious remark here (or one of them) is that we are using different terms when mainly referring to the same thing. The distinction between sophisms and fallacies is quite a stingy problem, and if you add terms like elenchs (Hamblin mentions them) or paralogism, it should get worse. Now that we’ve brought out this issue, one could ask – by quoting Leninian who quoted Tolstoy: “What is to be done?” My option here is opting out. I will give you my (or better yet, ‘the general assent I felt when reading here and there’) division of these terms. Sophism is highly connected with Sophistical Refutation and it will be used only when (1) referring the specific treatment in Soph.Ref., (2) referring to some type of intentional error inside (or deliberately misuse of) a dialogue and its rules. A paralogism is to be used henceforth as (1) referring to specific treatment in Prior & Posterior Analytics, (2) referring to some sort of logical – as opposed to dialogical –, not necessarily deliberate error. One should use elench if one has recently celebrated his/her 174th anniversary or better yet had known Aristotle personally. A fallacy, then, is a grand total of those three, reasonable enough for what suits our purposes. Douglas Walton would probably agree with this last remark since he distinguishes sophistical tactics type of fallacy from the error-of-reasoning type Walton, 1996, 245).
The term refutation it’s easier to catch, because its technical (narrow) meaning remains very close to what we understand of it in general. A refutation is a type of ‘reasoning involving the contradictory of the given conclusion’. A sophistical refutation, then, would be some false reasoning (also known as eristic reasoning) involving this thesis: it will be (1) either that the reasoning process is only apparent – while actually injured or not qualified – or (2) that the premises are injured or only apparently probable – while actually not belonging to ‘endoxa’ – common belief – or that (3) while everything sound, the relevance is only apparent.
The thirteen-fold classification of fallacies, which we chiefly discussed in Part I, is then analyzed starting from this distinction. I’m in a hurry to get to petitio principii, so I’m not even going to outline the content of Sophistical Refutations. What ought to be remembered is that subsequent accounts in Prior Analytics and Rhetoric differ in many respects. For example, the normal and noticeable thing to do when passing from dialectic to demonstration (that is, from Topics to Analytics) is to (1) drop the fallacies dependent on language (since we’re dealing with formal – well, perfect – language), (2) drop the fallacies which ‘depended’ on dialogue (many questions and begging the question) and (3) cut down on references to the context of utterances (again, not important in a formal language). Nothing’s fishy here; let’s go directly to the petitio principii.
The general account on begging the question will tell you that this tricky fallacy obtains a tricky validity: there’s nothing (logically) wrong with inferring a proposition from itself – see Hamblin p. 33 and Fallacies part I, which means that in any propositional system we could think of, ‘p therefore p’ is a valid inference[b].
A. In Sophistical Refutations (where, we remember, logic has little to regulate):
[begging the question] is a flat-out violation of the definition of ‘syllogism’ (hence of ‘refutation’). If what is to be proved is also assumed as a premise, then that premise is repeated as the conclusion, and the argument in question fails to be a syllogism, hence cannot be a refutation (Woods, 1999, 212)
Consequently, all Aristotle has to do on this account is to explain how things could not go along in such an argument. There are five ways in which an arguer could beg the question, none of which offers much contentment. The ‘question’ being the ‘thesis at issue’, the first way feels ok in hindsight: in a debate (‘contentious argument’) one begs the question if he argues ‘non-T, therefore non-T’, when non-T is to be proven. Imagine yourself being fooled by such an argument:
A: In my opinion, global warming should not be stopped for it is nature’s own will
B: I beg to differ! Since global warming is something that should be stopped, I believe we must spring into action and stop it.
A: Gees, I don’t know what to say …you think?
The other four ways of question begging are even more suspect. The second tells us that if we infer Some A’s are B’s from the ‘question at issue’ All A’s are B’s, it will be fallacious, since a refutation will not longer be worthy of the name (since this is not a syllogism). For the rest see Woods, 1999, 212-215.
B. If we turn to the Analytics, things change, although they do not gain much complexity. As Hamblin notes later on, “Aristotle […] was inclined to object to any argument that did not fit into the pattern he thought appropriate for the orderly or ‘scientific’ deduction of knowledge from first principles” (246). The concise definition in Prior Analytics sounds awkward, but I will get someone to explain for us. So,
[w]hen someone tries to show through itself what is not known through itself, then he begs the question (Pr. An. II, 16, 64b36–38)
Hamblin explains this by relating to Aristotle’s epistemology (theory of knowledge):
We come to know some things immediately, others mediately by inference. Propositions have a peck-order […] The truly certain things are those known immediately, the others being so much the less certain from having to be arrived at by inference” (76).
Which means that the problem with begging the question, as Aristotle re-defined it, is that it fails to be a demonstration, it fails to prove anything (however validly reasoning while doing so) because it takes not self-evident propositions as self-evident. It is then epistemology who should be interested in such propounded distinction. With this, we get near the general approach in contemporary logic and dialectics. Keynes (quoted by Hamblin and quoted by us in Part I) was the first to set apart fallacies of proof and fallacies of inference.
C. Contemporary views on fallacies are not seriously different from the traditional ones, although by reorganizing some essential aspects they carry more clarity and coherence. I will treat them briskly here for we will return to them in our next texts. Charles Hamblin (1970) begins by re-defining the concept of ‘argument’ by means of ‘alethic’, ‘dialectic’ and ‘epistemic’ criteria. He then notices that the fallacy of begging the question, besides being an interesting problem for epistemology and as long as it is viewed as an argument, has its major bugs with criterion nr. 5:
The conclusion must be such that, in the absence of the argument, it would not be accepted/in doubt. (Hamblin, 238-245)
Douglas Walton also establishes that, from the very beginning, the fallacy of begging the question has a valid form of argument. All the more, circular reasoning – viewed dialectically as a sequence of questions and replies – begs the question (again) not by an infringement of any particular argumentation scheme. The defectuous mechanism of the fallacy can only be pinned down accordingly:
The fallacy comes in when you put the chain of argumentation schemes, as used in case 21, together in a sequence of connected dialogue. The resulting circle, shown if figure 7, when the schemes are joined together in an argumentation theme, indicates the fallacy.
Q: Can you give me a credit reference? A: My friend Jones will vouch for me
Q: How do we know he (Jones) can be trusted? A: I assure you he can
Q: Yes, but how do we know you can be trusted? A: My friend Jones will vouch for me
fig.7 (Walton, 1996, 206)
The pragma-dialectical approach has its specific sayings in this. Out of the 10 rules for a flawless critical discussion, they connected begging the question with Rule #6, the one which gives account for ‘fallacies of utilizing starting points’ [sic! not standpoints]. A party may not falsely present a premise as an accepted starting point nor deny a premise representing a starting point. As we briefly noted in this review, fallacies in the pragma-dialectics are seen as violations of discussion rules, as ways of blocking the means of resolving a difference of opinion. The fallacy of begging the question is therefore:
[…] a special case of wrongly assuming that a proposition is one of the common starting points […]. Because he then knows that the proposition concerned is the very point at issue in the dispute, he also knows that it cannot be one of the common starting points. (Eemeren, Grootendorst, 1992, 153)
This is Aristotle and this is the fallacy of begging the question. In the next posts on fallacies we will depart from Hamblin’s chapter 7 (‘The concept of Argument’) and try to look at the contemporary ways of explaining/identifying/classifying fallacies.
[a] One should remember that here ‘argument’ is used in a ‘quarrel, dispute’ sense. These ‘contentious arguments’ were some sort of disputes organized between men in ancient Greek. The point of such an argument was to (pragmadialectically …) resolve a difference of opinion
[b] In the sense that, if the premise is true, the conclusion must also be true, see Walton 1996, 50