Monday, 20 March 2017

The Trouble With Fallacy

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
‘That’s fallacious!’ people say, and no greater fault can be laid at the foot of philosophers, or anyone else who offers arguments. And yet, outside its tidy logical definition, the term ‘fallacycomes with many far from straightforward assumptions ...
The first thinker in the Western world to approach the concept of fallacy in a systematic way was Aristotle, and his thinking on the matter, set out in a work known as On Sophistical Refutations, remains a touchstone on the subject to this day. Yet Aristotle's work shows us just how far we have drifted—and, it is argued here, lost our way:
• For Aristotle, the point of identifying fallacy was to avoid ‘the semblance of wisdom without the reality’. Today, the emphasis is rather on syllogistic reasoning (see below), and reasoning would seem to have become an end in itself. In the words of philosophy writer Tim Ruggiero, ‘the focus is the method’. That is, Aristotle, in his time, placed a far greater emphasis on what one would hope to produce through sound reasoning, rather than the reasoning itself.

• Aristotle set no limits to what fallacy might include. Fallacy had to do with getting at the truth, and wherever the truth was impeded, there was fallacy. Aristotle was interested in ‘reasoning about any theme put before us from the most generally accepted premisses that there are’. Today, however, fallacies tend to be ruled in or out by rules that are technical. Philosophy professor Robert Audi notes that if we do not have an argument—even as we subvert the goal which is wisdom—this may not qualify as a fallacy today.

• Aristotle considered that a fallacy has either to do with ‘silly’ mistakes, or with the failure to take account of all of reality. Fallacy, he noted, occurs either through ‘stupidity’, or ‘whenever some question is left out’. That is, all fallacy, unless it is ‘stupid’, fails to take something into consideration. Today, by way of contrast, the emphasis on that which is left out would seem to be all but completely overlooked.
These three points are, in fact, intertwined. The goal of sound reasoning is wisdom, wisdom takes everything into account, and where one fails to take everything into account, one falls short of the wisdom that one seeks—apart from the 'silly' mistakes, that is. The implication is that fallacies occur where our minds fail to range broadly through our world.

By contrast, formal fallacies, today, generally concern only classical syllogisms without variables. A well known example of a valid syllogism is this:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal
And an example of an invalid syllogism is this:
Socrates has two legs
Birds have two legs
Therefore Socrates is a bird
As with many fallacies, we immediately feel that something is wrong with the second example, yet it may be hard to define just what.

But then, in fact, it may be said that every fallacy leaves something out of consideration. The ad hominem fallacy, for example—the argument that rests on a criticism of whoever has uttered it—fails to consider the facts of the matter; the fallacy of denying the antecedent fails to consider the excluded set; the genetic fallacy fails to consider the present reality, and so on.

Fallacy, then, is not merely about its more recent focus—correct syllogisms and sound conclusions, among other things. Rather, it is about what we leave out of our thinking. There may be nothing more needful in our time:
What is it that has been left out of our economic thinking that has led to social inequality? What is it that has been omitted from our technological thinking that has led to ecological ruin? What is it that has been left out of our political thinking that has led to our transgressions of human rights?
Fallacy, wherever it is found, comes down to a kind of short-sightedness that fails to range through all the world. In an important sense, it is not about mere ‘reasoning’ alone.


  1. Maybe reality does not have that much to do with reason?

    1. Daniel Dennett wrote, ‘Rigorous methods of pure logic could get no grip on the problems of philosophy.’ Not that this does your comment justice, but it touches on it.

    2. If you mean formal logic doesn't help much in making sense of the world, I'm certainly with you. The objection made is that all 'valid' (or as Thomas would put it non-fallacious) arguments have to be tautologies - just ways of sayingn the same thing in other words.

      My favorite example of a logical argument that goes wrong is:

      Red berries are dangerous
      Raspberries are red berries
      Raspberries are dangerous


  2. You’ve done a nice job, Thomas, of summing up the nub of fallacies. The insidiousness of fallacies, I believe, is multidimensional: there are overwhelmingly so many kinds of fallacies, both rhetorical and logical; they appear in so many guises, able to subtly shift in form, depending on the task at hand; they have long since insinuated their way so thoroughly throughout everyday activity and discourse; they're beguiling, inviting us to resort to them, even often in innocence; they're so hard to spot when they’re deployed; they’re irresistible and handy, often serving as shortcuts to making a point; and no discipline is exempt from them. I suspect we’re prone both to use them and to fall for them throughout our day, even (especially?) when we’re being the least philosophical.

    1. Thank you Keith. There's the ultimate book on the subject, which I have on my shelf: Logically Fallacious. 'Ultimate' simply as the ultimate record of fallacies. The similarity between the new cover and the Pi image is coincidental. I just saw the new cover now.