Philosophy 404/English 501/EDTE 404 & 504
June 17 & 21, 1999
- Return Homework
- Distribute Exams & Handouts
- Argumentative Advantage --- See lecture three.
- Persuasive Dialogue --- See handout.
- Exam Review & Argument Analysis
- Where We've Been and Where We're Going
- The concepts we've studied and the exercises I've had you do are all meant to expand
your awareness of the nature of arguments.
- Given that arguments are usually delivered in language, it is important to understand
how language works in general.
- In addition, it's important to have the ability to recognize terms and expressions that
are typically used to make argumentative words. These include performatives, warranting
connectives, assuring terms, evaluative terms, and the like.
- If you are sensitive to these elements, then you will be in a position to assess the
character and force of arguments as you find them without being conned by their
proponents. In other words, you will be able to think critically and carefully about just
what it is you are being asked to believe or do.
- We will now continue our examination of arguments in two stages.
- First, we will discuss different types of bad, or fallacious, arguments. We do
this so that you will become sensitive to strategies that are ill-suited to the task of
supporting a conclusion.
- Second, we will study the structure of arguments, which involves attending to the
structures of the sentences involved and the relationships between those sentences in
virtue of their structures. Here we will dabble in logic, both classical and
- Fallacies are flaws in an argument. In general, we will say that a bad argument is an
argument that exhibits a fallacy of some sort. (We can call such arguments
- As the authors point out, imagination is really the only limit to fallacious reasoning.
Still, we can classify the fallacies into general kinds, and that is what we will do in
here. There are different ways of doing this, though.
- Material/Psychological/Logical (see handout)
- As we will see, we will be able to distinguish between (i) classification of an argument
on the basis of the structure and meaning of its component sentences and (ii)
classification of an argument on the basis of how it is used in a particular situation is
a distinction that runs through this chapter.
- All the arguments we will look at can be identified by their structure and the meanings
of their sentences: the slippery slope arguments, the ad hominem arguments, etc.
- However, whether instances of these argument types qualify as bad or not
depends on the circumstances surrounding their employment.
- This is related to a central theme of this class: that we can analyze and assess
arguments from two perspectives -- the perspective of the thing said, and the
perspective of the act of saying.
- Fallacies of Clarity
- These include fallacies of vagueness and fallacies of ambiguity.
- Vagueness: this is introduced into an argument by vague concepts, or concepts
that do not apply clearly and precisely in all cases. These concepts depend for there
meaning in particular instances on contextual features. These are concepts that admit of borderline
cases. (Examples ....)
- Things that instantiate these concepts differ by degree; given this, we can represent
the range of application of these concepts by a scale or dimension, with or without
endpoints depending on the case.
- These concepts often figure into arguments, and given their nature, they can undermine
the effectiveness of an argument. These arguments trade on the fact that the concept is
difficult to apply with certainty in the borderline cases.
- Argument from the Heap: This argument is meant to establish that there
is no way to arrive at one of the endpoints, given assumptions about the other.
- Conceptual Slippery-Slope Arguments: This argument is meant to
establish that there is no significant difference between the endpoints. (E.g., rich/poor)
- Fairness Slippery-Slope Arguments: These arguments exploit the
vagueness of the relevant concepts and the association between their application and
judgments of equity or fairness. (E.g., punishment)
- Causal Slippery-Slope Arguments (AKA "Domino Arguments"):
These trade on the fact that causation occurs in small increments and can in certain cases
carry with it negative consequences. (E.g., beer/heroin.)
- Fallacies of Ambiguity
- Ambiguity is a term used to signal the presence of multiple meanings. The term
"ambiguity" is itself ambiguous. It can mean:
- The association of more than one meaning with a given term (viz., the ambiguous
- A term/sentence is ambiguous in a particular context just in case it is
misleading because it is difficult to tell which of several meanings the term/sentence has
in that context.
- Types of ambiguity
- Semantic: a term, like "bank" or "cardinal", has more than
one lexical meaning associated with it, and can give rise to sentential ambiguity for that
reason. (E.g., "I keep my money in a bank.") In a sentence, there can be
multiple semantic ambiguities that contribute to an ambiguous whole: "Mary had a
- Syntactic: a sentence is syntactically ambiguous if it is possible for the
words in it to serve different structural purposes, giving rise to different meanings in
the process. (E.g., "Flying planes can be dangerous." "All students want a
- Fallacy of Equivocation: this is committed when a person advances an argument
that trades on an ambiguity. That is, an argument that contains the same word in two
premises, but the word is intended in different sense in both places. These arguments will
not be valid. (E.g., Exercise XI)
- One way to resolve difficulties that arise because of vagueness or ambiguity is through
the judicious use of definitions.
- It's important that the use be judicious -- it is possible to use them so liberally that
all interest in the argument is removed.
- By defining the terms in dispute, one can avoid slippery slope arguments as well as
- Types of Definitions: (The top two matter for our purposes, but I'll list all five)
- Precising Definitions: definitions of terms meant to draw precise lines so that
vagueness is avoided. (E.g., city/town)
- Disambiguating Definitions: this is a definition typically offered during the
course of a conversation that is meant to indicate which of the possible meanings is
intended by the speaker.
- Lexical Definitions: definitions for terms supplied by dictionaries.
- Stipulative Definitions: a definition supplied by someone who is introducing a
new term, such as one who might do this in technical discourse.
- Systematic Definitions: a definition intended to give systematic order or
structuure within a theory or a subject matter.
- Fallacies of Relevance
- These arise when one makes a move in an argument---that is, makes a supporting
claim---that is not relevant to the conclusion in question. This can be done by one who is
attempting to support that conclusion or by someone who wishes to reject it.
- How is this possible? Because we assume that the other participants in an argument are
being cooperative, and so relevant. As a result, we will work hard to find a way of
regarding the claim as relevant, in accordance with Grice's principles. In doing this, we
introduce meaning into the argument that may have no business there because it does not
support a view of the conclusion.
- Thus, we will often refrain from dismissing a contribution as irrelevant even when we
should because we succeed in identifying an implicature that "makes sense" of
- These fallacies can be employed intentionally, but often they are innocent.
- We'll focus on two types of fallacies that arise when one cashes in irrelevance for
argumentative advantage: ad hominem fallacies, and appeals fallacies.
- Arguments Ad Hominem (See Handout)
- At times during a discourse episode where arguments are being advanced, a participant
will adduce considerations about the person advancing the argument (e.g., their character,
habits, appearance, etc.). This argumentative move is known as the ad hominem.
This move is dangerous because it often introduces considerations that are irrelevant to
the argument advanced by the speaker, and so is at best misleading and at worst
disruptive. However, as with many of the argument forms we considered in Chapter 10, this
one can be used to positive effect as well. Here is a classification of ad hominem moves:
- Ad Hominem Attack: if in response to a contribution made by speaker A to
an argument, speaker B questions A's character, motives, or right to speak, then B makes
an ad hominem attack. (Note that the attack is not directed at the argument A advances,
but only surrounding conditions.) These can be justified or unjustified; whether these are
justified or not depends on whether they are relevant to the argument advanced.
- If you question a person's motives and it turns out that they are in fact driven to
speak by questionable motives, your attack is justified.
- If they are driven by other, more selfless motives, then your attack is not justified.
If you attack their right to speak and they have none, you are justified; if they do have
the right, your attack is unjustified.
- Ad Hominem Argument: if B calls into question A's person as a way of
attacking the argument that A is advancing, then B makes an ad hominem argument. These can
also be justified or unjustified.
- If B's argument raises questions about the soundness of A's arguments, then the ad
hominem argument is justified. For example, if A is noted for stretching the truth and B
points this out, that would be relevant given that we would wish to evaluate A's claims
- If B advances an ad hominem argument that does not give us any reason to question the
truth of A's claims or the soundness of A's argument, the B's argument will be unjustified
and will be what we call an ad hominem fallacy. Many ad hominem arguments are
fallacious, primarily because the argument advanced does not usually depend for its
legitimacy on the person advancing it.
- There are appeals to authority, popular opinion, tradition, and ignorance,
to name four.
- Participants often make these in an attempt to prop up their conclusions, and as before,
they are not always bad. For example, an appeal to popular opinion would be admissible if
the conclusion concerned someone's popularity, and an appeal to the Surgeon General would
be admissible if the conclusion concerned the evils of smoking.
- Still, one must be very careful when confronted with such an appeal. It is a good idea
to test the appeal relative to the following questions:
- Are the presuppositions of the appeal satisfied in this case? (E.g., is the person cited
an authority? Is this opinion really widely held? Is this the kind of question that can be
settled by such an appeal?)
- Are the facts of the appeal in order?
- Why is an appeal of this sort being made at all?
- If the appeal does not measure up relative to these questions, then we have reason to
question the relevance of the appeal to the argument at hand.
- Fallacies of Vacuity
- To call something "vacuous" is to call it empty. A vacuous argument is an
empty argument; that is, one that does not establish what the proponent of the argument
intended because it doesn't put forward a substantive claim in favor of the conclusion.
- In many cases, the argument purports to be one that can advance the discourse, but
because it lacks any substance, it does not.
- This can be done intentionally, but often it is unintentional.
- Circular Reasoning
- One engages in circular reasoning if and only if one of the premises used to
support the conclusion is equivalent to the conclusion itself.
- Depending on the context, such reasoning can be either viciously circular or virtuously
- If vicious, the circle undermines the argumentative goal of the speaker. In many cases,
a speaker puts forward an argument so as to convince a doubter that a certain conclusion
is true; if one reasons in a circle, however, then one will be unable to succeed because
the doubter will reject the premise (and so the argument) for the same reason that they
reject the conclusion. This is called begging the question, and we'll talk about
that more in a moment.
- If virtuous, the circle can help achieve the speaker's argumentative goals. For example,
one uses circular reasoning in the process of classification. Also, one uses it in the
process of exploiting identities. In these cases, the arguments present information that
has theoretical value or is news to the listener, so the presence of a circle is not a
- Begging the Question (See Handout)
- If you engage in viciously circular reasoning, you are begging the question,
which is a fallacy. An argument begs the question in a context if and only if any
objection in the context to its conclusion is also an objection to one of its premises,
and that premise is not supported by any independent evidence.
- This is committed in the context of a discourse in which there is doubt about the
conclusion. If there is doubt about the conclusion, then assuming that conclusion as a
premise is not the way to dispel that doubt. The role of context in this place is
- The way to avoid this is to provide an argument for the conclusion that contains
premises which are not equivalent to it and which are not open to the same type of
objection that is directed at it. This can be done by providing independent support for
- Examples: abortion, exercises.
- Self-Sealing Arguments
- These are arguments that are set up in such a way that nothing could possibly refute
them; thus, it seals itself off from criticism. Such an argument is objectionable because
it provides no one who is skeptical with any reason to believe it; indeed, any possible
reservation is easily accommodated within the argument. Another way to put this: the
argument is empty because it provides no testable predictions and so no way to determine
if it is false. (Contrast significant statement with a tautology.)
- An argument can be self-sealing in a number of different ways:
- By universal discounting: all possible objections are dismissed, often in ad
hoc or arbitrary ways. E.g., conspiracy theories.
- By going upstairs: use of the ad hominem fallacy to dismiss objections;
objections are dismissed as a sign that the objector is not yet in a position to
understand the argument, or that the objector is actually proving the argument sound by
asking those objections. E.g., psychoanalysis.
- By definition: use of the fallacy of equivocation to finesse objections; one
makes a substantive claim and then subtly redefines the critical term in a way that
guarantees the truth of the claim, even though by doing this the claim is deprived of
substance. E.g., selfishness.
- Certain words are also used to seal arguments off: "enough", "true",
- An argument that is self-sealing is vacuous and it is usually offered when trying to
shore up a position that is false. One way to avoid the objection of falsity is to make
one's argument impervious to criticism; however, in doing this, you deprive the argument
of all content.