Begging What is at Issue in the Argument

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


The usual characterization of begging the question begs the question of whether the fallacy must be explained in terms of logical theory. I think it is wrong to define it as the fallacy of asking the audience to accept a premise that presupposes the truth of the conclusion because, as I explained in the first essay of this collection, I reject the idea that all there is to an argument is a sequence consisting of a series of premises followed by a conclusion. Much energy has been devoted to explaining how begging the question could be a fallacy in argument: the fallacy cannot be with the logic of the argument, because the premises entail the conclusion; nor can it be with the truth of a premise because all the premises might be true. I want to insist that the very existence of this problem about how begging the question can be a fallacy begs the question of whether the fallacy must be understood in terms of logical theory. My position is based on what I understand to be at issue; by claiming that discussions of begging the question are question begging I am drawing attention to an issue that I think must be addressed, an issue that is ignored in the literature.


Logical Theory Valid Argument Argumentative Discourse Circular Reasoning Critical Letter 
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  1. 1.
    An anonymous referee supplies what he thinks is an example of the equivalence conception in actual discourse: “How do you know that September has thirty days?” “Thirty days has September, April, June and November” He says about the response that “I’ve several times found myself using this argument in real life with people who forget the number of days in the various months.” The exchange seems familiar enough, although the questioner seems more likely to ask “Are you sure?” than “How do you know?” What is puzzling is why the referee thinks that the recitation by the respondent of the rhyme about which months have thirty days functions as an argument,when it seems little more than a reminder of something that the questioner already knows.Google Scholar
  2. Other examples in the literature also are not “presented as specimens of lifelike disputation,” to borrow a phrase from Hamblin (1970, p. 33). ‘All men are mortal. So, no immortals are men’ suggests a debate, perhaps, over whether the gods really are people, or about how a god like Jesus can also be a man who is born and dies. However, Robinson (1971) who cites this example says nothing to indicate that he has in mind any genuine conflict or controversy where something is at issue. The same is true of Sanford when he cites as an example ‘Hoffman says something. Either he says something false or he says nothing at all. So he says something false’, or Biro (1977) when he cites ‘All men are animals. All animals are promiscuous. So, all men are promiscuous’.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Hoffman (1971) argues for this point by invoking a rule that in order for something to count as an argument it must have at least two premises, each of which is needed to support the conclusion. This rule seems to create more problems than it solves, both because of its ad hoc nature and because of obvious counterexamples to it that Biro (1977), Sanford (1972) and Barker (1976) have discovered.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    This letter also is discussed in the fifth section of the sixth essay (“The Case of the Missing Premise”) in this collection.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    That the assumption upon which Martha’s argument depends is so controversial shows that her strategy is unwise, not that she is begging the question: bad strategy is not to be confused with begging the question. This is the suggestion of an anonymous referee, whose formulation of the assumption-’only the interests of medical professionals should be considered’-certainly seems to make it question begging. The plausibility of the referee’s suggestion seems to depend on the question begging assumption that an argument can be question begging only if it is circular.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See the next essay in this collection, and, especially, its second section, for more discussion of the dialogical approach.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Scholars also offer proof, for example, that a document is a forgery, a point insisted upon by an anonymous referee. Here, too, ‘proof is used as a synonym for ‘evidence’. This use of ‘proof is nothing like a derivation of one statement from a set of statements.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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