Fallacies


Argumentative fallacies are certainly among the funner components of learning the art of argumentation. To be quite honest, there is a certain gratification that comes from knowing and identifying fallacies when they are committed. Who doesn't like to say, "Ah, ha!" or, "Got you!" (as Michael Palin did when he caught John Cleese in a contradiction) when debating with someone? If there is any danger involved in learning the fallacies and how to recognize them, it is that we may soon turn into argumentative snobs and/or, perhaps, insidiously wily arguers. But, I would argue, the danger of not knowing them at all far outweighs the knowledge that (potentially) puffs up. (If you are paying attention, you might note that I have already committed one fallacy, that of the argumentum ad populum, when I said, "Who doesn't like ...?" Just because a lot of people approve of something does not make it right. But, perhaps, the appeal is effective!)

If we are to be persuaded of something, let's be sure we are being persuaded for the best reasons we can find. When, on the other hand, we are making our own arguments, we may find it useful to commit some of the fallacies in order to gain adherence from our audience. Typically, as I've already hinted at, two main reasons are offered for studying the fallacies: 1) knowing them can be a safeguard against deception, and 2) knowing them can help us argue more effectively.


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Aristotle and Fallacy


In his famous
and highly technicaltreatment of rhetoric, which we now call simply the Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) covered a lot of ground about the subject. For one thing, he wrote against the idea that rhetoric is necessarily an immoral practice. (It had gotten a bad name due to the combined efforts of people called Sophists, who famously taught their students to "make the worse case appear the better," and Plato, Aristotle's former teacher, who wrote a famous dialogue, called the Gorgias, in which Socrates lumped rhetoric and the Sophists together as morally and spiritually destructive.*) Aristotle said that rhetoric was simply neither good nor bad, but could be put to both good and bad uses.

Another thing Aristotle did in the Rhetoric was to list several "false enthymemes" and how they were characteristically used. Along with more logically sound ways of arguing, he also showed how rhetors sometimes employed arguments which wouldn't hold up to logical scrutiny but which, nonetheless, did prove useful in advancing a case. Some scholars worry that Aristotle did not do enough to distance himself from these fallacies or putting them into practice. One scholar, Charles Marsh, shows, however, that Aristotle's aim was probably not to moralize, but to examine analytically. He described what simply was, not what ought to be. This does not necessarily disarm critics of their moral objections to Aristotle, but it is good to know what Aristotle was probably about.

An Aristotelian approach to rhetorical education leaves the most room for ethical and alethiological diversity and does provide perhaps the most analytical approach.As George Kennedy notes, Aristotelian classification of rhetoric is symptomatic of the ancient philosopher's “dispassionate” scientific impulse (qtd. in Marsh 87); even for modern readers, terms of classification can enable the defamiliarization of the genres they encounter—and produce—all the time; part of this defamiliarization process so integral to fostering critical thinking comes with identifying the features of different genres and arguments. In particular, the logical fallacies isolate, as Aristotle did, common topoi that are used at the expense of logic but at the service of persuasion.



Fallacies: Two Perspectives


Maintaining an Aristotelian perspective in learning the fallacies might best be served by studying material from the viewpoint of two entirely different ethical perspectives on the fallacies which nonetheless share a belief in logical consistency. Two recent books on the subject provide some helpful examples of advocates at cross-purposes in teaching people how and why to learn this material.

In Crimes Against Logic (2005), an angry and bitingly funny Jamie Whyte excoriates the current condition—which is, of course, always abysmal—of public discourse for much of its “muddled thinking” and “aims to help fill the gap left by the educational system” while functioning, not as a textbook, but as a “troubleshooting guide” (ix-xi). The 157-page book reads as a rant, yet its discussions of various fallacies are thorough for all its diatribes. Like a dyed-in-the-wool Platonist, Whyte's goal is to arrive at the absolute truth through discussion, and fallacies only get in the way of that truth. Whyte evinces little sensitivity for people who deviate from logically consistent arguments, and he makes little attempt to build ethos with his audience, his credibility he states as being practically assumed in the Introduction: “Because you have chosen to read a book with the title Crimes Against Logic, you may be more sympathetic than my friends and the editor of The Times” to his vituperative treatment of fallacy (xi-x). He sets up fallacious arguments only to knock them down, assuming throughout that his audience is on his side of the equation: “You, dear truth-seekers, would never indulge in such shenanigans” (32). This particular statement is included in a controversial discussion of the common arguments coming from advocates of faith and religion. Whyte's political biases are also apparent. Labour-party politics receives more spankings from Whyte than does its conservative counterpart on many economic and social issues. Instead of giving advice on how such fallacies might be further perpetuated—save when he does so ironically—he tends to subject the given example and their authors to (sometimes furious) ridicule.


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In sharp contrast to Whyte's “truth-seeking” book is Madsen Pirie's How to Win Every Argument (2006). The book's subtitle is indicative of its pragmatic value: “The Use and Abuse of Logic.” As Pirie explains in the Introduction, he intends his book “as a practical guide for those who wish to win arguments. It also teaches how to perpetrate fallacies with mischief at heart and malice aforethought” (ix). Further he explains that he fully intends the book to be used by “the wrong person,” in whose hands the book will be more of a “weapon” than a reference; in argument, the book has both “offensive” and “defensive” applications (x). What follows in the book itself is a 178-page alphabetical treatment of seventy-nine logical fallacies, each example followed by pithy and sarcastic commentary from Pirie. Suggestions then follow for application for different rhetorical situations and audiences. For example, in a discussion of dicto simpliciter, Pirie gives the following advice:

In discussing people of whom we have little knowledge, we often use dicto simpliciter in the attempt to fix onto them the attributes of the groups they belong to. […] Dicto simpliciter can be used to fit people into stereotypical moulds [sic]. Since they belong to the class of Frenchmen, ballet dancers and horseriders, they must be great lovers, effeminate and bow-legged. You must appeal to generally accepted truisms in order to fill in details about individual cases which would otherwise be resisted. (52)

As the commentary indicates, playing upon an audience's prejudices and “generally accepted truisms” is a staple of effective, if not always honest, rhetoricians. Whereas Whyte's book appears to regard such approaches as underhanded—though he employs, and one wonders how wittingly, a few himself—and extraneous to useful discussion, Pirie recognizes them simply as the stock-in-trade of rhetoric and effective argumentation. Pirie's consistent application to type of audiences encourages readers to think of audiences before whom such strategies are likely to be welcomed without critical scrutiny.

The benefit of putting these two books—or simply the two approaches they respectively advocate—into dialogue would be to show the different “uses” to which logic is put. In the case of Whyte, logic is truth, and discovering that truth and communicating it clearly without “fancy dress” (31) is the stated raison d'être of the book. Pirie, on the other hand, recognizes that logic may be disregarded in putting forth a weighty argument, trusting many audiences not to know the difference when appropriately appealed to. Both writers, presented side by side, can expose readers to the information necessary to formulate an intelligent decision on what they believe to be the rightful place of logic within rhetorical discourse. Readers may decide that the truth as a construct of logical consistency will always be the most persuasive appeal possible, or they may find that, like Aristotle, logos is almost never enough to secure belief. Other appeals, such as those to ethos or pathos—while extraneous to logic but not to the argument—may be legitimately exploited according to the perceived dictates of the rhetorical situation, or the rules of logos may be bent with the same license.


Catalogue of fallacies1

Catalogue of fallacies2



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Marsh, Charles M. “Public Relations Ethics: Contrasting Models from the Rhetorics of Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics. 16.2-3 (2001): 78-98.

Pirie, Madsen. How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. London: Continuum, 2006.

Whyte, Jamie. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Politicians, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.


*Plato did treat rhetoric more kindly in a later dialogue called the Phaedrus, where he explained how rhetoric could be put to legitimate, morally upright uses. But a lot of the damage to rhetoric's reputation had already been done.


†So analytical in fact is Aristotle that a very clever Facebook quiz, "What Type of Rhetorician are You?", says that Aristotle and those who test as resembling him are "more interested in sounding rhetorical than in being rhetorical." The honor of being most rhetorical goes to Ferris Bueller.