Truth Before Dishonor

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Archive for June 2nd, 2014

Informal fallacies?

Posted by DNW on 2014/06/02

Strange how the obvious and already known sometimes hits you right between the eyes with a clarity and force originally lacking, or at least not remembered as there, much, much after the fact.

Say, oh, about thirty-plus years after the fact.

I was driving in the car a day or so ago, and for some reason the concept of “informal fallacies” popped into my head, along with an annoyed internal dialog relating to how the concept had expanded, seemingly exponentially, since I was back in school studying logic and rhetoric.

It seems there is a fallacy for every occasion nowadays, and that they have multiplied as fast as do the political polemicists who frantically brandish them about as if their mere mention constituted evidence of intellectual credentials.

Courtier’s reply! Au contraire, No true Scotsman! No! Argument from authority! Blah blah blah

Irving Copi, a genuine expert in affairs logical, in his famous and widely used university level “Introduction to Logic”, usefully observes (after paragraphs of provisional comments) that, “We may divide informal fallacies into fallacies of relevance and fallacies of ambiguity”

This scope obviously has something to do, as he states the issue, ” … with errors in reasoning into which we may fall either because of carelessness and inattention to our subject matter or through being misled by some ambiguity in the language used to formulate our argument.”

It seems to me that one of the main problems with those who like to bandy charges of fallacious reasoning about, is that they often seem not to understand the supposed issue involved in the fallacy itself.

For example, what some people imagine they have in mind when they charge others with an “appeal to authority”, mystifies me. There is nothing wrong with citing, or appealing to a legitimate authority regarding his area of expertise.

A classic and extreme illustration of the real “fallacy” was provided by old cigarettes ads featuring Hollywood or sports figures who were pictured extolling the virtues certain brands for their power to relax and energize without impairing endurance or health.

On the other hand it’s no error in argument, as Copi notes, to cite, say, a recognized authority on Medieval history on some point of common law bearing on our own times.

But I digress into the morass of the fallaciously polemical use of fallacies.

The point being here, that informal fallacies however they are to be construed, are just that: “not-formal” in the sense of “not a violation of form”. They don’t even rise to that level of error.

They are informal not because of some casualness – though this is often a condition of their appearance – but because they are not the end-product violation of a valid deductive argument form.

They, informal fallacies, thus constitute errors in reasoning which unlike formal fallacies, are not the result of errors which violate as Copi says, “valid patterns of inference”. (Of course these valid patterns themselves  only guarantee that the conclusion asserted validly follows from the premisses when the rules are followed; but not that the conclusion is sound in and of itself, nor that the argument “true” in the way we usually think of truth as reflecting our experienced reality.)

But with the general move away from deductive reasoning as a means of convincing political opponents to yield ground, it’s not surprising that the list of informal fallacies has mushroomed.

Those persons who would not know a modus ponens from a modus tollens, and would probably have a problem intellectually grasping their significance if confronted with the same, can nonetheless muster the resources to shout “NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY!” at an opponent on the vaguest suspicions of a “violation”, and most inchoate conception of the idea defining the fallacy itself.

There is something nonetheless kind of interesting about some of the “newer” fallacies. And that is that they don’t fit neatly into errors of relevance or ambiguity or even internal or extrapolative construction as with the fallacy of composition; but rather, seem to be laid against claims of intellectual privilege,  definition, and framing: More as if they are describing rhetorical gambits than strict errors of reasoning or inference.

But then I make no claims of expertise in this area and am just recounting some things that crossed my mind the other day as I was driving.


Posted in Philosophy, society, truth | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

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