Sorting Through Sophistries:
Riders of the Viciouscycle—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

One would hardly expect to meet a fallacy as blatantly unsatisfying as "I am right because reasons." Alas, as so often, that unexpectedness does half its work for it.

O Cycluna, Velut Luna*

We have previously discussed the sophistical appeal to authority, or ad verecundiam, and to ignorance, ad ignorantiam. We have now to discuss another complex of fallacies—a rival to the House of Hominem—that have a distant kinship with those two types of sophistry. Our gentle readers have, we dare presume, encountered riders of the tricycle, the bicycle, and even (if fate has frowned upon them) the unicycle; the riders of the viciouscycle are less well-known, for their invisible vehicle is an idea: a stupid idea.

The most basic form the visciouscycle takes is that of the bald assertion. This is—well, an argument is just what it isn’t: at least, it has neither premises nor conclusion; it advances a claim, idea, or point of view, but it does none of the work called for by dialectic to support it.

At first glance, this may seem indistinguishable from stating premises that one merely agrees not to argue. But that agreement is the difference. Premises in a debate must be agreed upon beforehand, because why on earth would you accept something merely on the grounds that someone you were debating said it? And, by the same token, why would somebody accept your assertion if you refused to provide evidence and reasoning for it? (The only explanation that springs to mind is the sophistical appeal called ad baculum or “to the stick,” i.e. resorting to force or the threat of force; yet even this, while it can effect the behavioral state of compliance, cannot really bring an opponent to the intellectual state of assent. In a sense, ad baculum doesn’t even rise to the level of being a real fallacy.)

When bald assertions do appear in debate and are allowed to pass uncriticized by an opponent, this may be because they have not been noticed, but it can also be because they are delivered in a convincingly authoritative manner that persuades listeners there must be something behind it (which is the link between this group of fallacies and the ad verecundiam). Alternatively, its baldness may have been concealed. As we all know, baldness is most commonly hidden by one of two techniques, either a comb-over or a toupée; coincidentally, the bald assertion is also frequently concealed by one of two strategies: circular reasoning, and the complex question.

Whenever you see a sweeping statement that a tremendous amount can come from a very small number of assumptions, ... it is false. There are usually a large number of implied assumptions that are far from obvious if you think about them sufficiently carefully.

Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning is using a conclusion one intends to prove as one of the premises (or more often, tacit assumptions) in one’s argument. It thus makes the premise and conclusion dependent upon each other. This is hardly better than a bald assertion, obviously, and for the same reason: you can’t make a brick more stable by stacking it on top of itself!

At least, this is usually the problem with circular reasoning. One of the difficulties about inductive logic is that it often involves us in a certain amount of circularity. For instance, if we want to model our conduct on the behavior of the wise, we must first identify the wise. But practically every moral tradition in the world advises us that our conduct shapes the way we see things, and that as we drift from the path of goodness, our idea of wisdom and goodness becomes warped. But if that is true, then how are we meant to know who the wise are? Unless we ourselves are wise already, in which case we hardly need to take trouble to model our conduct on the behavior of the wise!

This intricate topic probably deserves an analysis of its own; Aristotle pointed this difficulty out in the Ethics, and, since everyone has to perform their own actions individually, the problem has not gone away in the intervening twenty-three hundred years. But we must leave that aside, and take up the other, more intricate method of concealing bald assertions: the complex question. We will discuss its several varieties next week.

*This is a modification of the opening lyric of the most famous selection from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, “O Fortuna.” O Fortuna, velut luna means simply “Ah, fortune, like the moon” (proceeding into a lament against fortune’s changefulness).

Gabriel Blanchard, a proud uncle to seven nephews, has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has served as CLT’s editor at large since 2019, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder and president, Jeremy Tate! You might also enjoy reading some profiles of the men and women (and anonymous works) of our Author Bank, featuring profiles of Livy, St. Jerome, Dante Alighieri, Charles Montesquieu, Langston Hughes, and many more. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 13th June, 2024. Page image of a Medieval illumination showing Lady Fortune using her wheel to topple the powerful and exalt the powerless, only to topple the newly powerful after a time (and so on forever).

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