Sorting Through Sophistries:
Riders of the Viciouscycle—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

Who brought questioning into this?

The Complex Question Simpliciter*

Last week we discussed the bald assertion and its tendency to conceal itself in order to pass unnoticed, for instance with circular reasoning—the comb-over of fallacies. We must now pass to a subtler creature, a sphinx-like deviser of deceitful questions. If circular reasoning is something like a comb-over, the complex question is more like a toupée.

Complex questions are not always sophistical. As we have been reminded frequently in this series, an innocent mistake is not the same thing as a fallacy, and some complex questions are innocent mistakes, or for that matter not mistakes at all. From a certain context-forward perspective, practically every question is complex. But “any question” is obviously not a good rule for winnowing notably complex questions from others! Normally, the phrase “complex question” means a question which, structurally, makes assumptions others would not grant (their reasons for not granting them being what distinguishes the subtypes of complex questions from one another).

A standard example here is the question, “Who is the King of France?” While there is wiggle room, the phrasing here clearly “expects” that the French monarchy is a current reality, not just a historic one. Even if met with the answer “There is no King of France,” it would be natural for someone who had asked the question without being aware of the historical facts to suppose that this just meant France was between kings at the moment (e.g. due to some kind of succession dispute). It would need to be made explicit that there is no such thing as a king of France now for the matter to be resolved.** Yet here, while it is a complex question, it is not yet what is generally meant by the name of our next subtype.

Question-Loading Zone: Hard Head Required

In the loaded question, we have a complex question that pulls in a controversial claim, typically to trap or paralyze an opponent. The classic version—which, to forewarn our readers, is distasteful, but of course that is part of the point—is “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The trap is that a straightforward reply of either “Yes” or “No” is an implicit confession to having beaten her (and indeed, done so habitually) in the past. Depending on just how attentive and patient the listeners are, if the target of this tactic replies to the effect of “I haven’t ever beaten my wife,” the questioner may be able to tax them with failing to answer a “clear” yes-or-no question.

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.

Twin to the loaded question is the double-barreled question. In this technique, a single yes-or-no answer is solicited for a question with two clearly differentiated parts (e.g., “Are you satisfied with the quality of your health care and do you find it not to be financially burdensome?” or “Is the panang chicken curry your favorite dish here and the most nutritious?”) Known in courts of law as “compound questions,” for a lawyer to pose such a question during cross-examination is grounds for an objection; it can fluster witnesses who do not know how to answer, rendering their testimony less useful to the law—which we would prefer a lawyer to respect.

Other close kin include the suggestive or leading question. Readers of Plato’s dialogues† will probably be ruefully familiar with this one; it is, as a rule, the besetting sin of the dialogue as a medium for writing philosophy. In some circumstances, leading questions can be instructive, but at their fallacious worst, they amount to something like:

Mr. Y. And the next step my argument needs is such-and-such, isn’t it?
Mr. X. Oh, certainly such-and-such is the case, Mr. Y.

That’s Never What They Mean

Finally, let’s discuss the fallacy referred to as “question-begging” or “begging the question.” You have doubtless heard various persons use the phrase “this begs the question,” or some close equivalent—in a conversation, a video essay, a sermon, a book review, a book, anywhere you please. Now, the present author is not by training or talent a gambler; nevertheless, he would wager several hundred dollars that—unless you are in some way involved in formal debate or have received some training in law—you have heard the phrase “begs the question” used correctly a grand total of two or three times, at the absolute highest.

This is partly the fault of English: “beg the question” sounds as if it ought to mean “beg [someone] to ask about [the topic at hand],” but this is not what it means (the phrase people are looking for that does mean this is “prompts the question”). “Beg the question” is a fossilized phrase, preserving a meaning of beg that has otherwise gone extinct: “to assume.” And similarly, question here is actually being used in the sense “topic, matter, subject”—as when we say that an incisive remark “gets to the heart of the question.” Beg the question is thus a half-obsolete, but once quite literal, translation of the Latin name of this fallacy, petitio principii, which in turn translated the Greek phrase to en archē aiteisthai [τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι]; thankfully, this goes neatly into English as “to ask from the beginning.”

In other words, it’s another name for circular reasoning! And so, on and on, for ever the Viciouscycle turns …

*The Latin word simpliciter is typically pronounced in the “English” style, sĭm-plĭ-sĭ-tŕ, though some speakers use the classical version instead, sĭm-plĭkĭ-têŕ (see our guide for details). It means “considered simply” or “without qualifiers.”
**To any Legitimists in our audience, please note that this is written with respect to the laws instituted by the Fifth Republic and for the sake of the example. Neither our editor-at-large, nor CLT as an entity, intend or wish to express any view on the divine right ascribed to the House of Capet.
†The early dialogues of Plato show far less tendency to employ leading questions. The category is universally held to cover the Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, and Meno, and often extended to certain other works, like the Charmides, Gorgias, and Protagoras. Most scholars believe that, as he continued writing, Plato tended to make Socrates more of a mouthpiece for his own theories, and to wish to expound these theories at greater length (both of which would be made easier by leading questions on the part of Socrates, and docile, lightly-varied assent from other participants in the conversation).

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our posts on the great ideas, like art, definitions, work, or one of our longer miniseries on topics from authority to wisdom. Thanks for reading!

Published on 20th June, 2024. Page image of Caresses (1896) by Fernand Khnopff, a Symbolist portrait of Oedipus and the sphinx.

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