(Begging the Question or Circular Argument)
principii is a logical fallacy where the conclusion of an
argument is claimed to be proved by an equivalent statement in the
premises. Furthermore, one of the premises is logically dependent on the
conclusion of the argument. Circular arguments are epistemic variations
of the fallacy, whereas the begging the question fallacies are
dialectical failures. The varieties of petitio principii
(including begging the question and circular argument) are explained
with illustrative examples and links to self-check quizzes.
- Petitio Principii (begging the question or circular
argument) is the fallacy of assuming in the premise(s) of an argument
a statement which equivalent the conclusion of the argument. Thus, what
is to be proved has already been assumed in the premises.
- The informal structure of the petitio principii is often
similar to one of the following schemata:
Some Informal Structures of Petitio Principii
Immediate (hysteron proteron):
Statement p′ is true.
Statement p is true. (Where p is a paraphrase
Grammatical or Logical Immediate Inference
Statement p is true.
Statement not-p is not true.
Circular (circulus in probando):
Statement p is true.
Statement q is true.
Statement r is true.
Statement p is true.
- Because the sense of the conclusion (or a suitable paraphrase
of the conclusion) is stated in a premise of the argument, the premise
would be proved as well by the evidence provided by the conclusion, if
the order of statements were reversed. Petitio principii is most
commonly known as the fallacy of begging the question even though the
term “begging the question” has other vernacular
- The term “petitio principii” is used
more often in the context of formal logic and the logic
of proof than in the context of informal logic.
- The term “begging the question” is used most
often in the context of informal logic: conversational reasoning,
disputation, debate, argumentation, or dialectical reasoning.
- Petitio principii can occur as a formal fallacy even
though it is usually classified as an informal
- Strictly speaking, petitio principii or begging
the question is a valid but fallacious
argument. The argument is defined as fallacious since the conclusion
does not logically follow from a premise whose truth has been
previously established. Thus, the argument does not prove anything
that was already not already known.
David Sanford points out if “the primary purpose
of argument is to increase the degree of reasonable confidence
which one has in the truth of the conclusion … every
question-begging argument fails this
Thus, even though petitio principii arguments do not
founder logically, they do so epistemologically.
- Since some instances of petitio principii can be
reformulated as as a syllogism where the conclusion follows
from one premise and the other premise is
the argument is logically valid but does not prove the truth
of the conclusion since that statement has already been assumed
as a premise.
E.g., “All men are mortal so Socrates is mortal.”
If we know the
first statement is true, then we also know the second statement is
true. There would seem to be no need to state the minor premise that
Socrates is a man, since that is the person being referred to as the
subject of the conclusion.
- Petitio principii is sometimes defined as a simple or
immediate argument, whereas circular reasoning is said to involve two or
more arguments and so is a mediate argument. (From a logical point of view,
distinguishing immediate from mediate circular reasoning is not essential
and is only done so for purposes of classification.)
current textbooks conflate petitio principii, begging the question,
and circular reasoning (circulus in probanbo) as interchangeable
terms. However this is not the case in much of the academic literature.
Douglas Walton, for example, makes the distinction by noting that circular
arguments can fail to establish their conclusion in several ways, but
immediate begging-the-question arguments fail only the probative function
of argument (i.e., begging-the-question arguments do not prove
- The main forms of the petitio principii discussed below
- Immediate argument (hysteron proteron) occurs when
the fallacy occurs as a simple premise-conclusion argument. Some
examples include these varieties:
- Question-begging epithets (sometimes called
question-begging appellatives) are terms or phrases employed
in stating the same thing as that which is to be
proved. Question-begging epithets are effectively used as
emotively significant terms (i.e.,
slanted language) which presuppose expressions used elsewhere
in the argument.
E.g., “Fundamentally God is just and loving
because he rewards the good and punishes the
- Assuming an abstract statement to be proved from a premise
in the form of a more concrete statement is another use of
“[T]he lodestone attracts iron because it possesses the
- Circular reasoning often is described as a mediate
argument occurring in an extensive, often convoluted, argument where
what is to be demonstrated has already been assumed in the evidential
part of reasoning.
The same or other arguments closely related to circular
reasoning (circulus probando) include reasoning in a vicious
circle (circulus vitiosus) and reasoning in a virtuous
circle (circulus virtuosus).
Reasoning in a virtuous circle is not usually considered fallacious
since it is more or less based on a coherence theory of truth —
not a correspondence (or referential) theory. More on this is described
below in section IV.
- In argumentation, an effective way to expose an adversary's
petitio principii is to request for evidence of the
truth of the premises. The proponent is then hard-pressed not to
repeat the conclusion. E.g., to the oft-cited example
“God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible is
true because it comes from God,” an appropriate question
to reveal the circularity is to ask how the proponent knows that
God exists and the Bible is factual.
- On the standard view of informal fallacy theory (i.e.,
what is taught in most textbooks), often the
reason petitio principii is considered to be a fallacy is
not that the inference is invalid (because any statement
is indeed equivalent to itself), but that the argument can be
Nevertheless, identification of fallacious reasoning ought to be
based on logical rather than psychological principles. Consequently,
from a logical point of view, the fallacy is said to occur
because a statement does not prove itself as a conclusion
of an argument. A conclusion must have a different source from
itself for reasons, grounds or evidence of its truth.
- The least convincing kind of petitio principii is the
repetition of the same words in the same order in both premise and
conclusion. Such an argument is not informative but might
be given in unusual circumstances, e.g., the speaker is very
tired, talking to a subordinate or a child, in anger, or
perhaps even using phatic
- E.g., consider this typical example from from a story by Guy
“Monsieur Daron, very perplexed, said excitedly:
‘Look, he must have died of something! What do you
think it was?”
The doctor threw up his hands.
‘I've no idea, no idea at all. He died because he
died, that's all.’”
- A similar version of this fallacy occurs when the conclusion or
the premise is rephrased to appear as though it's a different statement
The rephrasing can be by rewording a premise with a synonymous phrase
or with phrase such that both propositions state what amount to the same
- Typical synonymous or interchangeable rephrasing
instances are similar to these examples:
“They [egos] understand this kind of sense, because it is sensible
“[I]t [the soul] is immortal, because it does not really
- Jeremy Bentham points out the use of question-begging
epithets or question-begging appellatives which assume
the point at issue through the use of emotively laden language.
He points out “the mode of using the fallacy with the greatest
effect, and least risk of detection,—namely, by the employment
of a single appellative”
E.g.,“Effective learning occurs during short study
periods because your study time is not wasted in longer stretches of
- Or consider the example provided by William Stanley Jevons:
“It would be a Petitio Principii to argue that [a] doctrine
is heresy, and therefore it ought to be condemned. To
assert that it is heresy is to beg the question, because every
one understands by heresy a doctrine which is to be
- An illustrative example of pointing out the use of a question-begging
epithet is shown in the following exchange of letters in the London
Review of Books:
Christopher Eddy writes, “Markus Eichorn claims that Frans de Waal's
‘elegant experiments on primates have shown evidence of
intentionality in communication’ There is other evidence, even
more compelling, that dumb animals do not
Adam Sandell replies, “Christopher Eddy thinks that communication isn't
possible for what he likes to call ‘dumb animals’, a circularity
by which he means “non-human
- Jevons observes that petitio principii often occurs when
Saxon, Latin, or Greek words are used arguments which express
the much the same thing in different
Whatley concurs that since English is composed of words
taken from other languages which are synonymous, the same statement can
be present in premise and conclusion. The following argument by Whatley
is used in many textbooks and papers as a paradigm example of begging
“[T]o allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech, must
always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State; for it is
highly conducive to the interest of the community, that each
individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing
However, this example shows how contextually dependent such arguments
can be subject to interpretation. Walton, the preeminent logician for
begging the question, states at one point this argument is, “ the
classic case of the equivalency type of circularity.” Yet, it seems
clear that there remains a contentious point of equivalency not only
between “every man” and “every individual” in
18th century England and today but also between the significant difference
of denotation of “the State” and “the
- Another common kind of petitio principii ensues from the
transformation of a conclusion into a premise using logical or grammatical
- “You know that God is a just and loving God because God
is God and cannot be unjust or unloving.”
- “There are many juvenile delinquents since many
juveniles break the law, and the reason so many juveniles break
the law is that they are juvenile delinquents.”
- In circular reasoning (circulus in probando)
the conclusion is assumed as a premise either immediately in the argument
or else assumed mediately as a premise in a series of arguments. (The
distinction between immediate and mediate circular reasoning is not of
particular logical or epistemological consequence.)
- In direct or immediate circular arguments, the conclusion
is explicitly assumed in the premise of that argument and,
generally speaking, is easily recognized unless it is part of an
extended narrative. An immediate viciously circular argument
is present whenever the premise used for accepting the conclusion
is the same statement as the conclusion itself.
- The vicious circularity is obvious in the following example since
it is of the form of A because of B and B because
“The Soul is simple because it is immortal, and it
must be immortal because it is
- Here is another example of the same form but the fallacy is
accomplished by means of paraphrase:
“Iraq can be subject to a suspension of law and forced to
swallow the prescriptions of the neo-liberal order, precisely
because it remains outside the protection of international
law. and it remains outside the protection of international
law because it has not become fully integrated into the
- An example from Émile Durkheim's writing is of
the same form but occurs over the scope of over one hundred
pages. Durkheim adduces evidence that (1) religion is the source of
the forms of society, and, as well, (2) Durkheim presents evidence
that the forms of society determine the character of religion. What
follows are the essential premises and conclusions of his circular
First, the premises:
(1) “[L]aw, morals and even scientific thought itself were
born of religion”
and “[T]he most diverse methods and practices, both
those that make possible the continuation of the moral life (law,
morals, beaux-arts) and those serving the material life (the natural,
technical and practical sciences), are either directly or indirectly
derived from religion.”
And, second, the conclusions:
(2) “We regard it [i.e., the religious nature of man]
as the product of social causes, we consider it impossible to find it,
if we leave aside his social environment.“ and
“[R]eligious evolution … depends upon social
- In philosophy and science, petitio principii can be accomplished
through the use of definition to posit “facts.”
- For example, the biologist Agassiz argued for the immutability
of species in this manner:
”It was a great step in the progress of science when it was
ascertained that species have fixed characters, and that they do
not change in the course of time. … Geology only shows that
at different periods there have existed different species. The
question we are now examining involves only the fixity or mutability
of species during one epoch, one era, one period in the history of
our globe. And nothing furnishes the slightest argument in favor
of their mutability; on the contrary … species are
As Darwin points out, Agassiz's circularity in defining the
immutability of species is accomplished by assuming no species
exist between historical
- And Locke's definition of justice illustrates this kind of
vicious circular reasoning:
“Where there is no property, there is no injustice, is a
proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid: for the
idea of proper, being a right to anything, and the idea to which
the name injustice is given, being the invasion or violation of
that right; it is evident that these ideas being thus established,
and these names annexed to them, I can as certainly know this
proposition to be true, as that a triangle has three angles equal
to two right ones.
- The fallacy in mediate circular reasoning (circulus in probando)
is sometimes difficult to detect in long, dense arguments. Moreover, the
precise nature, definition and limits of application of this fallacy have
been in dispute since the 17th century.
One form of this variety of petitio prinicpii is the use of
an intermediate step or steps in shifting from the premise to a statement
of the same meaning in the conclusion. Essentially there is a linking
of premises through subconclusions to a conclusion which returns
to the beginning. This form of petitio principii is described as
arguing in a mediate vicious circle. Consider the following argument in
which the terms are labeled for convenience of analysis:
- “Intuitions[C] are true representations in
consciousness[B] and since any formative image from the
unconscious[A] is an
intuition[C], these images[A]
are true representations in consciousness[B].
That being the case (i.e., [A] being [B]), and because all true
representations in consciousness[B], not being representations
from sense experience, are intuitions[C], it follows that
all formative images from the unconscious[A]
- Note the vicious circularity in the form of the foregoing argument
as represented by the red text:
All C is B.
All A is C
All A is B.
All B is C.
All A is B.
All A is C.
- Mutually dependent instances of modus ponens also serve
an an example of vicious circular reasoning or circulus vitiosus
as when the conclusion of one argument becomes a premise of the next
argument in order to prove a premise of the first argument.
Consider this two-part purported argument for free will:
If people have free will, people are morally responsible.
People have free will.
People are morally responsible.
If people are morally responsible, then people have free will.
People are morally responsible.
People have free will.
- Arguments like these occasionally occur in religious, philosophical,
and literary passages:
- “Chronicles are only a minuscule portion of God's
recorded details about people throughout time. … he
records everything. … At the end of time, all will know
that God is just and loving, because we all will have access to
those open books. God's books will proclaim that he's eternally
right and accurate.”
- “I once overheard three brothers dividing two candy
bars. The oldest one gave each of the two younger ones half of
a candy bar, and kept a whole bar for himself. When asked why he
got more candy, he said he was the smartest. A few minutes later,
one of the younger ones asked why he was the smartest, and in
reply the oldest said ‘Because I have more
- The main difficulties in evaluating complex instances of petitio
principii include attempting to diagram extensive arguments by sorting
out evidential priority order of reasons and then constructing all tacit
reasons and conclusions.
- The most difficult kind of petitio principii to identify is
the kind where one of the premises and the eventual conclusion have
exceedingly similar “propositional content.” I.e., the
statements are suitable paraphrases of each other (without meaning
exactly the same thing), and each depends upon the other
for its truth. This variety of petitio principii often is the
occasion of controversy about “how much of a difference makes a
difference” for the occurrence of non-synonymity.
- A controversial example involves the case of an analytical
tautology where one premise seems to include the conclusion in its
All Euclidean triangles are plane figures.
The minor premise “This triangle is an Euclidean triangle”
necessarily includes by definition the conclusion that it is a plane
figure. Some logicians allow this syllogism to be logically valid but
not informative. Thus, the syllogism would be identified as petitio
This triangle is an Euclidean triangle.
This triangle is a plane figure.
- In Moliére's play Le Malade Imaginaire, the
Primus Doctor states …
“‘Opium produces sleep’ to which I reply,
‘Because there is in it that dormative power whose nature makes
the senses drowsy.’”
- The following example of rephrased propositional content, provided
by Ian Hacking, is a description of a petitio principii in economic
theory committed by the statistician Ernst Engel:
“A law has been named after Engel … Engel's
law states that ‘the poorer the individual, the family or a
people, the greater must be the percentage of the income needed for
the maintenance of physical sustenance, and of this a greater
proportion must be allowed for food.’ It is odd to find
this as a law, since Engel had used the proportion of outgoings
on food as the measure of material standard of
- A more controversial example is illustrated from the writings of
Sigmund Freud where he relates an illustration of his argument that
all dreams are wish-fulfillments because any dream which does not
fulfill a wish does fulfill the wish to prove his theory wrong. So,
on this interpretation of the following passage, his reasoning is
essentially that all dreams are wish-fulfillments because any
non-wish-fulfillment dream is actually a dream of wish-fulfillment:
“A contradiction to my theory of dream produced
by another of my women patients (the cleverest of all my dreamers) was
resolved more simply, but upon the same pattern: namely that
the nonfulfillment of one wish meant the fulfillment of another. One
day I had been explaining to her that dreams are fulfillments of wishes.
Next day she brought me a dream in which she was traveling down
with her mother-in-law to the place in the country where they were to
spend their holidays together. Now I knew that she had violently
rebelled against the idea of spending the summer near her mother-in-law
and that a few days earlier she had successfully avoided the propinquity
she dreaded by engaging rooms in a far distant resort. And now
her dream had undone the solution she had wished for; was not this
the sharpest contradiction of my theory that in dreams wishes are
fulfilled? No doubt; and it was only necessary to follow the dream's
logical consequence in order to arrive at its interpretation. The
dream showed that I was wrong. Thus it was her wish that I might be
wrong, and her dream showed that wish fulfilled [italics
- Arguing in a virtuous circle (circulus
virtuosus) occurs when justifying, explaining, or proving a
statement on the basis of a general theory, philosophy, or world view.
That system is constructed of a web of mutually logically dependent
statements such that the truth of any particular statement is logically
derivable from the truth of other statements in the system. Whenever
such justification is informative, no fallacy is said to occur since
the reasoning fulfills the epistemological or probative function of an
- Consequently the soundness of a virtuously circular argument is based
on the fact that the conclusion is already known to be true as it follows
from other statement in the system of statements.
- The truth of premises which support such a theory are supposed to be
able to be established by assumption, argument, empirical reference, or
pragmatic practice, although these antecedents are not addressed in virtuous
- In virtuous circular reasoning, the soundness
of the argument is said to be established internally — i.e.,
it follows logically from other statements. The particular inference
is rendered informative by the presence of the other statements in the
- However, in debates between two different world views, each
disputant justifies assertions in terms of other statements accepted
as true in accordance with their respective views. And their disagreement
stems from the particular inconsistencies between the corresponding
different statements embedded in each respective viewpoint under discussion.
- So the resolution of the clash of theoretical differences can only
be resolved through some externally justifiable standard — presumably
based on some kind of empirical validation.
- A number of other techniques in disputation are sometimes
confused with petitio principii or begging the question.
- Assuming the truth of a statement without argument, by itself,
is not necessarily petitio principii or begging the question.
Every disagreement must start from statements assumed as premises.
Circularity occurs when a non-self-evident assumed statement is
used in an argument to prove itself.
- The fallacy of begging the question is not a case of proving
something beside the question or something irrelevant to the issue
under consideration. That is, circular reasoning is not simply missing
the point at issue.
Such passages as these, however, are interpreted as a diversionary
tactic making use of the fallacies of irrelevance most often designated
as either ignoratio elenchi or
E.g., consider this non sequitur:
“Understanding is immortal because the truths of the Universe will
always be immortal.”
Supplying the missing premise,
“Understandings are truths of the universe”
reveals the lack of circularity.
- On occasion, the scope of the fallacy has been mistakenly
extended to include the rephrasing in terms of a vacuous, meaningless
expression, or a truism which, although not falsifiable, does not add
anything or give any additional information. So in the context of the
argument, it is claimed the “reasoning” provided has the
import of saying much the same thing, i.e., arguing in a circle.
Here are two typical examples of vacuous reasoning:
- ”[The] five-year tenure as [city] Police Chief
came to an abrupt end Monday evening. … ‘The reason
for the discharge as that we want to move ahead in a different
direction,’ [the Mayor] said. ‘His services were no
- “The attractive interaction between the lodestone
and iron [is] caused by xiang gan (mutual influence), a
sympathetic response between two interacting entities.… [S}ome
items attract others, while some cannot, because their qui is
different and consequently they cannot mutually influence one
- Name-calling or ad hominem attacks can be viewed as
question-begging epithets, but such arguments should not be confused
with the fallacy of begging the question, as some logic textbooks
It is important to remember that not every emotively-laden adjective
used in disputation begs the question at issue.
- Quite often, petitio principii can only be accurately
identified within the context of a presentation or discussion,
not in isolation of that context. As in all informal fallacy evaluations,
the context of the passage is vital.
- Petitio principii arguments can suffer from a certain
degree of ambiguity and vagueness due to lack of knowledge of their
context and intention. Many informal logicians argue that, in general,
circular reasoning cannot be judged in the absence of dialogue. In
the following argument, a dialogical approach is clearly necessary
in order to rule out circularity:
”Autonomous vehicles will be nice for everyone, because they
will let people get on with something worthwhile as they
Does “get on with something worthwhile” mean “get
on their way with a worthwhile vehicle ” (as opposed to run-down
public transportation) or does the phrase mean “do a worthwhile
activity when traveling”?
- Consider the following argument which appears to be
The argument seems to conclude “I do it” from the
assumption that I do it. The author might be arguing that the truth
of the statement, “I do it,” is based on the empirical
fact that I do it. However, the context of the passage is
suggested from a couple of snippets in its continuation …
“I do it because that's what
“I design a magazine and do Internet work in my spare time
because it is my magazine and Internet work … I've see[n]
people li[v]e their lives wishing they were doing something else,
wishing they had different
So since the intent of the excerpt of the argument is something like
I do it because it is something I enjoy and do well.
… the argument does not seem to be a petitio principii.
- Identification of the following example hinges on the meaning
of ”grounded.” Circularity occurs if contextually
“grounded” means ”grounded in the divine”:
“St. James was divinely inspired when he wrote his
epistle, and therefore the story must have been well
- Finally, it's important to point out that circularity in
explanations and definitions are not fallacies per se.
Nevertheless, vicious circularity in explanation and definition
is uninformative. Arguments are intended to increase knowledge,
whereas explanations function to increase understanding. Consequently,
circularity in arguments does not increase belief or conviction, but
some kinds of circularity in explanations, if not vicious, can do
so. In the
following examples, no fallacy occurs because the passages are intended
- Circularity in the following explanation, however, is flawed
because it produces inappreciable understanding:
[T]he very conception of the aesthetic object [i]s that which
gives pleasure simply because it is that it is, not because it
is good for anything.
- Whereas the following passage could be taken for a viciously
circular argument, it is in context an informative explanation:
[H]e was a contented and wealthy man — contented because
he was wealthy, and wealthy because he was contented.
In senses of the words “wealthy” and “contented”
are different in the last statement of this passage. The wealth is
not monetary but spiritual and the contentment is not monetary but
peace of mind.
Consequently, the passage is not a circular argument but is a
- Again, it is important to point out no fallacy occurs if
an argument is not present. E.g., the following passage
might appear to be circular, but, instead, the author declares
no matter how well-instructed a totally self-absorbed person is,
that person is not educated:
“Those people who think only of themselves, are hopelessly
uneducated. They are not educated, no matter how instructed they
The author is not arguing that hoplessly uneducated people are
hopelessly uneducated because they are hopelessly
uneducated regardless of having had much instruction. Consequently,
the petitio principii fallacy does not occur.
- A presumed tautologous or analytic statement is said to
beg the question when that statement is being used as a premise in
an argument. E.g., John Locke argues that the Scholastic doctrine
“Thinking is the essence of soul” begs the question of
what is to be proved as to the nature of soul since the truth of the
doctrine is not immediately evident.
Locke uses “beg the question” in this sense when he
states that inasmuch as the Scholastic belief that thinking is the
essence of the soul is not self-evident, the belief begs the question.
That is, the belief elicits the need to prove such an hypothesis
prior to its use as a premise.
This particular use of begging the question is no longer classified as
a petitio principii fallacy in the literature and in recent
- The contemporary resurgence of interest into begging the question
stem from Richard Robinson's 1971 paper distinguishing Aristotle's
treatment in the Topics not as a fallacy but as
rule breaking in the dialogue-game of elenchus from Aristotle's
treatment in the Prior Analytics as an instance of argumentative
- Walton argues that begging the question cannot be analyzed
solely in terms of the statements used in critical discussions;
the fallacy is best described as a pragmatic failure of
dialogue since those statements' meanings are contextually
- Whether an argument is circular or not, then, depends on the
context of the beliefs expressed in the critical discussion by the
disputants about the statements presented — and does not depend
upon the purely formal identity or equivalence of the statements
- Occurrences of circular argument are somewhat
subjective in these contexts since they are relative to the
belief systems of the disputants. The context is determined by the
dialogue leading up to the presentation of the argument. Therefore,
identification of petitio principii is not just a formal
evaluation of an argument, but is dependent upon how the
premises are established within the context of a persuasive
As Alfred Sidgwick puts it: “What we can always do is to
suspect the presence of a given fallacy, and to seek for
clearer indication of it. But to fasten on the words of the argument
and say confidently that our opponent is begging the question
… is to put ourselves in a needlessly weak position. Indeed,
the charge of begging the question is a peculiarly difficult one to
- Circular reasoning occurs especially in the following philosophical issues:
- Free Will/Determinism
Debate: To what extent and in what sense are motives a
determining factor in choice and action. Circular reasoning together
with verbal disagreements and ambiguous phraseology occurs often in
free-will controversies. For example, to explain all actions in terms
of causality is itself presupposing a deterministic
- Logical Proofs of Existence: Deductively, the existence of
something cannot be proved from statements which do not already presuppose
existence. As Søren Kierkegard argued, for example, Napoleon's
existence cannot be proved by arguing …
An [unknown] invaded Russia, lost the Waterloo campaign, was exiled
to Elba, and so on.
Napoleon is the [unknown].
Therefore, Napoleon exists.
The truth of the conclusion “Napoleon exists,” only
logically follows if the [unknown] in the premises is already presumed
to exist in a premise.
- Deductive Reasoning: Some philosophers have worried that if
logic and mathematics were merely verbal based on non-empirical statements,
it would follow that these forms of reasoning are instances of petitio
principii. For example, in reasoning from a general statement to a
particular statement subsumed under that general statement, nothing would
be proved since the conclusion would be already assumed as known. From the
statement “All men are mortal,” if we know Socrates is a man,
then it follows he's mortal. But this conclusion is just a particular
instance of the general statement which subsumes “Socrates as well as
other persons to be mortal.”
If an argument is a valid deductive argument, it's impossible for the
conclusion to be false with true premises; consequently, it would seem
that there can be no more information in the conclusion than that given
from the outset in the premises. So logicians need an account for how
deductive argumentation can prove something not already known in the
The nature and definition of begging the question raises questions about
the essential features of the constitution of an argument. If an argument
is defined as having at least two statements, then begging the question,
containing one statement used twice, would not qualify as an argument at
If an argument is defined as having a minimum of two premises, then the
inferences of formal logic would not count as
arguments. And if
a fallacy is defined as a form of deceptive reasoning then some instances
of begging the question would be fallacies to some persons but not to others,
depending upon who is deceived.
Finally, if a fallacy is defined merely as a violation of a rule of reasoning
and argumentation, then validity alone would not be a sufficient condition
for a good argument because instances of begging the question are valid
- The Cartesian Cogito Proof: Descartes reasons that since he is
thinking, he exists as a thinking being. Yet,the reason that Descartes uses
to prove his existence cannot include the fact of his existence. But since
Descartes' thinking seems to presuppose that Descartes exists, the argument
already presupposes his existence in the premise. Circularity here also has to
do with thinking is only reliable if there is a God. These are a few of the
points being disputed about his arguments in Discourse on Method
and in Meditations.
- Current applications of the importance of circular arguments involve
the linking of ad verecunidam, ad hominem, and petitio
principii in multi-agent systems of reasoning for trustworthy sources
in artificial intelligence.
Test your understanding of petitio principii, begging the question, and
circular reasoning with the following quizzes:
Petitio Principii Examples Exercise
Fallacies of Presumption Examples Quiz I
Fallacies of Presumption Examples Quiz II
Fallacies of Presumption Examples Quiz III
Very few actual arguments show their circular character clearly on
their face; as a rule the critic has to dig it out from the surrounding
verbiage, with opportunities of discovering meanings that were never
Alfred Sidgwick, Elementary Logic,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 147.
“‘Humorous’ is a word as question-begging as
‘artistic,’ and he would be a rash man who should try
to define either.” [Stephen Lucius Gwynn, Irish Books
and Irish People (Lytton: Australia: Talbot Press, 1919),
See “Usage Notes; Beg the Question,”
(accessed 27 Mar. 2017).
In ordinary language use, circularity and question-begging
are names for the same fallacy; nevertheless, many logicians
define them differently. In general, petitio principii
or circularity is a formal argument where the conclusion is
either equivalent to the premise or to one of the premises, or
whose presence is necessary to the premise or necessary to prove
one of the premises. In question begging, the premise and conclusion
are logically equivalent or the premise implies the conclusion
as a immediate inference. Superfluous premises might be present
in either case. Thus, although instances of petitio principii
(circularity) are distinguishable from instances of begging the
question, on these definitions, some instances can be appropriately
described as either mode of argument. But, then again, this
distinction is not generally agreed upon in the current
literature. See, for example, Douglas Walton, “Editor's
Introduction,”Argumentation 8 no. 3 ( August
1994), 215-216. doi:10.1007/bf0071118810.1.1.87.3853↩
24 Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of
the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (1915;
repr., Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc,
25. Durkheim, 223.↩
26. Durkheim, 94.↩
32. E.g., J. N. Keynes, Formal Logic, 4th ed.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press), 426. As reported in J. D.
Mabbott, “Two Notes on Syllogism,“ Mind,
New Series, 48 no. 191 (July, 1939), 328.↩
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin dit Moliére, Le Malade
Imaginaire (Act III, Interlude III) in Oeuvres,
Vol. 6 (Paris: P. Didot, 1794), 505.
Opium facit dormire.
A quoi respondeo,
Quia est in eo
Cujus est natura
Although this example is sometimes cited as a tautological
explanation, [William Stanley Jevons, Elementary Lesson in
Logic (London: Macmillan and Co., 1870), 270]
the argumentative petitio principii was interpreted by
Charles Peirce to display a pragmatic difference between terms
as a difference of “subjectal abstraction” (constructing a
subject out of a predicate). [Charles Sanders Peirce, The
New Elements of Mathematics, v. III/2 Mathematical
Miscellanea, ed. Carolyn Eisele (The Hague: Mouton Publishers,
And some philosophers of science see in examples like Moliére's
an inference to the nature of something from its effects (which might,
or might not, be vacuous) and so oppose the thesis of the “causal
inefficacy of dispositions.” But, on the account taken here,
a dispositional property is considered necessarily connected to its
causal relation, and so the Doctor's expressed logical or grammatical
relation does not prove or explain anything. The concept of a power is
necessarily contained in the concept of an effect.
See also Stephen P. Turner and Paul A. Roth, The Blackwell
Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (London: John Wiley
& Sons, 2008), 23.
Also, relevant in examples such as these is the contrast between an
and an explanation.
Readings: Petitio Principii
Barker, John A. “The Fallacy of Begging the Question,”
Dialogue 15 no. 2 (Jun. 1976), 241-255.
Biro, J.I. “Knowability, Believability and Begging the Question:
A Reply to Sanford,” Metaphilosopphy 15 no. 3//4 (
Jul./Oct. 1984), 239-247. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1984.tb00658.x
Biro, J.I. “Rescuing ‘Begging the Question,’”
Metaphilosophy 8 no. 4 (Oct. 1977) 257-271.
Biro, J.I. and H. Siegel. “Normativity, Argumentation, and
Fallacies” in F. H. van Eemeren et al. eds. vol. 1 Argumentation
Illuminated (Amsterdam: SicSat, 1992), 85-103.
Blair, A. and R. Johnson. “Argumentation as Dialectical,”
Argumentation 1 (Mar. 1987) 41-56. doi:10.1007/BF00127118
Botting, David. “Can ‘Big’ Questions Be
Begged?,” Argumentation 25 no. 1 (Mar. 2011) 23-36.
doi:10.1007/s10503-010-9196-1 (expiry-link available from
Brown, Harold I. “Circular Justifications, ”
PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy
of Science Association no. 1 (1994), 406-414.
Brown, Jessica. “Non-Inferential Justification and Epistemic Circularity,”
Analysis 64 no. 4 ( 2004), 339-348.
Davies, Martin. “The Problem of Armchair Knowledge,” in
New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge,
ed. S. Nuccetelli (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 23-55.
Gratton, Claude. “Circular Definitions, Circular Explanations, and Infinite Regresses,”
Argumentation 8 no. 3 (Aug. 1994), 295-308.
doi:10.1007/BF00711196 (accessed 15 Apr. 2017).
Goldstick, D. “Circular Reasoning,” International
Studies in Philosophy 35 no. 4 (2003), 129-130.
doi:10.5840/intstudphil20033548 (1st pg.)
Hahn, Ulrike. “Circular Arguments, Begging the
Question and the Formalization of Argument Strength,” in
Proceedings of AMKLC'05, International Symposium on Adaptive
Models of Knowledge, Language and Cognition, eds. A. Russell et al.
(Espoo, Finland: Helsinki University of Technology, 2005), 34-40.
Hahn, Ulrike. “Problem of Circularity in Evidence, Argument,
and Explanation,” Perspectives on Psychological Science
vol. 6 no. 2 (Mar. 2011), 172-182. doi:10.1177/1745691611400240
Hazlett, Alan. “Epistemic Conceptions of Begging the Question”
Erkenntnis 65 no. 3 (Nov. 2006), 343-363.
Hintikkla, J. “The Fallacy of Fallacies,” Argumentation
1 no. 3 (Sept. 1987), 211-238. doi:10.1007/BF00136775
Hoffman, Robert. “On
Begging the Question at Any Time,”
Analysis 32 no. 2 (Dec. 1971), 51. doi:10.1093/analys/32.2.51
Iacona, Andrea, and Diego Marconi. “Petitio Principii: What's
Wrong?"” Facta Philosophica 7 no. 1 (2005), 29-34.
doi:10.3726/93519_19 (expiry-link available
from Google Scholar).
Jacquette, Dale. “Logical Dimensions of Question-Begging
Argument,” American Philosophical Quarterly
30 no. 4 (Oct. 1998). 317-327.
Johnson, Oliver A. “Begging the Question,”
Dialogue 6 no. 2 (Sept. 1967), 135 -50.
Lammenranta, Markus. “Epistemic
Circularity,” Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (accessed 14 Apr. 2017).
Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper. ”Are
Question-Begging Argument Necessarily Unreasonable?,”
Philosophical Studies 104 no. 2 (Jan. 2001), 123-141.
Mackenzie, J.D. “Begging the Question in Dialogue,”
Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 no. 2 (Jun. 1984),
Mackenzie, J.D. “Question-Begging in Non-Cumulative Systems,”
Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 no. 1 (Feb. 1979), 117-133.
DOI:10.1007/BF00258422 (expiry-link available
from Google Scholar).
Mckeon, Matthew William. “Inference, Circularity, and Begging
the Question,“ Informal Logic 35 no. 3 (Sept. 2015),
Mckeon, Matthew William. “Statements
of Inference and Begging the Question,“ Synthese
192 no 12 (Jan. 2016), 1-25. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1028-x
Moser, Paul K. “Skepticism Question Begging, and Burden
Shifting” Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress
of Philosophy: Epistemology vol. 5 (2000), 2009-217.
Palmer, Humphrey. “ Do Circular Arguments Beg the Question,”
Philosophy 56 no. 217(Jul. 1981), 387-394. doi:10.1017/S0031819100050348.
Perelman, Chaim. The New Rhetoric in Pragmatics
of Natural Languages, ed. Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (Dordrecht-Holland:
D. Reidel Publishing Co.), 145-149. doi:10.1007/978-94-010-1713-8_8
Rips, Lance J. “Circular Reasoning,” Cognitive
Science 26 no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2002), 767-795. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2606_3
Robinson, Richard. “Begging the Question,” Analysis
31 no. 4 (Mar. 1971), 113-117. doi:10.2307/3327332
Robinson, Richard. “Begging the Question,”
Analysis 41 no. 2 (Apr. 1981), 65.
Ritola, Juho. “Begging
the Question: A Case Study,” Argumentation
17 no. 1 (Mar. 2003), 1-19. doi:10.1023/A:1022908405402
Ritola, Juho. “Two Accounts of Begging the Question,”
OSSA Conference Archive (Jun. 2009).
Ritola, Juho. “Wilson
on Circular Arguments,” Argumentation
15 no. 3 (Aug. 2001), 295-312. doi:10.1023/A:1011199431056
Ritola, Juho. “Yet
Another Run Around the Circle,” Argumentations 2
no. 2 (Oct. 2006), 237-244. doi:10.1007/s10503-006-9011-1
Rochefort-Maranda, G. “Begging
the Question: A Reason to Worry about Theory-Dependence,” Academia.edu
(accessed 14 April 2017).
Sanford, David H. “Begging the Question,”
Analysis 32 no. 6 (Jun. 1972), 197-199.
Sanford, David H. “Begging the Question as Involving Actual Belief
and Inconceivable Without It,” Metaphilosophy 19 no. 1
(Jan. 1988), 32-37. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1988.tb00699.x
Sanford, David H. “Superfluous Information Epistemic Conditions
of Inference, and Begging the Question,” Metaphilosophy
12 no. 2 (Apr. 1981), 145-158. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1981.tb00034.x
Sidgwick, Alfred. The
Application of Logic (Macmillan and Co., 1910), 201-219.
Smith, Michael P. “Virtuous Circles,” The Southern
Journal of Philosophy 25 no.2 (Jun. 1987), 207-222.
Sorenson, R.A. “Unbegging Questions,” Analysis
56 no. 1 (1996) 51-55. doi:10.1111/j.0003-2638.1996.00051.x
Sorenson, R. A. “‘P, Therefore P’ Without Circularity,”
Journal of Philosophy 88 no. 5 (May 1991) 245-266.
Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter. “Begging the Question,”
Australian Journal of Philosophy 77 no. 2 (Jun. 1999),
Suber, Peter. “Question-Begging Under a Non-Foundational Model of Argument,” Argumentation 8 no. 3 (Aug. 1994), 241-250. doi:10.1007/BF00711191
Teng, Norman Yujen. “Sorensen on Begging the Question“ Analysis 57 no. 3 (Jul. 1997), 220-222. doi:10.1111/1467-8284.00079
Tindale, Christopher W. “Fallacies, Blunders, and Dialogue
Shifts; Walton's Contributions to the Fallacy Debate,”
Argumentation 11 no. 3 (Aug. 1997), 341-354. doi:10.1023/A:1007706724732
Truncellito, D.A. “Running in Circles about Begging the
Question,” Argumentation 18 no. 3 (Sept. 2004), 324-329.
van Laar, J. A. and M. Godden. ”The Pragma-Dialectical Approach to Circularity in
Argumentation,” in Keeping in Touch with Pragma-Dialectics,
eds. E. Feteris, B. Garssen, and F. Snoeck Henkemans (Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins Publishers, 2011), 265-280.
Walton, Douglas. ”Are Circular Arguments Necessarily Vicious?,” American Philosophical Quarterly 22 no. 4 (Oct. 1985), 263-274.
Walton, Douglas N. “Begging the Question As a Pragmatic Fallacy,”
Synthese 100 no. 1 (Feb. 1994), 95-131. doi:10.1007/BF01063922
Walton, Douglas. Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a
Tactic of Argumentation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991).
Walton, Douglas. “Begging the Question in Arguments Based on Testimony,” Argumentation 19 no. 1 (Mar. 2005), 85-113. doi:10.1007/s10503-004-2071-1
Walton, Douglas. “Circular Reasoning,” A Companion to Epistemology eds. Johathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 277.
Douglas Walton, “Editor's Introduction,”
Argumentation 8 no. 3 ( August 1994), 215-216.
Walton, Douglas. ”Epistemic and Dialectical Models of Begging the Question,” Synthese 152 no. 2 (Oct. 2006), 237-284.
Walton, Douglas. “Hamlin on the Standard Treatment of
Fallacies,” Philosophy & Rhetoric
24 no. 4 (1991), 353-361.
Walton, Douglas. “Petitio Principii and Argument Analysis,” Informal Logic:
The First International Symposium eds. J. Anthony Blair and Ralph
H. Johnson (Inverness, California: Edgepress, 1980), 41-51.
Williams, M.E.“Begging the Question?,” Dialogue
6 no. 4 (Mar. 1968), 567-570. doi:10.1017/S001221730003417X
Wilson, Kent. “Circular Arguments,” Metaphilosophy
19 no. 1 (Jan. 1988), 38-52. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1988.tb00700.x
Womack, Anne-Marie. “From
Logic to Rhetoric: A Contextualized Pedagogy for Fallacies,”
Composition Forum 32 (Fall 2015).
Woods, John. “Begging
the Question is Not a Fallacy.”
Woods, John. “The Concept of Fallacy is Empty” in
Model-Based Reasoning in Science Technology, and Medicine,
ed. Magnani-Li (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 69-90. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-71986-1_3
Woods, John. “Pragma-dialectics A Radical Departure in Fallacy
Theory,” Communication and Cognition 24 no. 1 (1991), 43-54.
Woods, John and D. Walton. “Arresting Circles in Formal
Dialogues,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 7 no. 1
(Jan. 1978), 73-90. doi:10.1007/BF00245921
Woods, John and Douglas Walton. “Petitio Principii,”
Synthese 31 no. 1(Jun. 1997), 107-127. doi:10.1007/BF00869473
Woods, J. and D. Walton. “Arresting Circles in Formal Dialogues,” Journal of Philosophical
Logic 7 no. 1 (Jan, 1978), 73-90. doi:10.1007/BF00245921
Wright, Crispin. “Cogency and Question-Begging: Some Reflections
on McKinsey's Paradox and Putnam's Proof,” Philosophical
Issues 10 no. 1 (Oct, 2000), 140-163. doi:10.1111/j.1758-2237.2000.tb00018.x