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"Mr. and Mrs. Geo. S. Knight's Comedy Co.," P & P Online, Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-403Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic 
Ignoratio Elenchi


Abstract:  Ignoratio Elenchi is the fallacy involving an irrelevant conclusion and is discussed here as a "catch-all" category for fallacies not identifiable as any of the other fallacies of relevance. A narrower but more traditional form is the red herring fallacy.


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I.  Ignoratio Elenchi (irrelevant conclusion): the fallacy of proving a conclusion not pertinent and quite different from that which was intended or required. 

  1. The ignoratio elenchi is usually considered slightly narrower in focus than the non sequitur. Strictly speaking, any time a conclusion does not follow from its premisses, the non sequitur fallacy occurs. Other similar fallacies include diversion, red herring, subject changing, and ignoring the issue.  In law, such a response given to a question can be called "nonresponsive." 

  2. Ignoratio elenchi is a name used for arguments whose premisses have no direct relation on the claim at issue. In this sense of the term, almost any fallacy could be considered an instance of ignoratio elenchi.
  3. In general, the ignoratio elenchi occurs when an argument purporting to establish a specific conclusion is directed, instead, to proving a different conclusion. This version is often termed the red herring fallacy—an irrelevant subject is interjected into the conversation to divert attention away from the main issue.
  4. At least, this seems to be the way Aristotle, to some extent, described the fallacy. He writes, "Those that depend upon whether something is said in a certain respect only or said absolutely, are clear cases of ignoratio elenchi because the affirmation and the denial are not concerned with the same point. Those that depend upon the assumption of the original point and upon stating as the cause what is not the cause, are clearly shown to be cases of ignoratio elenchi through the definition thereof.." (Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations  (Kessinger Publishing, 2004) 11.) Literally, ignoratio elenchi is "ignorance of the nature of how something is refuted." 

    More recently, ignoratio elenchi is described less broadly as an argument, whether valid or invalid, not relevant to or a digression from the point at issue. Douglas Walton points out, "It may not come as such a big surprise to find subsequently that the treatment of the ignoratio elenchi fallacy in the twentieth-century logic textbooks can be described as a conceptual disarray, mixing several fallacies together in ways that makes it hard to separate them.  (Douglas N. Walton, Relevance in Argumentation (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) 44.)

II. Ignoratio elenchi will be used in a special sense in these notes as a "catch-all" classification for fallacies of irrelevance which do not clearly fit into the other fallacies outlined here. As such, few examples of this fallacy are provided in these notes and in the exercises and tests.

  1. The ignoratio elenchi is most effective in political contexts where oral arguments are being given. Many listeners in such a context are easily distracted.

  2. Often this fallacy can be effective as a persuasive technique when coupled with the ad populum fallacy. The emotional situation in crowd can often be distracting and sometimes leads to overlooking the logical import of what is said.

III. The key in evaluating argument is determining whether or not the appeal used in the argument is relevant to the conclusion or not. Relevance is established by either logical or evidential connection.

  1. One quick way to establish relevance is to ask yourself if the premisses were false, would that fact imply that the conclusion is false also?  It it would not, then the premisses can be considered irrelevant to the conclusion.

  2. Consider the following example:

    "The 52 former hostages are seen as national heroes. I consider them survivors. A hero is one who is admired for his achievements and qualities. Therefore, the true heroes are those servicemen who volunteered for the failed rescue mission." 

    Irene Coyne, "Letters" Time (Vol 117, No. 7), 4.

    1. Ms. Coyne is arguing that the servicemen who failed to rescue the hostages are heroes for the reason that heroes are admired for their achievements and qualities. For this premiss to be relevant to the conclusion, we must assume that the servicemen who failed are admired for their achievements and qualities. If this assumption were to be supported by further reasons, the ignoratio elenchi need not have occurred.

    2. In other words, in order to determine relevance, we would ask Ms. Coyne, "Would those servicemen be true heroes if they had not volunteered, and if they would have rescued the hostages?"  Doubtless, she would agree that they still would be considered heroes; hence, the fallacy of  ignoratio elenchi occurs.  (Note how this ignoratio elenchi is coupled with ad populum consideration.)

  3. Is the following example the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi?

    "We request your help in compiling a book which recalls memories from our parents' first 50 years of marriage. On the enclosed sheet, we ask that you write one memory or event that you have shared with them, and return it to us by April 25. We believe that loving memories they have shared with you, their friends, would be the most treasured gift they could receive; therefore, we request that no other gift be sent."

    "Dear Abby," The Index Journal (02.02.80), 14.

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