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Towards a Critique-Friendly Approach to the Straw Man Fallacy Evaluation


In this article I address the following question: When are reformulations in argumentative criticisms reasonable and when do they become fallacious straw men? Following ideas developed in the integrated version of pragma-dialectics, I approach argumentation as an element of agonistic exchanges permeated by arguers’ strategic manoeuvring aimed at effectively defeating the opponent with reasonable means. I propose two basic context-sensitive criteria for deciding on the reasonableness of reformulations: precision of the rules for interpretation (precise vs. loose) and general expectation of cooperativeness (critical vs. constructive). On the basis of analysis of examples taken from online political discussions, I argue that in some contexts, especially those that are critical and loose, what might easily be classified as a straw man following conventional treatment should be taken as a harsh, yet reasonable, strategic argumentative criticism.

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  1. Argumentation scholars do not provide a well-justified, authoritative etymology of the term “the straw man fallacy.” One obvious candidate, though, is that of the straw man used in military training whereby a real opponent (knight, soldier) of flesh and blood and steel is replaced by a straw figure that is to be knocked or shot down. Such a straw man is obviously an easier target than a real opponent.

  2. Hamblin’s famous dictum that the standard treatment falsely defines a fallacy as “an argument […] that seems to be valid but is not” (1970: 12) is partly unjustified. Indeed, the definition so phrased involves psychologism (inherent in the “seems”) and is limited exclusively to arguments assessed by the single criterion of formal logical validity. Yet, on a certain abstract level, this “standard” definition seems to correctly capture the gist of fallacies’ treacherousness: a fallacy is a parasitic argumentative move that is meant to stand for a good (sound, reasonable) move while it is not. See also Hansen (2002).

  3. In the argumentation literature, committing the straw man fallacy is commonly seen as (at least) a two-step process consisting of: 1) “setting up a straw man,” i.e. unjustifiably representing the opponent’s standpoint or arguments and 2) “attacking a straw man,” i.e., attacking the misrepresentation as if it were the actual standpoint or argument of the opponent. Therefore, expressions such as “setting up a straw man,” “attacking a straw man,” or even “strawmanning” are often used interchangeably to indicate the straw man fallacy.

  4. The analysis of arguers’ reproaches in terms of pointers to violations of argumentative norms has been conducted by Doury (2006).

  5. The notion of co-text is used in much of discourse analysis and is typically defined as “the immediate linguistic environment in which a unit of discourse of momentary interest to an interpreter (a word, phrase, utterance, set of utterances) occurs and is interpreted in a discourse sequence” (Janney 2002: 458). Van Eemeren (2010: 17), uses the term “micro-context” to refer to this linguistic dimension of context.

  6. The notion of rhetorical situation as the “context in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse” was introduced by Bitzer (1968). Van Eemeren (2010: 178–182) considers rhetorical situation as part of “argumentative situation” that constitutes the “meso-context” for argumentative discourse.

  7. See The link to the White House’s website originally provided by jgg1000a in turn 1 is no longer active.

  8. For an earlier formulation of this approach, see van Eemeren and Grootendorst: “Which requirements should an adequate theory of fallacies, in our view, fulfill? First, it should provide norms for distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable moves in argumentative discourse. Second, it should provide criteria for deciding when such a norm is violated. Third, it must provide interpretation procedures for determining whether an utterance satisfies these criteria” (1992: 104).

  9. A similar account is given by Walton: “The failure to engage with the real position of your opponent in a type of dialogue like a political debate, in a way, defeats the whole purpose of your arguments. It is what Aristotle would classify as a failure of real refutation. From this perspective, the outcome is that your opponent’s (real) position has not been challenged at all by your argument. It is a kind of failure of an argument to succeed in its real purpose of refuting or critically questioning the opposed point of view” (1996: 121).

  10. In a pragma-dialectical analysis every argument supporting the (main) standpoint contested in the (main) dispute can become a “sub-standpoint” supported by further sub-arguments in a “sub-dispute”.

  11. In some cases, the straw man fallacy so defined may be similar to, or indeed overlap with, the fallacy in which the antagonist is magnifying a premise which is left unexpressed by the protagonist (violation of rule 5 for a critical discussion) and the fallacy of falsely presenting a premise as a common starting point (violation of rule 6 for a critical discussion) (see van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992: Ch. 13 and 14). Moreover, the straw man is clearly related to the violation of rule 10 which requires that arguers “interpret the other party’s formulations as carefully and accurately as possible” (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992: 196).

  12. All such linguistic cues, while “helpful to recognizing a straw man” (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992: 128), are conditional and relative to the original formulation. If simplifications, exaggerations, etc. occur, in the first place, in the original standpoint or arguments and are subsequently faithfully reflected in the antagonist’s critical reactions, no straw man fallacy is committed even if the critical reaction looks suspiciously similar to a straw man attack.

  13. It also clarifies the conceptual tangle that seems to obfuscate much of Walton and Macagno’s (2010) discussion of the relations between the straw man fallacy and what they call “the fallacy of wrenching from context” as well as “the fallacy of misquotation,” “the fallacy of selective quotation,” “the fallacy of neglect of qualifications (secundum quid),” “the fallacy of accent,” “the fallacy of bias,” “the fallacy of loaded terms,” “the fallacy of suggested inference” and so on (see also Walton 1996, for another list of straw man related fallacies). All these “fallacies” are rather names of various forms of, broadly speaking, misrepresentation that indeed can play various argumentative functions (to more easily refute opponents’ views, to better support one’s own view, to more easily attack or support a third party). Without specifying the function, we can hardly tell which fallacy we are dealing with in the case of each such misrepresentation: it can be (material for) a straw man, but also, perhaps, ad verecundiam, ad hominem, conciliatio (in the meaning proposed by van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2002: 141), and so on.

  14. Not coincidentally, Plato’s famous “critique of writing” (Phaedrus, Letter VII) is based on acknowledging the force of this very problem: writing detaches the arguer from his arguments, therefore the arguments are vulnerable to unjustified attacks, which—if at all—can be rebutted or corrected by the absent arguer only belatedly. Plato saw this as a great disadvantage of written argumentation over the lively exchanges of spoken argumentative dialogues such as those practised by Socrates.

  15. For the sake of completeness, I should also mention the last necessary condition for identifying the straw man, that is, the willingness to examine argumentative discourse. Reaching conclusions similar to Jackson’s (1995), Bizer, Kozak and Holterman claim in their recent experimental study that “the straw man technique seems not to be universally effective. Rather, […] the straw man may only be effective among people who lack the motivation to carefully scrutinize a persuasive message […]” (2009: 224, 227). This condition is presupposed in the work of an argumentation analyst, and clearly fulfilled in many ordinary exchanges (such as discussions 1 and 2): it is certainly in the interest of the allegedly strawmanned arguers to point out and correct the abuse against them.

  16. A similar problem is pointed out by Walton: “Because of the various kinds of problems and trickiness in determining what an arguer’s position really is in a given case, it can be easy to get this wrong, and to mistake an arguer’s real position for something else that is not her real position, but only appears to be. This is the essence of the deception or error inherent in the straw man fallacy as a distinctive type of sophistical tactic” (1996: 125).

  17. Bart Garssen suggested that this type of argumentative sub-discussion may be termed an “intersubjective interpretation procedure”.

  18. Therefore, I disagree with van Laar (2008: 204–207) who, by contrast, considers the opinion of the original arguer decisive.

  19. Further steps such as the protagonist’s accepting or objecting to the antagonist’s representation of the standpoint or argument, the antagonist justifying his reformulation or backing down from it, etc. are possible. Discussions 1 and 2 are both examples of such extended episodes.

  20. Among others, Levinson (1992/1979) proposed the concept of activity types in order to account for the regularities in getting at the meaning of utterances in certain recurring types of contexts.

  21. The principle of charity was first used in the philosophy of language, most famously by Quine and Davidson. Its main role was to provide a basis for a general semantic theory, in particular, to explain how an interpreter of a language can in principle understand native language users. In Davidson’s account, the principle of charity amounts to “assigning truth conditions to alien sentences that make native speakers right as often as plausibly possible,” which makes it a “methodological device to interpret in a way that optimizes agreement” (Davidson 1973: 324). Without the necessary background of the principle of charity, so Davidson’s argument goes, a coherent and meaningful interpretation of any language is impossible. In short, by applying the principle of charity so defined, a listener manages to make sense of an interlocutor’s discourse. On a rather different level, argumentation scholars avail themselves of the principle whenever a few interpretations equally make sense but some of them are preferable by virtue of making a stronger case in support of an arguer’s position. See Adler (1996) and Govier (1987) for a discussion regarding the application of the principle of charity in the study of argumentation.

  22. Similarly, Govier (1987) calls for a limited “principle of moderate charity” that would find application exclusively in case of scarcity of linguistic and contextual data, and would never go against such data.

  23. This difference can be elucidated with the help of the distinction between analytically relevant and evaluatively relevant moves (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 2004: Ch. 4). In the game of chess, every move in which the rules of the game are not followed is at the same time evaluatively irrelevant (because the rule is breached) and analytically irrelevant (because such a move does not belong to the game). In argumentation, a fallacious move violates a rule (and thus is evaluatively irrelevant), but still belongs to the argumentative exchange (therefore, it is analytically relevant).

  24. Adler, who analyses the philosophical underpinnings of the relations between interpretation of argumentation, fallacy attribution, and the principle of charity, convincingly argues in a similar fashion that: (1) there are no theoretical reasons against adopting an “alternative interpretation” of an arguer’s utterances that reveals a fallacy and that is comparably plausible (on the basis of what is said) to an interpretation that renders the argumentation valid (Adler 1994); and (2) in general, the application of the principle of charity (in a weaker Davidsonian sense) is not incompatible with attributing to an arguer an interpretation in which her argumentation is taken to be fallacious (Adler 1996). Plausibility of interpretation, thus, always implies a weaker notion of charity (the philosophers’ charity) as “a minimal condition for intelligibility” (Adler 1996: 336). It does not, however, imply a stronger version of charity (the argumentation theorists’ charity) as the choice of the argumentatively strongest interpretation.

  25. It is surprising, in this context, that Govier defines her principle of “moderate charity” by referring to plausibility: “When other indicators (context, logical pattern, professed intention, indicator words) count equally in favor of several distinct interpretations, we adopt that one which generates the most plausible argument” (1987: 148).

  26. Deliberately providing an advantage to a rival is conventionally seen as a clear display of strength and confidence, and has traditionally been part of codes of chivalry, e.g. in medieval duels between knights.

  27. On a basic level of communication, where mutual understanding rather than full agreement is at stake, Gricean maxims of cooperative communication, Davidson’s principle of charity of interpretation, and Pomerantz’s preference for agreement apply to all types of activity, including contentious ones.

  28. Following Habermas’s (1989/1962) classic account of political discourse in informal venues of the public sphere such as the eighteenth century salons and coffee houses, political theorists increasingly stress the importance of studying “everyday political talk” among ordinary citizens, including Internet users (see Mansbridge 1999; Wright forth.).


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Parts of earlier versions of the paper were presented at the International Conference “Logic, Argumentation and Critical Thinking”, University Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile, 8–11 January 2008; Research Colloquium of the Department of Speech Communication, Argumentation Theory and Rhetoric, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 18 September 2009; and 10th Amsterdam-Lugano Colloquium on Argumentation Theory, University of Lugano, Switzerland, 27–28 November 2009. I would like to thank participants to these events, as well as Frans van Eemeren, Bart Garssen, Dima Mohammed, Steve Oswald, Andrea Rocci, João Sàágua, Francisca Snoeck Henkemans and two anonymous referees for Argumentation for their numerous comments, criticisms and suggestions. Completion of the paper was possible thanks to two grants of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT): PTDC/FIL–FIL/10117/2009 and SFRH/BPD/74541/2010.

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Lewiński, M. Towards a Critique-Friendly Approach to the Straw Man Fallacy Evaluation. Argumentation 25, 469–497 (2011).

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  • Argumentation
  • Fallacies
  • Online deliberation
  • Pragma-dialectics
  • Strategic manoeuvring
  • The straw man fallacy