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Statements of inference and begging the question


I advance a pragmatic account of begging the question according to which a use of an argument begs the question just in case it is used as a statement of inference and it fails to state an inference the arguer or an addressee can perform given what they explicitly believe. Accordingly, what begs questions are uses of arguments as statements of inference, and the root cause of begging the question is an argument’s failure to state an inference performable by the reasoners the arguer targets. In these ways, my account is distinguished from other pragmatic accounts (e.g., Walton, Synthese 152:237–284, 2006; Hazlett, Erkenntnis, 65:343–363, 2006; Truncellito, Argumentation, 18:325–329, 2004 and Wilson, Metaphilosophy, 19:38–52 1988). By taking the defect of a question-begging use of an argument to be its failure to state its purported inference, my account highlights in a unique way why question-begging is not an epistemic defect, and why it is not a fallacy, understood as a mistake in reasoning. These points have been made elsewhere (e.g., Hazlett, Erkenntnis, 65:343–363, 2006; Woods, Dialogues, logics and other strange things: essays in honour of Shahid Rahman, 523–544, 2008), but I believe that their plausibility is enhanced by considering begging the question as nullifying the role of an argument as a statement of inference. Since question-begging uses of arguments fail to state their purported inferences, using an argument in a question-begging-way is not a ratiocinative mistake. This undermines accounts of begging the question that adopt an epistemic approach (e.g., Biro, Metaphilosophy, 8:257–271 1977; Sanford, Metaphilosophy, 12:145–158, 1981; Sinnott-Armstrong, Aus J Philos, 77:174–191, 1999).

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  1. In this paper, I take acceptance to entail belief: to accept that p is to believe that p with a certain degree certainty. Acceptance is more under the voluntary control of the believer than is belief and more directly tied to a particular practical action in a context (e.g., before climbing on a ladder, I accept that it is safely grounded; before judging that the conclusion of an argument is true, I accept the premises as good reasons for believing the conclusion).

  2. E.g., (Boghossian 2012 p. 4), “ S’s inferring from p to q is for S to judge q because S takes the (presumed) truth of p to provide support for q.” The challenges to a causal account of inference include spelling out the nature of the required causal relation between premise-beliefs and conclusion-belief of an inference in a way that resolves causal deviance problems and that reflects that inference is something we perform rather than something that happens to us. The development of an account of inference in response to these challenges is beyond the scope of this paper. Like Boghossian, I am focusing on inference as a relation between beliefs and as, “reasoning that is person-level, conscious and voluntary, not sub-personal, sub-conscious and automatic” (2013, pp. 2-3). To be sure, there is more to inference than causation: not every causal process through which, say, one of your beliefs causes a second is inference. I maintain that a necessary condition of inference is that an inferrer R’s acceptance that the premises are true is a cause of R’s acceptance that the conclusion is true. This is a consequence of my construal of R’s inference from p to q as R’s acceptance that the (presumed) truth of p supports q causing R to accept the conclusion. Following Boghossian, a full-blown account of inference requires explaining what it is to take the presumed truth of p to support q. Furthermore, I focus on the generative and confirmative aspects of inference according to which the inferrer accumulates beliefs and confirms beliefs held prior to the inference. Hence, my focus on inference is narrower than that of others such as Harman (1986) who views it as a mechanism for a “reasoned change in view”, in which you start off with some beliefs and then, after a process of reasoning, end up either adding new beliefs, or(-inclusive) subtracting old ones.

  3. I borrow the notion of an explicitly held belief from (Harman 1986, pp. 12–14), who uses it to underwrite his Clutter Avoidance Principle (CAP): One should not clutter one’s mind with trivialities. CAP, which counters the claim that one’s beliefs should be closed under logical consequence, presupposes that “beliefs are explicitly ‘represented’ in the mind in the sense that these representations play the important role in perception, thought, and reasoning that we think beliefs play” (p. 12). According to Harman, one believes something explicitly if one’s belief in that thing involves an explicit mental representation whose content is the content of that belief (p. 13). In this paper, I consider inference as a relation between beliefs where the inferrer explicitly believes the initial premises of the inference.

  4. Woods and Walton (1975, p. 110) point out that it may be necessary for an argument to represent the temporal order of premise-beliefs in order for it to accurately state a reasoner’s inference. For example, suppose that I learn that Paige is at home or she is at work without knowing her whereabouts. Upon arriving at home, I discover that she is not at home. I infer that she is at work. Suppose that we represent the inference as follows.

    • [1] Paige is at work or at home.

    • [2] Paige is not at home.

    • \(\therefore \)[3] Paige is at work.

    In order for [1] to represent the belief at work in the inference or must be read intensionally and not truth-functionally. But then [1] and [2] do not accurately represent the belief set that forms the basis of my inference. Belief that [2] commits me to the falsehood of the second disjunct of [1], while my belief that [1] commits me to being non-committal about the truth-value of the second disjunct. The argument misrepresents the inference unless it depicts the inference diachronically. On way to do this is to assign the appropriate temporal indicators to the premises, e.g., [1] I’ve known that Paige is at work or at home, [2] I now discover that Paige is not at home, so [3] Paige is at work. In what follows, I ignore this complication.

  5. I have derived (b)-(e) from other work on the nature of begging the question: (b) and (c) are inspired by Sanford (1981), (d) is inspired by Sinnott-Armstrong (1999), and (e) is inspired by Sanford (1981) and Black (1954). I won’t bother with exegesis since I claim neither that (b)–(e) accurately reflect what these theorists write nor that they would accept my use of what they write regarding what makes the use of an argument beg the question. Essentially what ties (a)–(e) together is that they are conditions according to which a target reasoner is unable to perform an inference from premise(s) to conclusion of an argument given what they believe at the time the argument is presented.

  6. It is Salmon’s work (e.g., 2007) that I have in mind in accounting for the potential informativeness of the argument. To elaborate, suppose that an individual R believes that Mark Twain lived in Hartford and is unaware that Sam Clemens is Mark Twain. The premise and conclusion express the exact same (singular) proposition, say, \(<\)a,H\(>\). The proposition, \(<\)a,H\(>\), is presented in two different ways. R believes the proposition \(<\)a,H\(>\) under one guise (e.g., expressed by ‘Mark Twain lived in Hartford’) but not under another guise (e.g., expressed by ‘Sam Clemens lived in Hartford’). Upon learning that Sam Clemens is Mark Twain, R realizes that ‘Same Clemens lived in Hartford’ is true. R thereby learns that the sentence ‘Sam Clemens lived in Hartford’ is one way \(<\)a,H\(>\), which she already believed, can be presented. Following Salmon, the way the subject takes a proposition in believing it is not part of the semantic content of the belief attribution. Since I don’t know whether Salmon shares my view of inference, I don’t know whether he would agree with my assessment that the argument can’t state an inference.

  7. See Boghossian (2000, pp. 229–230), who also holds that the disposition to reason in accordance with the modus-ponens rule and the belief that the rule is necessarily truth-preserving are distinct kinds of states.

  8. A less typical response to Robinson is to claim that an arguer who begs the question fails to advance an argument despite her intentions otherwise. For example, in response to Robinson Hoffman (1971, p. 51) remarks that, “begging the question is a kind of defective reasoning, though not a kind of defective argument. It is the error of taking oneself to be presenting an argument when one is merely asserting the truth of some proposition.”

  9. I take a pragmatic approach to explaining question-begging to essentially appeal to the failure of the use of an argument to realize its purpose. In general, a pragmatic account of question-begging says question-begging occurs when a use of the argument fails to realize its purpose. My account of question-begging is pragmatic because question-begging occurs when an argument is used for the purpose of stating an inference for the benefit of a target reasoner R and R cannot perform the inference at the time the argument is presented.

  10. As noted by Biro (1984, p. 240), Sanford believes that it is more helpful to think of the fallacy in terms of inferences rather than arguments understood solely in terms of their form and content. What is unclear is the exact role the notion of inference plays in Sanford’s account of begging the question. As I say above, it is not obvious that 2(i-iii) speaks to the evaluation of inference as opposed to the possibility of an argument representing a target reasoner’s inference. Sanford (1981, p. 148) gives an example of a question-begging use of an argument used, in the terminology of this paper, as an instrument of arguer justification where the arguer believes a premise only because he believes the conclusion and remarks that the argument is a sham because the arguer is not giving his reasons for believing the conclusion despite advertising otherwise (p. 149). Later on the same page he says that this is an example of a sham inference because “the statement designated as the conclusion is not inferred from the statements designated as premisses. There is no inference unless someone infers something, unless something is inferred.” This echoes Jackson’s analysis of many apparently circular arguments as instances of “misleading advertising” because they have argumentative implicatures that mislead the audience about the nature of the arguer’s evidence (Jackson 1987, p. 107). An arguer advancing Sanford’s sham argument advertises herself as having evidence of a certain kind for the conclusion, a kind for which she does not in fact have. Sanford’s and Jackson’s views here motivate my pragmatic view of the fallacy of begging the question as an issue of an argument failing to fulfill its alleged purpose as a statement of a target reasoner’s inference.

  11. Later, Lippert-Rasmussen remarks that question-begging arguments are defective because they fail the inferential-route desideratum, which requires that the inferential route from the premises to conclusion be non-fallacious. Whether the inferential route of an argument is non-fallacious or not depends on “whether (a) the addressee’s second-order beliefs about what makes it reasonable for him to believe, or disbelieve, the premises, and (b) the way in which his belief in the premises is actually grounded, cohere with the route (rationalized by the argument) between his pre-inferential and post-inferential beliefs” (p. 138). This suggests that a target reasoner performs a fallacious inference in response to the question-begging use of an argument, which I reject. It is misleading to regard arguments used in a question-begging way as capturing inferential routes relative to audiences of target reasoners since it falsely suggests that such arguments state inferences performable by the target reasoners.

  12. Here I follow Sinnott-Armstrong (1999) who maintains that it is uses of arguments and not arguments or arguers that should be described as question-begging. To elaborate, I take an argument to be an abstract object: an ordered pair of a set of propositions (the premise(s)) and a proposition (the conclusion). A particular use of an argument is a datable speech act (typically) of asserting the propositions in the argument and claiming that the premise(s) support or explain the conclusion. Arguments are used for many purposes such as justification, explanation, and refutation. The same argument can be used by the same person for different purposes on different occasions (even used for different purposes on a single occasion).

    Consequently, despite common language, it is a category mistake to ascribe a particular purpose to an argument in itself (that is, to an ordered set of propositions) or to an arguer (that is, to a person). A particular purpose can properly be ascribed only to a particular person’s use of a particular argument on a particular occasion. In short, what have purposes are uses of arguments (Sinnott-Armstrong 1999 p. 175).

    If the purpose of a particular use of an argument in a given situation is not realizable, then that use of the argument in that situation is defective. The purpose of using an argument as a statement of inference is to state a type of inference a token of which is performable by every target reasoner. Begging the question is the defect of using an argument to state an inference that is not performable by a target reasoner R. The rationale for construing begging the question as a defect of the use of an argument as opposed to the argument or arguer is that it is uses that have purposes (not arguments or arguers) and the defect of a question-begging use of an argument is that it fails to realize its purpose of stating a type of inference a token of which is performable by every target reasoner. Since I am giving a theoretical account of begging the question, I am not overly concerned about deviating from common language. I am open to the viability of a notion of an argument or an arguer begging the question in secondary senses as long as an argument or arguer begging the question is dependent on the use of the argument being question-begging.

  13. For why explanations should be treated as arguments see my (McKeon 2013). It is not obvious that propositional circularity impedes explanation. See (Walton 2006, pp. 258–259) for an example of a propositionally circular explanation that plausibly functions as an instrument of explanation. Exploratory arguments can be used to investigate a hypothesis (by seeing what reasons might be given to support a claim), or to understand what one is committed to in accepting some claim (by seeing what other claims it leads to or supports). For discussion, see Meiland (1989).

  14. There is criticism of making the assessment of whether a use of an argument begs the question turn on the determination of why target reasoners believe or reject an unsupported premise. For example, Wilson (Wilson 1988, p. 44) argues that it frequently makes the assessment of question-begging difficult, because it is hard to know why someone accepts or rejects an unsupported premise since there are many propositions that may serve as reasons for accepting or rejecting it. Also, Biro (1984, p. 245) claims that making it necessary to pin down the relevant beliefs of target reasoners introduces an extreme relativity into argument-assessment that makes it impossible to assess whether a use of an argument in a given situation absolutely begging the question. For example, consider a use of an argument in a situation according to which it begs the question relative to Smith who believes an unsupported premise because she believes the conclusion, but does not beg the question relative to Brown. Following Ritola (2001, pp. 305–307), my response to Wilson emphasizes that background knowledge of target reasoners’ beliefs and their beliefs externalized through the process of argumentation are at play in determining whether a use of an argument for their benefit begs the question. My initial response to Biro is that relative to an audience of target reasoners a use of an argument absolutely begs the question if the argument fails to state an inference that a target reasoner R can perform given what R explicitly believes at the time. A use of an argument can be question-begging even though for some target reasoners it justifies their acceptance of the conclusion. Recall that an argument used as a statement of inference inferentially misfires if for some target reasoner R it fails to state an inference that R can perform. Therefore, an argument can inferentially misfire and its use absolutely beg the question, because it fails to state an inference relative to a proper subset of the target reasoners. I don’t have the space to develop these responses.

  15. According to Parson’s (1996) account of begging the question, a question-begging argument is an argument with a premise or deployed inference rule that is at least as questionable to its addressees as the conclusion. Concerning the deployment of an inference rule at least as questionable as the conclusion, Robinson’s point motivates thinking that this makes the use of the argument beg the question only if the use of the inference rule presupposes or otherwise assumes the acceptability of the conclusion, as illustrated above in Sect. 3. This is reflected by (QB) according to which the use of a questionable inference rule gives rise to question-begging only if it causes the argument to inferentially misfire in way (e) (Sect. 3).

  16. Goldman (2003, p. 54). Following Goldman (note 2, p. 62), my use of “presuppose” is deliberately casual and not meant in any of the senses of the expression invoked by theorists of presupposition.

  17. It is worth pointing out that Goldman does not address the issue whether the above use of TR begs the question in his (2003); elsewhere (1999) he has argued that not all epistemically circular arguments are viciously circular.


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Special thanks to John Grey for discussion about issues discussed in this paper and for his comments on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank both of the anonymous referees. The input from all improved the paper.

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Correspondence to Matthew W. McKeon.

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McKeon, M.W. Statements of inference and begging the question. Synthese 194, 1919–1943 (2017).

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  • Inference
  • Argument
  • Statement of inference
  • Begging the question