Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Logical Fallacies: "Begging the Question"

I am presenting the logical fallacy called "Begging the Question" today, because the name is awkward and counterintuitive, and because I recently encountered examples of this fallacy being employed.

In an earlier post, I introduced logical fallacies, and said that I would be discussing others in this blog. A logical fallacy is an argument, presented in an attempt to convince someone of a position on some issue, that inherently relies on false reasoning. I previously gave examples, such as "ad Hominem", "Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc", etc. Aristotle classified many logical fallacies by type, and in the centuries since, philosophers, rhetoricians, computer scientists, scientists, mathematicians, and logicians have made great advances in the study of logic and further identified and categorized types of logical fallacies.

Identifying logical fallacies can sometimes be difficult because of the emotions attached to the issues at stake, sometimes because the person using them has authority or is subtle, and most of all because many arguments are composed of more than one fallacy at a time.

The utility of compiling a catalogue of logical fallacies is that having them at hand mentally enables one to identify dishonest arguments employed by others, and it is quicker than copying down a statement, translating it into symbols, then applying modern symbolic logic to check for the truth or falsity of the argument. That can be done, and is a wonderful skill to have...but it is slow, and in a public debate or a discussion with friends or classmates, it is not practicable. For analyzing a political speech the next day, symbolic logic is perfect, and will focus attention on the exact points of error. One can, however, respond immediately to a claim with counters such as "that's an ad Hominem!" or "you are Begging the Question." Being caught in a logical fallacy can cost one credibility in a debate.

"Begging the Question" sounds like it means that an unanswered question should be asked, but it does not. After all, "to beg" means to ask for something from a position of desperation, or to request something from a person in authority. "Doctor, I have no money, but I beg you--save my child!" In court, it means to request an action or forbearance from a judge: "Your Honor, the Plaintiff begs the Court's indulgence while I locate the exact passage in the document in exhibit." It is also used in very polite society: "I beg your pardon".

The phrase "begging the question" was introduced in a 16th-Century English translation of a Latin translation of Aristotle; the phrase in Latin was "petitio principii", which might also be translated as "petitioning the premise" or "requesting the beginning". It means that the argument begins as assuming as agreed-upon a point that needs to be proved:

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest women.
  2. Men prefer to be with the prettiest women.
  3. Therefore, blondes have more fun!

The first line begs the question. (Perhaps the second line, too?)

Here's another example:

  1. In 1947, a flying saucer crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.
  2. The Air Force collected debris and took it away.
  3. Therefore, the government possesses secret alien technology.

This is Begging the Question. Need I explain? :-)

Here's another example, not in syllogistic format: "Malicious ghosts are very bad, because they can move things around in your house and they have harmful intentions." This begs the question of the existence of ghosts; it also begs the question of whether ghosts could affect the material world if they were to exist; it also begs the question of whether there can be intent, good or bad, after death; also whether the dead would even have an interest in things post mortem.

A related logical fallacy is called "Circular Reasoning". An argument is circular when the conclusion is one of the premises, even if the wording has been changed: "The government hides the truth about UFOs from the people. That they deny having alien artifacts shows they are hiding something." [This is primarily Circular Reasoning, but it also begs some questions.]

  1. Scientists deny whatever doesn't fit in their world-view.
  2. Many people say they have encountered Sasquatch.
  3. Scientists deny Sasquatch because it doesn't fit their theories.

The conclusion is really a re-wording of line 1, rather than a conclusion that follows from lines one and two, making it an example of Circular Reasoning. (Of course, it is also an example of Begging the Question.)

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest.
  2. Many men like skinny blondes,
  3. because skinny blondes are the prettiest.
 What is this last one?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Nightingale (Rossignol, Usignolo, Ruiseñor, Rouxinol, die Nachtigall)

To hear the bird whose song is reference in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", listen to THIS RECORDING. (From about 6 to 10 seconds you'll hear the "Jug jug jug jug jug jug" that Eliot presents as its song at line 204 and the "Jug Jug" at line 103, and you'll also hear the "twit twit twit" from line 203 throughout the recording.)

OK, HERE is another recording. So beautiful, tereu, tereu....

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smetana: The Moldau

For those in my class unfamiliar with his music, I would like to introduce a composition by the great Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884). The composition is Vltava (The Moldau), from a set of six "symphonic poems" called Ma Vlast (My Homeland). When we get to "The Dry Salvages", the third of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, I will probably allude to this composition as an example of both "program music" and a "tone poem". I see it as a good metaphor by which to approach to a feeling for the poem.

The music is descriptive of the main river of the Czech Republic, the Vltava (which you might know by the German name of that river, "Die Moldau").

The music begins with a depiction of the sound of water dripping from melting snow and ice in the mountains, becoming a tiny stream, and eventually the great river flowing through the grand and beautiful city of Prague. It flows through the city, past dancers at a farmer's wedding, past old castles, over rocks becoming whitewater; eventually it flows into the distance where it joins the river Elbe, which flows to the sea.

Please listen to one or more of these recordings:
City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (with photos of Prague and the Moldau)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 
Karel Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Monday, May 23, 2011

Logical Fallacy: No True Scotsman

I will be presenting types of logical fallacy now and then. Tonight's is called the "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy.

In Classical Greece, philosophers and rhetoricians classified dishonest or erroneous arguments by identified types. Many are known nowadays by their Latin names, such as "ad Hominem", "Argumentum ad Ignorantiam" (Argument from Ignorance), "Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc", etc.

This process of identifying and codifying logical fallacies enables people to recognize when an opponent in a debate, or a public speaker, a writer, an acquaintance, etc., uses a dishonest or erroneous argument in attempt to convince from a weak or failed position.

These false arguments are known as "logical fallacies". The word "logical" means "having to do with logic" or "constructed according to logic". The word "logic" implies a rigorous application of rational thought, following the formal structures of rational thought. A "fallacy" is a false or erroneous claim. "The moon is made of green cheese" is a fallacious statement--it is a statement of fact that is untrue. A logical fallacy is a fallacy that is not false (or not only false) because there is a factual incorrectness, but that is false because the reasoning behind it is false. "Jim's uncle Joe went to prison, so Jim would not be a good mayor" is an example of the logical fallacy known as an "ad Hominem" argument.

The "No True Scotsman" fallacy is an attempt to dismiss a countering argument by claiming that by the fact of its presenting a countering example, the argument belongs to a different category. The example is this:

A Scot sees in the news that a violent criminal is loose in Brighton, in England. He sneers at it, saying that no Scot would do such things. Then the news moves on to an even worse criminal in Aberdeen, in Scotland. The Scot then dismisses the criminal in Aberdeen, by saying that "no true Scotsman would do that."

So here is an example:

  • "Americans love baseball!"
  • "Chris does not like baseball."
  • "Hmpff. Then Chris is not a true American."
It is an attractive false argument. Fundamentally, it is dishonest, but by form, the argument can only be false. The "No True Scotsman" argument is a logical fallacy.

Sudden Violent Contrasts...or Surprises...in the Arts and Humor

Here is a recording of Alice Sara Ott performing the first movement of the "Appassionata" piano sonata by Beethoven. It doesn't take long for the sudden changes to occur--at about 39 seconds into the video, and again at about 45 seconds and again at about 48 seconds. There is more, but Beethoven is already up to his dynamic tricks by those points in the recording. And don't miss the moment at 9 minutes, 5 seconds!

I'll talk more about this in a later post; for now, though, please listen, and note the sudden violent contrasts that Beethoven introduces at those points, and throughout this unimaginably great sonata.

[Alice Sara Ott is a young woman from Germany. Her father is German, her mother is Japanese. And, by the way, she speaks English wonderfully, too! I envy young people--you will be able to enjoy her presence in the music world for many, many years to come.]

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The word "farm" appeared in the late 14th Century. It meant a fixed payment or rent.

But the word is not of Anglo-Saxon origin, it is from Old French, "ferme", meaning to rent or lease; which, in turn, was from Medieval Latin, "firma", meaning a fixed payment.

By the 15th Century, the word had come to connote an area of leased land, but the modern usage of "cultivated land" wasn't used until the early 16th Century.

And, the word "farmer" was first used in English in a very different sense--it meant one who collects taxes or debts.

Monday, May 16, 2011


The word "Cockney" describes lower-class Londoners from a particular area of London, near the original town area, called the City of London.

The origins of the word are in the combining of "cock", a male bird, and "ey", an old form of the modern word "egg". "Cocken" (of or having to do with cocks) + "ey" [i.e, "cocken|ey"] first appears in written English in the 14th Century. Originally it meant a small, badly shaped egg. In time it came to mean a spoiled or effeminate boy, then it was used by country people to describe a city dweller, who were felt to be effeminate and unmanly by comparison. Eventually it came to mean a resident of London itself.

In the City of London is a historic church, called St. Mary-le-Bow. To be a real Cockney, a person must be born within earshot of Bow Bells, the colloquial name for the bells of the church tower. 
St. Mary-le-Bow

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Debussy: La Cathedral Engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
I have referred to this music by Claude Debussy many times in my class. If you are not familiar with it, please listen to this extraordinary composition. The name of the music in French is La Cathedral Engloutie. In English, the title is sometimes translated as The Sunken Cathedral or the Engulfed Cathedral.

This is a link to a recording of the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli playing La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) by Claude Debussy.

For contrast, here is a link to a performance by Walter Gieseking (1895-1956).

Another recording of this music to enjoy is by the French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962).

The music describes a great cathedral sunk below the surface of the ocean. When the sea is calm, one can hear the sound of the bells and the chanting from the ancient cathedral rising up from the deep.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Four Quartets: T.S. Eliot <==> L. van Beethoven

There is disagreement as to how much, or even whether or not, Eliot was influenced when writing the Four Quartets by a particular Beethoven string quartet. The quartet in question is the Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, linked to in Youtube below.

I am convinced. But listen for yourself, and see what you think. And, even if you don't see a connection or don't care, the music is beautiful. Many people feel that the late quartets were Beethoven's greatest work.

From Youtube:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Or if you prefer, an older recording:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Thursday, May 5, 2011

First Post: Literature for ESL!

This is a blog specifically for my "ESL" class at the International Center in New York.

In my class, we read literature to study English--on the assumption that we study English to read literature. :-)

DON'T BE AFRAID! If it seems hard at first, stay for a few classes; you will not be conscious of the process, but, much sooner than you expect, you'll have no trouble at all. [Perhaps some former or current students could chime in here?] The idea is not to be difficult, but to provide a richer English experience! You will learn along the way, and more quickly and more intensely than you expected. My hope is to make literature that you might not read on your own available and alive and pleasurable to you.

We mostly read poetry in the class, but in the past we have studied prose, as well. We have read entire books, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and the two Alice books by Lewis Carroll--Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; large pieces of books (about 280 pages of James Joyce's Ulysses); essays by Stephen Jay Gould from his collection Ever Since Darwin; and other prose works. I started in 1985, so although we grind exceeding slow, there is a large pile of words behind us!

Right now, on Monday and Tuesday evenings, we are reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. We are in Movement II of "East Coker", the second of the four "quartets" of Four Quartets. If you wish to read it online, here or here is the text of the Four Quartets. Feel free to save the International Center money on copies by printing out your own copy! The book can be purchased online or at any book store, and it is not expensive. It is not a hard-to-find book. Again, the author is T.S. Eliot. The title of the book is Four Quartets. Yes, I provide copies, but in years to come, you will treasure this book, and will be glad to have a copy of your own....

On Saturdays, we are reading Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. This is a delightful children's book. It is inexpensive and can be found at almost any book store. Barnes & Noble have their own edition, which is quite nice and is inexpensive and easy to find at any Barnes & Noble store. In the past, a few editions deleted the original Chapter VII, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", for being pagan; in that chapter, the characters Mole and Rat meet a figure from Greek mythology, the demigod Pan. DON'T EVER select such a bowdlerized edition. Always check if you see an old, used copy for sale somewhere or find it at the library. That chapter is one of the most beautiful things you'll ever read. It has brought a tear to my eye many a time. The full text is available for free online at Project Gutenberg. You can read it online on your computer in HTML here (the illustrations are lovely), or select which version you want to download if you have an e-reader such as the Kindle, the Nook, a "smart phone" such as an iPhone, etc., here. A Project Gutenberg version as straight text--i.e., without the illustrations--is available here.