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Circular Argument Definition Essay

The basic structure of all arguments involves three interdependent elements:

  1. Claim (also known as the conclusion)—What you are trying to prove. This is usually presented as your essay‘s thesis statement.
  2. Support (also known as the minor premise)—The evidence (facts, expert testimony, quotes, and statistics) you present to back up your claims.
  3. Warrant (also known as major premise)—Any assumption that is taken for granted and underlies your claim.

Consider the claim, support, and warrant for the following examples:

Example 1
Claim: The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) has led to an increase in high school student drop-out rates.
Support: Drop-out rates in the US have climbed by 20% since 2001.
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) it‘s a "bad" thing for students to drop out.
Example 2
Claim: ADHD has grown by epidemic proportions in the last 10 years
Support: In 1999, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD was 2.1 million; in 2009, the number was 3.5 million.
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) a diagnosis of ADHD is the same thing as the actual existence of ADHD; it also presupposes that ADHD is a disease.

Claims fall into three categories: claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy. All three types of claims occur in scholarly writing although claims of fact are probably the most common type you will encounter in research writing. Claims of fact are assertions about the existence (past, present, or future) of a particular condition or phenomenon:

Example: Japanese business owners are more inclined to use sustainable business practices than they were 20 years ago.

The above statement about Japan is one of fact; either the sustainable practices are getting more popular (fact) or they are not (fact). In contrast to claims of fact, those of value make a moral judgment about a phenomenon or condition:

Example: Unsustainable business practices are unethical.

Notice how the claim is now making a judgment call, asserting that there is greater value in the sustainable than in the unsustainable practices. Lastly, claims of policy are recommendations for actions—for things that should be done:

Example: Japanese carmakers should sign an agreement to reduce carbon emissions in manufacturing facilities by 50% by the year 2025.

The claim in this last example is that Japanese carmakers‘ current policy regarding carbon emissions needs to be changed.

For the most part, the claims you will be making in academic writing will be claims of fact. Therefore, examples presented below will highlight fallacies in this type of claim. For an argument to be effective, all three elements—claim, support, and warrant—must be logically connected.

Abstract: The varieties of petitio principii (begging the question or circular argument) are explained with illustrative examples and links to self-check quizzes.

Online Quizzes

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 intended.

Alfred Sidgwick, Elementary Logic, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 147.


7. Steven Nadler, The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013), 30.↩ Guy de Maupassant, “An Old Man,” in Selected Stories, trans. Roger Colet (Franklin Center, Pennsylvania: Franklin Library, 1983), 298-299.↩ 13. H. Schucman and W. Thetford, eds., Course in Miracles (Ancient Wisdom Publications, 2008), 86.↩ W. Stanley Jevons,Elementary Lessons in Logic, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 181.↩

24 Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (1915; repr., Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc, 2008), 70.↩

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.↩

Opium facit dormire.
A quoi respondeo,
Quia est in eo
Virtus dormitiva,
Cujus est natura
Sensus assoupire.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin dit Moliére, Le Malade Imaginaire (Act III, Interlude III) in Oeuvres, Vol. 6 (Paris: P. Didot, 1794), 505.

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, 1976), 917].

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 argument and an explanation.[33]

Readings: Petitio Principii

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