Skip to content

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.

Notes

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

Barker, John A. “The Fallacy of Begging the Question,” Dialogue 15 no. 2 (Jun. 1976), 241-255. DOI: 10.1017/S0012217300022174

Biro, J.I. “Knowability, Believability and Begging the Question: A Reply to Sanford,” Metaphilosopphy 15 no. 3//4 ( Jul./Oct. 1984), 239-247. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.1984.tb00658.x

Biro, J.I. “Rescuing ‘Begging the Question,’” Metaphilosophy 8 no. 4 (Oct. 1977) 257-271. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.1977.tb00281.x

Biro, J.I. and H. Siegel. “Normativity, Argumentation, and Fallacies” in F. H. van Eemeren et al. eds. vol. 1 Argumentation Illuminated (Amsterdam: SicSat, 1992), 85-103.

Blair, A. and R. Johnson. “Argumentation as Dialectical,” Argumentation 1 (Mar. 1987) 41-56. DOI: 10.1007/BF00127118

Botting, David. “Can ‘Big’ Questions Be Begged?,” Argumentation 25 no. 1 (Mar. 2011) 23-36. DOI 10.1007/s10503-010-9196-1 (expiry-link available from Google Scholar).

Brown, Harold I. “Circular Justifications, ” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association no. 1 (1994), 406-414. DOI: 10.1086/psaprocbienmeetp.1994.1.193045

Brown, Jessica. “Non-Inferential Justification and Epistemic Circularity,” Analysis 64 no. 4 ( 2004), 339-348. DOI: 10.1111/j.0003-2638.2004.00507.x

Davies, Martin. “The Problem of Armchair Knowledge,” in New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge, ed. S. Nuccetelli (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 23-55.

Gratton, Claude. “Circular Definitions, Circular Explanations, and Infinite Regresses,” Argumentation 8 no. 3 (Aug. 1994), 295-308. DOI: 10.1007/BF00711196 (accessed 15 Apr. 2017).

Goldstick, D. “Circular Reasoning,” International Studies in Philosophy 35 no. 4 (2003), 129-130. DOI: 10.5840/intstudphil20033548 (1st pg.)

Hahn, Ulrike. “Circular Arguments, Begging the Question and the Formalization of Argument Strength,” in Proceedings of AMKLC'05, International Symposium on Adaptive Models of Knowledge, Language and Cognition, eds. A. Russell et al. (Espoo, Finland: Helsinki University of Technology, 2005), 34-40.

Hahn, Ulrike. “Problem of Circularity in Evidence, Argument, and Explanation,” Perspectives on Psychological Science vol. 6 no. 2 (Mar. 2011), 172-182. DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400240

Hazlett, Alan. “Epistemic Conceptions of Begging the Question” Erkenntnis 65 no. 3 (Nov. 2006), 343-363. DOI: 10.1007/s10670-006-9004-3

Hintikkla, J. “The Fallacy of Fallacies,” Argumentation 1 no. 3 (Sept. 1987), 211-238. DOI: 10.1007/BF00136775

Hoffman, Robert. “On Begging the Question at Any Time,” Analysis 32 no. 2 (Dec. 1971), 51. DOI: 10.1093/analys/32.2.51

Iacona, Andrea, and Diego Marconi. “Petitio Principii: What's Wrong?"” Facta Philosophica 7 no. 1 (2005), 29-34. DOI: 10.3726/93519_19 (expiry-link available from Google Scholar).

Jacquette, Dale. “Logical Dimensions of Question-Begging Argument,” American Philosophical Quarterly 30 no. 4 (Oct. 1998). 317-327.

Johnson, Oliver A. “Begging the Question,” Dialogue 6 no. 2 (Sept. 1967), 135 -50. DOI: 10.1017/S0012217300034430

Lammenranta, Markus. “Epistemic Circularity,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed 14 Apr. 2017).

Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper. ”Are Question-Begging Argument Necessarily Unreasonable?,” Philosophical Studies 104 no. 2 (Jan. 2001), 123-141. DOI: 10.1023/A:1010346727863

Mackenzie, J.D. “Begging the Question in Dialogue,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 no. 2 (Jun. 1984), 174-181. DOI: 10.1080/00048408412341371

Mackenzie, J.D. “Question-Begging in Non-Cumulative Systems,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 no. 1 (Feb. 1979), 117-133. DOI:10.1007/BF00258422 (expiry-link available from Google Scholar).

Mckeon, Matthew William. “Inference, Circularity, and Begging the Question,“ Informal Logic 35 no. 3 (Sept. 2015), 312-241. DOI: 10.22329/il.v35i3.4295

Mckeon, Matthew William. “Statements of Inference and Begging the Question,“ Synthese 192 no 12 (Jan. 2016), 1-25. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-016-1028-x

Moser, Paul K. “Skepticism Question Begging, and Burden Shifting” Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy: Epistemology vol. 5 (2000), 2009-217.

Palmer, Humphrey. “ Do Circular Arguments Beg the Question,” Philosophy 56 no. 217(Jul. 1981), 387-394. DOI: 10.1017/S0031819100050348.

Perelman, Chaim. The New Rhetoric in Pragmatics of Natural Languages, ed. Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (Dordrecht-Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co.), 145-149. DOI:10.1007/978-94-010-1713-8_8

Rips, Lance J. “Circular Reasoning,” Cognitive Science 26 no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2002), 767-795. DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog2606_3

Robinson, Richard. “Begging the Question,” Analysis 31 no. 4 (Mar. 1971), 113-117. DOI:10.2307/3327332

Robinson, Richard. “Begging the Question,” Analysis 41 no. 2 (Apr. 1981), 65. DOI: 10.1093/analys/41.2.65

Ritola, Juho. “Begging the Question: A Case Study,” Argumentation 17 no. 1 (Mar. 2003), 1-19. DOI: 10.1023/A:1022908405402

Ritola, Juho. “Two Accounts of Begging the Question,” OSSA Conference Archive (Jun. 2009).

Ritola, Juho. “Wilson on Circular Arguments,” Argumentation 15 no. 3 (Aug. 2001), 295-312. DOI: 10.1023/A:1011199431056

Ritola, Juho. “Yet Another Run Around the Circle,” Argumentations 2 no. 2 (Oct. 2006), 237-244. DOI: 10.1007/s10503-006-9011-1

Rochefort-Maranda, G. “Begging the Question: A Reason to Worry about Theory-Dependence,” Academia.edu (accessed 14 April 2017).

Sanford, David H. “Begging the Question,” Analysis 32 no. 6 (Jun. 1972), 197-199. DOI:10.2307/3327724

Sanford, David H. “Begging the Question as Involving Actual Belief and Inconceivable Without It,” Metaphilosophy 19 no. 1 (Jan. 1988), 32-37. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.1988.tb00699.x

Sanford, David H. “Superfluous Information Epistemic Conditions of Inference, and Begging the Question,” Metaphilosophy 12 no. 2 (Apr. 1981), 145-158. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.1981.tb00034.x

Sidgwick, Alfred. The Application of Logic (Macmillan and Co., 1910), 201-219.

Smith, Michael P. “Virtuous Circles,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 25 no.2 (Jun. 1987), 207-222. DOI: 10.1111/j.2041-6962.1987.tb01617.x

Sorenson, R.A. “Unbegging Questions,” Analysis 56 no. 1 (1996) 51-55. DOI: 10.1111/j.0003-2638.1996.00051.x

Sorenson, R. A. “‘P, Therefore P’ Without Circularity,” Journal of Philosophy 88 no. 5 (May 1991) 245-266. DOI: 10.2307/2026928

Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter. “Begging the Question,” Australian Journal of Philosophy 77 no. 2 (Jun. 1999), 174-191. DOI: 10.1080/00048409912348921

Suber, Peter. “Question-Begging Under a Non-Foundational Model of Argument,” Argumentation 8 no. 3 (Aug. 1994), 241-250. DOI: 10.1007/BF00711191

Teng, Norman Yujen. “Sorensen on Begging the Question“ Analysis 57 no. 3 (Jul. 1997), 220-222. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8284.00079

Tindale, Christopher W. “Fallacies, Blunders, and Dialogue Shifts; Walton's Contributions to the Fallacy Debate,” Argumentation 11 no. 3 (Aug. 1997), 341-354. DOI: 10.1023/A:1007706724732

Truncellito, D.A. “Running in Circles about Begging the Question,” Argumentation 18 no. 3 (Sept. 2004), 324-329. DOI:10.1023/B:ARGU.0000046731.07528.75

van Laar, J. A. and M. Godden. ”The Pragma-Dialectical Approach to Circularity in Argumentation,” in Keeping in Touch with Pragma-Dialectics, eds. E. Feteris, B. Garssen, and F. Snoeck Henkemans (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishers, 2011), 265-280.

Walton, Douglas. ”Are Circular Arguments Necessarily Vicious?,” American Philosophical Quarterly 22 no. 4 (Oct. 1985), 263-274.

Walton, Douglas N. “Begging the Question As a Pragmatic Fallacy,” Synthese 100 no. 1 (Feb. 1994), 95-131. DOI: 10.1007/BF01063922

Walton, Douglas. Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991).

Walton, Douglas. “Begging the Question in Arguments Based on Testimony,” Argumentation 19 no. 1 (Mar. 2005), 85-113. DOI: 10.1007/s10503-004-2071-1

Walton, Douglas. “Circular Reasoning,” A Companion to Epistemology eds. Johathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 277.

Walton, Douglas. ”Epistemic and Dialectical Models of Begging the Question,” Synthese 152 no. 2 (Oct. 2006), 237-284. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-005-3984-4

Walton, Douglas. “Hamblin on the Standard Treatment of Fallacies,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 24 no. 4 (1991), 353-361.

Walton, Douglas. “Petitio Principii and Argument Analysis,” Informal Logic: The First International Symposium eds. J. Anthony Blair and Ralph H. Johnson (Inverness, California: Edgepress, 1980), 41-51.

Williams, M.E.“Begging the Question?,” Dialogue 6 no. 4 (Mar. 1968), 567-570. DOI: 10.1017/S001221730003417X

Wilson, Kent. “Circular Arguments,” Metaphilosophy 19 no. 1 (Jan. 1988), 38-52. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.1988.tb00700.x

Womack, Anne-Marie. “From Logic to Rhetoric: A Contextualized Pedagogy for Fallacies,” Composition Forum 32 (Fall 2015). Woods, John. “Begging the Question is Not a Fallacy,” (accessed 21 April 2017).

Woods, John. “The Concept of Fallacy is Empty” in Model-Based Reasoning in Science Technology, and Medicine, ed. Magnani-Li (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 69-90. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-71986-1_3

Woods, John. “Pragma-dialectics A Radical Departure in Fallacy Theory,” Communication and Cognition 24 no. 1 (1991), 43-54.

Woods, John and D. Walton. “Arresting Circles in Formal Dialogues,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 7 no. 1 (Jan. 1978), 73-90. DOI: 10.1007/BF00245921

Woods, John and Douglas Walton. “Petitio Principii,” Synthese 31 no. 1(Jun. 1997), 107-127. DOI: 10.1007/BF00869473

Woods, J. and D. Walton. “Arresting Circles in Formal Dialogues,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 7 no. 1 (Jan, 1978), 73-90. DOI: 10.1007/BF00245921

Wright, Crispin. “Cogency and Question-Begging: Some Reflections on McKinsey's Paradox and Putnam's Proof,” Philosophical Issues 10 no. 1 (Oct, 2000), 140-163. DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-2237.2000.tb00018.x