A circular argument is an argument forming part of a thesis which has not been established, but still needs to be argued for.
This error lies in the failure to strengthen a thesis with a valid argument, which would add something new and relevant. It is a fallacy which appears against the background of not reflecting on ones thoughts and arguments properly. To avoid or correct it, one needs to make the effort to focus on the logical implications of ones arguments, in order to separate what is still to be argued from what is already established, and identify what is able to support the thesis to be argued—with an extra touch of relevance and novelty.
The circular argument is, more often than not, an unintentional fallacy, caused by an inability to identify the premises leading up to a certain conclusion—the conclusion which is logically implied by the given premises. However, there are cases in which circularity is used deliberately. It can mislead or mock an uninformed audience. What can one do to avoid or expose this fallacy?
Identify unintentional circular arguments
We come across a character with faulty thinking—but with decision-making power—in Jan Hus’s trial, at the Council of Constance, in 1415. This character used a circular argument to sentence the defendant to death. This is how Fra Poggius1, an eyewitness, reproduces the words of the character, the Bishop of Osnabrueck: “Many have died in the name of faith. First, let Hus and his followers die for doctrine’s sake, and let us then come together again and decide on what to do. Let him perish in the fire!”
Therefore, the argument brought against Hus for an alleged heresy, did not actually bring any accusation against faith or doctrine, but only reminded the listeners that some people have died for their faith. This is just the acknowledgement of a fact: “many have died for their faith”. However, it is not a relevant argument for the conclusion that these people actually deserved to die.
In other words, if many have died for their faith and Hus has a faith, then he must die for it, because many others had to as well. Although an obvious circularity, this weighed heavily on the ones sentencing Jan Hus, because this was coming from an ecclesiastical authority, with the right to vote on the outcome of the trial.
Furthermore, the speaker should have admitted that the people involved had gathered precisely for the purpose of deciding what course of action to take. That is, whether to condemn or absolve the defendant. Instead, the speaker is in a rush to condemn him, absurdly postponing any deliberation on what should be done to a time after the defendant would have been put to death. Such an illogical way of thinking becomes criminal in itself!
Prevent deliberate circular arguments
When it is not the result of an inability to follow the logical implications of an argument, this fallacy can be a deliberate sophism used by someone who seeks to elude an explanation, hide certain aspects of a debated issue, or even mock and dismiss the ones seeking to find out more.
Sometimes, the deliberate character of the circular argument also points (to a certain extent) to a disregard for the person who asks for a relevant argument, or even a whole audience asking for explanations.
In a treatise2 we come across the case of the mayor of a big American city who, being asked by reporters why senator H.H. did not win the elections in the state of Illinois, answered: “Because he did not get enough votes.” Of course he was not saying anything more than that the senator had lost the election. Through this circular argument, he was avoiding acknowledging defeat.
His defeat was the result of many substantial factors such as disappointing the voters or not being able to gain their trust, or inspiring incompetence, immorality, and so on. Furthermore, this answer—formulated as an expeditious joke—also indicates disregard for public opinion. In this case, the public would have been entitled to ask for a serious analysis from the politician, and he should have shown political maturity and responsibility towards them and the political system.
In a nutshell
The circular argument can be intentional or unintentional. It can be caused by an inability to identify either the premises leading up to a certain conclusion, or the conclusion which is logically implied by certain given premises. It’s like mistaking the thesis (which is yet to be proved) for the premises (which should have already been accepted), or like trying to explain something by reformulating the very same thing using similar words. It is like explaining the orbit of our planet by stating that the earth annually revolves around the sun, or explaining the doctrine of papal infallibility by stating that the Pope, as an institution, can never make mistakes.
To avoid circularity, we must understand the logical implications of our statements, distinguish between equivalent formulations, and not pass them off as supporting arguments for their “relatives”.
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.