Week 7 – Rhetorical Fallacies

This week, we continue our exploration of the three-fold structure of argument analysis articulated by the ancient Greeks. Pathos (emotion, values) & Ethos (character, credibility) present their own unique characteristics when misused or manipulated in an argument, but the fallacies of Logos (logic) are so common and so debilitating, they require their own consideration. In the study of what we call “informal” logic, there are several places where corruptions or distortions can enter the equation. Sometimes this is deliberate, other times it is not. These corruptions are also commonly referred to as “rhetorical fallacies” because, as we shall see, although they are often primarily distortions in logic, they also cover the credibility and emotional aspects of the improper construction of arguments.

TherRef makes the call

Regardless, we need to develop our skills in recognizing logical fallacies in our work and the work of others and correcting them with clear, fair and well-supported reasons. This unit is intended to help you explore and develop these very skills.

facts vs belief

So this week, we will explore the rhetorical fallacies and apply them to the study of arguments. We will then apply what we have learned to our first essay, an academic film analysis.

A rhetorical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning. Rhetorical fallacies are like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re often very sneakily used by politicians and the media to fool people. They are not always easy to spot and frequently we commit them accidentally. Spotting them in our own arguments and in the arguments of others is a superpower that can help you strengthen your analytical tool kit.

Rhetorical fallacies, or fallacies of argument, don’t allow for the open, two-way exchange of ideas upon which meaningful conversations depend. Instead, they distract the reader with various appeals instead of using sound reasoning. They can be divided into three categories:

  1. Emotional fallacies unfairly appeal to the audience’s emotions.
  2. Ethical fallacies unreasonably advance the writer’s own authority or character.
  3. Logical fallacies depend upon faulty logic.

Keep in mind that rhetorical fallacies often overlap. Regardless, we need to develop our skills in recognizing rhetorical fallacies in our work and the work of others and correcting them with clear, fair and well-supported reasons. This unit is intended to help you explore and develop these very skills.  Don’t worry so much about trying to memorize the individual names of all of the various rhetorical fallacies. Spend your time and energy, rather, learning to identify when someone (yourself included) is using them in an argument and how best to correct them and keep the discussion on track.

Our use of logical support in arguments is subject to several possible corruptions along the way to a sound argument. Sometimes an arguer will commit these fallacies on purpose with the intent of fooling or manipulating the audience. But more often, we make these mistake accidentally, with the best of intentions. Regardless, if we are to evaluate and make sound arguments, we need to be able to spot the presence of logical fallacies, in our own arguments and in the arguments of others. The presence of a logical fallacy does not mean the entire argument is invalid, just that the particular reasoning is flawed or lacking in this one place. Finding and correcting logical fallacies can actually lead to making an argument stronger and easier to accept. We have not abandoned the use of Logos, Pathos and Ethos in our evaluation of arguments, but rather now added the concept of rhetorical fallacies to the mix. As we go forward in the class, try to continue to use all of the tools we are exploring in your analysis of the arguments we write and read.

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Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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