For a while, I was persuaded that informal logic and critical thinking face a problem. It is this: that fallacies in reasoning often get presented without first making explicit the logical calculus they are said to deviate from. This would be a problem because, in practice, charity to our fellow conversants demands that we should construe what they say in the best light we reasonably can, by giving them enough rope if possible. And this seems to suggest that we can never be fully sure whether we really found a fallacy or simply someone reasoning by a different logic. (What it is to reason ‘by’ a logic is quite complex and by no means clear, but it seems to be a side issue here.)

Now I’m not so sure this is really a problem. Maybe instructors in informal logic and critical thinking use fallacies to gauge their students’ intuitions. Or maybe they use fallacies as a sort of training in the sandbox for paradoxes. Fallacies would, on this view, be problems in how we reason, only ones that most of us agree on a solution to and don’t feel nagging worries that we’ve got it wrong. Unlike paradoxes, that even when solutions are advanced keep bugging us as important – crucial, maybe – and not at all put to rest. Seen this way, fallacies would not so much illustrate accidents in reasoning as departures from logical calculi, as they would shift gear from logical theory to logical problem-solving, to catch students’ attention and make them probe the calculi they work with. (Of course, this is in a classroom setting and it might best address how fallacies are used as teaching material rather than what they are in everyday life; but how often do we really charge ourselves or others with committing fallacies outside of a classroom – with fallacies, as opposed to mere mistakes?)

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