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Circular Reasoning in Intimate Conversations

Here is yet another ploy that can be used to confuse in difficult family talks

This post is Part 6 of my continuing series, How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction. The posts provide win-win strategies for overcoming chronic repetitive problematic interactions between potentially loving family members.

In Part 1, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try. I discussed the most common avoidance strategy — merely changing the subject (strategy #1)—as well as suggesting effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part 2, I discussed the avoidance strategies of nitpicking (#2) and accusations of over-generalizing (#3). In Part 3, I discussed attempts to change the subject by getting into the blame game, and taking a shifting stance as to who exactly is to blame for a given family problem (#4). In Part 4, I discussed strategy #5, the use of fatalism to derail metacommunication, and strategy #6, the use of Non-sequiturs. In Part 5, I discussed #7, the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The last two posts can be subsumed under the subject, “The use of logical fallacies in dysfunctional metacommunication,” as can this post, which is about strategy #8, the use of a fallacy called begging the question. As I mentioned last time, counter-measures used to counter all of the logical fallacies take the same basic form, so I will discuss what they are after I finish with describing the logical fallacies in future posts on the use of worst case scenarios and ad hominem attacks. I will also then discuss the countermeasure used to undo the previously described game without end.

To repeat: the goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key. I again repeat the strong caution: Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe may be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults. It is not meant for metacommunciation with children and teens.

Strategy #8: Begging the question: A person begging the question merely insists that an assertion is proved without offering any proof at all. If someone offers some evidence that the assertion is false, the beggar states that the evidence must be incorrect. After all, since the assertion is true, any evidence to the contrary must be faulty. Begging the question is often hidden in an entire series of statements that somehow lead right back to the first one as if it had already been proved. Thus, begging the question is the basis of circular reasoning.

It might seem that the absurdity of this kind of reasoning should be quite obvious when it occurs, but its use can be quite hard to spot. In the process mentioned above, for example, the inter­vening argument for the initial questionable assertion is made by the beggar, which is then refuted by the disputer. The beggar then goes on to offer yet another argument, which in turn is refuted. This process continues until the beggar suddenly announces that he or she has won the case - by ignoring all of the previously refuted arguments and merely re-offering the initial unproved assertion.

I first truly understood this process one day in college when I caught myself doing it. I was engaged in a friendly argu­ment with a fellow student over the relative merits of the space program during the sixties. My friend took the position that going to the moon was a complete waste of money, because there were important human needs here on earth for which the money could be used. I was and am of the opinion that scien­tific knowledge is valuable for its own sake, but at the time I was unable to formulate a convincing argument for that posi­tion. Instead, I advanced the oft-used argument that the space program had yielded important scientific by-products, such as Teflon, that were quite useful here on earth.

He countered that Teflon could have been invented for far less money by doing research on nonstick surfaces instead of moon flights. I then countered with, "But this way, we also get to the moon!"

An attempt at begging the question was made on me was when I was a trainee (resident) in psychiatry. Back in the Stone Age when I trained, most of my faculty members were Freudian psychoanalysts. When anyone dared question psychoanalytic dogma, they were told that they needed to get into therapy to find out why they were "resistant" to the ideas. Of course, the concept of resistance is itself a psychoanalytic concept, so the statement was in fact begging the question of the validity of a psychoanalytic concept.

Interestingly, the analysts' short sentence contained not one but three logical fallacies. It was not only begging the question, but was also a non-sequitur (perhaps the person was questioning the dogma for some reason other than subconscious resistance), as well as a personal attack. Personal attacks, or ad hominem arguments, are another fallacy I will discuss in a future post.

So how is begging the question used in metacommunication within families? It occurs most often when people are being questioned about their motivation for one of their actions, but do not wish to reveal the true reasons to others - or perhaps even to themselves. They may assert that they behave in the way they do because that is how they truly wish to be­have or because they have no other options.

If a listener pre­sents evidence that the behavior seems to be something that is bringing them a great deal of grief or if he or she points out that there are other options, beggars will then either just ignore what the other person has said, invalidate it by making a snide comment, engage in a game of "why-don't-you-yes-but," or begin the process of-making further refutable arguments and then returning to the initial assertion as if it had been justified.

I saw this in psychotherapy sessions all the time when the question of a patient's motivation came up, which it invariably did since it is the key to changing someone's behavior. A good example of begging the question occurred in the case of a poorly educated employee of a large manufacturing concern. Despite a horrendously abused childhood and a lack of formal schooling, he had managed to rise to a fairly responsible posi­tion with the firm. Then suddenly, through no fault of his own, the position was eliminated. Because of further bad luck com­plicated by his own aggravating behavior, he was gradually de­moted and shifted to a department that he despised, and continued to go downhill until he had become a glorified file clerk.

The more responsibilities were taken from him, the more upset he became. The more upset he became, the more poorly he per­formed in his job. The poorer the performance, the more re­sponsibility was taken from him, and so on. He felt that his supervisor wished to get rid of him because he was being paid far too much for his present position, and also believed that the supervisor was blocking his transfer to another department in which he might get a more responsible job.

I wondered why, if it were really true that he was unable to get out of the department and find a job with which he would be satisfied, he did not seek employment with a different firm. I conceded that such a move would be quite difficult considering his lack of education, but pointed out that he had not even­attempted to look to see if anything was available.

He replied that he did not wish to leave the firm. He stated that, in fact, he loved working for this company; it was just his department he despised. I pressed on. I pointed out that he had already told me that he could not get out of the department because of his mean supervisor. Why was it so important for him to stay with the same firm? He replied once again that he would not leave the firm because he loved working for it. The conversation went something like this:

"The firm seems to be very important to you. What is it about working for the firm that you love so much?"

"They've been very good to me."

"Well, they certainly have been good to you - in the past. At the moment, however, you've told me that they are not being very good to you at all."

"That is the department that is being bad to me. I have no complaint with the firm."

"I know that, but you have told me that you are stuck with the department. Don't you think you might find a differ­ent firm that you would also like?"

"Yes, I might be able to do that."

"So why are you so intent on staying with your present firm?”

"I want to get in twenty-five years with the firm."

"What makes that important?"

"It is important to my self-esteem" [a possible non sequi­tur that I let go].

"So you'll consider leaving when you have been there twenty-five years?"


"So there must be another reason why you feel you must stay with the firm."

"I don't want to give my supervisors the satisfaction of driving me out." [This is another assertion that does not make very much sense. Why should avoiding making them smug be worth daily torture at their hands? I avoided touching on this also].

"Do you really think they care all that much?"

"Probably not."

"So why stay?"

"I've told you. The firm is very important to me. I love working for the firm. Okay?"

The last statement was, of course, merely a restatement of his initial position that did nothing whatever to shed light on why the firm was so important to him. This is exactly what is meant by begging the question.