Argument from Biography

The first time I ever heard this phrase I took it to be just a clever bit of snark, but I find myself more and more referring to certain arguments in terms of this very phrase. I have seen the phrase used to describe arguments bolstering the authority of a given party on the basis of their personal biography, and these references often focus on the inadequacy of the support given in each individual case. The “argument from biography” is certainly not a recognized fallacy, and the label isn’t even a common internet idiom. (It’s not one of the established negs of net-logic.) In any event, I do think this label identifies a common problem in reasoning, and I think the label has some advantageous over the more established vocabulary in helping to address that problem.

I would apply this label to arguments in which someone appeals to their personal life experience in support for a controversial statement. This of course means the “argument from biography” is really an argument from autobiography, or at least, that’s the form it usually takes. It could also be described as an “appeal to personal experience,” but most of the discussion using that label seems to fall well short of describing the total scope of the problem.

There are certainly claims that you could legitimately support with personal testimony, but the argument from biography comes into play when a speaker (or writer) willfully stretches their personal credibility beyond the scope of any reasonable claim that could be drawn from personal experience. For example, a military veteran bases a justification for a controversial war on the argument that he would know because he was there, a member of a given ethnic group claims to speak for the rest of those sharing his or her identity, or someone attempts to support broad generalizations about a group they disagree with on the basis of their personal interactions with people from that group. Often the argument from biography comes mixed with a categorical dismissal of any views (or at least any contrary views) coming from those who do not share the speaker’s own personal connection to the issue. Speakers using this tactic may in effect demand a comparable biography as a kind of minimum requirement for contributing to the discussion at hand.

This type of argument raises at least two conventional problems in reasoning; the appeal to anecdotal evidence and the fallacious appeal to authority. This sort of argument also raises problems associated with interactional eclipse. It is tempting to suggest that the argument from biography could be understood in terms of either of the first two categories, but I still think the problem with these arguments rests on the particular blend of both conventional fallacies along with the interactional consequences of using the gambit.

Anecdotal Evidence: In most of the arguments that strike me as fitting under this label, the speaker asks us to take their own personal testimony as a definitive statement about what people with their personal experience think about a given subject. This leads to a common problem of trying to assess just how representative the story of the speaker is for those with a personal connection to the issue. Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, and Tokenism are all likely to be at issue here.

The personalization of the isue often obscures the relationship between the particular nature of the speaker’s claims and the generalized conclusions they often seek to advance. Often, those advancing such an argument seem to represent themselves almost as an avatar of those sho share their experiences, an indexical icon through which others can be heard to speak. A speaker doing this may even say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in some parts of their narrative. In some cases, the argument may turn less on a kind of statistical reasoning than a quality of moral licensing.

Note that in some cases the gap between the evidence from the personal experiences of the speaker and the truth of their conclusions is not a function of anecdotal evidence. For example soldiers commenting on the wisdom of fighting a given war on the basis of their personal experiences are talking about something those experiences would not fully address. Whether or not President Johnson’s decision to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam, for example, was likely to accomplish any significant diplomatic goals is simply not a question of what it felt like to be a soldier in that conflict. At least some of the considerations involved in that question would relate to things simply not apparent on the ground of the conflict itself. Those addressing the conflict through the argument from biography ignore such considerations altogether. In this case, the problem is closer to a generic red herring than it is to the specific problems of anecdotal evidence.

Fallacious Appeal to Authority: Personal testimony always carries a degree of an authority-based argument insofar as the speaker represents their own experience as the warrant for believing whatever it is they tell us, but the argument from biography strains this authority in a variety of ways. It is one thing, for example, to say that one has met a number of people from a given group who display a certain moral quality (or lack thereof), and quite another to support the claim that all or most of the members of that group do in fact share that moral quality (or the lack thereof). The latter sort of argument raises problems of anecdotal evidence, but even the former raises all sorts of questions about the observational capacities of the speaker and even their level of self-awareness. (Someone who thinks all the folks they’ve met from another political party or religious affiliation are jerks may well be discounting the impact of their own provocations in those encounters.) The argument from biography skates right past all of these problems, asking others to simply accept the testimony and conclusions of the speaker on the basis of his own her own personal experiences.

Interactional Eclipse: The particular frustration of the argument from biography lies in the way that it bundles the problems of anecdotal evidence (in most cases) in with those of problematic authority. One of the consequences of this kind of argument is that it tends to create an odd dilemma for those listening to the speaker. They can either accept the authority of the speaker without comment or they are forced to engage in some level of personal criticism (even if that is simply to suggest that others might have had different experiences). In effect, the argument from biography challenges those who disagree to interrogate the credibility of the speaker. Depending on the context, this can get very ugly very fast, and if the speaker has a friendly audience, the results can be very intimidating. The argument from biography can thus be more effective in silencing critics than answering them.


The fallacy of Division occurs whenever an argument attributes a quality belonging to a whole to one of its parts. If one were, for example, to start with the assumption that China has the largest military in the world based on total active duty personal, and infer from that that any given Chinese soldier must be tall, this would be n example of the fallacy of Division.

The converse of this fallacy is Composition.

Figurative speech sometimes parallels this fallacy insofar as people may refer to something or someone by referencing a part of that person or things (as in referring to a woman by calling her a ‘blonde; or describing the movements of an army in terms of ‘boots on the ground’). Likewise, people sometimes refer to a whole means of a name for one of its parts. (This occurs when citizens of the United States refer to their country as “America,” and of course we often say of people that they are ‘drinking’ when we actually mean to say that they are consuming an alcoholic beverage.) These metanymic references may be distinguished from fallacies such as composition and division in at least two ways.

  1. Figurative speech need not entail a literal confusion of the qualities in question whereas the fallacies in question do.
  2. Both fallacies take the form of an inference from a premise to a conclusion. In the case of division, the premise will be claim (stated or implied) about the qualities of a whole and the conclusion will literally attribute that quality to the part on the basis of its applicability to the whole.


The fallacy of Composition occurs whenever someone attributes a quality belonging to the parts of a thing to the whole thing itself. This can occur when all of the parts share the quality in question, or even when only some of them do (especially, if there is some reason to over-estimate the relevance of the sampled parts).

The example I learned in my freshman logic class began with the assumption that all the parts used in a car were in perfect working order and concluded that the car would also work just fine, thus ignoring the possibility that the parts had been assembled wrong. We could update this example to computers and it would work the same way.

The converse of this fallacy is Division.

Figurative speech sometimes parallels this fallacy insofar as people sometimes refer to something or someone by referencing a part of that person or things (as in referring to a woman by calling her a ‘blonde; or describing the movements of an army in terms of ‘boots on the ground’). Likewise, people sometimes refer to a whole means of a name for one of its parts. (This occurs when citizens of the United States refer to their country as “America,” and of course we often say of people that they are ‘drinking’ when we actually mean to say that they are consuming an alcoholic beverage.) These metanymic references may be distinguished from fallacies such as composition and division in at least two ways.

  1. Figurative speech need not entail a literal confusion of the qualities in question whereas the fallacies in question do.
  2. Both fallacies take the form of an inference from a premise to a conclusion. In the case of composition, the premise will be claim (stated or implied) about the qualities of a part and the conclusion will literally attribute that quality to the whole on the basis of its applicability to the part(s).

Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Volume II

I rambled on at length about motte and bailey doctrines in a previous post. Suffice to say that this tool of critical thinking is more than a little problematic. That said, like a lot of fallacy labels and comparable forms of critical, the label of a ‘motte and bailey doctrine’ has a lot of intuitive appeal. Properly used, it might even help us identify erroneous reasoning and communicate something about the errors in question.

The question is, how best to use this criticism in practice?

I’d say that you start by asking these questions:

  1. What is the motte? Note that most discussions of this subject seem to assume that the motte variation of a given position is true (even a ‘trolls truism’ to use Shackel’s language), but I’m not sure that this need always be the case. It seems to me that it would suffice to find a variation in a position that is relatively easy to support and hence likely to be accepted as true. One could always hold out the possibility that the motte is also wrong in the end.
  2. What is bailey? Here, I do think it an essential feature of the bailey that it should be demonstrably false, or at least highly repugnant to one side of a given debate.
  3. What is the difference between them? (Note that if that difference matters, one should be able to show that the motte does not actually entail the bailey. It’s only a motte and bailey doctrine if the shift between them is capricious. If, on the other hand, the bailey is logically entailed by the motte, you may have the beginnings of a reductio ad absurdum, using the bailey as the grounds for deducing an absurd conclusion from stronger position.)
  4. Are you facing a genuinely capricious shift between the motte and the bailey? It’s not enough to be aware of different variations of the same position. What makes these doctrines a problem is the duplicitous shift from one to the other at the convenience of the doctrines proponent(s). This can occur because an individual is making the shift herself, either during the course of a specific argument or from one context to another. It can also occur because there is something about the social context of public debate that generates relatively consistent differences between the version of a given position produced for some conversations and those produced for others. The point here is that a genuine motte and bailey doctrine does merely present someone with variations in the position in question; it presents those variations in such a manner as to create an unfair burden for potential critics.
  5. Can you refute the bailey? Can you actually show that the bailey is wrong? If you can’t, then noting the shift between motte and bailey isn’t really going to get you anywhere.
  6. Are you missing anything? As with any fallacy accusation, it’ always worth considering whether or not there is something about the context of the issue at hand that makes reasoning that would normally be erroneous relevant after all. There is no formula for this, but many of the the standard fallacies come with variations that are actually reasonable arguments. (Alternatively, they parallel reasonable arguments which could easily be mistaken for their fallacious variants.) The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine is no exception to this problem.
  7. Are there better ways of pointing out the problem? For example, the problem of a motte and bailey doctrine could be addressed by leveling the accusation that its proponent(s) are engaging in equivocation or amphibology. If saying this will give you a cleaner counter-argument, then that may be the way to go. If that is not the case, or if you really want to underscore the strategic manipulation, then perhaps it’s best to deploy the accusation that someone is advocating a motte and bailey doctrine.

If after answering all these questions, you think you are in a position to address a position by calling it out as a motte and bailey doctrine, then go for it! Your answers to questions 1-5 should probably find their way somewhere into your account of the issue. Questions 6 and 7 have been effectively answered in your decision to make the criticism in the first place.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines

What is a Motte and Bailey doctrine?

Well, we get the concept from the Philosopher Nicholas Shackel who used it to criticize postmodernist philosophy. As he first used it in publication back in 2005, this is a relatively new concept, but others have expanded on it and popularized the term in recent years.

At any rate, Let’s give Shackel the first word on the topic:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed.

– Nicholas Shackel “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology,” page 3.

It seems that a Motte and Bailey consists of a position which comes in roughly two forms; one (the motte) which is apparently true and highly defensible but essentially unremarkable and largely useless at face value, and another (the bailey) which is more exciting but also more dubious. These two variations within a given position enable its proponents to move back and forth between its stronger and weaker versions at will. They typically advocate the motte in contexts where credible criticism is likely but indulge in the bailey when they are on a roll, and in particular is they can expect a friendly audience or readership. In effect, people can be expected to defend the motte but live in the bailey.

That’s the concept, as I understand it, in a nutshell.


Motte and Bailey as a Fallacy: One variation of this criticism treats it as a fallacy. This is the approach taken by Christopher Anadale., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mt, St. Mary’s University. The “Motte and Bailey fallacy” is also the label you will find in the current version of Wikipedia.

For his part, Shackel rejects the label of a fallacy, suggesting that the term ‘fallacy’ is best applied to arguments whereas the problem of shifting between a motte and a bailey is in fact one that applies to a larger agenda which can produce myriad individual arguments. these may themselves be fallacious or not, depending on the details, but the motte and bailey problem occurs within a larger unit of contested discourse. He prefers to think of this as a kind of doctrine.

…and something tells me ‘discourse’ might not be Shackels favorite word to use here, but it’s my paraphrase and I’m sticking with it.

Note that Shackel also rejects the notion that the motte and bailey problem is just a function of strategic equivocation insofar as that would apply only to shifts in the meaning of a single word whereas he applies this concept to a body of propositions rather than a single proposition or argument. Hence, his consistent preference for the term “motte and bailey doctrine.”

Note that Shackel’s insistence that the motte and bailey problem is larger than a single argument creates some of the problems listed below (namely the invitation to direct the criticism at the patterns of collective movements rather than specific authors or specific texts). One could just as easily say of a motte and bailey doctrine that it manifests itself as a problem precisely when the result of equivocation (or perhaps amphibology) appear in the arguments of a specific party. Applying the notion to a general movement leaves those making the accusation too much room to shift around in their own right.


Principle of Charity: One of the more interesting themes associated with the Motte and Bailey Doctrine has to do with its relationship to the principle of charity.

Suffice to say that relationship is a bit hostile.

The principle of charity, of course, entails the notion that when interpreting someone’s position, we ought to adopt the interpretation which construes their position in the strongest terms consistent with their own stated views on the subject. As the notion of a Motte and Bailey doctrine explicitly addresses the prospect of multiple versions of a given position, it necessarily raises questions about how to weigh those versions relative to one another. The prospect that one is facing a motte and bailey tactic suggests a very different way of handling this question.

When a given position has been identified as a motte and bailey doctrine, this creates a story in which the less defensible versions of the position serve as the true intent of the position while the more defensible versions become a convenient means of dodging the problems of the former. In the face of such a narrative, it makes no sense to focus on the stronger versions of a position. That would be merely playing into the hands of motte and bailey stratagem. It makes more sense to focus criticism on the bailey, and dismiss the motte as a diversion tactic used only to deceive us. In effect, recourse to the accusation that someone has produced a motte and bailey doctrine provides a very convenient excuse to set aside the principle of charity.

If the principle of charity suggests we should favor a charitable interpretation of another person’s position, the prospect that they may be advancing a motte and bailey doctrine suggests that we should assume the worst. Don’t let the bastards retreat to the motte! Keep them in the bailey and kicked their asses!

Dammit anyhow!

Details matter of course, and one way to resolve this problem might be to pay very careful attention to the rhetorical strategies of any given source to see if they really are moving back and forth between a motte and a bailey. If they aren’t we apply the principle of charity; if they are, then we, nail them in the bailey.

One problem with that solution is that it ignores the rhetorical force of the motte and bailey narrative as it is currently developing in the culture of net-logics and popular media representations. Whereas Shackel’s own critique of postmodernism includes direct commentary on specific texts by specific authors, many of those using the concept at this point are making up the mottes and baileys which they attribute to intellectual movements at their own convenience. Although logicians have long used made-up examples to illustrate informal fallacies, this practice is constrained at least by the notion that a fallacy normally occurs in a single argument or text. As the problem of a motte and bailey doctrine is explicitly one of larger set of ideas, this invites use of more abstract models when constructing a motte and bailey doctrine for the benefit of an audience or readership. It invites people to draw from a broad range of views when imagining the possibilities, taking inspiration for the motte from one source and that of the bailey from another. Different people (some of whom may be perfectly consistent in their own terms) get smashed together with others whose views are nominally in their own camp to create an imaginary position taken by no-one in particular but easily used as an object lesson on the evils of anyone whose views might sound like theirs. Thus, misplaced concretism combines with motte and bailey narratives to generate a range of stock arguments decimating what are in effect straw man positions, and because the motte and bailey doctrine is NOT contained within a single argument, it if far more difficult to show someone that the refuted position is in fact a straw man. Moreover, the possibility that someone might be advocating a motte and bailey doctrine argues against application of the principle of charity.

The end result is an assumption of guilt with little to stand in its way.

Case in point? In a video entitled “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity,” James Lindsay argues that critical social justice theorists are not entitled to the principle of charity because they do not extend it to others. In a very long-winded diatribe, Lindsey does his best to suggest that the worst possible implications of any give social justice concept are in fact the real point of social justice politics. Lindsey warns his viewers against application of the principle of charity to critical theories advancing social justice, stating repeatedly that in doing so, one builds their motte for them. In the end, he advocates both granting and denying the principle of charity to its advocates, but the former is little more than a palliative rejoinder; the substance of his entire video is the claim that one really cannot afford to extend the principle of justice to critical theorists. They must be bombed in the bailey so to speak, thus mixing his metaphors a bit, but anyway…

On a more substantive note: Harris Randy accused Shackel himself of violating the principle of charity in his critique of post-modernism. I won’t recount the argument here, but I will say that the entire discussion is an improvement over the use of the motte and bailey narrative to castigate a broad range of views. Shackel targets specific thinkers and engages in textual analysis to show that those individuals have themselves shifted back and forth between a motte and a bailey. Whether or not he his critique is sound is another question. Randy clearly does not believe it is, but in any event, this discussion has a lot more substance to it than the many sloppy applications of this concept to the cullture wars of the modern era.


Speaking of Culture Wars…


Right Wing Politics: The more I look at this concept, the more I am struck by the consistently partisan bent of those using it as a criticism. The overwhelming majority of its uses do seem to be coming from moderate conservatives to far right thinkers targeting aspects of left wing politics. Every now and then, we’ll see a counter-example. Even these right wing sources will throw us a bone with the occasional criticism of their own camp, but that might be seen as paying the price of legitimizing their own critical weapon. Suffice to say, most of the prominent sources using motte and bailey doctrines have been directing it against left wing politics.

The actual politics of postmodernism is (unsurprisingly) complex and difficult to pin down, but I do think it’s fair to suggest its proponents are normally thought of as falling on the left side of the political spectrum, So Shackel’s own contribution seems to start things down that path. Christopher Anadale‘s video treating this as a fallacy also focuses on conservative Christian conflicts with left wing political views. (Indeed, the idea of reforming church teachings on the subject of homosexuality would seem to be his prime example of a motte and bailey doctrine). In fact, Anadale is very clearly presenting the entire topic from the standpoint of arguing a conservative Catholic position in a range of subjects. Two articles (“Social Justice And Words, Words, Words” and “All In All, Another Brick In The Motte“) written in the Slate Star Codex helped to popularize the notion of motte and bailey doctrines, both of which focused on the use of the concept to explain shifts in the meaning of social justice politics. I’m not entirely sure of the politics behind this blog, but in this case at least, the author is expressing concerns about left wing politics. In July of 2020, right wing news aggregate, Real Clear Investigations, published an article by John Murawski, entitled “The ‘Motte & Bailey’: Political Jousting’s Deceptive New Medieval Weapon,” the main substance of which is a story about the increasing use of motte and bailey tactics in social justice tactics. And then, of course, there is the James Lindsay video, already mentioned. Lindsay himself, is a dedicated opponent of social justice advocacy, and of critical social justice theory. His pranks on lefty academic publications are legend! So, it should be no surprise that he would employ this concept as an attack against his favorite targets.

Hell, I even used this concept myself to critique the notion of white privilege, so I guess I can’t claim to be an exception to the pattern. I mean, I don’t think of myself as a conservative, far from it, but thus far, my only serious effort to use the concept parallels the larger trend of conservative thinking on this subject.

Well, damn!

It is by no means obvious that the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine cuts only one direction; it is perfectly capable of deployment against conservative and far right views. Most recently, it’s tempting to suggest that Trump supporters have reproduced the pattern when it comes to the 2020 election. In the case the bailey would be the notion that the election was stolen, Trump is still the legitimate President and Biden is just a pretender whereas the motte would be healthy concern for the integrity of our electoral system. (…we just want to ensure the ecltion is fair. Shouldn’t you be concerned about that too?) At least that’s my favorite candidate for a right wing motte and bailey.

This suggestion too would be subject to the concerns about abstract objects of criticism mentioned above. I am sure some Trump supporters stay in the motte and some stay in the bailey, but we only really have a problem if they slip conveniently back and forth between these two positions. I may have a sense that they do, but no, I haven’t gone through a list of right wing pundits and politicians to see if I can pin down just how many of them really meet the criteria necessary to justify this accusation. So, my own suggestion too shouldn’t be treated as anything more than that; it is a concern about a possible application of this criticism to right wing politics.

Can I advance that accusation with confidence?


In any event, the possibility exists that we could apply the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine to a broad range of intellectual positions, including those of moderate conservatives and far right political sources. the fact remains, though that this critical tool has thus far been useful mainly in criticism of left wing targets. This could reflect a bias in the tool of criticism, an artifact of its diffusion through the public domain, a serious problem with left wing politics, or an unresolved feature of the problems left wing politics aims to address. Hell, I’m sure it could be a few other things as well. The fact remains that this seemingly neutral critical theme has been, to date, used primarily against left wing targets. Why that is, remains something of an open question.


Normalizing a Novel Criticism: As an aside; this whole story seems to present us with an interesting case study in the emergence of a putatively neutral or neutralish instrument of critical thinking. The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine begins with a distinctively polemic attack on a broad range of philosophical positions, and it has been applied ever more consistently to political movements loosely associated with those positions. We could easily see this as just another narrative device used to cast left wing politics in a negative light, and yet the potential to see this a a general tool of criticism does exist. Right-leaning critics are thus faced with an odd dilemma; they want to use this club to beat the left, but the club becomes more powerful if they spread the notion that this weapon can be used against just about anybody, even them. Watching them put out the occasional criticism directed at their own camp thus becomes an interesting study in political priorities.

Who goes under the bus to help power-up the weapon?


Lets Extend that Metaphor!: It’s worth noting that the problem with mottes and baileys as those using this concept normally apply it is consistently one of people using the motte to avoid hard questions about the bailey. It is a concern about people who use a strong (and likely true) position to evade questions about a weak (and likely false) position. We hear complaints about those who defend the motte and then come out after the battle to live in the bailey. What we don’t hear about is the reverse. We don’t hear about those who loot the bailey, never touch the motte, and go home claiming victory.

My point here is that shifts in meaning can be manipulated from the other direction too. People can and do attack the sloppy versions of a position without touching its most substantive versions, then proclaim themselves the victor. (I believe this is often called “Weak-manning” the issue. It is distinct from the fallacy of a straw man insofar as a straw man is fake position made up by the critic for the sole purpose of undermining a stronger position actually taken by a real person. In the case of weak-manning, there are people who actually advocate the target of the criticism, but their are stronger, smarter arguments out there and the critic knows it.

Weak-manning is little other than the flip-side of the motte and bailey doctrine.

We could just as easily call it plundering the bailey.


Ad Homineming the Motte: There is yet another concern about the use of this criticism. Accusing someone of employing a motte and bailey doctrine comes close to an ad hominem-circumstantial, particularly if one uses it to avoid showing exactly how the bailey-version of a position is wrong. Once again, Shackel put forward specific arguments in an effort to show that the bailey of postmodernism is wrong. Those following in his footsteps often fail to do so, relying instead on the their chosen audience to dismiss views they regard as unworthy of consideration. In many of the examples now flourishing all across the net, it is sufficient to name the objectionable position knowing full well that one is preaching to the choir, so to speak, and they will regard the matter as settled to begin with. The end result is a story about the other person’s bias, one which assumes the error of his ways rather than demonstrating it as constructive criticism ought to do.


News Media: One area in which I think it’s fair to suggest that motte and bailey doctrines are produced on a regular basis would be in the news media. Time and again, one encounters stories under the label of an inflammatory (and often inaccurate) title. The actual article may in fact include more factual information more reasonably argued, but its title has been spun up to get the attention of an audience or a reader. In effect, the title of a news story is the bailey, whereas the body of the story itself (or at least some of its middle passages) would serve as the motte.

One example of this would be the Real Clear Investigations article mentioned above; its title suggests the phenomenon of a motte and bailey doctrine is a new weapon whereas article itself explicitly states that the pattern of argumentation is not new, but that it is becoming more common as a result of social media. In effect, the title amounts to a wildly inaccurate claim whereas the article itself contains a more reasonable version of the story.

It should also be said that dedicated partisan news sources will of course exaggerate this pattern still more than others. If you are reading Breitbart News on the right or the Palmer Report on the left, you are likely to see a wildly partisan headline over an article that contains something a little more reasonable. Of course another layer of shifting positions typically underlies this wherein a partisan publication will take a news item from the Associated Press, spin that into a partisan account of its significance. This partisan account is then spun-up once again to come up with the inflammatory headline. The end result is often a title that is wildly inconsistent with the substance of the original news story.

I suppose it’s kind of fitting that the bailey would be found in the middle of such articles.

What makes this pattern particularly egregious is the fact that so many people share links to news stories based on their feelings about the titles. Sometimes folks don’t even read the article before sharing, or they read only a few paragraphs into it, never making it to the brass-tacks account buried in the middle of the story.


Semantics All the Way Down: One interesting feature of Shackel’s approach to this would be the role of definitions in his initial argument. He bases a lot of his criticism of postmodernism on the notion that various postmodern thinkers have arbitrarily redefined key terms such as ‘truth’ to mean something else; in this case; ‘power.’ Shackel thus accuses them of Humpty-Dumptying the words in question. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:

As the problem of the Motte and Bailey doctrine is explicitly a question about shifts in meaning, this creates an iconic relationship between the problem he is talking about and the specific evidence he first uses to make his case. (I’m not even sure what to make of this; I just find it interesting.)

On a more problematic note; definitions are notoriously arbitrary to begin with. One needn’t embrace radical subjectivism or even a pragmatic definition of truth to suggest that words can be redefined for a number of reasons. Shackel’s writing seems to suggest that there is some underlying objective reality that is denied in this practice of redefining the meaning of words, but no such reality exists and one needn’t be a post-modernist to see it that way.

…unless I have under-estimated the posty bona fides of Ferdinand de Saussure.

One way of thinking about the problem of rationality is to frame it as a question of whether or not it is possible to get an objective or rational account of the world around us while starting with a semiotic system in which the significance of any given thing is arbitrary? I’ve certainly met people who think the answer is ‘yes,’ just as I’ve met people who think the answer is ‘no,’ but if Shackel means to separate the rationalist from the irrationalist, semantics would seem to be an ill-suited ground for doing so.

Might as well build your bailey in a swamp!

There is at least one other way to support Shackel’s critique of post-modernism and that would be to suggest that the redefinition accomplished by folks such as Foucault is never really complete. It isn’t even intended to be so. If Foucault defines ‘truth’ as power, his subsequent usage is at best agonistic, gaining much of its significance from a tension with more common definitions. His approach becomes absurd in Shackel’s treatment precisely because Shackel takes him quite literally whereas it has always seemed to me that Foucault wants us to retain a little of the more common sense of the term. It’s an equivocal approach to be sure, but the problem is not entirely a function of strategic manipulation.

In effect, this version of Shackel’s critique would amount to the claim, not that there is something objectively wrong with redefining words like ‘truth,’ but that the methodologies in question really don’t really do that all, opting instead to introduce an ironic significance into their use of language, thus splitting the significance of their words into a indefinite variety of possible implications. From this point of view, the motte and bailey problem would be just one of many possible shifts in meaning stemming from post-modern approaches to rhetoric.

This would give Shackel a workable angle against postmodernism without committing him to naive realism and a rather impoverished sense of semiotics.


Mixed Metaphors: It’s worth noting that those talking about motte and bailey doctrines typically use the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ in a manner someone different from other uses of the contrast. In motte and bailey talk, a strong position is one that is likely to be regarded as true, and in most cases, this means a bland and uninteresting statement, one that doesn’t risk being wrong. In contrast, the weak statements in motte and bailey narratives are those that can easily be shown to be false, which usually means that these are the claims that appear more controversial. This flies directly in the face of other conventions wherein the stronger claim is taken to be the one that risks more, claims more, and gives us more to think about. Think about ‘weak’ versus ‘strong’ atheism or ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ agnosticism. Another example might be the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ or any number of instances in which people have to distinguish between a bold claim that actually invites people to shift their understanding of a topic and a more bland claim that could be called a ‘trolls truism’ in Shackel’s treatment. What Shackel calls ‘strong’ others might call weak and visa versa.

This is a trivial problem, but it’s worth noting that what counts as strong and what counts as weak in the motte and bailey problematique is just the opposite of the conventions used in vocabulary often used to make very similar distinctions.


Last Stand at Landover: The spirit of Nathan Poe haunts this approach to the topic right here, though it appears that Shackel missed it (or chose not to acknowledge it). Of course only a damned Heathen would mention this at all, and I shall surely burn in Hell for doing so.

Damn me anyhow!


This is one of those hyperspecific fallacies that we may not even need a distinct name for, because we can address all the issues that arise with it by means of other fallacies. You can think of Bulverism as an example of circular reasoning or you can think of it as an example of the ad hominem. What makes Bulverism unique is the special way it seems to combine these two more common fallacies into a single mistake.

The genetic fallacy is also in there somewhere.

Bulverism occurs when someone assumes that another person is wrong and sets about explaining why they came to be wrong. It’s easy to mistake this for a reasonable argument, because they are actually explaining the error, but what they are explaining about the error is the personal history of the individual they believe is making it. What they are NOT explaining, is what makes it an error in the first place. That is simply assumed.

The word condescension sometimes comes up in discussions of Bulverism.

For example; when I say that I think The Searchers is a great film, my girlfriend (Moni) sometimes says; “Oh, you just have a crush on John Wayne.” This is Bulverism. Moni’s response certainly communicates her dismissal of my opinion. She might even be thought to have answered the question of why my views on the movie are wrong, but only if we interpret the ‘why’ in this instance as a request for an explanation of my error rather than a request for a justification of the criticism. In effect, Moni is explaining why she thinks I came to be be so foolish as to think this a great film. She is not telling me on what grounds she believes me to be in error. Rather than providing grounds to believe the film is poorly done or refuting my claims for believing it is well done, she simply questions my motives. This is Bulverism.

…and she’s wrong about that movie!


Anyway, the term ‘Bulverism’ was coined by C.S. Lewis who playfully suggested he would one day write a fictional story about a man (Ezekiel Bulver) who discovered at a young age there was no reason to prove anyone wrong when you could simply assume they were wrong and explain their error. Lewis’ point was that people should only go on to field such speculation if and only if they had already shown those they criticize to be in error. Whether or not it is reasonable to comment on other people’s motives once you have established an argument to the effect that they are wrong is of course open to question, but the sort of argument Lewis labels here is certainly fallacious in its own right.

Begging the Question (Circular Argument, Petitio Principii)

Begging the Question is a fallacy that occurs when the conclusion of an argument is contained in the premises used to support it. Hence, the argument is said to beg the question it purports to prove. Alternatively, it may be said to go in circles. As the result of this pattern is an argument in which support for the conclusion assumes its own truth, it effectively provides no substantive basis upon which to accept the truth of the conclusion.

In most cases, the premise will be sufficient from that of the conclusion to make recognition difficult for those engaged in the conversation to recognize it. In others, the argument may be sufficiently complex that a speaker fails to notice (or hopes their audience won’t notice) they have stuck their conclusion back into the premises of the argument. In still others, the truth of the conclusion is assumed tacitly by other premises within the argument. Either way, it often takes some reflection to see that the conclusion matches one of the premises of the argument in question.

Take for example the following arguments:

“I know god exists, because the Bible tells me so, and I know the Bible is correct, because it is the word of God.”

“God does not exist. That’s just a myth!”

In the first case, the notion that Bible is the word of god assumes that God exists, so the conclusion of the argument is assumed by the premise offered in support of his existence. Hence, the argument is circular in virtue of an implied premise that matches the conclusion.

In the second, the notion that God is just a myth assumes that he is not real in the first place, so an argument dismissing belief in God on this basis assumes that he is not real to begin with. So, if the second statement is understood to be a reason for believing the first, the result is a circular argument.

Circular argumentation (or begging the question) is an incredibly common fallacy. The problems with this fallacy are actually rather central to the nature of logic and reasoning itself, particularly insofar as they illustrate the practical significance of providing a reason to believe something in the first place.

Oddly Interactive Problem: As noted above, what makes a circular argument a fallacy is the failure to provide any reasons to believe the conclusion which are not dependent on the conclusion itself. As some have noted, (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, for example pp. 112-114), this not strictly speaking a failure of logic. It is a failure of rhetoric. By some tests (e.g. truth tables), a circular argument seems to pass with flying colors. So, why isn’t it valid? Some would actually say that it is valid, though still fallacious. Others might just say it is invalid. Either way, the problem is the argument produces no new reason to believe its conclusion, hence the argument fails to accomplish what people normally use arguments for; it fails as a means of persuasion. It is as much a failure of social interaction as it is a failure of reasoning.

Begs the question“: In discussing a belief or claim, one might hear someone say; “this begs the question of…” Of course this is roughly equivalent to suggest that the matter “raises the question of…” This bothers some people to no end, because a raising a question is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of begging the question. On the other hand, the usage often carries some implication that a specific answer to the question they wish to raise has already been assumed by those advocating the belief or claim which triggered their comment. This isn’t quite equivalent to the fallacy of begging the question, but it does bear a certain family resemblance, so to speak. The usage does not, strictly speaking, match common logical definitions of the fallacy, but isn’t entirely devoid of sense. In any event, language usage varies.

Circularity of Reasoning: There is an interesting problem in epistemology insofar as we can find a degree of reasoning in many theories, perhaps even most. …possible all of them? Likewise if you examine people’s world views in general, you will likely find a degree of circularity in the relationship between their basic premises about how the world works and what it means to know something and the particular conclusions they draw about the world around them. What separates the circularity of reasoning on such a grand scale and that of a circular argument is the scope of the subject matter. Whether or not that is sufficient to resolve any of the problems in question is another question, but one does sometimes hear people talk about whether or not a given instance of circular reasoning is vicious. Presumably, a ‘yes’ answer means trouble, A ‘no’ gets you a pass. Whether or not the distinction can be made on the basis of a non-circular argument is another question, as is any question about whether or not the circularity of the distinction would itself be vicious.

Reflexivity can be a real bitch!

Synonyms: I have seen some folks distinguish begging the question from circular argumentation. The wikipedia entries in question currently do so emphasizing the notion that a circular argument begins with the conclusion it purports to prove whereas the entry on begging the question merely suggests the conclusion is assumed in the premises. there is certainly room to draw a significant distinction there, but the usage is not standardized. In practice, most people seem to use these terms interchangeably.

Tautology: Circular argumentation shares a lot in common with tautology, enough so that the two are often confused with one another. A tautology may be described as an assertion that is true by every possible variation of the truth value of its components. If I say, “It is safe to go outside, unless it is not,” that statement is true for all possible truth values, because its individual components are contradictory. One will always be true and one will always be false. So, my statement to the effect that one or the other is true will always be true, regardless of the facts. By way of contrast, If I say, “Either Bob has my Pen or Bill has it,” then if neither of them has it, my statement is false. This is the way most assertions work. Falsehood is at least possible. A tautology is true regardless of the particulars. Another way of putting it would be to say that it is true by virtue of its logical form (e.g. A or not A). The problem with tautologies is that they don’t tell us much about the real world, so to speak. They might be used on occasion to help us organize information, but they do not commit a speaker to any specific account of the facts.

I have seen the difference between a tautology and a circular argument explained in a few different ways, but the most clear explanation that I am aware of is to think of a tautology as a feature of a single statement whereas a circular argument is a feature of an argument.

The Tin-Man Defense

I’m not going to lie! The inspiration for this post was Donald Trump, or more to the point, the many times that his defenders made a point to tell us what he really meant when he said nothing of the kind. During the Trump administration, countless pundits and social media participants made it a regular practice to improve upon his actual words whenever defending him. The rest of us would find ourselves saying; “but that’s not what he said!” or even “Great, now tell that to Trump!” I could be wrong, of course, but I often had a very strong sense that the defense of something Donald Trump’s actually said very commonly began with an effort to clean up obvious mistakes and outrageous comments. I found myself thinking that this is like the straw man argument in reverse; people were defending Donald Trump by making up a position that sounded something like his own, but which didn’t actually match his own public statements on the topic in question. If the issue were just Trump himself, perhaps this would be too trivial to matter, but in at least some situations, this left open questions about what Donald trump’s actual intent really was and/or what sorts of policies might come out of the discussion in question. It’s all well and good to imagine a new and improved version of an existing theme, but without any clear reason to believe this version was really what the relevant source had in mind, the exercise is deceptive at best.

All gripes about our ex-President aside, this problem is not entirely unique to Donald Trump. I have encountered moments before in which someone defending a position effectively cleaned up the original. There may even be contexts in which this works just fine, particularly if it is acknowledged openly. If somebody says up front that they are reframing the original stance in the hopes of improving on it, that is often going to be a helpful and constructive thing to do. This becomes a problem, however, when the change is not acknowledged up front (thus raising questions about whether or not the party improving upon an original position realizes the difference themselves), or when the faults of the original position resist reformulation. A bad law remains in force, for example, even if its defenders insist on imagining it in newer and better ways, at least until it is actually amended. A reckless person who has expressed terrible views on a given subject doesn’t necessarily change his mind because a more thoughtful person finds a nicer way to say similar things to a third party. If it is the judgement of the reckless person that matters, the re-imagined message does more to cloud the matters at hand than it does to clear them up.

I really don’t know of any clear label to designate thus within the existing literature. I mean, you could call this a red herring, and it certainly is, but the specific form of distraction here doesn’t seem to have a name (that I know of anyway). Maybe, you could see it as a form of equivocation, or at least think of instances in which the argument would turn on some form of equivocation. I’m sure there are other possibilities. On a lark, I posted something about this on TikTok and asked for suggestions as to a name. I got a few suggestions, and Shane Lockwood suggested Steelmanning. I really liked that suggestion, but I keep thinking about this as a kind of inverted straw man, so decided the Scarecrow and the Tin Man would make a nice pair, so to speak. I also like the implication that the armor isn’t really all that good, because the original position is still vulnerable. Anyway, I’m going with “Tin Man.”


Okay, so brass tacks, what is a tin man argument or a tin man defense?

It is a defense of a previously-stated position which surreptitiously improves upon the original. This most commonly occurs in response to specific objections against the previous position, but it could also take the form of a direct argument purporting to support the original position (albeit one which actually changes it).


For example:

Party A says; “Immigrants are destroying our country.”

Party B says: “This kind of immigrant-bashing is racist.”

Party C says: “He is not talking about legal immigrants; just the illegal kind.”

Note that in this example, Party C draws a distinction which is absent in the original position, thus cleaning up at least some (though not all) of the objectionable implications in the original statement. So, the defense effectively improves on the position in question rather than defending it as originally stated. In the example above, Part C actually denies that the original position was about legal immigrants at all, so it is not a conscious effort to replace a broad statement with a more narrow and precise one; it is effectively stating that the distinction was central to the point all along. Now the made up examples like this is that we can imagine all sorts of possibilities. It could be that there is some context-based reason to believe the distinction was intended all along. It could also be that Party C is simply reading their own somewhat more precise thinking about the issue for the original. (I’m pretty sure, I have seen both scenarios play out in online discussions.) If there is no clear reason to believe the distinction between legal and illegal immigration was intended in the original statement, then Party C is effectively tin manning the original argument.

What makes this important is the question of whether or not political actions taken on the basis of such views will target only those present in the United States in violation of American law, or will it also impact those present by legal means or even those who seek to enter by legal means in the future (to say nothing of American citizens who may be mistaken for immigrants). So, a defense of the original position that introduced more nuance than the original would effectively misrepresent the nature of the political agenda in question.

I did warn you this was inspired by Trump and his defenders, didn’t I?

Deny Yourself a Word

This is a good exercise, at least I think so. Whenever you catch yourself using a word too much, or more particularly using it without thinking, or if you often find yourself unable to explain something without using that word, make a conscious choice to strike that word from your vocabulary for a little while. It can be for a single project, a speech or a paper, or a small stretch of time. If you are a teacher and find your students leaning on a word too much, ban it from their own vocabulary for a bit. Anyway, the point is to take the term out of the conversation for a little while.

Some might think the point here is to suppress a thought or any idea. Far from it. The point is to remind yourself (and others) what that word means in the first place. In you can remove a buzz-term from a conversation, you can force a group of people to think more carefully about the subject instead of just using the term as a filler for incomplete thoughts. If you catch yourself using a term as a crutch, throwing it away can force you to think of alternative ways to express the same thoughts. Once you’ve done this for awhile, once you’ve explored a few alternative ways to express yourself, you can safely put the word back in your vocabulary and move on.

If the exercise has had its desired effect, you can take the word or leave it at your leisure. If it helps you, great. If not, you have other ways of communicating.


As a side note, I find this particularly useful with respect to fallacies and fallacy accusations. Precisely because some fallacies are well known, at least in educated circles, they are some of the few technical terms from logic that you can get by with using in regular conversation. It’s useful short-hand. In some cases, just telling someone their argument is circular, for example, can be all you need do to convey a very specific criticism. Others may not know what you mean. More importantly, you should know what you mean. Taking the time to explain the problem without using the term for a given fallacy can help to sharpen up your critique and ensure that you are getting sloppy with the use of the term. It will also come in handy when you encounter someone who does not understand the terms in question and doesn’t get the point when you just drop the name of a fallacy.