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The fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi is a type of non sequitur wherein premises are provided that prove a different conclusion than the one they are purported to prove.¹ A less technical name for this fallacy is ‘missing the point’—though we must not take this nickname too far. Ignoratio elenchi literally translates as ‘ignorance of the chain’, and speaks bluntly of the ignorance a person might have to the line of reasoning being considered (see, Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations). In general, a non sequitur is a fallacy wherein the conclusion does not follow from the premises. When contrasted with this, it can be difficult to properly ascertain what distinguishes the ignoratio elenchi from a non sequitur as a proper subclass in such a way as to prevent it from reducing to a basic non sequitur. Indeed, as a subclass of non sequitur, it contains much the same description as is had by a non sequitur, but it does not possess the full range of meaning held by a non sequitur.
In order to understand precisely what is meant by this fallacy, let us consider an example. Consider an instance wherein a legislator seeks to prove that a particular piece of legislation will bring fresh drinking water to his constituency. In order to prove this, he argues vigorously for the benefits of consuming fresh drinking water. The fallacy has occurred in that the legislator has not proven that the bill in question will actually provide these benefits for his constituency, but only that fresh water is good. In other words, the conclusion has nothing, logically speaking, to do with the question at hand.
Let us consider another, similar example. There is a moment in the film Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) where a prosecutor, played by Richard Widmark, is attempting to prove that several German judges are personally responsible for the atrocities of the holocaust. In order to make his case, the prosecutor provides several examples of the absolute barbarism endured by the victims of the holocaust. While this is a powerful moment in the film, it nevertheless is irrelevant to the point the prosecutor is trying to make. Indeed, the holocaust was horrible, but the mere existence of the horrors of the holocaust do not prove that the defendants are guilty of perpetrating them.
The fallacy occurs due to an attempt to prove a conclusion. The problem is not so much contained within the conclusion, but rather in the fact that the arguer has provided arguments that do not prove his desired conclusion. This is often done due to the influence of emotional reasoning, wherein the arguer ‘feels’ there is more of a link than there really is between the arguments and conclusions. Whatever the cause, what is constant to them all is that there is a general topical relation between the premises and the conclusion, while there is not a logical relation.
Another variant of the ignoratio elenchi is termed the ‘red herring fallacy’. While the exact relation between the ignoratio elenchi fallacy and the red herring fallacy can be disputed, many logicians have noted the similarity between the two fallacies. A red herring fallacy is one wherein an unrelated issue is brought up in order to redirect the course of the argument. This redirection does not always occur because of nefarious and manipulative reasons. Even still, Arthur Schopenhauer proposed employing the red herring fallacy as a tactic to utilize when an argument is not going favorably.² Simply put: if you are losing a debate, you can just shift the point of contention elsewhere.
In conclusion, the ignoratio elenchi fallacy is often difficult to spot because it arises due to the feeling of a link when there is none. If we consider the nickname, ‘missing the point’, we can see that the fallacy is a less obvious fallacy to spot. Its meaning implies that the arguer has failed to grasp adequately the relations between points concerning the issue being discussed, and as a result connects dots that are not properly connected. In either example provided above, it was not the case that the inference that was made was topically unrelated. Rather, it is precisely the topical relation that created the opening for this fallacy. The problem was that the premises, while topically related to the conclusion, nevertheless do not logically prove the conclusion.
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- Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, 3rd ed. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), 94; Irving Copi, Introduction to Logic (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1968), 85.
- «Merkt man, daß man geschlagen wird, so macht man eine Diversion: d. h. fängt mit einem Male von etwas ganz anderm an, als gehörte es zur Sache und wäre ein Argument gegen den Gegner.» —or, “If one is being beaten [in a debate], then one can make a diversion: In other words, one can begin from something quite different, as if it was pertinent to the matter, and make an argument against the opponent.” Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten (Berlin, Germany: CreateSpace, 2016), Kunstgriff 29.