Circular logic occurs when the supporting premise of one statement is based on the premise of another statement, which in turn is based on the support of a preceding statement.
Since each statement is supported by the other, there is no way to disprove any of them.
This line of thinking is often referred to aspetitio principii, which means “begging the question.”
Another Latin term often used is circulus in probando, which translates to “circle in proving.”
The main problem with circular logic, or circular reasoning, is that it perverts the path to truth. Because each premise in the argument rests on the previous premise, which eventually circles back to the first premise, there is no opportunity to challenge the underlying assumption of any of the premises.
As stated by Rips (2002):
“Circularity is a defect in reasoning because it undermines correct attempts to justify a claim or an action” (p. 768).
Circular Logic Overview
The structure of circular logic usually occurs in the following form: Statement S1 justifies statement S2. Statement S2 justifies statement S3, which then provides justification for S1.
If circular logic was presented so neatly, then it would be reasonably easy to spot. However, as Rips (2002) points out, the problem is that often times an individual making the argument does not repeat statement S1 verbatim.
Statement S1 is rephrased slightly and is presented in the form S′1.
Rip identifies this scenario as the “repetition problem” because the circularity depends on the later statement made in the argument being a “propositional repetition of earlier ones” (p. 768).
Types of Circular Logic
There are several versions of circular logic. Each one relies on circularity to prove what it proves, but they are defined slightly differently.
Tautology refers to using the same two words or phrases in a single sentence in such a way that both instances support each other.
A tautology consists of a single proposition that supports itself.
It can take the form “A is true, therefore A is valid.”
Technically speaking it is not classified as circular reasoning, although it certainly is quite similar.
Tautologies can be seen frequently in phrases such as:
“Boys will be boys.”
“I am a fighter, and fighters fight.”
In the first example we can see that the behavior of boys is justified because they are boys; being a boy means acting the way boys act. The statement supports itself.
The term pleonasm, which hails from Greek origins, aptly means “excess.”
Essentially, it is a stylistic tool used in language, notable for its surplus and redundancy of words or phrases.
While it shares similarities with tautology, where the same idea is expressed twice using different words, pleonasm is usually expressed more simply, often by placing two similar words in sequence.
This particular form of circular logic arises when two or more words essentially saying the same thing are used to describe a single phenomenon, usually for the sake of emphasis or clarity.
The structure of pleonasm can seem unnecessary or overly verbose, but in some instances, it provides a poetic, emphatic, or explicative value.
Quintessential examples of pleonasms in common speech include phrases such as ‘heroic hero,’ ‘intelligent genius,’ ‘burning fire,’ or ‘creative artist,’ where the descriptors are inherently implied in the nouns they modify.
3. Circular Definition
A Circular Definition is a type of definitional flaw where a term is explained using the term itself or a closely related synonym.
This creates a situation where the explanation is intertwined with the term it seeks to clarify, leading to a loop of circular reasoning.
Occasionally, the synonym used to define the original term is itself defined by referring back to that same initial term. In this way, the definitions become interdependent, essentially creating a cycle.
This circularity means that both definitions rely on each other, making them self-referential and arguably failing to provide true clarification. Instead, they produce an infinite loop, essentially becoming trapped within their own explanatory cycle.
Origins of Circular Logic
The logical fallacy of “begging the question” was originally a method of answering a very broad question by answering several smaller, more specific questions.
This seems like a logical way to arrive at a conclusion. However, over time the term evolved to mean circular reasoning.
The problem of circular reasoning cab be traced to the Greek philosopher Agrippa the Skeptic who lived in the 1st century CE (Empiricus & Bury, 1933).
He was part of the school of thought known as Pyrrhonism, which rejected dogma and advocated for the suspension of judgment over the acceptance of beliefs.
Circular Logic Examples
- Being a Fresh Graduate Looking for Work: Nearly every employment ad you see has the same requirement: experience. But, if you are a recent graduate, you have no experience. How are you supposed to get experience if no one will hire you because you don’t have any experience?
- Being Popular: Sometimes, a person is very popular among their peers because they are so popular. They are not popular because of an inherent likeable trait or admirable accomplishment. They are popular because they are popular.
- Famous for Being Famous: Being a famous celebrity is sometimes based on the fact that the person is a celebrity. No one can point to a particular reason they are a celebrity, such as playing a starring role in a great movie. They’re just famous because they have been famous for so long.
- Great Writer: Stating that a person is a great writer because they write so well is another example of a tautology that relies on circular reasoning.
- Welfare: People that need jobs are given financial assistance because they do not have jobs, which makes it less likely that they seek employment because they are receiving money.
- Understanding Logic: Determining the logical foundations of a logical argument requires that the individual understand logicality. In order to understand how logicality is supported, one must be able to think logically.
- In Political Propaganda: Using the term “evil” to describe a country is a way of labeling it in such a way that will justify military action. The country is bad because it is evil. Military intervention is only enacted on an evil country. Therefore, because that country is evil, war must be enacted on it.
- Free Speech in a Communist Country: People in a communist country are happy with their government. They don’t complain about their government. Free speech is against the law in a communist country.
- Flying is more Dangerous than Driving: Many people believe that flying is more dangerous than driving. The reason is because they can point to news stories covering plane crashes occurring more often than car crashes. This is used as evidence that planes are more dangerous than cars, because plane crashes are covered more frequently. Therefor, planes are more dangerous.
- In Romance: We all know that sometimes love can be blind. But, it can also be based on circular logic. For example, when asked why she loves her boyfriend, a teenage girl replies, “because I love him.”
Applications of Circular Logic within Psychology
1. In Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is the study of how human beings can become happy and flourish in a society that is often cynical and full of pressures and symbolic threats (Seligman, 2002; 2008).
It suggests that being engaged in meaningful, selfless activities are central to a path to subjective happiness.
While positive psychology has received a great deal of attention in the media and has been embraced in schools in the West, it is not without its detractors.
For instance, Miller (2008) has pointed out that the foundation of positive psychology is actually built upon circular reasoning.
He provides several examples of the circular reasoning that forms the basis of positive psychology’s fundamental tenets (from p. 605).
He concludes that positive psychology provides a spurious recipe for a kind of spiritual achievement of happiness that lacks meaningful substance and is based on circular reasoning.
Go Deeper: Examples of Positive Psychology
2. In Trait Theory
In the study of personality, the trait theory postulates that personality characteristics are enduring traits the exist in relative similar fashion across time and situations. The consistency in the expression of the characteristic is the defining element of why it is labeled as a “trait.”
Gerber (2011) points out the circularity of this reasoning using the Big Five model of personality.
“If someone likes to go to parties they are assumed to be extraverted. If we then ask why someone likes to go to parties, it is assumed to be due to extraversion” (pp. 3-4).
This explanation is circular because the individual’s behavior is used to determine their trait, and their trait is then used to explain their behavior.
As Gerber puts it:
“A set of behaviours is used to define…and then the trait is used to explain the same set of behaviours” (p. 4).
The main problem with this state of affairs is that it impedes scientific progress.
This circularity has been avoided by some trait theorists. For example, Eysenck’s ARAS (Eysenck, 1967) and Gray’s (1972; 1982) BIS/BAS model of personality incorporate biological substrates as a basis for individual differences.
The behavior of the individuals is not used to support the existence of the trait. Rather, the biology is relied upon to define the trait.
Developmental psychologists have also avoided the circularity problem by suggesting that traits develop as a result of the individual’s past, which includes both genes and environmental factors. Attachment theory (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 2015) and the work of Hazan and Shaver (1987) are excellent examples.
By exploring other factors involved in the trait-behavior connection, circularity can be avoided and knowledge can be advanced.
Circular logic involves supporting a conclusion with premises that each support each other. They form a ring of support that is seemingly impenetrable of external reasoning due to the fact that each premise supports the other.
With roots to the great Greek philosopher Agrippa the Skeptic, we understand that the problem of circular logic has existed for quite sometime in Western history.
In the modern era, we can see examples of the fallacy of circular logic in everyday statements such as “boys will be boys,” which justifies the behavior of boys because they are boys.
Although circular logic in everyday life may be relatively harmless, some scholars have pointed out that it also exists in the social sciences, particularly in psychology.
Trait theory and positive psychology both have elements of circular logic in their theoretical frameworks. This violates a fundamental scientific requirement that knowledge is be founded on sound principles.
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