Definist fallacy

Definist fallacy

The definist fallacy can refer to three logical fallacies related to how terms are defined in an argument. The first, coined by William Frankena in 1939, involves the definition of one property in terms of another. The second fallacy refers to the insisted use of a persuasive definition[1] in an argument. Finally, it can also refer to the Socratic fallacy in which terms are required to be defined before use.[2] This article focuses on the first of these fallacies.

The philosopher William Frankena first used the term definist fallacy in a paper published in the British analytic philosophy journal Mind in 1939.[3] In this article he generalized and critiqued G. E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy, which argued that good cannot be defined by natural properties, as a broader confusion caused by attempting to define a term using non-synonymous properties.[4] Frankena argued that the naturalistic fallacy is a complete misnomer because it is neither limited to naturalistic properties nor necessarily a fallacy. On the first word (naturalistic), he noted that Moore rejected defining good in non-natural as well as natural terms.[5]

On the second word (fallacy), Frankena rejected the idea that it represented an error in reasoning – a fallacy as it is usually recognized – rather than an error in semantics.[6] In Moore's Open Question Argument, because questions such as "Is that which is pleasurable good?" have no definitive answer, then pleasurable is not synonymous with good. Frankena rejected this argument as the fact that there is always an open question merely reflects the fact that it makes sense to ask whether two things that may be identical in fact are.[7] Thus, even if good is identical to pleasurable, it makes sense to ask whether it is; the answer may be "yes", but the question was legitimate. This seems to contradict Moore's view which accepts that sometimes alternative answers could be dismissed without argument, however Frankena objects that this would be committing the fallacy of begging the question.[6]


  1. ^ Dowden, Bradley (December 31, 2010). "Fallacies". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 31, 2011. 
  2. ^ Bunnin, Nicholas; Jiyuan Yu (2004). "Definist fallacy". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 165. ISBN 9781405106795. 
  3. ^ Frankena, W. K. (October 1939). "The Naturalistic Fallacy". Mind (Oxford University Press) 48 (192): 464–477. JSTOR 2250706. 
  4. ^ Preston, Aaron (December 30, 2005). "Moore, George Edward". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 31, 2011. 
  5. ^ Hamid, Md. Abdul (1989). G.E. Moore: A Study of His Ethics. Mittal Publications. pp. 93–96. ISBN 9788170991748. 
  6. ^ a b Ridge, Michael (June 26, 2008). "Moral Non-Naturalism". In Edward N. Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 31, 2011. 
  7. ^ Flew, Antony (1984). "Definist fallacy". A Dictionary of Philosophy. Macmillan. p. 85. ISBN 9780312209230. 

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