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The treatment of fallacies in argumentative situations during mediation sessions.


The interest in fallacies and the importance of studying them are determined by the fact that deviation from the standard practices can shed light on the process of normative argumentation and provide interactants with techniques that will enable them to make interaction more effective. Fallacies have been the focus of many scholars from ancient times (see, for example, van Eemeren, Grootendorst, & Snoeck-Henkemans, 1996, and Walton, 1992, for historical background). Researchers in two major streams, monologic (Ikuenobe, 2004; Johnson, 1995; Lumer, 2000) and dialectical (van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 1992; van Eemeren et al., 1996; Ruhl, 1999; Walton, 1992) have been concerned with the issue of what a fallacy is and what types of fallacies exist. Both approaches, however, have shortcomings. The monologic approach starts with assumptions about the fallacy and abstracts this phenomenon from the process of communication. Some types of fallacies, however, are context-dependent (van Eemeren et al., 1996). By contrast, the dialectical perspective treats argumentation as a dialogic process and stresses the necessity of considering "the communicative and interactional context in which the fallacies occur" (van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 21). Although the dialectical approach is more valid, the research tends to overemphasize the role of the speaker who commits a fallacy and the intentionality of this action. It also overlooks the orientation of interactants themselves to the fallacy.

I adhere to the perspective that to understand interaction processes, it is necessary to look at communicative practices themselves and study them in naturally-occurring conversations. This study employs the constitutive view of communication, according to which a conversation is a collaborative activity. Seeing arguments as an interactional process, Hutchby (1996) states, "it is important to look not only at how arguments are made, but also at how their recipients respond to them" (p. 21). In line with this interactional perspective, the aim of the present study is to discover how interactants respond to fallacies in argumentative discussions during mediation sessions and what moves the interactants treat as fallacious. This will shed light on the nature of fallacies, how they are achieved, and what they are accomplishing in the course of interaction.


Fallacies enjoy a special place in the field of argumentation. There is no unified view on what fallacies are, however. Researchers conceptualize them in different ways depending on their perspective on this phenomenon. Two major approaches to fallacies are monologic and dialectical.

Monologic Approach to Fallacies

Adherents of the monologic perspective (Ikuenobe, 2004; Johnson, 1995; Lumer, 2000) treat fallacies as a psychological-semantic concept. Fallacies are understood as arguments that seem to be valid but are not. In their view, these logically incorrect arguments can be abstracted from the context of interaction and analyzed regardless of the circumstances of their occurrence in the argumentation discussion as "purposes and pragmatics exist already on the level of monological argumentation" (Lumer, 2000, p. 406). This approach, however, leads to the situation when certain traditional types of fallacies that are inherently dialogical have to stay out of the list of fallacies. One of them is the fallacy of many questions, a classic example of which is "When did you stop beating your wife?" (van Eemeren et al., 1996). This question can be quite a legitimate move. For instance, if it is established from the preceding moves that a husband had indeed treated his wife in this abusive manner and then stopped, and if this kind of question is followed by a proper answer (e.g., "last year", "two months ago"), then no fallacy has been committed.

Dialectical Approach to Fallacies

The dialectical concept of fallacy is reflected in two modern approaches: pragma-dialectics (van Eemeren et al., 1996) and dialectical shifts (Walton, 1992).

A pragma-dialectical approach. Pragma-dialectics views argumentation as a specific type of communicative activity and focuses on specifying the rules and conditions for one type of idealized dialogue, namely, a critical discussion (van Eemeren et al., 1996; van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 1984; van Eemeren & Houtlosser, 2006). It seeks to bridge the gap between descriptive and normative views of argumentation and to interweave the two perspectives. As ways of interacting and ways of reasoning are linked to each other, pragma-dialectics attempts to develop certain hales and procedures that can enforce disputants to resolve their conflict in a highly rational way.

A fallacy from the pragma-dialectical perspective happens when the rules for critical discussion are violated. Parties involved in a critical dialogue ideally should follow ten basic principles to resolve the difference of opinion. In a real situation, however, parties do not always stick to these rules but can make moves that hinder an argumentative discussion. These moves that are not in agreement with the rules (e. g., preventing the other party from expressing his/her standpoints or making an ambiguous statement that misleads the other party) are considered to be fallacies (van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 1992; van Eemeren, Garssen, & Meuffels, 2002).

According to pragma-dialectics, the ideal model of critical discussion consists of four stages: the confrontation stage, the opening stage, the argumentation stage, and the concluding stage (van Eemeren et al., 1996). As different rules are applied to different stages of the discussion, types of fallacies vary depending on the stage it occurs. For example, according to Eemeren and Houflosser (2006), the freedom rule can be violated at the confrontation stage. Both the protagonist and the antagonist can obstruct the expression of standpoints by threatening a person (argumentum ad baculum) or undermining an opponent's credibility (argumentum ad hominem), for instance.

The pragma-dialectical approach has a number of advantages over the traditional (monologic) view of fallacies. First of all, pragma-dialectics provides a better explanation for traditional fallacies by employing a dialogical approach that emphasizes the necessity to consider the context for identifying and analyzing fallacies. Other approaches start with a traditional list of fallacies as a point of their departure without a systematic treatment of them. By contrast, pragma-dialectics offers norms and rules of critical discussion, thus providing criteria not only for traditional fallacies but also their sound counterparts (van Eemeren & Houtlosser, 2002).

This approach has the capacity to bring to light discussion moves that hinder the critical discussion by violating its rule or rules but that are not included in the list of traditional fallacies. Thus, pragma-dialectics allows for identifying new fallacies (e.g., declaring a standpoint sacrosanct, denying an unexpressed premise, distorting an unexpressed premise, to name a few). For instance, the fallacy of denying an unexpressed premise occurs when the protagonist tries to avoid responsibility for an implicit premise that can be correctly reconstructed from what he or she says, thus violating the first part of rule five (the unexpressed premise rule) (van Eemeren & Houtlosser, 2006).

Walton's theory of fallacies. Walton's work is an attempt to bring communication ideas into a theory of informal logic. The researcher's perspective on argument is pragmatic because it considers the context and the goal of an argumentative exchange. It is dialectical because it treats an argument as dynamic and incorporates the idea of interactive reasoning. Participants take into consideration each other's knowledge base, and reasoning takes the form of a dialogue (Walton, 2000). As kinds of dialogue vary, so do the ways people reason, which is, in some way, consistent with the idea that the social epistemology aspect of interaction is not the same for different types of talk (Drew & Heritage, 1992).

The concept of types of dialogue is one of Walton's main contributions. Walton understands a dialogue as "a verbal exchange between two parties, according to some kind of rules, conventions or expectations" (Walton, 2000, p. 333). According to Walton (1998, 2000), dialogues have different schemes and vary in terms of goals. What is appropriate or inappropriate in a certain type of dialogue depends on its goal. Violations are moves that divert interactants from achieving the primary goal of interaction (e.g., negotiation).

Another Walton's important contribution is the idea of dialectical shifts. Different types of dialogue can occur in one argumentative discussion. In this case, there occurs a dialectical shift, that is, "a change from one context of dialogue to another" (Walton, 1992, p. 23). For example, interactants can be initially involved in a scientific inquiry, and, at some moment, they can shift to a persuasion type of dialogue, and then they may or may not come back to the initial one. Sometimes dialectical shifts are quite distinct. In other cases, shifts occur gradually, and in still other cases, types of dialogue can overlap (Walton, 1998).

The concepts of types of dialogue and a dialectical shift are important with respect to Walton's theory of fallacies. According to Walton, a fallacy is "an argumentation technique, based on an argumentation scheme, misused to block the goals of a dialogue in which two parties are reasoning together" (Walton, 1995, xi). The fallacy is then not the argument as such but the use of the argument; fallacies are procedural and context-dependent. Situating a fallacy in a dialogue setting, Walton states that one and the same argument can be fallacious and non-fallacious depending on the context. According to Walton (1992), fallacies often arise when there is a dialectical shift. The fallacy occurs if one party makes the change from one context to another without others being aware of this change (Walton, 1992).

Jacobs and Jackson's view of fallacies. Jacobs and Jackson's view of argumentation is reflected in how the researchers conceptualize fallacies. In comparison with some other approaches (e.g., pragma-dialectics), they take a more socialized position on this communication phenomenon (Jacobs & Jackson, 2006). They consider a fallacy, in line with their view of argument in general, as a joint responsibility. All the potential a fallacy has (e.g., to mislead, to obstruct the reasonable discussion) is realized or not in the response to it.

Discussing the reasons why fallacies can function successfully, Jacobs (2005) points out that, first, fallacies are difficult to avoid as they are quite often excusable and justifiable. Second, they are hard to detect because the concept of fallaciousness itself is "subject to debate and interpretation, and it is a matter of degree and tolerance" (p. 417). And, finally, fallacies are hard to repair as marking this move is not the best response. Jacobs addresses the issue of fallacies in terms of strategies. According to Jacobs, any fallacy should be treated as a strategic move, although it does not necessarily mean that it is planned; thoughtless routine and habitual actions can be reflected in a strategy. The researcher points out that the notion of strategy is unfairly mistreated in different perspectives on argumentation. Thus, in the logic approach, which is concerned with first-order models of argument and deals with inferences and propositional content, strategy has no relevance to good argumentation. The dialectical theories, which are second-order models of argumentation and focus on procedural rules interactants should follow to resolve disputes, treat the use of strategies as conflicting with the ideal of the rational argumentation. Jacobs states that in real communication, however, the use of strategy is unavoidable. Jacobs suggests shifting the focus from individual aims in argumentation to the dialectical aims of the activity in order to assess the effectiveness of argumentation. In this respect, "strategies and tactics can be seen as having fallacious design if they function to degrade the quality of deliberation. But this functioning is always relative to a situation" (p. 421). In other words, what is a weak argument or a fallacy in one context can be a reasonable move in another one.

Fallacious and Non-Fallacious Arguments

As mentioned before, in the dialectical view of fallacies, argumentation moves can be fallacious and non-fallacious, and the circumstances of the use of arguments play an important role in defining them as such. For example, examining variants of ad hominem, ad baculum, ad misericordiam fallacies, and declaring a standpoint taboo, van Eemeren and his colleagues (van Eemeren et al., 2002; van Eemeren, Meuffels, & Verburg, 2000) found that arguers distinguish between fallacious and non-fallacious moves and consider the former to be less reasonable in discussion than the latter. However, the degree of reasonableness varies depending on the type of fallacy and the context. Thus, the physical variant of the ad baculum is ranked as the most unreasonable discussion move (van Eemeren et al., 2002). The results also show that fallacies in a scientific discussion are considered to be more unreasonable than fallacies in political and domestic discussions (van Eemeren et al., 2000). Although the Amsterdam school might not agree with Walton's views, these findings, in fact, give support to Walton's (1992) idea that one and the same argument can be valid or invalid depending on the conditions of its usage. Appeals to emotions may, for example, contribute to their goals by linking "an argument to an arguer's so-called dark-side commitments on an issue ... that reflect the arguer's deeper, underlying convictions or position" (p. 27). Conversely, they can block the discussion and steer the argument in a destructive direction. Although Jacobs and Jackson's (Jackson & Jacobs, 1980; Jacobs, 2000; Jacobs & Jackson, 1981, 1989, 2006) perspective on argumentation, and fallacies in particular, differs in some respect from the positions mentioned above, they also stress the role of discourse, moves and countermoves, in defining bad moves, thus underlying the importance of a recipient's response in this process.

Undoubtedly, fallacies can damage the process of argumentation, but the occurrence of a fallacy does not necessarily lead to the end of the discussion. In the longstanding study of fallacies, we learn about human reasoning and interaction. Progress has been made in how researchers treat this particular phenomenon. The traditional monologic approach invited certain problems, which the dialectical approach has answered. The dialectical approach reframes the traditional view of fallacies and opens possibilities for discovering new ones. This approach, however, has problems of its own. These problems are empirical and theoretical. Both approaches are still normative-critical orientations that presuppose the normative model for identifying fallacies, whether a fallacy is considered to be a logical error, a language ambiguity; or a move that violates some discussion rule; or an illegitimate dialogue shift and application of a wrong argumentation scheme. What these theories miss is how fallacies are embedded in the interaction that carries its own constraints on what can be appropriate contributions to the talk. The next section will focus on the orderliness of interaction.


The idea of the interaction order developed by Goffman (1967, 1973, 1983) implies that there is order in interaction independent of society and individuals. It does not matter what is a participant's status, age, gender, race or any other personal attributes and social structures. Orderliness of interaction stems from interaction itself and is shaped by participants of this interaction. According to Goffman (1983), the order of interaction is based on constraints placed by the need of a presentational self to be achieved and maintained in and through interaction. These constraints are of a moral nature. When people are engaged in interaction, they become vulnerable (bodily, mentally, and emotionally) through physical actions and verbal and nonverbal messages. To minimize risks associated with interaction, interactants have obligations to handle an encounter in a manner that will allow a participant to sustain not only his/her face, but the face of others as well. For Goffman (1967), the maintenance of self is not a goal of the interaction; it is a condition for it. In the course of interaction, people do not just focus on reaching some personal goals and on dealing with propositional logic but also on the needs of interaction itself (e.g., constitutive achievement of self).

Institutional forms of talk carry additional constraints on what is considered to be an adequate contribution to the interaction, and what is a violation. Some conversational actions are avoided while others are promoted in institutional talk (Drew & Heritage, 1992). The orientation to the goal of a particular type of interaction rather than to the personal ones, at least by one of the participants, is one of the important features of institutional interaction (Drew & Heritage, 1992). These goals are different from the needs of interaction discussed earlier in reference to the interaction order. While maintaining self and achieving meaning are constraints on the interaction order, the goals mentioned above are institutional constraints on interaction.

Returning to the issue of fallacies, there is some evidence that people can recognize fallacies defined by a normative model. But we know less about whether these are recognized in interaction, and if recognized (and also if not recognized) what are the consequences for a dialogue. So the questions are: What happens when we study fallacies in real interaction that is far from being ideal and imposes its own constraints on how the discussion unfolds? And, if fallacies are treated as interactive achievements, then how they are achieved? Using a naturalistic investigation that focuses on the linguistic and interactional aspects of fallacies can shed light on these questions. For the purpose of this study, naturally-occurring dispute mediation serves as a context of research, and this will be briefly discussed next.


Mediation is a form of dispute resolution that aims to help two or more parties resolve their dispute through the help of a third party, namely, a mediator. It is an alternative to other more authoritative forms of dispute resolution such as a judge rendering a decision in court. Although mediators are representatives of the institution, they do not have formal institutional power to bring about a settlement. However, through the ways they communicate (e.g., by displaying themselves as experts) they build their interactional power and can influence and shape the outcome of the meeting (Tracy & Spradlin, 1994). Mediation programs can be public or private, mandatory or voluntary. They also vary in terms of approach to managing conflict.

Garcia (1991) argues that mediation prevents the development of conflict as the interactional organization of mediation puts constraints on expressing accusations, denials, and counter-accusations, allows participants to choose whether to ignore accusations or respond to them, and provides for mitigated disagreement. Mediation sessions, however, do not always restrict interaction between disputants. For example, direct exchanges between disputants, including conflict talk, occur quite often, especially in divorce mediation sessions (Greatbatch & Dingwall, 1991; Jacobs, 2002). Mediators cannot be involved in this kind of exchange as they are supposed to be neutral in this interaction (Jacobs, 2002). However, mediators do try to impose constraints on the interaction and attempt to exercise control over it. For example, they can control what is talked about. Depending on the model of rationality that mediators use to handle disagreement (critical discussion, bargaining, or therapy models), what is relevant for an interaction will vary (Jacobs & Aakhus, 2002). For example, mediators can encourage disputants to express their feelings and attitudes to promote a better understanding of one another and to resolve deeper conflicts, as it is done in the therapeutic discussion. In the other two models, these expressions will be irrelevant. Mediators will also try to focus disputants on future rather than past events, as the goal of interaction is to reach some agreement that they will hold to in their future actions (Aakhus, 2003).

Mediation is concerned with the quality of participation and in particular the talk. The institution of mediation attempts to make people deal with their conflict through deliberation. The participants in mediation sessions are expected to orient to the goal of this form of institutional talk and follow its norms in their endeavor to settle the matter (Aakhus, 2003; Cobb & Rifkin, 1991; Donohue, 1991; Garcia, 1991; Greatbatch & Dingwall, 1991; Jacobs, 2002; Jacobs & Aakhus, 2002; Pearson & Thoennes, 1984). The format of institutional talk provides material (vocabulary, turn design, sequence organization, overall structural organization of the talk, and social epistemology and social relations) to construct a way to determine a prudent course of action for those in conflict. However, the mediation sessions are naturally-occurring interactions, and the deviations from the norms are likely to happen there, which makes mediation talk a valid context to study fallacies how they occur in a real argumentative discussion.


The research is based on the constitutive view of communication that treats a conversation as a social achievement. The communicators work together to create organization of their talk and make joint efforts to accomplish actions. In this study, I adhere to the idea that in order to get insight into communication processes and to understand communication phenomena, it is necessary to study them in naturally-occurring conversations (Sacks, 1984; Schegloff, 1982, 1987, 1992; Pomerantz & Mandelbaum, 2005).

An existing collection of transcripts from audio recordings of mediation sessions at a mediation center in the western United States served as a source of interactional data. The transcripts for the proposed study were from sessions held in a public divorce mediation program connected with a court where the judge approves the decision (Donohue, 1991). The participants in the mediation sessions were couples going through a divorce or divorced couples (re)negotiating their divorce decrees. The sessions involved one mediator. The mediation sessions were mandatory for participants, and if the parties could not reach a settlement, they could opt to go to court to resolve their dispute. The participants could also choose to have more than one session. The mediation sessions under study took place two hours prior to the court hearings. They were held in the mediator's office or a conference room in the court building. The disputants were usually seated side-by-side at some distance from each other. Eight different mediators conducted the sessions. All cases, except one, lasted one session. The length of sessions varied but in the majority of cases they were about two hours.

The mediation sessions were set up for the divorced or divorcing couple to develop arrangements for childcare such as child custody, visitation rules, and support. Couples were free to take the initiative, put forward proposals, and make decisions. The role of the mediator in these sessions was to help participants create or modify a child custody arrangement that would be best for their child. The mediator led the discussion in the way that helped each party voice his/her position and managed troubles in reaching an agreement. Mediators were expected to be objective and not to take sides, except acting in the interest of the child who was not present.

The transcriptions were carefully examined in order to find instances of fallacies and the interactants' responses to them. The approach I took to collect data for the research was to use the normative dialectical model to identify fallacies in naturally-occurring interaction and to see what participants themselves treat as inappropriate moves. In this study, I adopted the interactional perspective on fallacies, viewing them as interactional achievements. Fallacies are unreasonable or irrelevant context-dependent moves that hinder the development of the argumentative discussion and the potential of which is realized in the interactant's response. Thus, the circumstances of the use of arguments played an important role in defining them as fallacious or non-fallacious. Once these cases were identified, I studied how participants dealt with the wrong moves and with what consequences for the argumentative discussion. To examine the data, the study employed the method of discourse analysis.


The fallacies that were found in mediation transcripts can be divided into two categories: traditional types (i.e., fallacies that date back to Aristotle's time and are widely recognized by argumentation researchers, such as ad fallacies, begging the question, or the fallacy of hasty generalization) and non-traditional ones (i.e., wrong moves that do not fit the traditional list of fallacies but, nevertheless, were treated as such by recipients themselves in the process of interaction). First, I will address the former group.

Traditional Fallacies: Argumentum ad Hominem

From the list of traditional fallacies, I will focus on an argument ad hominem (i.e., a personal attack). The reason for doing this is that an argument ad hominem is a common fallacy in the context of the mediation session, which can be partially explained by the fact that people who seek the mediator's assistance are already in conflict with each other. Contrasting examples of one type of fallacy show different ways the same fallacy is treated in different situations and better demonstrate the point in question. It was mentioned earlier, that, according to Walton (1992), argumentation moves could be fallacious and non-fallacious depending on the type of dialogue in which they occur. This implies that personal attacks are not necessarily violations in every discourse.

Hence, the question arises what makes argument ad hominem fallacious in the context of mediation. Mediation sessions are considered to be the place for negotiations, the primary aim of which is to resolve the conflict of interests (Walton, 1992). When one of the participants uses an ad hominem attack, a dialectical shift happens in direction of a quarrel "where the goal of each participant is to 'hit out' verbally at the other, and if possible, defeat and humiliate the other party" (Walton, 1992, p. 21). This violates the rules and goal of the original dialogue, that is, negotiation. Thus, in this situation the ad hominem arguments are considered to be fallacious. Mediators themselves also provide the evidence that supports this claim. At the beginning of the session, the mediator sets the agenda for the meeting and articulates the rules and goals of the discussion. The participants are expected to interact in a different way than they did before and to direct their efforts to working out together a plan for their children. For example, the mediator states what parties can talk about and what topics are inappropriate. The mediation session is a forum for the participants to make arrangements for the future, so bringing past events into the discussion, although sometimes necessary, is limited to those occasions that can help to understand the situation and help to resolve problems in question.

The following example shows how the mediator (M) directly raises an issue of bringing up past events that may harm the image of one of the disputants. This episode happens at the beginning of the session after M asked the ex-husband (H) and ex-wife (W) to share what they want, and H encouraged W to do that. In the excerpt, W refers to some past event in order to illustrate the relationship between H and their son Oscar. She brings into the discussion an issue between H and Oscar, namely, the child's fear of his father, and announces that she will talk about the past. M interrupts her to clarify what can be appropriate to talk about regarding past events and what things he is not interested to hear.

Excerpt 9:6

6W: [Well,] Well anyhow Oscar's rather hesitant of Jack, he's a little afraid of him, and I'll have to bring up the past be-because of the past and urn=

7M: = Yeah by the way let me just say, there are some things about about the past that are important to understanding, uh further than that I'm not interested. It's not a matter of who's right or wrong or good or bad or moral or immoral or any of those things, I don't care.

In line 7, M intervenes to warn W that bringing up the past is only appropriate if it contributes to the process in terms of understanding. However, past events that depict one of the parents in a negative way and the other one favorably are not allowable in this setting. M clearly states that speaking about "who's right or wrong or good or bad or moral or immoral or any of those things" (line 7) is inappropriate, which makes ad hominem arguments fallacious in this context.

First, I will turn to the ways disputants deal with the situation when a personal attack is directed at them.

One of the reactions to these moves is to ignore them as it is illustrated by excerpt 29:133. In this example, a fallacy (in its traditional understanding) arises in the context of disagreement. There is no evidence that the recipient treats the ad hominem attack as fallacious. H ignores it instead of challenging:

Excerpt 29:133

133W: ... [I specifically said he ] had a book outline that=

134H: [I never heard about literature]

135W: = was due a week ago on Friday, which is not completed, and has some literature books that need to be done. And Carl said, and his comment was, Well when finally get home here you send him with homework again. I said I have no choice, I have faced this every night of my life, [I have no=]

136M: [Mm hmm]

137W: = choice. If you want to see Daniel, you mast understand that Daniel is behind and he has homework. And he said oh, sure.

138M: Oh=

139H: = OK, first of all ((PAUSE)) it's ((PAUSE)) Daniel goes to a very academic private school which, in talking to the people at the school, he should not be there ...

W and H are attending a mediation session because they need to make arrangements about the custody of their children but they have disagreement on this issue and cannot resolve the problem on their own. In this episode, they are talking about the specific situation when their son did not do his homework while staying with H. W uses an abusive variant of argumentum ad hominem to denigrate H's reliability in the matter of helping their son with homework and his role as a parent, in general. If we consider W's statement "I have faced this every night of my life" from the traditional view of fallacies, it is possible to say that there is a logical error here as this move refers to the past and exaggerates the state of affairs, on the one hand, and attacks a person instead of focusing on the issue in question, on the other. Although W's statement may seem logically disconnected from her other arguments, the move may be reasonable when we consider it in the context of what she is trying to accomplish in the course of the interaction (i.e., to be the only one who makes decisions concerning the children).

From the dialogical point of view, W's move is also a fallacy, as there is a risk of shifting in the direction of a quarrel and, thus, there is a violation of the rules and goal of the original dialogue, that is, negotiation (this is Walton's position).

Another way to look at this episode is from an interactional perspective. This fallacy breaches the interaction order as it threatens the presentational self of the father. The father wants to be involved in decision-making concerning his children and be a part of their life. For this, he has to be able to take responsibilities and act accordingly. W's comment undermines the image of him as a responsible person and, thus, can cause a loss of his face. In this case, there is danger that the interaction might be disrupted. In his response, H, however, ignores this comment and instead talks about the particular instance and the reasons why their son is not doing well at school. In this case, it is possible to suppose that the recipient deals with the situation in an off-record way. Pointing out directly that someone has committed a fallacy is quite risky as it can disrupt the flow of interaction, so ignoring it can be a way to keep the discussion going.

On the contrary, in cases where fallacies are taken up, the consequence can be a shift in the discussion. There are cases when participants seem to treat a move that traditionally would be considered a fallacy as acceptable. For example, one type of response to a personal attack, which was quite common, was a reciprocal personal attack, as can be illustrated by excerpt 29:402.

Excerpt 29:402

402W: Number one I know your involvement the the children ((PAUSE)) and how have you stated in the past you would be involved and you would do certain things and then you do not

403H: Like what

404W: Like homework school work ((PAUSE)) Also too, I do not feel that you're mentally stable at this point in your life

405H: I don't feel you're mentally stable either

406W: Okay ((PAUSE)) urn, so maybe we should go for the psychiatric examination ((PAUSE)) I'm, more inclined to do that I've asked Carl to go to counseling for years, and he's refused I have been in counseling

407H: Maria I recommended a marriage counselor and (you said no) and your attitude was, you didn't want to go [it was waste of time]

The focus of the discussion was on custody issues, particularly H's involvement in the life of the children. In line 404, W attacked H's mental state, and H reciprocated with a similar attack in line 405. The disputants then engaged in a quarrel over the issue of counseling in the past.

Here, not only did the husband fail to point out that his wife had committed a traditionally recognized fallacy but also he did the same in turn. This led to diverging from the agenda of the meeting and shifting the discussion in direction of quarrelling, which presented a threat to achieving the goal of the original dialogue activity.

Excerpt 37:184 is an example of how a disputant challenges a personal attack and makes an ad hominem argument in return. In this episode, H and W exchange a number of accusations. W raises doubts about H's good intentions to have their daughter Alison to live with him and not giving a Christmas gift to Alison. In his turn, H accuses W of neglecting their child and being a cause of relationship issues between her and Alison. Finally, W makes a move to stop quarrelling.

Excerpt 37:184

184W: Is that the only reason why you want her? I mean come on now or is it because you don't want to pay child support?

185H: I know this erroneous statement was going to come up let me point thus out to ya. When Alison did come over to me and signed all the papers over to me now I have of choice of whether I want to pay child support. This is a great thing about history you can't change what's happened in the past. When Alison come and live with me I didn't stop her allowance. I could have I give half of it to her for weekly allowance I put the other half in the bank for her future education or whatever she wanted to use it for when she got older. Her mother never comes and visited her one time in the year and a half

186W: Wait

187H: No somebody tell me I don't want to pay child support I did it of my own vol[ition nobody forced me to]

188W: [I didn't wait wait wait. I] didn't come and visit Alison in the year and a half?.

189H: That's right

190W: Wait just a minute okay? How many times did I go over to the house and take Alison to the ()? Did I or did I not go to your house and send Alison a birthday present you didn't give her nothing for Christmas this year.=

191H: After the suicide attempt you're referring to ?

192W: Yes=

193H: No I'm speaking up to the point of the suicide attempt=

194W: She wasn't speaking to me

195H: Oh

196W: I made the first attempt to go over there

197H: Why wasn't she speaking to you?

198W. Because we got into an argument in the front yard she called me a bitch

199H: Holds a grudge a long time doesn't she a year and a half?

200W: Me hold a grudge?

201H: No Alison

202W: Not me

203H: If that's the problem how come she held a grudge for a year and a half?

204W: Why isn't Kelly speaking to me now did I ever do anything to hurt her?

205H: Because she sees what's happening

206W: The only thing I want to say I don't want to argue with you okay? Whatever's best for Alison

207H: My oldest daughter's first words were

In the excerpt above, W makes a supposition that H wants their daughter Alison to live with him because he is not willing to pay child support (line 184). H denies this accusation and brings in the facts that can be evidence that W is wrong. In his turn, he accuses W of not visiting Alison once while she was living with him (line 185). W challenges H's accusation (line 188 and 190) and accuses H of not giving any Christmas gift to Alison (line 190). In lines 191-193, H and W clarify to what time period each of them is referring. In lines 194-203, the focus of the interaction is on why Alison wasn't speaking to W. In line 204, W questions H why their elder daughter Kelly is not speaking to her. H's point is this happens because Kelly sees what is going on (line 205). In line 206, W backs off saying that she does not want to quarrel with H and is willing to do anything that is best for Alison. Thus, she points out what activity they have engaged in and makes an attempt to stop it.

In the excerpt above, H and W make a number of moves that depict each other in an unfavorable light. W's supposition that H tries to avoid paying child support (line 184) and her accusation that he did not give any gift to Alison threaten H's face as these moves portray H as a bad father. In his turn, H creates an image of W as an unfit mother. First, he accused W of neglecting her duties as a mother (e.g., "Her mother never comes and visited her one time in the year and a halt" (line 185). Next, he did not accept W's explanation why Alison and she had had communication problems (e.g., "Holds a grudge a long time doesn't she a year and a half?" (line 199) and "If that's the problem how come she held a grudge for a year and a half?." (line 203)). By expressing his lack of understanding of how one argument could result in a year and half of not speaking to each other and repeating the same question twice, H makes it clear that there should be a more serious reason for a relationship problem between W and Alison, and W is likely to be responsible for this. Speaking about the lack of communication between W and their other daughter, he alluded again that it might be W's fault that they have a problem ("Because she sees what's happening" (line 205)). Kelly did not stop talking to H, so W must have been doing something wrong if she refused to speak with her. The moves that H and W make are typical for the activity of quarrelling. W makes an attempt to terminate this unproductive activity by making a statement that she does not want to participate in it and by shifting the focus of the interaction from relationship problems back to the interests of their daughter. Her move, however, did not result in bringing an end to quarrelling, and later on M had to intervene to stop it. In this episode, ad hominem arguments led to a dialectical shift in the activity in the direction of quarrelling and hindered the productive development of the argumentative discussion. Thus, according to a dialogical view of fallacies, these arguments were fallacious in this context.

In some instances, recipients challenge an ad hominem argument without committing a personal attack in response. For example, in the following excerpt the disputant asks to justify the expressed opinion about her:

Excerpt 29:536

536W: Um ((PAUSE)) Carl you have a feeling, of inadequacy and failure.

537H: Cause you keep telling me all the time how terrible I am

538W: What do you mean I tell you how terrible you are tell me how I tell y- give me an [example. Tell me]

In this episode, H blames W for having "a feeling of inadequacy and failure" (line 537), thus, depicting her in an unfavorable light and threatening her face. In response, the wife asks to justify the expressed opinion about her with some kind of proof. According to the list of traditional types of fallacies, H's move is considered to be an argumentum ad hominem. Depending on a perspective of the dialectical approach, reasons for defining a personal attack as a fallacy will differ. The Amsterdam school of pragma-dialectics would say that this move violates the rules of critical discussion. Walton (1992), in turn, would explain it in terms of a dialectical shift. Thus, in this situation the ad hominem arguments are considered to be fallacious.

In the examples above, the participants challenge ad hominem arguments. However, they do this at the level of the content. These moves threaten their face, and the attacked disputants make moves to mitigate those threats by expressing disagreement with the statements that depict them unfavorably or asking the person who performs a personal attack to justify his/her position or counterbalance those ad hominem arguments by attacking the opponent back. In most cases, these moves lead to a shift in an argumentative discussion in direction of quarrelling. The way the mediator treats ad hominem arguments differs from the disputants' actions, and this will be addressed next.

The reaction of the mediator to personal attacks directed at one of the disputants is the reaction of the third party, whose responsibility is to help the couple to resolve their dispute.

For this, the mediator has to keep participants focused on a common argument platform and bring them back when a fallacy occurs. While the disputants themselves may not question the relevance of a personal attack, the mediator is the one who does it. The following example shows that a mediator treats a personal attack as a wrong move and tries to shift the discussion in a constructive direction:

Excerpt NR3:204

204H: [I've listened to all her phone calls, and all her phone calls are hi where' the kids how're they doing today well ah let me tell you about my boyfriend Alex well I just took twelve hundred dollars worth of cocaine, uh I had [anal sex with Alex I did this=

205W: [Nick, you can lie all you want=

206H: = oh I'm not lying ]

207 W: =you ( ) [this woman] doesn't care. Think of some=

208 M." [ Ok ok

209 W: = more things Nick I was a prostitute I [murder people]

210 H: [Well, I wouldn't doubt it] the way [you

211M: [okay

212 H: [=carry on

213 W: [go ahead [say anything you want]

214M: [let's just let's just] stop for [a moment I have a suggestion for the two=

215W: [you know, it doesn't embarrass=

216M: of you ]

217W: = me a bit] you can yell at it to the world

218M: OK. Let's just stop for a moment and and let's see what might [ ] be a solution to=

219W: [Hmm]

220M: =all of this 'cause this isn't going to help you to keep going back and forth like this. ((Pause)) Um, would you consider this possibility since you're each very apart in what you want, um, it would seem that, if you 're going to go to court probably the judge is going to need some information to base a decision on [other] than your slinging mud [against] each=

In this example, H and W exchange accusations of each other. H uses a personal attack at W's style of life implying that she is not leading a normal life. W accuses H of lying. The disputants take the discussion away from the frame the organization of meditation calls for, which is collaborating on creating arrangements for the children. The mediator does not engage in the on-going activity. The mediator tries to intervene in lines 208 and 211 (the marker "okay"), explicitly requests to bring the current activity to the end in lines 214 and 218, and later, in line 220, describes the disputants' actions as "going back and forth" (i.e., attacking each other and not making any progress) and the activity they engage in as "slinging mud at each other" (i.e., quarrelling). The mediator also directly points out that doing that was not going to help the parties to solve their issues. Besides, the mediator suggests an alternative way to deal with the issues the disputants brought up, namely, going to court and providing the court with sufficient evidence. In this way, the mediator directly indicates that the activity was unproductive and the moves the disputants made were inappropriate in the given circumstances as they were not helping to deal with what the parties are supposed to do in the course of the session. In this case, ad hominem arguments were recognized as moves that hinder the development of the argumentative discussion, and thus as fallacious.

Excerpt NR3:101 is another example of the mediator's treatment of ad hominem arguments as fallacious moves.

Excerpt NR3:101

101W: You haven't paid any utility bills since you moved out. [Not one. ]

102H: [That's my business.] I wasn't the one who ran 'em up. I had those cancelled. I turned it had 'em ( ) cancelled and she had 'era turned [back on

103W: [Then what are worried [about

104H: [She came [she agreed

105M: [Do you see what you're both [doing

106H: [she

107M: Wait wait wait just hold it. I know you have a lot of anger towards one another and all that but that's not going to help us resolve=

108H: = No=

109M: = You're your plans for the children OK, and, the both of you can sling a lot of mud at each other but that's not going to help us

In this example, W accuses H of not paying bills, while H states that W herself is guilty of having financial issues. The mediator recognizes the problem participants' moves present for the quality of an argumentative dialogue and reaching its aim as the participants digress from the agenda of their meeting. In this context, ad hominem arguments are treated as fallacious.

So far the focus of the discussion has been a fallacy that is considered to be traditional. At the same time, there are instances when wrong moves that do not fit the traditional list of fallacies are nevertheless treated as such by recipients themselves in the process of interaction. In the next section I will talk about these non-traditional fallacies.

Non-Traditional Fallacies

Some things that interactants treat as problematic for the normal process of discussion are turn-taking and the length of turns. According to the rules of a critical discussion, parties should not prevent each other from expressing their standpoints (van Eemeren et al, 1996). The person who keeps the floor can have more control over the interaction and, thus, prevent the other party from expressing his/her position. In this respect, keeping the floor for too long or trying to take it back while the other party has not finished talking can become fallacious. Excerpt 29:253 shows H's reaction to the fact that W usurps the floor and he hardly has a chance to speak.

Excerpt 29:253

253W: He has never demonstrated before that he really wants to be involved, with the day to day decision of the children, he resents them of doing that, he resents them, interfering with his life by their problems

254 ((PAUSE))

255M: (Can) you think of some ( )for that

256H: For the past year before we separated I spent a (period) of time with our son you remember, and you even said to me on many occasions that I can handle Daniel better than you can, and that he was doing much better, and and his work has deteriorated since I've left

257W: I have tried to encourage Carl, [to work with=

258M: [Okay you two=

259W: [with Daniel] [I have tried] [( )]=

260H: [And I] and [I may I] make a state[ment, suggestion]

261M: [( )]

262W: =I've tried to encourage you, to [work with Daniel]

263H: [Why don't you ( )] have these one-sided conversations I say one thing and she talks for half an hour

264W: I've tried to ([ ])

265H: [Well, I'd like to finish] what I'm saying, responding to what you've said

During a mediation session, both parties have equal rights regarding the amount of time for talking. From H's perspective this fight has been violated, and he appeals to the rules of mediation talk to question how the discussion unfolds. He addresses M, whose responsibility is to control the situation and to watch that rules should be followed.

Excerpt R200:46 is an example of the mediator's reaction to one disputant interrupting the other one.

Excerpt R200:46

46 W: I didn't trust him to have him take Andrew this story is not right, I did not tell him leave, I was over the bar he lived on the top of a bar around the corner from me and the, bartender with the barten[der t]here and his girlfiiend=

47 M: [Ho ]

48 W: '= w[as ]

49 M: [ho-] hold on a minute she doesn't interrupt you and you you know you you do interrupt her why not, excuse me a minute ((M answers buzzer))

In this example, W expressed disagreement with H's interpretation of the past event and attempted to give her vision of it (line 46). M interfered to address H's behavior at the moment as he was interrupting W all the time (line 49). M invoked the rules of equal participation in the discussion and the right to express the standpoint. In this case, H's actions were preventing W from expressing her position, and, thus, were fallacious.

Excerpt 29:350 is an example of the situation when the mediator considers a disputant's attempt to take the floor as a wrong move.

Excerpt 29:350

350M: I'll give you some suggestions ((PAUSE)) one is that you come back here, and let me mediate, what, what the differences are, OK?= That's one, alternate you have, two, perhaps you would take Daniel, if it's a school issue, to an education therapist, and have the therapist evaluate the situation, and let some professional give you ( ) on that, whether it be an education therapist or a psy[chothe]rapist, or a psychiatrist or the

351W: [Mhm]

352M: =school principal, you know go and ask some professional u, uh opinion, and then you'll have, some factual information to make a judgment upon, [and there are various=]

353W: [There's a ( )]

354M: =things you can do, if the two of you can get out of the you [know uh wait a second,] I'm=

355W: [Well that's basically that I was trying to say]

356M: = talking, let me finish. If the two of you can get out of the arena, of power and control, which is where you are right now, that's why you don't think (of) a logical alternative

In this example, the client tries twice to take the turn. The first time it happens when M reached a possible completion point, whereas in the second case W starts speaking while M's turn was in progress, which can be considered as an interruption. M challenges her action; however, it is not related to either the content of the speech act she tries to perform or its felicity conditions but rather the procedural part of talk.

Another type of moves that recipients treat as fallacious is misinterpreting one's words since this can mislead the discussion and postpone the achieving of its goal, which is illustrated by excerpt 29:189.

Excerpt 29:189

189M: So you wanta make all the decisions for the children ( ) is that what you're saying

190W: Listen to what I'm saying, I would um like to at least, to be the one to make the final decision

In the example above, M does not correctly sum up W's standpoint on the issue of making decisions about children, and it prevents from proceeding further in resolving the dispute, as W has to explain again her position on this matter. In this instance, W employs a similar construction to emphasize that M has made a wrong move.

One more type of fallacious moves comes from the mediator's perspective. At the beginning of the session, the mediator sets the agenda for the meeting. In the course of the discussion, the mediator has to keep parties focused on the problems that need to be resolved. In this respect, participants' attempts to talk about side issues violate the rules and the goal of the discussion, which is illustrated by excerpt NR3:68. The former wife and husband are supposed to discuss the place their children will live. However, the wife diverges from the topic and starts talking about financial problems. The mediator treats it as a wrong move and makes moves to refocus the discussion.

Excerpt NR3:68

68M: Let's hear what, what your plan would be

69W: Yeah I'd like the kids to live with me, and uh uh I'm presently living in a house that we jointly own it's in the valley

70H: which she can't keep the payments up cause she doesn't have a job

71M. OK wait wait I think you have to be quiet

72H: =ok=

73M: and let her talk about the plan that she's thinking of

74 W: OK and I have to sell the house because, um, since my husband moved out he hasn't paid any of the payments=

75 H: [= Right, right ]

76 W: [We got, we got] the house ok he's paid [one payment and half another payment]

77M: [OK Wait wait wait wait] let's not talk about the house and let's not talk about money right now because I know that you're in the early stages of your divorce and your residences may change because of financial situations and everything

78 W: ((cough cough))

79 M: but let's talk about the children being with you and living with him wh what do you propose in terms of the children's time with each of the two parents

In lines 74 and 76, W focuses on financial problems, which M points out as improper in line 77. M directly asks the participants not to talk about money and residence as their situation can change. In line 79, M suggests discussing the children's living with the disputants and invites the parties to share their proposals concerning this problem. In this way, M makes a move to refocus the discussion on the custody issues, which is an institutionally appropriate topic, and to leave aside the financial issues that cannot be resolved during the mediation session. Bringing into interaction the temporality of the disputants' situation and conditions makes the discussion over these issues fruitless and can also lead to a shift in the activity in direction of quarrelling as the financial matters are a sensitive topic. Thus, initiating an off-task topic is a fallacious move.


To sum up, the disputants who were the target of ad hominem arguments treated these moves in the following ways: ignoring them, committing a personal attack in response, and expressing disagreement or asking the opponent to justify the claim. While disputants can point out the erroneousness of the argument, they challenge the informative part of it as it presents a threat to their face. The mediators, in their turn, find these moves fallacious as they violate the rules and the goal of the argumentative discussion. Whether an argumentation move is considered to be fallacious or non-fallacious depends on the orientation of participants themselves to this interaction phenomenon and on the context. It often happens that arguments that are traditionally recognized as fallacies are not treated as such by arguers in ordinary conversations, whereas moves that do not fit in this category are viewed as wrong ones.


Argumentative discussions presuppose that participants have some goals to attain in the process of interaction, for example, resolving a conflict of opinion or interest. The achievement of these goals is a collaborative activity. The realm of argumentation, however, is not ideal and arguers can make incorrect moves, deliberately or unintentionally, that violate the rules of the discussion. In this case, it is important whether recipients treat these moves as fallacies and how they respond to them. Their consequent move can prevent the discussion from going astray or, on the contrary, further its destruction. Studying how arguers deal with traditional fallacies in conversations, Hample, Jones, and Averbeck (2009) point out that interactants can accept, ignore, rebut, or modify a fallacious move. The findings of the current study are in agreement with this statement in the sense that the participants of mediation sessions did perform actions that would fall into one or another type of these responses. However, there are responses that are difficult to fit one or another category, as in case of reciprocal ad hominem arguments. For example, in excerpt 29:402, it is obvious that the arguer does not ignore or modify this argument. However, the way H frames his response is neither rebuttal nor acceptance, since he neither disagrees with W's statement that he is mentally unstable nor swallows this attack. H's move neutralizes W's attack by equalizing their positions.

Of interest here, however, is not just what are various ways the participants respond to what can be considered a fallacy but what these responses can tell about the nature of fallacies and what they are doing in the interaction. The findings of the study reveal the difference between the disputants' and mediators' responses to ad hominem arguments, and this difference can be well illustrated by cases when an ad hominem argument is refuted. The disputants challenge these moves at the content level, while the mediators treat them inappropriate at the procedural level. This difference can be explained by taking an interactional perspective on fallacies and considering them as disruption of the interaction order or/and the institutional order.

Mediation talk is an institutional form of talk, where the goal of interaction is to help disputants manage their conflict through deliberation. Participants have to determine what they are talking about, but they must also mutually construct a way of talking to each other and a way of reasoning and resolving their conflict in the context of different constraints that the interaction order and the institutional order impose on how interaction should unfold. Interactants are expected to take a certain role and to take a certain line of action and reasoning according to the situation. Mediators are there to enforce the institutional order and to ensure that participants are following the rules of mediation sessions. Thus, they treat the fallacies, in the first place, as breaches of the institutional order as these moves violate the rules and the goal of dispute mediation. Mediators' responses to fallacies are aimed at bringing the interaction back on track. For the disputants, however, ad hominem arguments are disruption of the interaction order because these attacks are directed at them and present a threat to their presentational selves. Thus, the disputants' responses to these arguments are aimed at saving their face. After all, the interaction order must be sustained for the institutional activity to take place.

In line with Jacobs and Jackson's view of fallacies as a joint responsibility, the study shows how fallacies are interactionally achieved and with what consequences for the discussion. It provides the support for the idea that the participants' responses are crucial for realizing the potential of the fallacious moves. For example, when moves that can be considered as fallacious are ignored, there is no shift in dialogue activity. Thus, their potential to hinder the development of the argumentative discussion is not realized. This is also true about the moves that were rebutted at the procedural level. However, when the participants responded with a reciprocal move (e.g., a reciprocal personal attack) or challenged the fallacy at the content level, the discussion shifted in direction of quarrelling. Thus, the potential of fallacy was realized.

This contributes to understanding Walton's idea of dialectical shifts. It should be mentioned that Walton distinguishes between actual dialogues and formal ones (Walton, 2000). In formal dialogues, there is a certain structure and clear rules that participants are required to follow. These rules, as Walton points out, are not necessarily realistic. In actual dialogues, the rules are not so precise and there is more ambiguity about what can happen. In his work, Walton focuses on types of dialogues and dialectical shifts from a normative perspective. Walton states that dialectical shifts happen but how they happen in a real interaction is not apparent. In this respect, the findings of this study illuminate some conditions under which dialectical shifts occur in a naturally-occurring discussion.

Taking an interactional perspective on fallacies makes it possible to see what participants themselves treat as fallacious moves and to identify new fallacies. The study shows that arguments that are traditionally recognized as fallacies are not necessarily treated as such by arguers in dispute mediation, whereas moves that do not fit in this category are viewed as wrong ones. The latter can be considered as broader interactional troubles; however, the participants treat them as violations of the rules and goals of the argumentative discussion. The non-traditional fallacies are not reasoning errors; they are procedural and contextdependent breaches of the institutional order. For example, usurping the floor prevents the other party from expressing a standpoint and affects the quality of the argumentative discussion. Initiating institutionally inappropriate topics can also lead to diverging from the goal of the original activity.

Every topic that participants initiate in the course of the interaction opens opportunities for a shift in activity to happen, although not all of them have the same potential for that. When the participants bring some private matters into the conversation (e. g., aspects of the mediator's life such as considering a different occupation), they are orienting to small talk rather than mediation talk. In this case, they do not contribute to resolving the task at hand and thus violate the institutional order. Topics that are controversial or emotionally charged as opposed to neutral ones are more likely to lead to quarrelling. For example, visitation and custody issues are legitimate topics for argumentative discussion as they orient to the goal of the session, while the past events that depict one of the disputants unfavorably are not, as they are emotionally charged and are more likely to provoke a quarrel and divert the discussion from the main task. These topics are threatening the face of that party. In this case, not only is the institutional order disrupted, but the interaction order as well. Thus, the moves that initiate these topics are treated as fallacious and are subject to curtailing on the part of the mediator.

The research shows the importance of examining fallacies as they happen in real interaction. Treating fallacies as an interactive achievement contributes to understanding the nature of fallacies and poses new questions in regard to the practicality of these moves. On the one hand, the study shows that fallacious moves are breaches of the interaction order and/or institutional order. On the other hand, participants may violate institutional expectations of mediation sessions because their case may be beyond what this particular type of institutional talk can even handle. What might otherwise seem to be fallacies or digressions is the participants' resistance to the mediation format itself as an appropriate and legitimate forum for decision-making; this will be the focus of further research.


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Alena L. Vasilyeva is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick NJ. Send email to Earlier versions of the manuscript were presented at the annual conference of the International Communication Association held in San Francisco, CA, May 2007 and the annual conference of the National Communication Association held in Chicago, IL, November 2007.
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Author:Vasilyeva, Alena L.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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