What is tautology? A tautology is a type of reasoning that just repeats the same thing. It is a circular proposition that says that what is, is. She doesn’t add anything to the thing she’s supposed to describe because she just says what it is. Tautology takes the following logical form: A + B = B + A. But make no mistake: tautologies can be very complex, difficult to discern because the world they are meant to speak of is itself complex. A tautology is therefore circular reasoning. It is, therefore, true in all cases because when we say tautology, there is no possible mistake. But let’s take an example: “100% of the winners tried their luck!” Certainly, before you win you have to play. In all cases, a winner has, above all, tried his luck…
However, hidden behind this seeming triviality, tautology can harbor hidden fallacies, arguments that appear to be the truth but are in fact completely wrong. Indeed, incomplete reasoning; even frankly a liar can hide behind tautology and its false certainties. Let’s see what it is, with Guillaume Brunhes, holder of a DEA in philosophy. He works on novels and philosophical texts.
I – Attempted Definitions of Tautology
We will look at four tautologies here.
Tautology Starting From the Commonplace
An example of these false truths which delude themselves is called commonplace. Commonplace is a truism that makes certain facts seem more important than they really are. Take this case: “We are a tiny dust in the face of the vastness of the universe …” Yes, it is very true, in the face of the universe, we are not much. But is this a reason to conclude, as this tautology seems to invite us to do, that we must remain modest in all circumstances because after all, we humans are nothing but stardust …
However, this commonplace tends to obscure the greatness of man which lies in the fact that, although small and weak, homo sapiens knows that he exists, is aware of his misery, that he is, as Blaise Pascal says, a thinking reed. And our awareness of our insignificance makes us unique in the universe. It is therefore commonplace to pretend that we are stardust, a commonplace that only means that we are born small and weak. But this everyone knows after five minutes of serious reflection. And this tautology omits the fact that we are the only animals in the cosmos aware of ourselves, a fact that gives us greatness and which makes this tautology a fallacy.
Starting From Hasty Generalities
Another tautology is to make hasty generalities, for example when we say: “Existence is a pendulum which oscillates from suffering to boredom. “Sure, seen like that …; It is indeed certain that human life is characterized by many torments with periods of very tasteless remissions. We could even add that life is short and that death awaits us: “it is already nine o’clock and everything is over” Apollinaire tells us in one of his calligrams…
And who would dare deny that the misfortune and torments peculiar to the human condition are commonplace? Nobody. However, these tautologies which incite us to pessimism and mortification are simple incomplete generalities. They hide the fact that life can be full of charm and that some form of happiness is possible at any time. As we can see, the hasty generality, although logically irrefutable, is in fact a fallacy because it conceals other realities, just as real.
Based on the Evidence of Certain Words
Another tautology lies in the obviousness of certain statements, evidence from which the conclusions that should be drawn are sheer nonsense. For example, when we say: “Man is a wolf to man. A great truth is said here, confirmed by empirical observation: who would deny the wickedness of such and such a person towards his neighbor? However, this truism has one most disastrous consequence: since man is bad, it justifies authoritarian policies, for example, a police society, in order to “right” and contain these evil inclinations. However, the logical conclusion of this evidence is doubtful to say the least. This truism overlooks the fact that a man, though he has bad inclinations, also has good desires. He is capable of both the best and the worst. And appropriate laws, democratically decided, can tip the scales in favor of the goodness of man, making the initial claim a pure fallacy.
Starting From the Begging of Principle
Finally, let’s say a word about the begging. When someone says: “War is bad! “He does nothing other than beg the question; he says something so obvious it is almost insulting to repeat it. It is not the tautology that is to be criticized, obviously, war is bad. What is subject to the heated controversy are the strategies of the different philosophies brought into play to achieve perpetual peace …
II – Is All Tautology Verifiable?
These four tautologies have consequences that are easy to verify. It is obvious that we are just stardust, that our lives are short; just as much as humans do more harm than good while violence is to be fought … These assertions, therefore, become fallacies when the meaning of these observations is extended more than necessary. But there are more subtle tautologies, no longer based on the obvious, and which hide in the gray areas of knowledge, in unverifiable recesses of reality. This makes the reasoning remain a tautology, no longer this time because it is easy to verify, but rather because it is impossible to deny.
The Suitcase Concept
This is the case, for example, with the suitcase concept. So when we say, “this is the will of the people” we have a concept there that you can say just about anything. Indeed, who knows exactly what the people want. Is there someone, gifted with telepathy and ubiquity, who knows exactly what every man in the street wants? No one, obviously. This means that you can make the people say anything, and even prejudge their will. And then, what are the people? An ethnically pure concept? A determined social class? The whole nation? Any corporation? No one really knows. So, when it comes to making the community speak, all speeches, even contradictory, are allowed because the people are such a fuzzy notion, a vague idea about which we can make people say whatever we want. Therefore, when we talk about the will of the people, in political discourse, we are always right, which makes this suitcase concept a tautology…
The Contradictory Proposition
However, the suitcase concept is not the only type of proposition that slips into the gray areas of human knowledge. There is also, among others, the contradictory proposition. Take the example of someone who tells us: “the essence of things is contradictory”. It is already very difficult to know rationally what the essence of things is, so, from there to say that it is contradictory, we are in the postulate, the ontological bet. In any case, the point is strictly unverifiable. This assertion, that the essence of things is contradictory, by its generality, has a great theoretical advantage: it allows to say everything and its opposite. Whether a man is at the same time free and determined, matter and spirit, whether the ultimate nature of the cosmos is entirely rational or perfectly irrational, all this is of equal value if we put as an ontological root that the essence of things is d ‘be contradictory … and if by chance we rebel against this statement which is at least surprising in some of its consequences, for example by referring to Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, we quickly see ourselves put back in our place by becoming a simple moment in history. Hegel and Marx are targeted here, of course. Hegelian and Marxist logic, based on contradiction, makes any opponent of the dialectical system a moment in the system that will be absorbed by the end of history. It, therefore, becomes obvious that the Hegelian and Marxist logic, which make the essence of things into a contradiction, is a tautological logic since every event is a moment of the system. The reasonings specific to these logics are therefore true in all cases, regardless of the oppositions to the system (which are a part of the whole).
III – The Construction of an Unverifiable World
Finally, after the dialectic, there is a third type of tautological reasoning based, like the previous two, on gray areas of human knowledge. It’s about pushing the method to the end and going straight to the unverifiable point. This is the case, for example, of someone who says, “It is the will of God. “It’s true, whatever happens, we can deduce that it is always the will of God, this asylum of ignorance if we are to believe it, according to Spinoza. God, we have never seen it, this is pure conjecture so it is easy to assume that all that is, is the fruit of his will. Unfortunately, this pure tautology can extend its power if it is coupled with fideist rhetoric. Suppose we say, “God’s will is Sharia law. As some Muslim fanatics still dare to say. At first glance, we are not in the tautology since Sharia is limited to moral and legal prescriptions, then everyone is free to follow them or not. But let’s take a closer look. Sharia is therefore a series of legal and moral prescriptions regulating like music paper the whole of the believer’s life. All of existence is taken into account: sexuality, food, work, what to strive to do, and what to absolutely avoid. Every moment of life is either “halal” or “haram”.
This totalitarian conception of human mores leads us, in our opinion, into a tautological logic because, whatever we do, all our actions are put into perspective with respect to eternal life. Let’s explain ourselves. It turns out that in the case of Sharia, each of our actions expresses the will of God and that everything has a meaning with regard to Sharia and its reward, eternal life.
A parallel language, a sign of tautology, is developing.
A materialist becomes a fisherman, a moderate Muslim an apostate, a Christian a crusader, someone who is disinterested in religion a disbeliever, a terrorist becomes a fighter of Allah, such becomes, according to this rhetoric, an ungodly, the great Satan, and if by luck you die under the bullets of the enemy, you become a martyr of the faith. This willingness to judge everything according to the supposed will of God results in a way of thinking and saying where the believer is never wrong since God is with him.
We see the logical spring of this type of tautology: construction of the unverifiable world where every event takes on meaning according to dubious assumptions and where nothing escapes the specious rhetoric put in place …
IV – Tautology and Tongue-in-Cheek
These three examples show that a complex, almost scientific tautology becomes, by its excessive sophistication, nothing more than tongue-in-cheek. Hegelianism and onto-theology above all become a phantasmic reconstruction of reality. This subjects every event in the world to specious, dialectical, or fideist rhetoric. This rhetoric is sufficiently plastic and generalist to encompass the entire cosmos.
But what exactly is the tongue-in-cheek? La langue de Bois is a perfectly coherent tautological discourse which names according to its logic any event in the real world, even if it means adapting reality to its language. Wooden language rewrites the universe, changes it into something else. Everything takes on a new meaning; everything can be said in a new way as long as the rhetorician is skilled enough.
What is hidden behind the tongue-in-cheek is the status of error. Indeed, from a certain level of coherence and complexity, tautology as a language of wood denies any possibility of error since everything takes on a new meaning in the system. And with the disappearance of the error all unthought and ambiguity disappears. Then reality becomes simple, it loses its mystery, all reality has a clear and coherent meaning, even if it takes the risk of being disguised by the new language.
Plato and Tautology
It is Plato in the Sophist, who warns us of what happens if we do not allow ontological room for error. Indeed, if, as Plato’s spiritual father, Parmenides, said, being is, non-being is not (in other words, if an error does not exist), we open a theoretical avenue to the sophist since the sophist, basing himself on what is not, places himself in an impregnable logical refuge. How, indeed, to contradict what is not?
Plato carefully examines the two contradictory consequences of the Parmenidean claim, namely that nothing is true and on the other hand that everything is true. If nothing is true the sophist is hiding in relativism and if everything is true, then tautology as jargon is the only possible way out to assert something.
To get out of this alternative, Plato breaks, in parricide, with the affirmation of Parmenides and grants a kind of being to non-being. So the false, the error exists in a way. We can therefore take the risk of the truth since we take the risk of error and the false can be flushed out because non-being exists. Since there is an existence of error just as there is a reality of ambiguity and positivity of mystery.
Plato’s dialogue is a major dialogue in the history of philosophy because it grants effectiveness to non-being and therefore separates two kinds of discourse: monist discourse, which is based on tautology, and dualist discourse, which takes the gamble true and false.
The existence of non-being is, in our view, a corollary of a mystery inherent in reality, a reality that is not completely accessible to our rational knowledge, as in the case of monism. There is therefore something unknown, mystery in everything and this mystery is not a gray area of science but it has a positivity, a reality irreducible to our rational faculty, that is it, according to us, the lesson of Plato.
Philosophical realism (since that’s what it is), unlike monism, is a school of modesty since it postulates a reality external to the knowing mind, a reality to which we must submit, which is proof of the limits of human knowledge. On the contrary, monism, and its way of seeing the world, tautology, overestimates the rational capacities of man. Tautology claims that the real is simple and that everything fits into one of the places of the system. Nothing is further from the truth. Tautology presupposes total intelligibility of the cosmos and of man, a kind of absolute rationalism. This transparency of opening the way to speeches that claim to explain everything, therefore do everything and justify everything. For better and for worse. Mostly for the worse, in our opinion.