Here's a simple dialogue between me and my wife.

Wife: why don't you clean the cup after using it?

Me: I always clean after me whatever I use.

Wife: You're speaking about something else. That wasn't my question.

Now if we examine carefully the 1st wife proposition, one can easily detect it has to be linked to a certain annoyance that has nothing to do with the elements of the current dialogue. The wife associated that annoyance with the introductory fight proposition.

My counter argument, the 2nd one in the dialogue, could be called a counter-argument A' (A prime), as I'm trying to defend the fact I clean always behind me and I'm not in a position to justify why I forgot to do it today. We will see later why it might not be invalid.

The last argument by the wife was indeed a persistence to start a fight but also a total denial of my defensive and justifiable? argument (always cleaning after me).

Now, the above argumentation is encountered frequently during academic or political debates. Not always one of the opponents hears Argument B instead of A, but rather A' instead of A. To be more specific, one opponent says argument A but implicitly says A' in order to weaken or intimidate the other opponent i.e. "Why you didn't clean today?" is mostly associated with "Why are you dirty in general" in the above argumentation context. Hence, once the other opponent hears A', then will create a counter A'. Having said that, we still, once we're out of any arguments in similar debate, we use the pillow argument: "That wasn't my question".

The Fallacy: Is it ethical to use the pillow argument in the case where the opponents are on the same intellect level (author vs author, husband vs wife, republican vs democrat)?

This tactic is always used as a debate warfare: we are always implicitly saying A' but we say A explicitly, hoping to drag our opponent to intimidation, and moreover, we deny invoking A' implicitly (which is not true in general). In my opinion, it's a mere naïve way that shouldn't be abused by opponents on the same intellect level and hence it is a fallacy.

It is a fallacy as we defend the pillow argument to be valid because it agrees with the general rules of logic. But is it so when we are debating on an expert level (equivalent intellect) and where ethics play an important role?

We often hear or read some critiques that generalize every author who commit the count A' by describing them as idiots or imbeciles such as: "This author always hears B while A was said". In case of a child, yes it's a valid critique. But questionable on expert level and hence this paragraph can be an extension to the description above.

What is your opinion on the above description and how can I defend my position if I've been dragged to an such awkward pillow argument. Could it be concretized in terms of fallacy elements?

  • 2
    Inferring what is meant but not said is a dubious enterprise, in particular it is highly context-dependent (when I read your dialogue the whole understory did not occur to me before you explained it). It is certainly not just a matter of being "at the same intellectual level". And if ethics is prominent, given diverging views of it, we are way beyond logic and fallacies. What you describe is called paltering, and many consider it unethical, but fallacy it is not.
    – Conifold
    May 28, 2017 at 20:35
  • @Conifold but in the context above, i know the fact that my wife knows I'm clean in general. Then why she's still dragging me to that specific argumentation (today's uncleanliness). My wife said something specific, i defended the elaborate and yet she showed her weakness by completely disregarding my cleanliness with today's uncleanliness. She could say: "I really appreciate your cleanliness in general but why you didn't clean today". We totally disregard this in debates and that makes you ask yourself: Is opponent 2 that stupid to opponent 1 where both a respected authors?
    – Leb_Broth
    May 28, 2017 at 20:51
  • 1
    There is more to the context than your cleanliness. Perhaps, you wife is annoyed with you for something not even mentioned, to which your cleanliness is irrelevant, and is using this jab to make her dissatisfaction known. There is a difference between literal meaning of a speech act and its intention, indirect speech acts are a time honored use of language.
    – Conifold
    May 28, 2017 at 21:10
  • 1
    My point is that the context is what controls the rules. Do we really expect family quarrels and televised political debates to be exercises in respect for evidence and logical validity? I suppose the latter are somewhat closer, but both the participants and the audience see them as mostly rhetorical performances aimed at stirring emotions. And in a more circumspect situations, say without a wide audience, the incentive for using rhetorical tactics is much diminished. An academic response would be to fork, "if you just mean A then X, but if you are implying A' then Y".
    – Conifold
    May 28, 2017 at 22:04
  • 1
    It could be used in ad hominems, e.g. in poisoning the well. But typically innuendo and double entendre are seen as broad use speech devices.
    – Conifold
    May 28, 2017 at 22:45

3 Answers 3


Here is a link to an explanation of philosophy and logic arguments. LINK. Specifically, I point to the following, as I believe you are misusing the term "argument".

  1. Argument: any group of propositions of which one is claimed to follow logically from the others.

a. In logic, the normal sense of "argument," such as my neighbor yelling to me about my trashcans is not termed "an argument" in logic.

b. By "argument," we mean a demonstration or a proof of some statement, not emotional language.

And example of a proper argument would be...

Premise 1: All crows are black

Premise 2: That bird is a crow

Conclusion: That bird is black.

In this specific case, I would say that your wife's argument would be as follows:

P1: You used the cup.

P2: The cup is dirty due to your use.

C: You hadn't cleaned the cup after using it.

This seems to be logically sound.

I would propose that there are several logical failings in your counter argument.

Premise contradiction

P1: You always clean up after yourself.

P2: You did not clean the cup after using it.

P1 cannot be true if P2 is true, and therefore there is no valid conclusion to be drawn.

Fallacy of Generalization

The accuser is implying you are generally a dirty person.

The general implication does not directly follow out of the explicit accusation in a particular instance. The logical argument you are assuming is...

P1: Dirty people do not clean their cups.

P2: You did not clean the cup.

C: You are a dirty person.

While logically sound, to properly make this inference Premise 1 should actually read "Only dirty people do not clean their cups.". However, this is not necessarily a sound premise because there may be other instances where someone who is not a "dirty person" may not clean the cup. A comparable argument with this same issue would be...

P1: All crows are black.

P2: That bird is black.

C: That bird must be a crow.


P1: All crows are black.

P2: All crows are birds.

C: All black birds are crows.


A fallacious argument cannot be valid by definition. By naming a fallacy you are indeed proving that the conclusion "is not certain". That is the truth of the conclusion is contingent. Contingency expresses that the truth value of said proposition is temporary and can change. The proposition " it is raining" can be true today and false another day. If all logic did this much (50/50 odds) why would logic be of any value to study? You can get 50/50 odds without studying logic.

A fallacious argument can be demonstrated by substituting the terms of the argument. This means instead of p and q you use any other variable you desire a and b or l and k for instance. The truth value ought not change because the variables are different. If the truth values change there is possibility the conclusion can be false. Deduction done correctly prevents other possible outcomes which is why it is certain. If your conclusion is so-so then you do not have certainty and some thing is formally wrong with your argument.

In terms of the alleged argument you expressed, your wife is using rhetoric. I would chance to say you are as well. Your wife never made a clear proposition. You assumed what you thought your wife meant was that you are always messy. I can understand why you can think that way, but she never really said it. That is the whole point of the approach! The user never really commits to any clear statement. It will always be your fault that you misunderstood because "that is not what I meant" is likely coming. All human argument types are not mathematical.

You express in your statements that your wife is swapping the propositions at hand for different propositions. You will have to call her out right at the point she exchanges them, which might be hard. If you are correct that your wife is swapping propositions in mid argument this is fallacious and never a valid pattern of reasoning.

  • All very interesting, but you could make the answer clearer by (1) using paragraphs and (2) clipping much of the top part.
    – virmaior
    Oct 24, 2017 at 1:59

If you're trying to deny A, "You didn't clean the cup", by responding to A', "You are a dirty person", then that's a straw man fallacy.

You made up something easier to refute. However, your opponent didn't let you get away with it.

This tactic is always used as a debate warfare: we are always implicitly saying A' but we say A explicitly, hoping to drag our opponent to intimidation, and moreover, we deny invoking A' implicitly (which is not true in general).

It doesn't matter. If A' follows from A, then you can defend yourself adequately by refuting A. But if it doesn't, then you concede A and look foolish for arguing against something that no one said.

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