Self-refuting idea

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A self-refuting idea is a logical fallacy that occurs when concept A is used to deny concept B, although concept A logically depends on concept B. In short, a self-refuting idea, also known as a stolen concept, occurs when the conclusion denies the premises. It is similar to begging the question (where you assume what you are attempting to prove), but in a stolen concept, you are assuming what you want to disprove. Many conspiracy theories are self-refuting ideas.

The fallacy is a formal fallacy.

Alternate names[edit]

  • Friendly fire
  • Kettle logic
  • Own goal
  • Shooting oneself in the foot
  • Smuggled concept
  • Stolen concept fallacy (coined by Ayn Rand)
  • Unforced error


Self-refuting ideas are relatively common among those who don't consider the assumptions they're making or what those assumptions actually mean; the result is an argument that undermines itself. This is particularly common when the person making the claim is cherry picking, since they may not bother to check if the things they're picking even are cherries.

However, a claim of self-refutation may be based on semantics or a straw man. The common Objectivist example of the stolen concept is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's statement that "property is theft"; it is argued that this is self-negating, as theft requires a concept of lawful property. This ignores the author's intended definition of the two terms – Proudhon referred to the private property of landowners and capitalists, claiming they "stole" profits from workers (he called his preferred property concept "possession").[1] It is important to distinguish this from ad hoc attempts to rescue a self-refuting idea by adding terms to it after the fact.

One ought to be aware of the principle of charity, to take the most reasonable interpretation of one's opponent's words. An argument may be formed as a deliberate oxymoron, as a striking way of saying something, or other metaphor, and is not to be taken literally.

And one must distinguish between a self-refuting idea and the quite useful reductio ad absurdum, where one begins with the assumptions that one is trying to refute and shows that they result in a contradiction or other unwelcome conclusion.[note 1]

Canceling hypotheses[edit]

Canceling hypotheses occurs when someone explains away the absence of the evidence for something / consequences of something by (ad hoc) introducing a new hypothesis which cancels the effect of the first.

Unintentional apophasis[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Apophasis

A literary term is for a species of irony, unintentional apophasis. Intentional apophasis is to bring up a subject with the pretense of not mentioning it, such as "I will not dwell on my opponent's atheism". Unintentional apophasis, on the other hand, is to bring up a subject which is best left alone, such as Donald Trump talking about the size of his hands.

Kettle logic[edit]

Kettle logic (logique du chaudron) was named by philosopher Jacques Derrida for a story that Sigmund Freud told in "Irma's dream" in The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. A man is accused by his neighbour of returning a borrowed kettle in a damaged condition and answers:

  • That he had returned the kettle undamaged
  • That it was already damaged when he borrowed it
  • That he had never borrowed it in the first place

The arguments may stand individually, but put together they contradict each other.[note 2]


  • Some axioms are self-refuting, and are held to be true in spite of this. For example, the claim "everything is subjective" would require the statement itself be objectively true and is thus self-negating; any attempt to rescue it using logic would fall prey to special pleading by demanding one arbitrary exemption to the claim. Similarly, the attempt at proving the existence of God by positing that everything must have a cause, while making one special exemption (namely, God) to the need for a cause, can fall prey to this as well.
    • Similarly, religious absolutists, who believe that judgement is God's, and moral relativists, who believe you cannot judge the morals of others, have a hard time defending their judgment of the opposing camp.
    • Alder's Razor
  • "I do not exist" — The speaker denies the idea that they exist, but in the very act of making the statement, they presume their existence. Interestingly, people with some forms of the Cotard delusionWikipedia believe that they do not exist and thus manifest this.
  • "Reality is a(n) illusion/simulation/hallucination" — The concepts of "illusion",Wikipedia "simulation", and "hallucination" are derived from the concept of "reality"; that is, they can make no sense unless there is indeed a true "reality" with which either may be contrasted. Note that this is not a refutation of solipsism or other forms of philosophical skepticism which argue that what one believes/perceives to be reality is/could be an illusion, or that reality itself is reducible to one’s mental content. Neither position proposes the absence of reality; they simply propose that humans are not capable of correctly perceiving reality.
  • "Logic is illogical" — self-evidently contradictory, as logic defines what is logical.
  • "The real question is not whether machines think, but whether humans do." — The act of pondering who (if anybody) thinks is, itself, thinking.
  • "There are atheists who hate God(s)" — This is laughable on its face, since any atheist who hated a God would by necessity believe in that particular God, and therefore no longer be an atheist.[note 3]
  • The widely repeated urban legend that David Rice Atchison was President of the United States for one day in 1849, since President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the Oath of Office on Inauguration Day since it was a Sunday. But Atchison didn’t swear the Oath either, so if this makes Taylor not President, then Atchison certainly isn’t President.

Statements or concepts involving explicit or implicit absolutes/universals[edit]

Although statements and concepts involving them explicitly and implicitly which are not self-refuting ideas do indeed exist, absolutes and universals generally create these readily due to their nature of allowing no exception to be given and thus requiring an escape hatch to get out of any apparent exception.

  • "Whether or not any form of actually valid/strong argument exists, no valid/strong argument can really be sound/cogent" (“Every argument must contain a false premise/only goes as deep as definitions”) — The speaker may not be calling logic out as "arbitrary" or "illogical" explicitly, but nevertheless denies the real possibility of any logical deduction or induction at all. But how could any arbitrary or illogical "deduction" or "induction" even be possible to determine without contrasting it with what deduction or induction is known to be logical?
  • "There is not really anything" — The speaker may not be invoking the concept "illusion", "simulation", or "hallucination" explicitly, but nevertheless denies the real existence of anything at all. But the very act of speaking presupposes the real existence of an entity which is able to speak and a language containing at least only the relatively well-defined words being said and the grammar for accepting them in that particular order.
  • "There is no sign that is really well-enough defined to be used" — The very use of any given sign generally presupposes that it is indeed well-enough defined to be used.
  • "Whether or not anything exists, nothing can be known about anything that exists" — If nothing else, it has to be possible to know that anything that exists, exists.
  • "Whether or not anything can be known about anything that exists, nothing that is known about anything that exists can be communicated to others" — Then is language not really for anything?
  • "Everything is a(n) illusion/simulation/hallucination; nothing actually exists," — Even an illusion, simulation, or hallucination still exists, if only apparently. But the concept apparently exists can make no sense unless there is indeed something that "actually exists" with which anything else may be contrasted.
  • "Nothing is certain or impossible; there are only probabilities" — And how do you propose to express or measure probability, except by comparing it either to that which is certain (probability = 1) or to that which is impossible (probability = 0)?
  • "All knowledge is doubtful" (“Question Everything”) —
If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.
Ludwig Wittgenstein #115 from On Certainty
  • Necessitarian determinism is sometimes claimed to be entailed by the Principle of Sufficient Reason, even though contingency is actually an "assumption" of this principle.

Ethical egoism[edit]

The proponents of either descriptive or normative egoism (for an example of the latter, see Objectivism) propose that they ultimately do what they do in their own self-interest, whether over a short or a long term; or that it is necessary and sufficient for what they do to be morally right or rational if it is ultimately in their own self-interest, whether over a short or a long term. On this score, Objectivists are notorious for claiming the point that only what they do that is ultimately in their own self-interest, specifically over a short term, is really morally right. This means, for example, that the mere existence of children is technically morally wrong, a prescription which would extinguish humanity if followed (though they argue having children is self-interested for people who enjoy them, want to spread their genes, etc.). But this is no reverse special plea that only Objectivism is really prey to self-refutation because it self-refutes so egregiously (it isn't really in one's individual self-interest to be the enemy of the vast majority of the world, no matter what Ayn Rand has said).

In fact, even descriptive (or psychological) egoism does not deny the existence of altruism. It only points out that Rand's idea of altruism as a complete disregard of one's own needs has never existed in the real world — someone might be altruistic because they feel good about themselves for doing so, or because they can't stand to see the suffering of others and wish to do something about it. In both of these cases, the motive might be called selfish, but it motivates altruistic behavior nevertheless.


The proponents of "presuppositional apologetics" (for example, Gordon H. Clark) accuse any arguments against the existence of God of committing the Stolen Concept Fallacy on the grounds that any arguments from logic, induction, or morality allegedly presuppose the existence of God (see the transcendental argument for God). This is an incorrect application of the Stolen Concept fallacy, with its question-begging starting premise (X could only be sourced in my God; X exists; therefore my God exists).

Methods of rebuttal could include showing that logic does not require God — e.g., the alleged Divine Attributes (omnipotence paradox) are or the idea of Creation ex nihlio, at least relative to an isolated system, is inherently illogical; that induction does not require God — e.g., miracles undermine the natural order, hence making induction faulty if God exists; and/or that objective morality does not require God — e.g., if God is the source of morality, then morality reduces to subjective divine commands.

In all cases, speakers and listeners presuppose the validity of logic and induction by the very enterprise of engaging in argument; correct arguments then use logic and induction to discover whether postulated entity X (such as God) exists. Presuppositional apologetics / the transcendental argument, in negating the validity of logic and induction (until and unless the speaker's God is conceded to exist), is the side committing a Stolen Concept fallacy.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. However, reductio ad absurdum can be particularly useful for illustrating how and why a self-refuting idea is self-refuting.
  2. Kettle logic is technically distinct from the blunder that TV Tropes refers to as "I Never Said It Was Poison" (demonstrating possession of knowledge that one could not have without being guilty of, involved with, actively investigating, or at the very least a witness to some crime or offense that one is denying culpability for), but it is entirely possible for the two to be combined, as at least one doctor attempting to drive away medical record collectors has learned the hard way.[2]
  3. Atheists may dislike God (the character, not the concept), similar to how audiences might dislike any character that displays traits they find repulsive.