On Sophistical Refutations

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


First then, just as we say that we ought sometimes to choose to prove something in the general estimation rather than in truth, so also we have sometimes to solve arguments rather in the general estimation than according to the truth. For it is a general rule in fighting contentious persons, to treat them not as refuting, but as merely appearing to refute: for we say that they don’t really prove their case, so that our object in correcting them must be to dispel the appearance of it. For if refutation be an unambiguous contradiction arrived at from certain views, there could be no need to draw distinctions against amphiboly and ambiguity: they do not effect a proof. The only motive for drawing further distinctions is that the conclusion reached looks like a refutation. What, then, we have to beware of, is not being refuted, but seeming to be, because of course the asking of amphibolies and of questions that turn upon ambiguity, and all the other tricks of that kind, conceal even a genuine refutation, and make it uncertain who is refuted and who is not. For since one has the right at the end, when the conclusion is drawn, to say that the only denial made of one’s statement is ambiguous, no matter how precisely he may have addressed his argument to the very same point as oneself, it is not clear whether one has been refuted: for it is not clear whether at the moment one is speaking the truth. If, on the other hand, one had drawn a distinction, and questioned him on the ambiguous term or the amphiboly, the refutation would not have been a matter of uncertainty. Also what is incidentally the object of contentious arguers, though less so nowadays than formerly, would have been fulfilled, namely that the person questioned should answer either ’Yes’ or ’No’: whereas nowadays the improper forms in which questioners put their questions compel the party questioned to add something to his answer in correction of the faultiness of the proposition as put: for certainly, if the questioner distinguishes his meaning adequately, the answerer is bound to reply either ’Yes’ or ’No’.

If any one is going to suppose that an argument which turns upon ambiguity is a refutation, it will be impossible for an answerer to escape being refuted in a sense: for in the case of visible objects one is bound of necessity to deny the term one has asserted, and to assert what one has denied. For the remedy which some people have for this is quite unavailing. They say, not that Coriscus is both musical and unmusical, but that this Coriscus is musical and this Coriscus unmusical. But this will not do, for to say ’this Coriscus is unmusical’, or ’musical’, and to say ’this Coriscus’ is so, is to use the same expression: and this he is both affirming and denying at once. ’But perhaps they do not mean the same.’ Well, nor did the simple name in the former case: so where is the difference? If, however, he is to ascribe to the one person the simple title ’Coriscus’, while to the other he is to add the prefix ’one’ or ’this’, he commits an absurdity: for the latter is no more applicable to the one than to the other: for to whichever he adds it, it makes no difference.

All the same, since if a man does not distinguish the senses of an amphiboly, it is not clear whether he has been confuted or has not been confuted, and since in arguments the right to distinguish them is granted, it is evident that to grant the question simply without drawing any distinction is a mistake, so that, even if not the man himself, at any rate his argument looks as though it had been refuted. It often happens, however, that, though they see the amphiboly, people hesitate to draw such distinctions, because of the dense crowd of persons who propose questions of the kind, in order that they may not be thought to be obstructionists at every turn: then, though they would never have supposed that that was the point on which the argument turned, they often find themselves faced by a paradox. Accordingly, since the right of drawing the distinction is granted, one should not hesitate, as has been said before.

If people never made two questions into one question, the fallacy that turns upon ambiguity and amphiboly would not have existed either, but either genuine refutation or none. For what is the difference between asking ’Are Callias and Themistocles musical?’ and what one might have asked if they, being different, had had one name? For if the term applied means more than one thing, he has asked more than one question. If then it be not right to demand simply to be given a single answer to two questions, it is evident that it is not proper to give a simple answer to any ambiguous question, not even if the predicate be true of all the subjects, as some claim that one should. For this is exactly as though he had asked ’Are Coriscus and Callias at home or not at home?’, supposing them to be both in or both out: for in both cases there is a number of propositions: for though the simple answer be true, that does not make the question one. For it is possible for it to be true to answer even countless different questions when put to one, all together with either a ’Yes’ or a ’No’: but still one should not answer them with a single answer: for that is the death of discussion. Rather, the case is like as though different things has actually had the same name applied to them. If then, one should not give a single answer to two questions, it is evident that we should not say simply ’Yes’ or ’No’ in the case of ambiguous terms either: for the remark is simply a remark, not an answer at all, although among disputants such remarks are loosely deemed to be answers, because they do not see what the consequence is.

As we said, then, inasmuch as certain refutations are generally taken for such, though not such really, in the same way also certain solutions will be generally taken for solutions, though not really such. Now these, we say, must sometimes be advanced rather than the true solutions in contentious reasonings and in the encounter with ambiguity. The proper answer in saying what one thinks is to say ’Granted’; for in that way the likelihood of being refuted on a side issue is minimized. If, on the other hand, one is compelled to say something paradoxical, one should then be most careful to add that ’it seems’ so: for in that way one avoids the impression of being either refuted or paradoxical. Since it is clear what is meant by ’begging the original question’, and people think that they must at all costs overthrow the premisses that lie near the conclusion, and plead in excuse for refusing to grant him some of them that he is begging the original question, so whenever any one claims from us a point such as is bound to follow as a consequence from our thesis, but is false or paradoxical, we must plead the same: for the necessary consequences are generally held to be a part of the thesis itself. Moreover, whenever the universal has been secured not under a definite name, but by a comparison of instances, one should say that the questioner assumes it not in the sense in which it was granted nor in which he proposed it in the premiss: for this too is a point upon which a refutation often depends.

If one is debarred from these defences one must pass to the argument that the conclusion has not been properly shown, approaching it in the light of the aforesaid distinction between the different kinds of fallacy.

In the case, then, of names that are used literally one is bound to answer either simply or by drawing a distinction: the tacit understandings implied in our statements, e.g. in answer to questions that are not put clearly but elliptically- it is upon this that the consequent refutation depends. For example, ’Is what belongs to Athenians the property of Athenians?’ Yes. ’And so it is likewise in other cases. But observe; man belongs to the animal kingdom, doesn’t he?’ Yes. ’Then man is the property of the animal kingdom.’ But this is a fallacy: for we say that man ’belongs to’ the animal kingdom because he is an animal, just as we say that Lysander ’belongs to’ the Spartans, because he is a Spartan. It is evident, then, that where the premiss put forward is not clear, one must not grant it simply.

Whenever of two things it is generally thought that if the one is true the other is true of necessity, whereas, if the other is true, the first is not true of necessity, one should, if asked which of them is true, grant the smaller one: for the larger the number of premisses, the harder it is to draw a conclusion from them. If, again, the sophist tries to secure that A has a contrary while B has not, suppose what he says is true, you should say that each has a contrary, only for the one there is no established name.

Since, again, in regard to some of the views they express, most people would say that any one who did not admit them was telling a falsehood, while they would not say this in regard to some, e.g. to any matters whereon opinion is divided (for most people have no distinct view whether the soul of animals is destructible or immortal), accordingly (1) whenever it is uncertain in which of two senses the premiss proposed is usually meant- whether as maxims are (for people call by the name of ’maxims’ both true opinions and general assertions), or like the doctrine ’the diagonal of a square is incommensurate with its side’: and moreover (2) whenever opinions are divided as to the truth, we then have subjects of which it is very easy to change the terminology undetected. For because of the uncertainty in which of the two senses the premiss contains the truth, one will not be thought to be playing any trick, while because of the division of opinion, one will not be thought to be telling a falsehood. Change the terminology therefore, for the change will make the position irrefutable.

Moreover, whenever one foresees any question coming, one should put in one’s objection and have one’s say beforehand: for by doing so one is likely to embarrass the questioner most effectually.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "17," On Sophistical Refutations, trans. W. A. Pickard-Cambridge Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H4NKURGKG6DLJRG.

MLA: Aristotle. "17." On Sophistical Refutations, translted by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H4NKURGKG6DLJRG.

Harvard: Aristotle, '17' in On Sophistical Refutations, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H4NKURGKG6DLJRG.