“There is nothing like this anywhere in modern literature” (Hamblin 1970, p. 52). Primarily, On Sophistical Refutations is a book for logical self-defense (Johnson and Blair 1977), but it is also announced as a useful treatise for sophists: they should study fallacies not to avoid them, but rather to commit them when it suits their purposes (SE 1, 165a28–31). Indeed, the book is refreshingly uncommitted to moral views about a dialectician’s giving advice to the bona fide discussant and the polemist or sophist alike.
This may sound as if On Sophistical Refutations is a kind of popular manual, but in fact it is a rather technical book and, moreover, not an easy book to read. At many places one would wish that the author had written less tersely and explained his meaning in greater detail. Sometimes there are even unannounced shifts in the use of technical terms, as we saw in the case of “refutation,” where a more detailed definition was presupposed in Chapter 8 than had been given in Chapter 1. A good editor could have done a lot!
Yet the study of this work can be rewarding as it yields all kinds of suggestions for the theory of argumentation. Above we saw how Aristotle’s somewhat hidden method of establishing completeness, once unearthed, rewards us with a method that is of general application. Below, I shall present a few other examples of matters that may at first embarrass the reader, but may also inspire him.
Fallacies Dependent on the Use of Language
We saw that, at the beginning of Chapter 4, Aristotle divides the sophistical refutations into two groups (those depended upon the use of language and the other ones). He never tells us what motivates this division. There is also no definition of “use of language” (lexis). Yet he claims that there are exactly six kinds of fallacies of the first kind and that this can be proved (SE 4, 165b23–30). This may make one wonder whether the distinction between the two groups can be explained and whether the completeness proof for the six kinds of the first group can be reconstructed. On the first issue, Hamblin contributed his conjecture that “what does distinguish the refutations dependent on language is that they all arise from the fact that language is an imperfect instrument for the expression of our thoughts: the others could, in theory, arise even in a perfect language” (1970, p. 81). The reconstruction of the completeness proof for the first group takes up a hint from Aristotle, who tells us that equivocation, amphiboly, and form of expression depend on ambiguity (ditton), whereas combination, division, and accent depend on a lack of identity of expressions (SE 6, 168a23–28). This prompts us to rethink our criteria of identity for linguistic entities (Hasper 2009).
Form of Expression
The same passage in Chapter 6 may make one wonder why the fallacy of form of expression has been thrown in with the other two as depending on ambiguity. Rather than two legitimate readings, examples of this fallacy display a legitimate and an illegitimate reading, so that there is no ambiguity in the ordinary sense. Consider the following example: “If someone no longer has what he once had, he has lost it. Now, who lost just one knucklebone, will no longer have ten knucklebones” (SE 22, 178a29–31). This succinctly adumbrated example may be reconstructed as follows:
If someone no longer has what he once had, do we say that he has lost it?
Yes, thus we may define what it means to lose something.
Suppose, John has ten knucklebones and loses just one of them. In that case, wouldn’t John no longer have ten knucklebones, whereas he once had them?
So, according to our definition, John would have lost ten knucklebones?
But we supposed he lost just one of them!
Normally, “what” and “it” in the premise “If someone no longer has what he once had, he has lost it” are taken to refer to individual objects. The sophistical Questioner, however, takes these words to refer to quantities. But that reading is just wrong. If quantities are meant, the premise should be formulated as “If someone no longer has as much as he once had, he has lost as much”, which no one would concede. Therefore, even though such examples display ambiguity in the sense of there being two readings, this is not the ordinary ambiguity where there are two legitimate readings (as in cases of equivocation or amphiboly), and hence the fallacy of form of expression is a non sequitur rather than a fallacy of ambiguity. But it still is a fallacy dependent on the use of language, for an ideal language would make it clear for each word to which category (individuals, quantities, qualities, etc.) it refers and thus rule out this fallacy from the start (for Aristotle on categories, see the untimely review by Ludger Jansen in this journal, 2007). Thus understood, the fallacy of form of expression, which may at first seem a bit outlandish, can be connected with the twentieth century discussion about Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s distinction between the apparent and the real logical form of a sentence and Ryle’s concept of a systematically misleading expression (Russell 1905; Wittgenstein 1922; Ryle 1932; Krabbe 1998).
One of the more puzzling and technical issues is Aristotle’s treatment of the tactics of bringing someone into a state of babbling (Chapters 13 and 31). It may be hard to follow Aristotle in the semantic details of his exposition, but the issue is certainly worth further consideration. Take the case of We are our brains (translation of the title of a book by Dick Swaab 2010). If Swaab is identical with his brains, he will be identical with the brains of Swaab, and therefore identical with the brains of the brains of Swaab, and with the brains of the brains of the brains of Swaab, and so on. This is of course not a refutation of the thesis that we are our brains, for one might accept all these consequences. Yet, to have such ever more complex consequences may be unwelcome and count as a drawback for the thesis that we are our brains. It is a way of arguing against this thesis that philosophers (rather than neurobiologists) will have to deal with.
Whereas in Chapter 2 Aristotle distinguishes examinational (peirastical) arguments from dialectical arguments, he elsewhere usually takes peirastic—i.e. the examination of (would-be) experts—to be a part of dialectic (SE 8, 169b25, SE 11, 171b4–5, 172a21, 35–36, but not in SE 34, 183a39–b1). Aristotelian peirastic is a kind of dialectic that even non-experts can use as an instrument to unmask would-be experts (SE 11, 172a21–24). It is the Academic version of the Socratic examination dialogue, or “Socratic peirastic” (Gentzler 1995). How does it work? Unfortunately, Aristotle limits himself to only a few statements: the non-expert can refute and thus expose the would-be expert, without using any special knowledge in the field of which the would-be expert claims to be an expert, by means of common principles (koinoi), which are also known to non-experts. As premises the non-expert must obtain consequences (hepomena) of the principles of the field in question that may be known also by a non-expert, whereas an expert must necessarily know them (SE 11, 172a21–36). Peirastic is a very urgent topic for a democratic society, where people are supposed to govern, to pass legislation, to judge cases in court, to participate in political debates, or to vote, and to do so as non-experts in fields that are relevant for their decisions. To make informed decisions, non-experts must consult experts. Also the non-experts must have means at their disposal to test the trustworthiness of the experts. Here the expert examination dialogue, a kind of dialectic, has a role to play (Walton 2006; Krabbe and van Laar 2010).
The concept of a solution to an argument is known from the Topics. To solve an argument that (correctly) deduces a false conclusion, one is to demolish a (false) premise: not just any false premise, but the one on which the falsehood depends (Topics VIII.10). As we saw, in On Sophistical Refutations the concept of solution is extended to cover the case of a fallacious deduction, in which case the solution consists of pinpointing the culpable question and making a distinction (SE 18, 176b33–36). Generally, a solution is required to provide a (presumably unique) theoretically grounded explanation of how a fallacy or a false conclusion comes about; simply showing up some flaw does not suffice (SE 24, 179b18, 23–24). Moreover, “for arguments that depend on the same issue, the solution must be the same” (SE 20, 177b31–32) and if the denial of the solution of an argument is added to the premises the resulting argument must be unsolvable (SE 22, 178b16–21). Occasionally, however, more relaxed conceptions of solution intermingle: according to Chapter 18, showing the conclusion to be false can be a solution without pinpointing any particular premise (SE 18, 176b40) and sometimes there may be more than one solution (SE 30, 181b19). Solutions according to such relaxed conceptions are sometimes referred to as solutions “directed at the Questioner and not at the argument” (SE 20, 177b33–34). The idea to have a theory of fallacies that yields solutions in the stricter sense is enticing, but needs further elaboration. Here Aristotle left some work for us to take in hand.
These examples may suffice to show that Aristotle’s new book, though at points problematic, has a lot to offer to inspire further research. Therefore, we should take a lenient stance to the shortcomings of the author’s approach and be most grateful for his achievements (SE 34, 184b6–8).Footnote 3