On Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle

Section I – Katie Leeper 

Fallacy is a deceptive, misleading or false argument. Refutation is the act of rejecting a statement or argument by providing a logical counter-argument or proof. Section 1 of Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle is divided into ten parts from part 1 – 10. Each part of section 1 guides the reader to understand sophistical refutations – what appear to be refutations but are really fallacies instead. Aristotle wrote On Sophistical Refutations against the sophists – image-makers in the sense of a false-representer of knowledge. Aristotle highlighted how some people seem to be beautiful and physically fit while others embellish themselves to look as such. Similarly, Aristotle highlighted how some inanimate objects may really be silver and gold while others merely seem to be such. For example, litharge or tin resembles silver and yellow metal looks gold. Aristotle argued that it is the same for reasoning and refutation – some are genuine and apparent while others seem to be but are not real. He highlighted how the sophists believe it is better to seem to be wise than to be wise without seeming to be because the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom based in the circulation of image. Aristotle then discussed how many kinds there are of sophistical arguments, how many in number are the elements of which this faculty is composed and how many branches there happen to be of this inquiry. Aristotle highlighted how there are four classes of arguments in dialogue – didactic, dialectical, examination-arguments & contentious arguments. Didactic arguments are those that reason from the principles appropriate to each subject and not from the opinions held by the answerer. 

Dialectical arguments are those that reason from premises generally accepted. Examination-arguments are those that reason from premises which are accepted by the answerer and which any one who pretends to possess knowledge of the subject is bound to know-in what manner. Contentious arguments are those that reason or appear to reason to a conclusion from premises that appear to be generally accepted but are not so. Aristotle proceeded to speak of the arguments used in competitions and contests – number, refutation, fallacy, paradox, solecism & repetition. Aristotle argued that there are two styles of refutation – those that depend on the language used and those that are independent of language. 

Aristotle highlighted the ways of producing the false appearance of an argument which depend on language – ambiguity, amphiboly, combination, division of words, accent & form of expression. Aristotle argued there are three varieties of these ambiguities and amphibolies – when either the expression or the name has strictly more than one meaning, when by custom we use them so & when words that have a simple sense taken alone have more than one meaning in combination. While refutations depend upon language drawn from these common-place rules, fallacies are independent of language. Aristotle highlighted the seven kinds of fallacies – that which depends upon Accident, the use of an expression absolutely or not absolutely but with some qualification of respect or place, or time or relation, that which depends upon ignorance of what ‘refutation’ is, that which depends upon the consequent, that which depends upon assuming the original conclusion, stating as cause what is not the cause & the making of more than one question into one. Aristotle argued that it is absurd to discuss Refutation without first discussing proof – for a refutation is a proof so that one ought to discuss proof as well before describing false refutation. Aristotle highlighted how false refutation is a merely apparent proof of the contradictory of a thesis and the reason of the falsity will be either in the proof or in the contradiction – sometimes both if the refutation be merely apparent. 

Section 2 – Peytyn Lofland 

Section 2 of Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle is divided into nine parts from part 11 – 20. Each part of section 2 guides the reader to understand the different forms of arguments that can be made, who makes these arguments, the varying factors & characteristics of these arguments, and how one should respond and solve these arguments. 

Key- words and concepts to take from this reading: contentious, dialectical, sophistical, reasoning, examination, amatuer vs. professional, conformity, refutation, paradox, fallacy, questioner vs. answerer, argument, opinion, common-place, term – definition, relativity, double-meaning, solecism, inflection, speed, ambiguity, concealment, amphiboly, connections, distinction, yes/no questions, confutation, use of “granted,” and “it seems,” consequent refutation, division & combination of words, false-meaning, demolishment, and contrary concepts & contradictions.

Yes/No Questions – Examinations: 

Section 2 begins with drawing the distinction between who would be asking a yes/no question. This question would be posed by one who is giving an examination, and this individual is said to be the professional, or well-versed, of this particular subject. It is said that it would be common to assume that the one being given the examination is going to be “ignorant,” or an amatuer, within this distinct field of study. Furthermore, Aristotle states that it is also believed that dialectical reasoning is the only proper form of examination; however, there are misleadings in this assumption. These misleadings refer to the common principles that do not “conform properly,” but instead, generally apply to the topic at hand. 

The Contentious vs. The Sophistical Reasoner: 

He goes on to explain the difference between contentious and sophistical reasoners. Contentious reasoners are explained to be one who will work endlessly for victory; therefore, they will take as many opportunities and advantages they possibly can to further themselves. Sophistical reasoners, on the other hand, use wisdom to make a reputation of themselves while also earning a living. This is explained and supported by the knowledge that the art of sophistry is the use of false images circulated as wisdom to make money. Therefore, these two reasoners argue the same arguments; however, have different motives and modes of application. The example used to explain application & conclusion of arguments made by reasoners is the example of geometry. A contentious reasoner is going to find the solution for a singular and specific subject such as the use of figures specifically for geometric use; whereas, a sophistical reasoner is going to apply his findings and solutions to not only geometry, but to many topics across the board. 

Dialectical Arguments + General vs. Specific Principles: 

A third form of argument is dialectical, this argument is not concerned with any definite being, it does not show anything, and does not fall under the same principles. It is further explained that dialectic forms are also modes of examination because a man may possess an examination; however, he has no knowledge of the subject at hand. An examination can be given on anything & everything and does not belong to a specific grouping; therefore, there is no definite being or subject being represented. Dialectic arguments are utilized by everyone as everyone believes, even if an “ignorant pretender,” that they are educated in a specific topic and with every specific topic comes some form of “trial.” This is important because it shows how each concept has general principles that amateurs and professionals are knowledgeable on, and then there are specific principles that only professionals may understand. These principles create debates or refutations. 

Formulation of Questions: 

Following the first part of Section 2, the proceeding parts explain how questions should be formulated and framed in respect to refutations, fallacies, and paradoxical findings. Aristotle highlights the many ways in which an answerer can unintentionally create a fallacy in his own opinions and beliefs: 

Framing the Question: The first of these routes is how a question is framed by the questioner, if a question is framed broadly, then a fallacy is more likely to occur as most people are more likely to make mistakes in a more general than specific conversation. 

Posing More Than One Question: A second path that can be taken is if the questioner poses more than one question at a time, this leaves the answerer to only answering with his opinion which may lead to a fallacy or paradox as well. 

The Use of Yes/ No Questions: Third, yes/no questions lead answerers off the original subject and question at hand into another subject that the questioner may be able to lead an attack with. Aristotle explains that the third direction in this list is harder in present times because most people may ask how it relates to the subject of their original debate. 

Additional directions are to not pose a controversial question initially and to lead with a process of inquiry and general questions and use of the sophistic rule meaning to draw the answerer into a field of subject matter that they lack the knowledge to make factual and reasonable arguments for. When posing paradoxical statements, you must look at the group of philosophers that they belong to. Then ask if their doctrine is paradoxical to most people and in the solution to the refutation would be to point out that the paradox does not come from the argument itself as this is what the answerer would want. This trickles down to the rule to always argue from what you believe your “opponent’s wishes and professed opinions” may be. However, it is common that people will not say their actual wishes and instead may say what they perceive will look best to the majority of people. Therefore, the opponent must be led into stating his perceived opinions about what people believe and value. This will then lay a paradox on the table as it allows for a contradiction to be made by the other participating party. 

Paradoxical Subjects of Conversation – Nature & Law 

Aristotle states that the subject matter that maintains an open opportunity for paradoxical statements is the subject of the standards of Nature & Law. The belief being that nature and law are opposites and when justice is thrown into the mix, it is positive in the name of law, but negative for nature. This belief is paradoxical in itself and can be fought with alternatives and contrary beliefs by any which way. Additionally, the answer by which people respond to questions may pose controversial issues such as the example of the standard of law being accepted by the majority while the standards of nature & truth are accepted and used by philosophers. 

Common-Place Subject Arguments: 

Aristotle points out that when debating common-place subjects, it can be vital to the solution of the argument to draw out paradoxical opinions from the opposing side. 

Relative Terms – Redundancy: 

Following this, there is an explanation of relative terms and redundancy in arguments that create fallacy, i.e. the use of a double expression where the speaker believes that two words, since they are the “same,” they then mean the “same” thing when in reality they may not. The second being the use of words that create redundancy in their meanings such as “odd” – meaning “‘a number containing a middle’,” and “‘odd number’’” – meaning “‘a number containing a middle number.’” An additional example of this fallacy is “‘shub nose’,” “‘shubness’” meaning – “‘concavity of the nose;’” therefore, “‘shub nose,’” would mean “‘concave-nose-nose.’” Use & Meaning of Words- Creating Fallacy: 

Part 14 extends on how play of words creates fallacy in debates through “solecism,” or a grammatical error in one’s speech or writing. This is supported by masculine vs. feminine vs. neutral words, such as “he” (masculine), “she” (feminine), and “this” (neuter). Solecism depends on the word “this,” as it is also dependent on the inflection of one’s argument and point they are trying to make. Therefore, “this” is commonly used for many forms of inflection as it could signify many “he” or “him,” / “she” or “her,” / “it.” This fallacy helps further explain how the meanings of “is” and “being” are different based on one’s improper or proper use of inflection in their speech. 

Speed & Anger Resources: 

Part 15 touches on two different resources when dealing with refutations. These resources are speed and the elementary rule to produce anger in order to gain the upper hand in contentious arguments. On the subject of speed, Aristotle states “when people are left behind, they look ahead less.” Additionally, in part 16 of the section, it is claimed that speed is enhanced through training and when one does not train, then they will not be versed in the use of speed to make arguments quickly. They will make the connection and understand the point; however, will not be quick enough to apply the understanding to the debate. The second resource of the play on agitation and anger is founded in that “man cannot properly take care of himself” when afflicted with agitation. In order to accomplish this, Aristotle supports foul play and being shameless while doing so because this then makes the opponent guarded and on his toes or agitated for the argument.

Concept of Concealment: 

Additionally, the concept of concealment is encouraged. Concealment is used to deceive which is ideal for contentious arguments taking place. In order to not make an answer of one’s opinions and wishes apparent, one should pose a question negatively and with it’s contrary accompanying it; “when it is obscure what answer one wants, then people are less refractory[, or stubborn].” Additional ways to create fallacies in the opponent’s arguments are to create a strong appearance of final proposition, lay down a paradox to grant a view or not, examine discrepancies of the answerer or who he mimics his beliefs after + break down his argument, and to take positions in an argument that are not clearly stated. 

Addressing Answers, Solutions, What is Required, & Why These Are Useful: The remaining parts of Section 2 cover the address of answers, solutions, what is required of them, and why these forms of arguments are useful. First, the usefulness of these arguments comes from three reasons: overarchingly: in the name of philosophy, and sub-reasonings being: (1) advancing one’s understanding of how a concept or term can be viewed/used in many ways; (2) these arguments are useful for personal research; (3) allowance for furthering one’s reputation in the name of whether they are knowledgeable and educated or not knowledgeable and uneducated. 

Amphiboly & Ambiguity: 

Part 17 explains the concept of amphiboly and ambiguity in terms of fallacy. A general rule of thumb for contentious arguing is to treat the opposing side “as if” they are being refuted, but do not actually refute them. The point behind this rule is to “dispel the appearance of their case,” to which Aristotle warns his reader to not fear being refuted; however, fear the potential of seeming to be refuted. In the case of ambiguity and amphiboly, they can be used to conceal refutation which then makes it hard to distinguish the truth in the debate. The key in terms of ambiguity and amphiboly is to not draw your own distinction in terms of the other side’s use of ambiguous terms and definitions. 

Fallacies of Amphiboly & Ambiguity: 

To draw a distinction of your own and apply it to a conversation of ambiguity will create an uncertain refutation as it may become unclear who is wrong in this case. Instead, the questioner should attempt to distinguish the other’s explanation “adequately” through a yes/no question as “one cannot affirm and deny at once.” However, a word of caution states to not pose this question without making the distinction first. “Granting the question” first allows for a conclusion to be drawn about one’s opinions when that opinion is not actually there, this then allows for paradox. The issue of posing two questions into one creates fallacy too, when a double meaning is present in conversation then the question becomes not one, but two. A simple answer will not be enough in this case as it will be seen as ambiguous and will lead to the “death of the discussion.” Additionally, yes/no answers to double-edged questions is also ambiguous and not an actual answer. Use of the responses “granted,” and “it seems…” in conversation whether it is paradoxical or not is urged in order to avoid seeming to refute or be paradoxical in your own terms. Consequent refutation depends on unclear premises; if a statement is made that “if one is true, then so is the other,” or “if one is true, then the other is false,” and it is asked that one chooses the truthful one, they should choose the smaller of the two because larger premises mean for harder conclusions. Lastly in this part, if one does not admit their view then this is a falsehood based on majority opinion. It becomes unclear, when an opinion is divided into two, where (1) which of the two pieces is meant as the maxim and which is meant as a doctrinal statement, and (2), whenever the opinion is divided, the terminology may be easily altered. This creates an uncertainty in which premise holds truth – it becomes apparent that the opponent is not creating a falsehood due to their own confusion which makes the position “irrefutable.”

Falsehoods, Double Meanings, Demolition v. Distinction, Ambiguity & Amphiboly (cont), & Combinations & Divisions: 

In the concluding parts of this section of Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations, parts 18-20, Aristotle touches on falsehoods & double meanings, solutions of demolition or distinction, solving ambiguity & amphiboly (continued), and the importance of combinations and divisions of words. 

Solving Falsehoods + False Conclusions – Demolition / 


The statement that false meaning has a double meaning is reliant on either the proof or apparent proof of a false conclusion or the correction of a false conclusion. False conclusions can be solved in two ways: (1) demolition of one of the premises – the conclusion; therefore, is untrue, & (2) demolition of the premise that is untrue because the conclusion is true. Generally, in order to solve an argument, it is necessary to (1) see if the opposite side of the argument is reasonable or unreasonable; (2) is their conclusion true or false?; (3) dependent on if the conclusion is true or false, the solution should be found to be either: demolition or distinction. 

Ambiguity – Double Meaning Fallacy and Solving with Combination / Division of Words: Due to ambiguity, a conclusion may also have a double meaning; therefore, a contradiction must be drawn for refutation. However, do not immediately shoot down a double-edged premise; instead reply with ambiguity. Finally, in part 20, the explanation of combination and division of term’s importance is explained. The repeating of words and meanings in one’s conclusion is a fallacy, as stated before in terms of redundancy. This repetition is then dependent on the process of division and combination; however, an expression that depends on division of terms does not equal ambiguity. In conclusion of this part, not all solutions to the debate depend on the structure and framing of one’s questions being posed as some answers to questions are naturally difficult to draw conclusions from. 

Section 3 – Sam Kemp 

In Section 3, Aristotle addresses the different kinds of fallacies. In Part 21, he addresses the fallacy of accent, where the meaning of a sentence may be changed depending upon the increased accentuation of a word. For instance, in the sentence “I didn’t invite Janice to the house yesterday,” the emphasis on “yesterday” implies that the speaker invited Janice to the house on a different day. The same sentence “I didn’t invite Janice to the house yesterday,” implies that the speaker didn’t invite Janice over, but someone else did. In this case, there can be some ambiguity as to what someone is saying in an argument if emphasis is placed on particular words. 

Aristotle brings up another fallacy in Part 22, the fallacies that “depend on the identical expressions of things that are not identical”. In this case, Aristotle means that when one uses multiple definitions of the same word in order to form an argument. As touched on in Section 2, in these cases, expressions can be ambiguous and arguments can be manipulated to appear deductively valid while they are not sound—To review, an argument is valid when it is structured so that the conclusion must follow necessarily from the premises, while a sound argument is valid and all of its premises are true. 

Aristotle provides the example of defining the word “see” differently in the context of saying “to see” and “to have seen”. Another example of using an identical expression in different ways would be to say: (P1) The flowers are light (in terms of weight) (P2) Light things cannot be dark (in terms of color) (C) Therefore, flowers cannot be light (in terms of color). In this argument, two definitions of the same expression “light” are used. While the argument looks to be valid on the outset, “light” in weight and “light” in color are not the same. 

Further, Aristotle sees that there are fallacies of argument where one may apply what only applies to the part of a thing to the whole. As Aristotle puts it, for instance, if someone has 10 die, and they lose one of them, it would sound misleading to make the argument that the person had “lost 10 die”. While they may no longer have 10 die, they only lost one. An example of this fallacy that might make more sense would be to say, “If Jim stands up at the concert, he can see the stage better. 

Therefore, if everyone in the audience stands up they can all see the stage better.” While the argument applies to the individual (Jim), it does not mean that it is true of the whole (the audience). Conversely, if something is true of the whole, that does not mean that it is true of one of its parts. For instance, simply because a piano can play a variety of notes, one key on the piano cannot play all of those notes. 

In Part 23, Aristotle details how to counter an argument of ambiguity or point out a fallacy. He finds that if the sophist uses an ambiguous term, you can solve it by using the opposite term: “e.g. if you find yourself calling something inanimate, despite your previous denial that it was so, show in what sense it is alive.” Aristotle then transitions in Part 24 to another fallacy, or an argument that “depends on accident”. These arguments may be valid, but they are not sound. In this instance, an exception to the rule may be ignored. An example might be the argument that (P1) Birds can fly (P2) Carl the penguin is a bird (C) Therefore, Carl can fly. While the premise that “birds can fly” is a rule of thumb, there are obvious exceptions to the rule. Penguins cannot fly, so this argument ignores the exception to the rule. Additionally, one cannot use the exception to the rule to argue that it applies to the whole. 

Aristotle continues that while an argument may contain premises that follow logically, sometimes a conclusion may be reached that does not follow from the given premises. In this case, the argument cannot be valid because the conclusion is not relevant to the argument presented in the first place. These arguments fail to address the question being asked. Eg. if someone asks, “Are non-citizens allowed to vote?” The response “Non-citizens should be allowed to vote,” does not answer the question being posed. 

In Part 27, Aristotle discusses the problem of “begging and assuming the original point to be proved” or begging the question. In this instance, the conclusion to an argument is simply assumed to be true, and it is not supported by any independent premises. This error leads to a type of circular reasoning where there is no real support of the conclusion. An example of this

type of argument would be “Smoking a Juul can kill you because Juuls are deadly.” In this instance the conclusion is assumed to be true, and the premise is simply another way of writing the conclusion. Part 28 outlines the argument for affirming a conclusion through the consequent. In this instance, simply because one argument is valid, that does not mean that the converse of that argument is valid. The argument “There was a storm over the baseball field, therefore the game got cancelled,” is deductively sound, but the converse “The game got cancelled, therefore there was a storm,” would not be. After all, the game could have gotten cancelled for reasons other than a storm. In some arguments, the negation of the antecedent and the consequent would not necessarily be sound either: if one were to say “If Jim lives in a dorm, therefore he lives within walking distance to class.” We could not change this to say “If Jim doesn’t live in a dorm, therefore he doesn’t live within walking distance to class.” After all, Jim could still live in an off campus apartment that is within walking distance. 

 Finally, Aristotle points out that while it may not always be illegal in arguments, one way that individuals will often manipulate an argument is through asking several questions at once, or complex questions. One could possibly propose one question that has many presuppositions within it. For example the question: “How many children does bigfoot have?” supposes that bigfoot exists and that he has children. Complex questions can be difficult to argue against, because one may have to pick apart each one of its presuppositions before answering it. 

Aristotle concludes that an understanding of the fallacies that he provides would be useful if your opponent commits one in a debate. The best way to combat these fallacies of logic is to point them out and make your opponent recognize the paradoxes that their argument creates. Aristotle then takes aim at how the art of argument has been taught in the past, and finds that the best way to move forward is through logic. 

Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations is a work that is essential to grasp in the realm of philosophy. The principles of sound logic can be applied to arguments on almost any subject. This work was pivotal in setting the groundwork for the future study of logic, and many of the fallacies that Aristotle points out are rules of modern propositional logic. In the context of this course, it gives us a better framework for understanding the structure of arguments in the authors that we address and provides a knowledge of how to refute arguments that fall short of logical reasoning. Through recognition of different kinds of arguments, and an understanding of deductive principles outlined by Aristotle, one may see arguments more like a math problem that can be picked apart and refuted based on its illogical structure.

Written by Katie Leeper, Peytyn Lofland & Sam Kemp 

Katie Leeper is a senior at Virginia Tech double majoring in Political Science and Multimedia Journalism. She hopes to work as a political commentator one day. 

Peytyn Lofland is a junior at Virginia Tech majoring in Political Science with a concentration in National Security. She hopes to either work for a federal agency in data analytics or to pursue a degree in law following graduation at Tech. 

Sam Kemp is a Junior at Virginia Tech double majoring in PPE and Political Science. He hopes to live abroad and work as an environmental lawyer in the future.