On Sophistical Refutations

Tiffany Hakenson

I am a senior in my last semester as a Political Science major here at Virginia Tech. As a Political Science major I have a strong interest in understanding theory and its applications in public policy.

Ryan Grannan

I am a Senior with a major in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) and a minor in Leadership. I am interested in Teaching, as well as politics. I think that the readings I have done for this class will help me put a variety of the concepts from social studies into their historical philosophical contexts.

Bryson Dannewitz

I am a senior getting my Political Science degree with a National Security focus. I am about to commission into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant, and I hope to be able to put the skills that I have learned in my major to work during my career as an Army officer. I have always had an interest in politics and the origins of our political system, which is why I decided on this major.

Cade Ashby

I am a junior majoring in Political Science: National Security Studies, and minoring in Russian Area Studies. I Transferred to Virginia Tech last year from VMI where I was a part of Army ROTC. I have always been interested in philosophy, and figured that understanding political philosophy would be useful for the career in federal law enforcement that I plan to pursue.

Why read sophistical refutations?

Economies of images and appearances are where sophistry manifests. We see this heavily in our political discourse and news media which makes it important to know how to counter and find fault in typical sophistical arguments to safeguard the state through public discourse.

[Editor’s Note]: As you may recall, sophists and sophistry were endemic to Athenian society and held and influenced the arc of power in Athens and elsewhere in the ancient world. As you’ll recall, the death of Socrates in Apology is caused, in part, by sophists accusing Socrates of sophistry (hilariously, it would appear that Socrates in Euthyphro is picking apart a sophist from a place of ignorance thus providing a small refutation of the charges in Apology). Their arguments and presentations of Socrates as a threat to Athens relied on images of him and his actions to ground their accusations. In this way, we can see that sophistry is an actual political force within democratic society and Gorgias himself in his writings argues for the sophist as an endemic species of democracy. However, as we saw in Gorgias the sophist relies on the use of rhetoric for purposes of mass persuasion and you’ll recall that Gorgias himself said that rhetoric can be a tool to make any man a slave. Further, you’ll recall from Sophist that the sophist is a sort of angler – a fisherman – and attempts to ensnare, hook or tangle their targets in environments of images produced by the sophist through the use of rhetoric. This is mostly aimed at serving the sophist who grows from selling images and beliefs regardless of their veracity but more as a form of flattery. As we saw in Republic, as Socrates engages with his eventual executioners, the sophist does not care about or possibly believe that there is an “objective Truth” as Plato or Aristotle do and thus their ethical commitments to “truth” are grounded in what will draw in the most power, capital and influence. Their targets, as you’ll recall, are typically young men of well-to-do families in need of formal instruction. The sophist instructs the young in the use of rhetoric and not necessarily the production of knowledge and the pursuit of “truth.”

Both Plato and Aristotle are suspicious of democracy. Why? Because democratic orders can be chaotic with multiple avenues to degrade into tyrannies simply because democratic citizens are ruled by their desires and not necessarily their reason. This is a point of ethical conduct for Plato and Aristotle as one cannot divorce Ethics from Justice in their thinking. This means that it may be difficult, if not impossible – depending on whether you ask Plato – for democratic citizens to really advocate for the interests of society in general as this would require a wider rationality than simply acting in self-interest in the pursuit of desire. As you’ll recall, Plato, in particular, believed that democracies contain the seeds of tyranny as they are composed of petty dictators acting in their self-interest and not the interest of the collective state. Aristotle recognized demagoguery as a symptom of a failing democracy, and at the core of demagoguery is the use of rhetoric to ensnare and channel the desires of those to whom the demagogue appeals most. This means that sophistry is connected not only to the administration of state but is also part and parcel of populational management within democracies as it is used to sway the emotions and desires of its audience.

Now recall that Gorgias has said rhetoric is an art central to sophistry and that rhetoric can be used coercively – in other words it can be used to, in his words, enslave others. How does it do this? Simply by convincing others to accept the presented images and rhetoric of the sophist. Here’s a question for you, dear reader, how would you know if you actually hold authentic desires? That is, desires you came to that you know or understand to be yours and are genuinely grounded in your self-interest or possibly altruistic motivations or other duties which you have accepted freely and without coercion. Socrates seems to display an authentic example of this sort of desire in Crito as he accepts his execution in lieu of exile from Athens. His argument, as you will recall, is grounded in his sense of justice and duty to the state. Despite Athens adopting the trumped up charges of his accusers, Socrates still recognized his life as part and parcel of Athenian democracy and accepted his execution as one guided by his love of Athenian society and senses of duty and justice. Furthermore, and as you’ll recall, Socrates famously proclaims “the unexamined life is a life not worth living,” at his trial but this remark is emblematic of the broader Socratic quest for truth and knowledge as a matter of living “the good life.” At his death, one can assume, Socrates allowed this quest to end, but it doesn’t stop for you or anyone else who still live within democracy.

As you’ll all dutifully remember from Century of the Self, American society was remade into the mass consumer republic that it is out of the horrors of WWI and the growth of Public Relations as a vocation and as a function of governance. The rise of mass scale consumer society was, in part, advanced by the increasing power of corporations as one of the pillars of U.S. society incubated since the colonization of the Eastern Seaboard by, for example, the Virginia Company, The Massachusetts Bays Company, The Hudson Bays Company and many others such as the slavers, The Caribbean Adventurers. In other words, the organizational infrastructure was already in place for Public Relations to hold sway over the minds of their consuming publics through the mouthpiece of the corporation growing from the history of mass scale industrialization in the US from the 1880’s onward. The modern corporation, as some of you may be aware, was thought of as a person in U.S. law before black slaves and the history of corporate personhood in the U.S. had included protections for corporate personhood grounded in English Common Law dating back to the Dartmouth College Charter. This trend was carried forward in the growing and expanding economies of the U.S. and the corporation became one of the central pieces in U.S. political and economic organization as the documentary argued – recall how Calvin Coolidge tried to give himself a personality within governance through connecting the White House to stardom, spectacle and entertainment.

Corporations argue for their self-interests publicly and privately. Privately, one can see this through lobbying efforts in Congress, for example, or through how laborers might identify their interests with the interests of their organizations – surprise, surprise, people want to keep their jobs. Publicly, however, corporate self-interest is usually manifested through the production and circulation of images through advertising and Century of the Self argues that it is both the rise of PR and its birth of more aggressive forms of advertising even branching into gorilla marketing – remember “torches of freedom” and the rich debutants adopting cigarettes to break the taboo against women smoking specifically orchestrated by tobacco interests to open a new consumer market – that shows how desires can be tapped and expanded within consuming publics to advance private interest. Further, this displays the use of strategic ambiguity in that “freedom” as a term is polymorphous and tobacco interests were able to use the ambiguity of “freedom” to imply a woman’s ability to smoke without the pain of social and cultural sanctions. This was not done to liberate women but to open a new market and increase profits.

Now recall Marx, from way back, and his remarks on capital: it can and does take many forms and the corporation is really just a massive concentration of capital is terms of money, labor power, asset ownership, and public persuasion. When a corporation speaks, it is its duty to protect its assets and increase its profitability (just ask Milton Freedman). So, not only do we have a society dominated by the corporation as a mode of social organization (just look at your generation and who or what is educating it) but also, as the Coolidge administration showed, central to statecraft in the U.S. republic. As I’m sure you’re aware, economic viability is the name of the game in terms of international political economic development and the centrality of the corporation in U.S. politics and society exhibits those institutions as vital pieces of a governing system that relies on economic expansion to ground the value of its currency. Thus, it makes no odds whether people are actually in touch with their authentic desires, it only matters that they desire in terms of systemic viability and governance.

As you’ll recall from Statesman, the goal of statecraft is to connect differing parts into functional wholes. The statesman does not look to the next election but to the next generation and it is their job to ensure social and political reproduction. They are not sophists, but they aren’t philosophers either and their judgements can and do have an environmental effect as they influence the interactions between social and political parts. Now recall the centrality of education and art from Republic and the Allegory of the Cave. As the corporation is now one of the loudest speaking components of the U.S. republic and as PR is grounded in the use of rhetoric, and as corporations are the primary mode of social organization, and, as capital, embodied by them, it is not unreasonable to conclude that sophistry is a project of mass management and that duty falls primarily on the Producers more so than the Auxiliaries or Guardians. This is an easy jump to make when you consider that the notion of ‘person’ includes collective personas such as organizations and that corporations are concerned almost solely with self-interested production and reproduction as they are locked in a competitive struggle against others for consuming publics. This means that sophistry need not be located in the individual human but can be a mass scale project of direction and management through individuated collectives – if but a chaotic one as both Aristotle and Plato would say. This means that the environments in which we live contain the persuasive pieces of sophistry that aim at influencing and reproducing Desire much like the cave walls displaying the shadow puppets of the puppeteers. To the point of the Allegory of the Cave: how do you know your “cave” isn’t entirely sophistry? How would you know if you ever left the cave? Where do your desires come from? Are they yours really or are they pieces left by “people” trying to manage you? What can you do to ensure that someone else isn’t taking advantage of you or trying to get you to have a desire that you wouldn’t have otherwise? How would you know if you’re under the influence of a demagogue and are being miseducated or led astray (just ask Facebook and Cambridge Analytica)? These are some of the dangers within a producers republic and a quick examination of The Federalist Papers will reveal that the founders discussed these problems in other language.

The answers to the above are of paramount importance as “the good life,” is not only the goal of the state, but the ethical project of all who desire happiness according to Plato and all those who aspire to excellence according to Aristotle. How are you supposed to know if you’re leading “the good life” – one in which you are a self-legislating subject pursuing truth, knowledge and justice – if you can’t be sure whether you’re captured by sophistry and thus are acting on behalf of someone else as a mental slave? Below is Aristotle’s answer that reflects his teacher’s – logic. It is logic that will be the tool for liberation and logic that will keep you safe from sophistry. Far be it from a simple annoyance as a text, Sophistical Refutations may be the handbook for wrecking sophistical arguments and exposing their fallacious reasoning that would lead you and your state away from “the good life” – a central project of state as you’ll recall from Statesman and Republic – and into the economies of appearances manufactured by sophists. As sophists are an endemic species of democracies, a healthy and vibrant society might include them, but it is the duty of the democratic citizen to protect and keep their democracy as its jealous guardians. How do we do this? How are we to pursue “the good life” – the examined life – and ensure our desires are our own when we cast a ballot, when we advance an interest, when we engage in public debate? Logic. [End Editor’s Note]


On Sophistical Refutations is typically viewed as a part of Aristotle’s body of work on logic. This book focuses on how debates were structured in ancient Greece, the common tactics used by orators and how the student ought to respond to these tactics. Section One focuses on introducing the reader to the debate format, and defines some of the basic tactics and goals of orators. Section Two focuses on how the reader might use these tactics to question the arguments of a Sophist, and section three focuses on how the reader should defend their arguments from Sophist’s questions. Overall, the book identifies and explains many of the debate strategies and tactics that are still used today, and provides interesting context into one of the most enduring forms of human communication, the argument.

On Sophistical Refutations: Section One

Section one of Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations is divided into ten chapters. Chapters one and two act as the work’s introduction, followed by chapters three through eight which address tactics of the questioner, and chapters nine and ten which provide an interlude. The questioner and answer in Athenian dialogue were expected to follow a pattern when debating. The questioner poses a propositional question, the answerer selects his position, and the questioner then attempts to refute the answerers position using a deductive argument. Chapter 1 explains that some arguments or refutations are not truly deductive, but only appear to be so. Used by Sophists, these sophistical arguments are fallacious, the remaining chapters designed to explain these fallacies.

Chapter three describes the goals of this type of questioner, those being to simply refute the answerer’s claim, to show that he has committed a fallacy, to lead him into a paradox, to force the answerer to use an ungrammatical expression, or to make him repeat himself.

Chapter four explains how sophistical reasoning is divided into two groups, one of which is dependent on language, the other of which is not. The first group contains six sophistical refutations, “ambiguity, amphiboly, combination, division of words, accent, and form of expression.” Additionally, there are seven sophistical refutations independent of language, which include “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, and the making of more than one question into one.” Chapter seven explains why these fallacies are able to trick people, primarily by appearing very similar to answers that would in fact be correct. Chapter eight describes the fallacy of refutations which, although legitimate and correct, are only appropriate in the specific circumstance of the question.

Fallacies in the language (in diction)

Equivocation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmIqWT7qMj4

Amphibology: https://youtu.be/O1pouhVGS7M

Composition: https://youtu.be/gE4IW_0GKNQ

Division: https://youtu.be/2bgjZxs7wYk

Accent: https://youtu.be/4qGxFsqEpSk

Figure of speech or form of expression: In which the literal meaning of a phrase is not the understood meaning of the phrase for the purposes of the debate.

Fallacies not in the language (extra dictional)

Accident: https://youtu.be/IlbnOFy3UTs

Secundum quid: Applying General Rules to specific circumstances, or holding that things which are only usually true are always true.

Irrelevant conclusion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzroWL3NlZA

Begging the question: https://youtu.be/IJ2dWrI-PTA

False cause: https://youtu.be/qMP4OXoOBtU

Affirming the consequent: https://youtu.be/_WDDVz-EWFw

Fallacy of many questions: https://youtu.be/7QPBLxOx6T0

Chapters nine and ten act as an interlude before Aristotle addresses tactics for the answerer in the second section. In chapter nine Aristotle rejects that arguments can be directed at either a person’s words or thoughts, and instead, in chapter ten that argues that these differences must be discussed within the argument, rather than being presupposed by them. Both arguments can be made, but this distinction comes within the argumentative structure, not before it.

On Sophistical Refutations: Section Two

Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations Section 2, brings to light the fallacies within arguments and other discussions. This section is broken up into ten subsections that layout different tactics, rules, and tricks when it comes to sophistical arguments. There are many rules and tricks discussed throughout the writing which allow for one to find deeper ways to win over or skew people in an argument. Some of which create a facade to others and in turn allows for the fallacies in an argument to come to light. This turns the entire discussion in the favor of the one who guides the answerer to this fallacy. This section also brings to light tactics for the answerer as well because many times one may find himself not on the questioning end but on the opposite. Being able to comprehend and utilize all these tactics can allow one to control the direction of almost any discussion.

In chapter 12 Aristotle discusses the importance of framing your argument as well as setting up your opponent so that their fallacies are presented because of how they frame their argument. A very important aspect that Aristotle brought up was that one should never present a controversial question right away. A rule that is helpful in allowing a fallacy to come about as he states is “one should draw the answerer on to the kind of statements against which one is well supplied with arguments.” This allows the one arguing to control the discussion by staying ahead of the answerer. He says that arguing from one’s opinions will allow for an opportunity to rebut against the answerer’s desired opinions when the moment presents itself. Hearing someone out instead of raising one’s voice allows for the listener to hear the entirety of one’s argument. This can also give the idea that one is winning in a contentious argument before the rebuttal has even presented itself. Another tactic brought to light in chapter 13 is the use of babbling. Being able to bring someone to a state of babbling allows them to seem as though they have no true premise to their argument, and can discredit them because they try to make the same point in too many different ways.

In chapter 15 the discussion of the tactics for the questioner is drawn to a conclusion. Within this chapter, Aristotle discusses how when you are in the discussion it is difficult to keep track of several aspects at once. The questioner may also use speed as a tactic to confuse and leave the answerer behind in the discussion. This may cause the answerer to become agitated or even angry, and when someone is angered, they are less capable of creating rational thoughts. They then may react very emotionally and say or do something that could discredit themselves. Aristotle describes the elementary rules for producing anger as “to make a show of the wish to play foul, and to be altogether shameless.” This makes the answerer feel as though the questioner is being demeaning to them which again can make them act irrationally. Another trick that is brought up is having a strong appearance of having been refuted in an argument. A questioner without proving anything can give their final proposition as a statement giving the perception that they have proven it rather than giving supporting evidence. In a sense, this is arguing from ignorance, which can work in a case where the arguing parties do not have known evidence of what is being discussed. From the audience’s perspective the confidence of the perception of winning the argument can truly mean winning or losing. If the audience feels the confidence of the argument the entire attitude shifts away from the opponent’s argument.

Chapter 16 starts to bring the answers tactics to play in an argument. Having and being able to utilize specific tactics as an answerer can allow one to combat against the tactics used by the questioner. Aristotle also says that following this study is useful for philosophy because it will sharpen your semantic insight, which can be useful when reacting to fallacies in an argument. Being able to answer questions in a logical manner allows for the answerer to seem intelligent. One’s reputation can be built in a positive manner if one is able to intelligently answer questions. Aristotle says that to have a reputation of being well trained in everything can allow for one to point out fallacies, and by doing so you can make it seem that the questioner is inexperienced.

Chapters 17 and 18 describe different ways that one can stand in the way of the questioner’s real or apparent success. It describes how one should not hesitate when it comes to pointing out fallacies and introduces distinctions, even if one does not see how the questioner could exploit the ambiguity. An important defense that is described in chapter 18 is by providing a solution to a false deduction. There are different ways to solve deductions, one of which is by pinpointing the premise of that deduction or falsehood. By doing so one should then demolish the idea of that deduction with facts to exhibit the falsehood in the argument.

Chapter 19 brings the idea of ambiguity to question. Being able to use ambiguity in an argument can do one well in many ways. For one, it shows the intelligence of the answerer because the questioner overlooked the possibility of any such outcomes in their statement. By restating the question asked with a different sense in the conclusion you can make the questioner question what they do and do not know about the topic. This can also work from the questioner’s aspect because it can create an opportunity for the answerer to disprove themselves if the question is stated properly. Chapter 20 begins to bring into light the solutions to sophistical refutations that depend on the use of language.

On Sophistical Refutations: Section Three

Section three is a continuation of examples on how an Answerer should respond to a Sophist Questioner’s various tactics. This section encompasses chapters 21-34 and touches on each individual fallacy by example.

Chapter 21 details how you would respond if someone tries to use the accent fallacy, otherwise referred to as the emphasis fallacy, to refute your argument. Chapter 21 states that the accentuation of a word within an argument does not give way to fallacious arguments. The Accenture does not change the meaning of the word itself. We would look to defend against this in cases in which your opponent is attempting to use your intonation to refute the point you’re trying to make.

Chapter 22 examines how to respond to a fallacy involving figure of speech. Aristotle states that sometimes sophists will get you to agree to a premise and manipulate that premise to say that you agreed to something that isn’t necessarily what you agreed to. Aristotle states that this should be countered by telling the sophist exactly what the premise you agreed to means.

Chapter 23 details that the answerer should always take the opposite tactic of whatever your debate opponent, assumed to be a sophist, relies on for their argument. If your opponent uses reasoning that requires combination, then your solution should consist of division, then combination. If it depends on an “acute” accent, then the solution is a grave accent and vice versa. If the argument depends on ambiguity, then you must use the opposite term.

Chapter 24 describes how to deal with an argument that depends on Accident. Aristotle states that one and the same solutions meets all cases. Solving refutations that rely on Accident may be solved by taking down or deconstructing the original proposition that was asked by asserting that they do know and don’t know the same object. False reasoning is used to suppose a solution which becomes a false solution. Aristotle uses the example that is X may have a child or may state that this is “my child” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that X is the father of the child. Using the principle of ambiguity could solve this issue simply by stating that ‘X is your father,’ ‘son’ or ‘slave’. Campaign slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are an example. What does “great” mean? Is America not already great?

In the video above Jeff Daniels picks apart a question that relies on ambiguity.

Chapter 25 describes how to deal with Secundum Quid. Arguments that depend upon an expression that is valid in a particular situation but is not valid in the absolute should be solved by considering the conclusion you’re trying to draw in relation to its contradictory. For example, “Can a liar tell the truth?” We know that liars lie, but it is possible for the liar to tell the truth even though they are generally a liar?

Chapter 26 details how to deal with refutations that depend on the definition of a refutation. Refutations that depend on the definition of another refutation must be met by comparing together the conclusion with its contradictory and seeing that it involves the same respect, relation, time and manner.

Chapter 27 is how to deal with refutations that beg the question. Refutations that depend on begging the question – assuming the original point to be proved – are determining the nature of the question to be obvious. Even if it’s representing a generally agreed upon belief the questioner should be providing a refutation that’s independently proved from the original point being made. In addition, the answerer should state that the point granted wasn’t meant to be used as a premise, but should reason against it, in the opposite way from the adopted refutations on side issues. Dialectic reasoning is at the center of Plato and Aristotle’s works. In Hagelian dialectics there’s an idea that thesis and antithesis combining into synthesis. These are two seemingly contrary ideas resulting in truth. From this perspective, Aristotle is recommending that you provide the antithesis if your opponent tries to beg the question.

Chapter 28 follows up on discussions about begging the question. If someone is begging the question to you in their refutation this should be evident in what they’re stating. Aristotle states that the fashion in which the consequences unfold follows a twofold path. Either the universal is stated as “if A is always found with B then B must always be found with A” or is opposite to these terms for “if A follows B, then A’s opposite must follow B’s opposite.”

Chapter 29 discusses how to deal with false premises. When any refutation presented reasoning depends on some addition, absurdity should follow upon the subtraction of that addition. For example, stating: “It’s warm outside. Therefore, it must be summer,” when it is, in fact, spring, or fall or winter.

Chapter 30 discusses how to deal with the fallacy of many questions. Refutations that make many questions into one should be dealt with by making the distinction between them from the start. Questions should be singular and have one distinct answer to avoid the confirmation or denial of many questions with a singular answer. The man who answers double questions may be made to say that several things are the same even though they are not. An example of a loaded question may be “Hey Bryson, when did you decide to stop beating your girlfriend?” Where by answering you may implicate yourself in the crime of beating your girlfriend by just simply replying.

Chapter 31 details how to deal with opponents who push you to repeat yourself a number of times. When being drawn into repeating yourself multiple times, proclamations of relative terms should be assumed as not having meaning in the abstract by themselves. The term defined in the abstraction is not the same as the whole phrase.

Chapter 32 describes how to deal with solecisms. Solecism is a phrase that breaks grammar rules. Questions such as, “Can he be a she?” or “Is a thing what you say it to be?”

Chapter 33 and 34 wrap up in a quick conclusion, re-stating the ideas presented in the previous chapters. For the modern audience, the concepts presented here are best applied to live debates or discussions in popular media. Understanding these debate tactics can help modern readers understand why two debaters or panelists are doing what they are doing. It is also important to remember Aristotle’s warning that these tactics can be misused to provide the appearance of a refutation or argument where none exists. Modern debates cannot always be analyzed efficiently in real time, but the concepts presented here can give modern audiences a starting point at finding the truth and instill a healthy sense of skepticism by showing them how the sausage is made.


Krabbe, Erik C. “Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations.” Topoi, vol. 31, no. 2, 2012, pp. 243–248., doi:10.1007/s11245-012-9124-0.

Aristotle. “The Internet Classics Archive: On Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle.” The Internet Classics Archive | On Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle, W. A. Pickard-Cambridge, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/sophist_refut.1.1.html