“On Sophistical Refutations” by Aristotle

What is Sophistry?

That some reasonings are genuine, while others seem to be so but are not, is evident. This happens with arguments, as also elsewhere, through a certain likeness between the genuine and the sham. For physically some people are in a vigorous condition, while others merely seem to be so by blowing and rigging themselves out as the tribesmen do their victims for sacrifice; and some people are beautiful thanks to their beauty, while others seem to be so, by dint of embellishing themselves. So it is, too, with inanimate things; for of these, too, some are really silver and others gold, while others are not and merely seem to be such to our sense; e.g. things made of litharge and tin seem to be of silver, while those made of yellow metal look golden. In the same way both reasoning and refutation are sometimes genuine, sometimes not, though inexperience may make them appear so: for inexperienced people obtain only, as it were, a distant view of these things.

With a view then to refutation, one resource is length-for it is difficult to keep several things in view at once; One resource, on the other hand, is speed; for when people are left behind they look ahead less. Moreover, there is anger and contentiousness, for when agitated everybody is less able to take care of himself. Elementary rules for producing anger are to make a show of the wish to play foul, and to be altogether shameless. Moreover, there is the putting of one’s questions alternately, whether one has more than one argument leading to the same conclusion, or whether one has arguments to show both that something is so, and that it is not so: for the result is that he has to be on his guard at the same time either against more than one line, or against contrary lines, of argument. In general, the object of this is to deceive.

Five Ways to Win an Argument

These are five in number, refutation, fallacy, paradox, solecism, and fifthly to reduce the opponent in the discussion to babbling. For they choose if possible plainly to refute the other party, or as the second best to show that he is committing some fallacy, or as a third best to lead him into paradox, or fourthly to reduce him to solecism, i.e. to make the answerer, in consequence of the argument, to use an ungrammatical expression; or, as a last resort, to make him repeat himself.

There are two styles of refutation: for some depend on the language used, while some are independent of language.

Those ways of producing the false appearance of an argument which depend on language are six in number: ambiguity, amphiboly, combination, division of words, accent, form of expression.

Of fallacies, on the other hand, that are independent of language there are seven kinds:
(1) that which depends upon Accident:
(2) the use of an expression absolutely or not absolutely but with some qualification of respect or place, or time, or relation:
(3) that which depends upon ignorance of what ‘refutation’ is:
(4) that which depends upon the consequent; the consequent is a branch of Accident.
(5) that which depends upon assuming the original conclusion
(6) stating as cause what is not the cause
(7) the making of more than one question into one.


Again, to draw a paradoxical statement, look and see to what school of philosophers the person arguing with you belongs, and then question him as to some point wherein their doctrine is paradoxical to most people: for with every school there is some point of that kind. It is an elementary rule in these matters to have a collection of the special ‘theses’ of the various schools among your propositions.

Moreover, argue from men’s wishes and their professed opinions. For people do not wish the same things as they say they wish: they say what will look best, whereas they wish what appears to be to their interest. Accordingly, a man who speaks according to his wishes must be led into stating the professed opinions of people, while he who speaks according to these must be led into admitting those that people keep hidden away: for in either case they are bound to introduce a paradox.

The widest range of common-place argument for leading men into paradoxical statement is that which depends on the standards of Nature and of the Law: For nature (they said) and law are opposites, and justice is a fine thing by a legal standard, but not by that of nature. Accordingly, they said, the man whose statement agrees with the standard of nature you should meet by the standard of the law, but the man who agrees with the law by leading him to the facts of nature: for in both ways paradoxical statements may be committed.


For to refute is to contradict one and the same attribute-not merely the name, but the reality-and a name that is not merely synonymous but the same name-and to confute it from the propositions granted, necessarily, without including in the reckoning the original point to be proved, in the same respect and relation and manner and time in which it was asserted.

Thus it comes about that one solves arguments that are properly reasoned by demolishing them, whereas one solves merely apparent arguments by drawing distinctions. Again, inasmuch as of arguments that are properly reasoned some have a true and others a false conclusion, those that are false in respect of their conclusion it is possible to solve in two ways; for it is possible both by demolishing one of the premisses asked, and by showing that the conclusion is not the real state of the case.

Accident vs. Attribute

There is no necessity for the attribute which is true of the thing’s accident to be true of the thing as well. For only to things that are indistinguishable and one in essence is it generally agreed that all the same attributes belong; whereas in the case of a good thing, to be good is not the same as to be; nor in the case of a man approaching, or wearing a mask, is ‘to be approaching’ the same thing as ‘to be Coriscus’, so that suppose I know Coriscus, but do not know the man who is approaching, it still isn’t the case that I both know and do not know the same man.

Some solve these refutations by demolishing the original proposition asked: for they say that it is possible to know and not to know the same thing, only not in the same respect: Yet, the correction of arguments that depend upon the same point ought to be the same, whereas this one will not stand if one adopts the same principle in regard not to knowing something, but to being, or to being in a certain state, e.g., suppose that X is father, and is also yours — being is in the same respect, but the conclusion still does not follow.

The First Start of Any Art is Small

For in the case of all discoveries the results of previous labours that have been handed down from others have been advanced bit by bit by those who have taken them on, whereas the original discoveries generally make advance that is small at first though much more useful than the development which later springs out of them. For it may be that in everything, as the saying is, ‘the first start is the main part’: and for this reason also it is the most difficult; for in proportion as it is most potent in its influence, so it is smallest in its compass and therefore most difficult to see: whereas when this is once discovered, it is easier to add and develop the remainder in connexion with it.


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