Sorting Through Sophistries:
The Hominem Family

By Gabriel Blanchard

Flourish. Enter The Most Popular Fallacy, with attendants.

This post is part of a series on fallacies. You can read the intro to the series here.

What Isn’t an Ad Hominem Fallacy?

We can now turn to one of the most frequent types of fallacy—indeed, it is so common that its Latin name, “ad hominem,” has not only survived but is a moderately commonplace phrase. Ad hominem means “at the man” or “[appeal] to the person”: this covers all of those fallacies which attempt to discredit the arguer rather than responding to the substance of her argument.

We have touched briefly on this before, but this is one of those grey areas in which a fallacy is not always fallacious. Pointing out that a person is unqualified to deliver an expert opinion on some topic, or that they have a conflict of interest or troubling record of deceitfulness that casts their reliability into doubt, is all well and good—as long as it’s true. When issues like that are relevant, they fall under the rhetorical topic of testimony, which is (or at least can be) a legitimate source of knowledge, perspective, and argument.

An ad hominem is different. The aim here (conscious or not) is to distract the audience from the argument and the facts; it seeks to arouse a distrust or even a dislike of the arguer that makes people just not want to listen to them, regardless of the factual accuracy or logical strength of the argument they have set forward. At their most absurd and real-world unlikely, ad hominem sophistries are like someone hearing the person they most loathe say “The sky is blue” and attempting to disbelieve it because of who said it.

Shasta’s Reward

Incidentally, this family of fallacies highlights one of the important hard things we need to do when reasoning: separating the argument from the arguer, and considering the former strictly on its merits. (This is only one part of a larger process in the search for truth; we would be foolish not to consider the source when exploring the broader context and implications of an argument; but, one step at a time.) Logic is a lot like mathematics, in that it does not comment so much on the goodness or beauty of things but simply on their structural relationships with each other, their—well, their inner logic! And that exists independently of our likings, decisions, and behavior.

Shasta's heart fainted ... for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward is usually to be set to do another and harder and better one.

Who relates an argument, or even who first came up with it, has, strictly speaking, nothing to do with whether that argument is correct. The arguer may give us illuminating perspective on the argument—whether they mean to or not; the arguer may deserve our deepest distrust, and we may rightly have misgivings about where they wish to take the argument next or what goals they believe the argument will serve. But those are different.

Roll Call

As you may have guessed already, ad hominems* abound in the news, social media, and the justice system. We, the public, are presumably those most at fault for the second—but we of the Journal are not here to assign blame. (That’s for the Tu Quoque to do.) What we are here to do is make as many lists as humanly possible; here is one, consisting in some major subtypes of ad hominem:

  • tu quoque (Latin for “you too”), asserting that some quality X criticizes is a quality X also has, and thus attempting to invalidate an argument more or less by an accusation of hypocrisy
  • guilt by association, attempting to invalidate X’s argument by pointing out that either personal associates or ideological allies of X are incompetent on the question or (far more frequently) morally corrupt
  • Bulverism—named for the great inventor Ezekiel Bulver, as we all know**—which attempts to invalidate an argument due to irrelevant criticisms of the arguer; usually it is a little more sophisticated than this, but at its lowest, Bulverism is mere
  • name-calling

We will go into further detail on the other three next week, but as we close out for today, it is worth highlighting that last category. Bill Watterson (author of the beloved comic strip Calvin & Hobbes) once wrote that “I suspect most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.”† Anyone who has spent a little time arguing will find Watterson’s statement axiomatic—not only on social media or in political assemblies, but even in academia or the cloister, where we might expect a little extra effort at impartial dedication to the truth; or, failing that, at courtesy and decorum. Unluckily, here as so often, there is exactly one person whom any of us have the power to keep from using this kind of schoolyard tactic.

*A viciously accurate Latinist will doubtless rankle at seeing this, as the more grammatical version would be ad homines. In the name of making a bad thing worse, the present author would like to point out that a possible hypercorrection would be ads hominem.
**This, by contrast, is a mild form of rhetorical intimidation, trying to prevent something from being questioned by feigning that it is common knowledge.
†The quote in question comes from The “Calvin & Hobbes” Tenth Anniversary Book, in a section describing the trip’s six-year-old protagonist.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our posts on the life and times of the great French scholar Héloïse d’Argenteuil, the role of the fine arts in classic education, a proposal to add a subject to the standard curriculum list, and the history of the idea of sin. Happy Friday!

Published on 1st March, 2024. Page image of a manticore from the Rochester Bestiary; manticores, which were probably based on garbled descriptions of tigers, were said to be dangerous partly because they had the faces of handsome, virtuous men.

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