Sorting Through Sophistries:
Tu Quoque, Brute

By Gabriel Blanchard

A catch in the whole system of logic is the same thing as what makes it work in the first place: it is no "respecter of persons."

This post is part of a series on fallacies. You can read the introduction to that series here, and can find our general intro to ad hominem fallacies from last week here.

Enter Three Witches

Having discussed the general nature of the ad hominem, there are three specific forms of it that merit special attention. These are:

  • Bulverism;
  • guilt by association; and
  • the tu quoque.

The reason they deserve this attention is that they easily pass themselves off as relevant even when they are not. It is therefore worth our while to know their inner machinations. Let us discuss each in turn.

The Life and Times of Ezekiel Bulver

The euphonious name of this fallacy was coined by one Clive Staples Lewis, an Oxford scholar whose work enjoyed some little attention on both sides of the Atlantic back in the mid-twentieth century. In an essay titled simply “Bulverism,” Mr. Lewis explains:

… I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—”Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.*

This is closely connected with a device that has a good deal of rhetorical importance: when refuting an argument—that is, actually showing what is wrong with it, not merely contradicting it—an excellent way to drive the point home is to explain why a person might fall into the error in question. This makes it clear that one is taking the question seriously and looking at things from more than one angle. Of course, this does make it a little morally dodgy to use this technique unless you really are taking the question seriously and looking at it accordingly. (However, you will have to take care of that yourself, as I’m out that day.)

In philosophic and religious debates and discussions of films and works of literature, the Bulverian explanations given frequently come down to a person’s character, their political beliefs, or the motives that—according to the Bulverist, at least—they bring to one or both of those areas of thought. It is hard to prove, and it would be of little consequence even if it were proven, that Bulverism really was more common around the 1930s than it generally has been historically; but it is entertaining to reflect that this was during the early phases of Freudian psychoanalysis, when new forms of repression (and ideas to repress) were popping up every fortnight.

I have not told lies.
I have not dissembled.
I have not discussed secrets.
I have not neglected the truth.
I have not confused the truth.

The trouble is with what Bulverism misses: people can be right by accident. A person’s beliefs, character, and motives can all be excellent reasons not to trust them as a person; but Bulverism tries to treat this as though it affected the ideas in themselves. It doesn’t.

The Guilt Association, Ltd.

Guilt by association is essentially a type of hasty generalization or false equivalence, applied to people rather than objects; once again, it comes up with special frequency in political discussions and debates; and once again, it is not all fallacy here. Good character and intellectual credibility are the sorts of things a state official needs to have, and if a person’s close friends or allies are either unprincipled or fanatical, then it may be wise not to put personal trust in them or support their elevation to office. But, as with Bulverism, this affects the person, not their argument.

A slightly different form of guilt by association sometimes appears, in which an idea as such is labeled suspect, either because of the people with whom it is popular or the other ideas that tend to occur along with it. The principle of dealing with it is essentially the same, though the details differ a little: if it is the people who are making the idea look bad, is their badness causally connected with their embrace of the idea? Or if it is accompanying views making the idea look bad, is there a logical connection between the bad views and the idea? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” the idea may merit closer examination—yet once again, those things are not proof of the idea’s badness. At most, they are grounds to investigate; they are not a substitute for doing so.

No, You Quoque

Thirdly, the tu quoque. This is an almost irresistible fallacy, even once we have learned its invalidity. Not only does it appeal to our justified distrust of people, like Bulverism and guilt by association do; it appeals to our sense of fairness, our notion of rational behavior, and our contempt for hypocrisy. So potent is this combination of appeals—and, in a sense, rightly potent—that it can derail us not only intellectually, but even physically: a doctor who won’t quit smoking tends to have patients who won’t quit smoking even when he advises them to, for example.

But, as with the other two, what we are dealing with here is the power to see the truth versus the power to put it into practice. Samuel Johnson said, with truth as well as kindness, that “precept may be very sincere where practice is very imperfect”; and who cannot sympathize with Alice as she sings, “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it”? The brute fact is that knowing things and doing things are fundamentally different powers: in that sense, the tu quoque is the easiest to refute of all the ad hominem fallacies.

*This essay is to be found in the posthumous collection God in the Dock.

Gabriel Blanchard has been working for the Classic Learning Test since 2019, where he serves as editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thanks for joining us for this week’s installment of “Sorting Through Sophistries.” If you enjoyed yourself or learned something, check out some of our other offerings here at the CLT Journal: we have multiple completed and ongoing series, including profiles of the men and women of our Author Bank (like Ovid, Erasmus, Lavoisier, and Steinbeck), and brief introductions to the many topics of what Mortimer Adler called “the Great Conversation” (from desire to imagination to religion to revolution), as well as our recently introduced “Texts in Context” series on the historical background of both. Have a great day, and thank you for supporting CLT.

Published on 7th March, 2024. Page image of an illustration from the Papyrus of Ani, a version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. (Rather than being a standard work, books of the dead were often personalized, featuring selections from a corpus of appropriate prayers and spells.) It depicts the “weighing of the heart” ceremony. After death, the ka (one of the many aspects of the soul) travels to the underworld, where the jackal-headed Anubis brings them to the scales of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. Ma’at’s symbol, a feather, sits on one side of the scale, and the heart of the deceased is placed on the other. If the ka is laden with sins, it proves heavier than Ma’at’s feather, and is thrown to the chimeric monster Ammit and devoured, condemning the other parts of the dead soul to perpetual restlessness. However, if the ka is as light as the feather, the deceased is innocent and can proceed into the bliss of the afterlife.

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