4 November 2017

Argumentum ad hominem UPDATED

UPDATE: The Bibliography attached to the Wikipaedia entry suggests that the "modern" usage is not found earlier than 1986; and that the Lockean meaning still held force in Fowler, 1926. Whoever wrote that entry appears not to have heard of Locke or to have read much literature from before the 1990s. This exemplifies another cultural problem: the erecting of barriers between the ages. C S Lewis attributes this to the activity of devils. It probably also exemplifies a decline in the study of the Classics. Another C S Lewis point ...

I seem to keep seeing, day after day, the phrase Argumentum ad hominem misused. A recent example occurred in Fr Tom Weinandy's otherwise splendid Letter to PF.

People use it now, apparently, to mean "a personal attack". That is, when you attack somebody in a violent and deeply personal way, rather than arguing politely and rationally about a question in hand. That is how Fr Tom uses it; his point is that PF and the Bergoglians refuse polite dialogue and simply hurl nasty hate-filled personal abuse around. And, of course, he's dead right. That is exactly what they do. But this is not what Argumentum ad hominem means.

Well, language changes. If enough people use Argumentum ad hominem in this incorrect sense, then I suppose one will, regretfully, have to stop calling it wrong. Usage validates. Every philologist knows that.

But I think it is a great shame that an elegant and well-observed description of a certain sort of precise argument is being taken over and forced to mean something crude which is totally different. Something useful is being lost in the field of human discourse, with no apparent compensating advantage that I am capable of discerning.

And ... I am sorry to be personal!! ... I greatly mistrust the motives of some who misuse the phrase. I think the poor things sometimes do it because they think it sounds fine and dandy to say something in Latin. I think saying something in Latin, when you think it means something quite the opposite to what it really means, is embarrassingly pretentious and, to be frank, a display of ignorance. Why not just say "You are making this attack rather personal"? What harm is there, for heaven's sake, in speaking English? It's a very respectable language ... the language of Jane Austen and Ronald Knox and C S Lewis and etc.etc..

So what really is an Argumentum ad hominem? A proper one, in its true native habitat?

Here is Locke's very neat definition: "To press a man with consequences drawn from his own Principles and Concessions".

I've written about this before, giving examples from Socrates to Newman. You could find my earlier blogposts via the search Engine attached to this blog, sub voce Argumentum ad hominem ... if you were interested.


Fr PJM said...

Then what is the "argumentum ad absurdum"?

Belfry Bat said...

I am indeed sympathetic to your solicitude for our beloved English Language, whether in English's Own words or in Latin borrowings; but I should let you know that for as long as I can remember the phrase it was always used to refer to the fallacy of invoking (or insinuating) irrelevant shady accidents of an opponent so as to cast doubt on his views of the matter-at-hand (admittedly, "as long as I can remember" is Not Very Long, starting only when I was in High School (in Canada...) in the later 1990s).

Shall we bind up promiscuous faggots to watch them gaily burning, and so cheer the queer drear months of winter?

Anonymous said...

I too thought it meant attacking someone's personality or reputation to distract from the main argument until I read your previous post on the subject. That is how I had always heard it used. I found your explanation very illuminating and realised that I frequently use true ad hominem arguments, although I find people often can't see the logic inherent in their own positions.

As for misusing Latin tags in English, one of my colleagues regularly writes "per say" for per se, and has been known to use "in for a dig" for infra dig! But then again, I'm aware that I typed "doll" when I meant "dole" in a previous comment - my fingers can get dyslexic late at night - so I should not judge others on their linguistic skills.

Donna Bethell said...

Is there a tag for what we thought was the argumentum ad hominem? Is it related to, or is it, reductio ad absurdum?

David said...

Dear Father,

This and your earlier posts on this subject were illuminating forays into the original meaning of argumentum ad hominem. I share the impression of your other readers that the more widely understood meaning of the phrase today is what you call its "incorrect sense." It seems that, today, "argumentum ad hominem" refers to a broader class of arguments than it may have originally. The default understanding of the phrase today corresponds to the subspecies of argumenta ad hominem that is properly called the "argumentum ad hominem abusive." The historic meaning of the term, as given by John Locke, today corresponds to the subspecies, "argumentum ex concessis."

See, e.g., http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/person.html (defining argumentum ex concessis as "a purported proof relative to a specific person's previous behavior or belief").

Evocatus said...

Wikipedia spells out the exact problem :

mormorador said...

Two examples predating Locke by two centuries:

Iohannes Wycliff - De ecclesia - LLT-B
cap.: 17, sectio: A, pag.: 388, linea: 2
A. Pro ulteriori declaracione christiane fidei de quiditate ac unitate sancte matris ecclesie discurrendum est per illas decem raciunculas quas feci superius in fine V-i capituli de ista materia, et recitabo responsiones cuiusdam doctoris, ut veritas fidei concertacione scolastica magis appareat.
Assumpsi autem in primo argumento quod, si ante incarnacionem Christi non fuit ecclesia et extra ecclesiam catholicam non est salus, tunc nullus patrum veteris testamenti salvabitur.
Hic negatur consequencia, cum antecedens sit verum et consequens falsum, vel, inquit, ante incarnacionem erat ecclesia catholica.
Hic insto primo contra falsitatem impositam consequenti, et quia est argumentum ad hominem, suppono primo quod nihil est quod fuit ante hoc instans quod est presens, et erit post illud nisi quod est in illo eodem instanti.

Iohannes Wycliff - De ecclesia - LLT-B
cap.: 17, sectio: L, pag.: 405, linea: 13
Et placet de ista responsione: exhinc enim feci argumentum ad hominem, quia credidi doctorem posuisse ut olim quod non fuisset species vel aliquod universale nisi terminus vel conceptus; non quia credidi hoc esse verum, cum scio ex fide scripture quod una est fides que creditur, et fides qua creditur in quolibet christiano; aliter enim impertinenter diceret Apostolus Ephes. IV-o, 5.

Ben of the Bayou said...

I jolly well never thought to see the likes of John Wycliffe cited on this blog! In any case, Wycliffe's argument could be made to say something which he must also reject, to wit, that if the fact that salvation was possible before the Catholic Church and therefore "extra Ecclesiam" is false, then so also salvation was possible without Christ. But this consequence is false in forma absoluta. Thus, whatsoever the way in which salvation was possible to the ancient Fathers ante Christum sed in Christ, it was also possible ante Ecclesiam sed intra Ecclesiam.

Liam Ronan said...

There is a modern expression meant to confront narcissists and their narcissistic behaviors and which perhaps carries the same nuance as the earlier understanding of "argumentum ad hominem":

"No way, Dude! I was there."

Of course too there are the words attributed to General George Patton who closely studied Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's speeches, writings, and tactics and thereafter defeated Rommel in the deserts of North Africa:

“Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book!”.

Romulus said...

If Fowler opines about the correct usage of "ad hominem", I'm not able to find it. Can anyone help? My edition is 1961.

For the record, Corbett's "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student" (OUP 1965, 1971) defines the term in question as "switching the argument from a discussion of issues to a discussion of personalities".

Fr. VF said...

The proffered definition sounds like reductio ad absurdum. Here in the Colonies, the execrated usage has been standard for well over a century, if not two.

A main peeve of mine is the 99% of people who have no idea what "begs the question" means.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Romulus: I took the reference from the Wikipedia article. It says "Fowler 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Under Technical Terms)". If more recent editions of Fowler have stopped giving the Lockean usage, it would be very interesting to know when they dropped it.

Fr VF: I'm not quite clear which definition you are referring to. If you are referring to the "Modern" use, since you haven't yourself been around recording usage for 200 years or even, probabably, for "well over" 100, it would be interesting if you provided evidence.

I am intrigued to know what the earliest evidence for the "Modern" understanding might be; and, equally, the evidence for the date of the eclipse of the standard and classical definition. Being old fashioned, I am a trifle more interested in evidence than in gratuitous assertion.

And I would be amused to hear what alternative term those who champion the rather pompous and silly "Modern" usage would suggest we are now to use for the Argumentum ad hominem as it was understood from the time of Locke to (at least) that of Fowler (1926).

David said...

Father: it seems that the term Argumentum ex concessis corresponds today to the sense of Argumentum ad hominem as it was understood in Locke's time.

Steve Perisho said...

Fr. Hunwicke:

Given your interest in the fallacies, I would covet your comments on this one (which I think I've just coined) at the address below, i.e on the argumentum ad ea quae parent/ab eis quae parent (1 Sam 16:7 Vulgate):


Steve Perisho