All the components of written or spoken discourse in a given situation can be used or manipulated by the opponent in order to present this discourse as untenable, S. Destruction.
The word refutation is used to designate a reactive speech act covering the explicit forms of discursive rejection of positions, opinions, charges or projects. The possible use of rejection or denial as a synonym of refutation rdoes not imply the absence of argument. As non-preferred second pairs, denials and rejections are also characterized by the presence of accounts. In fully argumentative interactions, refutation is in particular characterized by its explicitness and careful elaboration.
From a scientific point of view, a proposition is refuted if it is proved to be false; the calculation from which it derives contains an error; it affirms something that is contradictory to the observed facts.
From the point of view of ordinary interaction, an argumentative line is contextually refuted if, after being discussed, it is given up by the adversary, either explicitly or implicitly. Accordingly, the question itself disappears, and the interaction progresses to another structuring topic.
As a reactive speech act, refutation can be dealt with in only a verbal (face to face) or written (text to text) dialogue. Monological discourse knows only the concession, there are no refutative subordinate clauses, and concessive clauses reduce the refutation to an objection.
1. Structural refutation
1.1 Turning down the argument
An argument supporting a conclusion may be rejected in different ways.
(i) The argument is declared false:
S1 — Peter will surely arrive on Tuesday; he has been invited to Paul’s birthday.
S2 — But Paul’s birthday is on Monday.
(ii) The argument is rejected as irrelevant to the conclusion, S. Relevance:
S1 — He is very intelligent, he read all of Proust’s work within three days.
S2 — Intelligence has nothing to do with reading speed.
(iii) The argument can be accepted as such, recognized as somehow relevant to the conclusion but may be dismissed as too weak, or of poor quality:
S1 — The President has spoken, the stock market will go up.
S2 — Yes, and what he says goes! (said sarcastically).
The rejection of the argument may lead to a new argumentative question (sub-debate), about the truth, strength or relevance of the former argument.
Turning down the argument does not mean renouncing the conclusion. This is often the case in factual argumentation:
S1 — Peter will surely arrive on Tuesday, he wants to be there for Paul’s birthday.
S2 — Paul’s birthday is on Monday, but sure, Peter will arrive on Tuesday, I bought him his flight tickets.
Nonetheless, in ideological debates, only the most ascetic arguers will refute questionable or bad arguments made in favor of conclusions which they consider to be good or virtuous.
1.2 Turning down the backing
The backing invoked, implicitly or not, is declared false:
S1 — Pedro was born in the Malvinas Islands, so he is an Argentine citizen
S2 — The Falkland Islands are British territory.
The adverbs exaclty, precisely (not) can substitute one backing to another (Ducrot & al., 1982), S. Orientation:
S1 — Noodles for dinner!
S2 — Again! We had noodles for lunch!
S1 — Exactly, we need to finish the leftovers, we don’t want to waste food.
The resulting stasis is produced by the conflict of two topoi:
Dietary, or gustatory pleasure principle: « you have to vary one’s diet« .
Economy principle, against the waste « food should not be thrown« .
1.3 Turning down the conclusion
Conclusions may be dismissed even though some validity is granted to the argument:
S1 — Cannabis should be legalized; the taxes will pay off the National Health Service deficit
S2 — It will certainly increase tax revenues, but it will further increase the number of drug addicts. The prohibition must be maintained.
The counter-argumentation establishes a counter-conclusion leaving the argument it opposes intact, S. Counter-argumentation.
2. Weak refutation protecting the claim
By generalizing of the law of weakness, a weak refutation confirms the attacked position, S. Scale. This principle applies to various interpretative schemes, whose analysis must take into account the whole corpus produced by the argumentative question.
(i) Weak refutation of a poorly re-constructed attacked position
The wise man concludes that the refutation is not worth much, to say nothing of its author, and the problem remains intact.
(ii) Weak refutation of an outstanding exposition of the attacked position
The conclusion is that the attacked position is reinforced by this attempt at refutation. The interpretive calculation is based on the fact that the arguer is qualified.
— The poor refutation is standard, while the quality of the exposition, clearly indicates a good arguer. Since the given refutation is taken to be the best possible (according to Grice’s maxims), and since it is weak or even ridiculous, the conclusion will be that, “since even such an arguer finds nothing else to say, then, the criticized position must actually be correct”, even if this derivation is ad ignorantiam, S. Counter-argumentation.
— The poor refutation is bizarre. It contains obvious errors alerting the careful reader; there is a contrast between the quality and care of the exposition and the scanty character of the refutation. Moreover, this refutation is not put forward in the usual argumentative style of the author. For example, a fine theologian develops in a dialectical and detailed manner, a position condemned by the official authorities of his religion, and refutes it only by arguments drawn from various authorities (which the reader may be aware are considered questionable), so the careful reader is led to think that this oddity is strategic. The speech is apparently refuted, only to be better asserted in reality, the negation serving then to cover the author. This case of indirectness has been theorized by Strauss (1953). If, under special historical, social, or religious circumstances, a discourse is banned, it is nevertheless possible to give it a voice under the cover of its refutation, the negation then serving to protect the speaker from tyrannical authorities.
This strategy of confirmation, or argumentation by weak refutation, is dangerous to maintain. The authorities are not necessarily naive nor uninformed, and they may be well aware of the intended purpose of the pseudo refutation, which will be rightly interpreted as a denial of a belief which is actually held by the speaker: “How can you so be such an expert about heterodox positions and such a fool when dealing with orthodoxy?”.
Such a strategy, based on the opacity of the writer’s intentions, presupposes a double argumentative address, the real intentions can be captured only by a careful reader, while they remain unknown to the hasty reader, who appreciates the weak refutation because it can be easily understood, absorbed and repeated, S. Strategy.
3. Refutation and counter-discourse
The concept of refutation is defined at the very general level of the challenged argumentation. The counter-discourse approach specifies the possible rebuttal strategies according to the specific argument pattern (testimony, authority, definition, induction, causal claim, etc.). The argument pattern is flanked by a counter-pattern, an integral part of the form and substance of the argument considered.
In the Skeptical philosophical style, such a counter-discourses can also be directed at the argumentative type itself, as a general discourse, “against authority, analogy, causality, etc.”, which rejects a priori all forms of argument from authority, etc.