Ad hominem

    • Lat. homo, “human being”.

1. Ad hominem as personal attack, ad personam

Today, ad hominem is commonly used to mean ad personam, but classical ad hominem argument is quite distinct from personal attack (or ad personam attack), which seeks to disqualify the person in order to get rid of the arguments.

2. Ad hominem as self-contradiction or inconsistency

The concept of the ad hominem strategy is to be found in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, topic n° 22:

Another line of argument is to refute your opponent’s case by noting any contrast or contradiction of dates, acts or words that it anywhere displays. (1400a15; RR p. 373).

Under that name, the ad hominem argument is defined by Locke as a discussion technique by which the speaker “[presses] a man with consequences drawn from his own principles or concessions. This is already known under the name of argumentum ad hominem”. ([1690], p. 411)

The term “principle” can be taken in the moral or intellectual sense of “first principles”. In both cases, the speaker rearticulates the system of beliefs and values ​​of the opponent, in order to identify a contradiction. Locke rejects this form of argument as fallacious, insofar as it is based on the specific belief structure of a person, without relevance for the discussion of the truth per se of the thesis under debate, “[it does not] follow that another man is in the right way, because he has shown me that I am in the wrong” (ibid.).

The ad hominem argument is of no force and plays no role as an alethic instrument, in the process of establishing truth, S. Collections (3):Modernity and tradition

In regard to this definition, Leibniz notes that:

The argument ad hominem has this effect, that it shows that one or the other assertion is false and that the opponent is deceived whatever way he takes it. ([1765], pp. 576-577)

He thus recognizes the merits of this form of argument in the context of a discussion, as an epistemic instrument, urging a reorganization of a system of knowledge.

Under Locke’s presentation, ad hominem argument bears on explicit propositions as put forward in a knowledge acquisition dialogue and is clearly deductive and propositional.

In general terms, ad hominem argumentation occurs in a dialogue when the speaker builds a discourse, referring not only to propositional beliefs but also to the behavior and actions of his or her opponent, in order to point out some contradiction. This has the effect of embarrassing the opponent and causing him or her to reconsider his or her speech, positions or actions.

Ad hominem argumentation typically results in the feeling of “embarrassment”, considered as a basic emotion by Ekman (1999, p. 55). The production of such an emotion is not an accidental by-product of ad hominem, but is built into it, as revealed by the verb “to press”, that is “to assail, harass; afflict, oppress”. “Embarrassment” is typically a cognitive-emotional feeling, as is the basic argumentative emotion, “doubt”. Nonetheless, ad hominem is not emotional in the same vein as personal abuse can be, S. Personal Attack.

3. Setting up the words against the words

We have a reply ad hominem in the following case:

Proponent: — P. I propose P

Opponent: — Before, you proposed entirely different things.


Issue: — Should the term of the presidential mandate, currently five years, be reduced to four years?

Proponent (former President): — I am for a reduction to four years.

Opponent: — But in an earlier statement, while you were president yourself, you yourself argued that five years were necessary for the proper functioning of our institutions. Please, clarify.

The quoted statement which opposes the present one may be drawned not only from what has been said by the opponent in the past, but also from what has been said by “his or her people”, that is to say, by members of the discursive community sharing the same argumentative orientations: people of the same party, religion, scientific trend, etc., that cannot be easily disavowed.

The ad hominem reply allows the speaker to intervene in a discourse in the third party’s mode, that is, without committing himself to the substance of the debate. He does not explicitly take on the role of an opponent, but speaks simply as a participant in good faith, seeking clarification.

In an accusatory context, the charge of narrative incoherence allows the accused to reject the accusatory narrative, S. Consistency.

Reactions to ad hominem refutation on what has been said before

The target of the ad hominem argument can choose to sacrifice the former position, to reject the contradiction, or to accept it.

(i) Sacrifice the former position:

— Circumstances have changed, we must follow our times.

— I have developed my system

— I have changed, only madmen never change their mind; do you prefer psychorigid people?

(ii) Use a direct rebuttal. The opponent elicits the contradiction: “you say both A and Z, which is inconsistent”; the force of this argument is derived from the quotation mechanism. The proponent did not necessarily say A or Z but something else, A’ or Z’, that the opponent paraphrases, rephrases or reinterprets as A or Z. The contradiction may therefore proceed from a reworking of the speech, S. Straw Man. It follows that the proponent can reply to the letter, and reject the key ad hominem phrase “you yourself admitted” in his or her second turn:

 You make me out to say what I have never said, you distort my words

In other cases, the precise relation between A and Z, that is, the nature and degree of the inconsistency, might be disputable, S. Denying; Opposites.

The ad hominem imputation can be directly dismissed on these two counts.

 (iii) Accept the contradiction. The ad hominem reply seeks an individual free from contradiction. By a classic maneuver in stasis theory, the recipient may choose to assume what he or she has been criticized for, thus making contradiction a system of thought, S. Stasis; Contradiction:

— I fully accept my inconsistencies. I love rain and good weather.

4. Setting up the beliefs of the speaker against their words

In the preceding case, there was direct opposition between a present claim and an earlier assertion. Consider the issue of the withdrawal of troops sent to intervene in Syldavia:

Q:    —Should we withdraw our forces from Syldavia?

S1:    — Yes!

Let us suppose however that S1 has been led to admit A, B, and C; or, at least that S2 speaks as if he sincerely believed that S1 supports these propositions:

S2: — But you said yourself that (A) the Syldavian troops are poorly trained, and (B) that the political unrest in Syldavia is likely to extend to the whole region, there is a real contagion risk. You will agree that such an extension would threaten our own security (C); and no one denies that we must intervene if our security is threatened. So you have to admit that we have to stay in Syldavia.

S1 therefore claims that P; S2 argues ex datis, that is, on the basis of beliefs held by S1 (or attributed to him), and concludes not-P. This is the case considered by Locke. Must S1 admit that he or she has made an error, and that we should not withdraw the troops? Obviously not; S2 simply showed by his objection that one cannot support both {A, B, C} and not-P.

Reactions to the ad hominem refutation on reconstructed beliefs

S1 can re-adjust and rearticulate all the key components of S2‘s discourse. He can argue that A, B, C are abusive reformulations of his beliefs, or that the full analysis of the Syldavian situation is much more complex than these three assertions.

If S1 accepts such a reconstruction of his speech and beliefs, then he or she must reform one or more of these propositions, rejecting for example the idea that the troubles in Syldavia can extend to the whole region. S1 is expected only to correct, clarify or explain more thoroughly why this system of beliefs {A, B, C} cannot be expanded into non-P. This is precisely the point the argument ad hominem is getting at. In this function, ad hominem replies are a powerful educational tool.

5. Setting up the prescriptions and practices of the speaker against their words

A contradiction can also be raised between, on the one hand, what I require from others, what I prescribe or forbid them, and, on the other hand, what I’m doing myself, the kind of example I set. There is some paradox in asking others not to smoke, while I smoke myself. In our culture, acts are considered “to speak louder than words”, and injunctions are systematically flouted if the speaker does not comply with them himself:

Doctor, heal thyself!

He’s not a good marriage counselor, he’s always arguing with his wife!

You claim to teach argumentation and you are unable to argue yourself!

You advocate for the rights of women and at home you never do the dishes.

Note that, in the last two arguments, the conjunction and coordinates two anti-oriented statements, and not, as is more commonly the case, two co-oriented statements, S. Orientation.

The ad hominem game can be played in several moves:

Question: Should hunting be prohibited?
S1:    — yes, hunters kill animals for pleasure!
S2:   — but you eat meat, don’t you?

L2‘s argumentation can be reconstructed as “We must prohibit, suppress hunting. Hunters kill for pleasure. That’s awful!”. The opponent constructs an ad hominem argument:

You say killing animals for pleasure is wrong. But you eat meat, which presupposes that animals are killed for you. You condemn the hunters and you support the butchers. There is a contradiction here.

In his follow up, S1 can retort that there is a decisive difference. The hunter kills for pleasure, the butcher by necessity; and S2 can refute this refutation by arguing that there is no need to eat meat, whereas it is quite necessary to have fun.

This last form of ad hominem corresponds to what Bossuet calls an a repugnantibus argument: “Your conduct does not suit your speech” ([1677], p.140).

The expression “circumstantial ad hominem” refers to cases in which the speaker the notices a contradiction between his or her opponent’s speech and his or her personal circumstances, material welfare, lifestyle or personal position. S. Circumstances.

Defense against such an accusation — The preacher of virtue, to whom one points out that his or her practices do not support his or her counsels, finds support in the Lockian analysis of ad hominem, declared inherently fallacious:

My personal circumstances have no bearing on the truth or moral validity of my preaching.

Such a person may add that he or she has a divided personality:

It is true, I am a sinner, but it is from the depths of darkness that one feels best the necessity of light

This is natural, the cobbler’s children go barefoot.

Nonetheless, this form of argumentation is feared by preachers, who are expected to preach preach not only by exempla but also by example.

The real impact of ad hominem argument is not on the truth of what is said, but on the right to say what is said. The next reply may be “What you say is probably true and right, but I do not want to hear it from you”, or “That’s true, but it’s not for you to say”.

6. Setting up facts against words

S. Irony

7. Argumentation upon the beliefs of the partner

Whereas ad hominem argument goes after possible inconsistencies in the discourse of the opponent, arguments built upon the beliefs of the opponent or of the audience are  a positive form of exploitation of the partner’s belief system, considered as a coherent whole, S. Ex datis; Ex concessis