14 Common Sophistical Tricks Aristotle Already “Called”, Still With Us Today
The French have a saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations [SR] is over 2500 years old, yet you can still read it and find yourself chuckling about its relevance today.
SR is rightly famous for its identification of 13 forms of “sophistical” arguments. These “sophisms” are true-seeming arguments which are in fact false. So they pull the wool over many, less careful peoples’ eyes.
Think of claims like that, since in the Italian renaissance, great art was produced in times of war and instability, that war and instability must be necessary for great artists to emerge.
Some turn upon the ambiguities and slipperiness of language. Consider someone who says “mistakes are natural” to excuse the fact that they are also, often, regrettable (“natural” being a term of approval in many contexts).
Others are more purely conceptual, like confusing absolute for qualified statements. The mostly-true claim that “cutting people with knives is bad” does not make the thought that “surgery must be bad” true, for example. There are exceptions, relative to situation and intention.
Probably the most common of all is the famous Dicto Simpliciter fallacy (or, as the medievals called it, Secundum quid). This involves falsely generalizing to some absolute claim on the basis of limited data. Take going from the claim that “Stalin believed in a strong state” to the belief that thus “all state action” is bad — or on the road to Stalinism.
Nevertheless, like all Aristotelian texts, this one, the SR, contains multitudes. It is not just about these famous fallacies, and how to spot and refute them. In truth, their analysis occupies about an even half of the SR only (chapters 4–6, and 19–30).
To put it casually, there is a lot of other stuff going on in this classic text, which we and our students can still learn from today.
Other games bad-faith actors (aka “sophists”) can play
Aristotle is aware, above all, that there are many more sophistical tricks than are available to people involved in disputes, at least when not all participants are what we might call “good faith” debaters, interested only in truth and self-edification, or the edification of others.
The sophists themselves were of course defined by Plato by their alleged intention to say “truthy” but deceptive things, in order to win friends and influence people. Aristotle agrees with his teacher here, opening the SR by defining “the art of the sophist” as “one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.” He’s in it for the cash, the glory, and the advancement. And for this, the mere semblance of truth or rightness is enough.
for them, then, it is clearly essential also to seem to accomplish the task of a wise man rather than to accomplish it ...
Small wonder then that, when we move into the central chapters of Aristotle’s text, we find several highly perceptive and curious chapters. These are devoted to how a sophist can basically corner his respondent, so they appear incompetent, while themselves appearing more certain than the matter warrants; and how a bad-faith-debater can consciously work to conceal his real purposes from their “interlocutors”.
It is a shame that these “dirty tricks” are not better known, both where Aristotle’s SR is still taught, and for anyone interested in not having the wool pulled over their eyes every time they turn on the internet, their TV, or radio.
So, let me enumerate a selection of 14 of them now, and try to give them some catchy names to facilitate memory.
Next time you see them, perhaps you’ll be able to identify them for the sophistical dirty tricks they are. And you can even point out that Aristotle told you so.
Extra-argumentative deeds, done dirt cheap
Let me put at least some of them in the second person, as points of advice, so readers can get the sophistical “spirit” at issue:
- be deliberately indefinite in what you ask, to “give ’em enough rope”: this strategy involves putting a question vaguely, when some specific subject is at issue (say, asking an opposing Minister to discuss the state of the health sector at large, when it is the specific issue of vaccinations at issue). The strategic reason for this, Aristotle astutely observes, is that “people are more inclined to make mistakes when they talk at large, and they talk at large when they have no definite subject before them.”
We might call this giving a person enough rope ( — to hang himself).
2. bombard your foe: to confuse or even anger them, put not one but several questions to the other person at once. For added effect, append “the request that he shall say only what he thinks”.
Whichever question s/he answers, you can then say: “yes, but you didn’t address my[other] question”.
3. play neutral, when you are malign: when you have a controversial question to ask, don’t put it directly, but say you “put it from the wish for information”. This way, you can conceal you own partisan perspective, behind the veneer of “only wanting the truth”, for long enough to get the other to say too much, giving fuel to your fire.
4. avoid weak points, divert to your strengths: this is a favorite sophism of politicians, and PR experts are clearly coaching them in it, and number 5, as they butter their toast in the mornings. Journos ask a question a politician or corporate exec doesn’t want to answer, since they’re on slippery ground. So, they shift the discussion “to the kind of statements against which one is well supplied with arguments”.
Down under, for instance, we know that politicians love to talk about “jobs and growth”. This, no matter whether they are asked about them or not.
5. If pressed, attack others’ weaknesses, even when they’re irrelevant: this is the flipside of the preceding. It is a strategy well-known to sociopaths: when called out on a weakness, attack the accuser. If you know they belong to a political party or group that has issues in other areas, steer the discussion there: “yes, but what I want to know about is why the [Labor/Democratic/ Republican/Tory] candidate is so unwilling to talk about national security right now?”
6. place your opponent in a false double-bind: if you disagree with your opponent’s argument, and it is based on a noble aspiration, point out that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”; if they profess a more “realistic” stance, accuse them of lacking vision.
For “the man whose statement agrees with the standard of nature you should meet by the standard of the law, but the man who agrees with the law by leading him to the facts of nature” [Aristotle, SR].
As for someone who claims that “everyone agrees”, point out that experts may not. But if they say “experts are agreed”, discredit the experts and their “elitism”.
Darned if you do, darned if you don’t?
7. relatedly, put questions to which both answers, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be attacked: Aristotle’s examples include “ought one to obey the experts or one’s father?”. If in reply you say people should obey the wise, the accuser will say you are “elitist”, and show disloyalty to your dad.
But if you reply, “your father”, the bad-faith-arguer can point out the larger value of wisdom and expertise, to which even kids’ mums and dads should bow.
8. Set up a falsely absolute, black and white choice, to avoid complexity: this strategy involves putting your question with the idea you want to be conceded in an ‘either/or’, with its extreme contrary. This sounds complex, so an example will help.
If you want to get someone to say, in a way you can then attack, that “A government should directly assist the needy”, ask “Should a government directly assist the needy, or completely leave the hindmost to the devil?” No one will say the latter, but that doesn’t mean they’ll agree with the former either. So when they say “of course I don’t mean to just abandon people”, you can go on the attack: “so you are a big tax and spender then?”
Hiding your purposes
9. Filibuster, speak for a long time (perhaps vaguely, see 1): with a view to confusing people and leading them off the scent, Aristotle drily comments, “one resource is length-for it is difficult to keep several things in view at once …” Perhaps you can then just address what is important in one or two sentences, tucked away in the middle somewhere, to avoid detection.
10. Less clarity, more speed: this strategy might go well with 2 above. Just speak fast when you want to hash over something, “for when people are left behind they look ahead less”
11. Vex your opponent: try to anger the opponent, “for when agitated everybody is less able to take care of himself”. And we all often say unqualified kinds of things in anger, like the good old Dicto simpliciter above. Then your sophist or antagonist can point out that your angry generalizations are factually in error, and that your conduct is not “presidential”, as they say. But who can believe someone who gets angry?
So — talk too loud or fast, or use these other strategies, or play with a toothpick, whatever it is that might put your opponent off their game!
12. Pretend you believe the opposite of what you really want or believe, to draw your foe out: if someone “refuses to grant whatever they suppose will help your argument,” Aristotle writes with characteristic coolness, “one should put the question negatively, as though you desire the opposite answer, or are wholly neutral (see 3 above)”.
The idea is that, lulled thereby into security, your opponent might be comforted into saying exactly what you really wanted them to all along.
Bait and switch?
13. Beg the question: this isn’t avoiding a question, using strategies we’ve seen — although many journos use the term like this. It involves stating your disputed idea as if it were already a done deal; “we all agree that the best measure here is ...”
Imagine a sleazy pickup artist telling a girl he’s targeted about what they will eat for breakfast. There, you have begging the question, as well as sleaze.
14. Take refuge in generalities: if you’re asked to specify something you feel might advantage your opponent, state things only in vague generalities -that “all I’m doing is disagreeing with him … exercising free speech … doing my job … looking out for my constituents”, “saying what a lot of people are thinking”, etc.
Again, prevarication. Play for time, then apply other strategies.
The refutation of sophistries
So, why did Aristotle go to such trouble to, as it were, crawl on the belly of the sophistic snake, when he is rightly evaluated as perhaps the greatest Western philosopher?
“It is the business of one who knows a thing,” he writes in SR:
himself to avoid fallacies in the subjects which he knows and to be able to show up the man who makes them ...
You don’t really know something, unless you know how to detect people misrepresenting it. You can’t really defend a position, unless you are aware of the ways others may attack it. A position affirmed, that has not faced criticism, is like the proverbial house built on sand, ready to fall with the first hint of a gale.
Today, with the glut of information, the linguistic, conceptual fallacies, and also these 14 other dirty tricks Aristotle identified continue to line the pockets of PR agents, and package the ‘lines’ of politicians and ideologues on the sell.
The sophists were already “post-truth”, to use a regrettably ambiguous buzzword. Aristotle’s incredibly subtle anatomization of their dirty tricks and strategies remains an invaluable guide for helping people in and out of it.