Writing

What Is Ad Hominem (Definition, Types + Examples)

Posted: January 4, 2023
Word count: 1,320 (5 min)

Ad hominem is an argumentation error. Ad hominem fallacy happens when a counterattack is made but on the original line of argument.

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Tomas Laurinavicius

Co-founder & Chief Editor, Best Writing

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What is Ad Hominem meaning?

Ad hominem comes from Latin phrase meaning 'to the man, to the person'. It is a logical fallacy. A logical fallacy occurs when there is an error in the logical reasoning one is making. This makes the argument impotent. Ad hominem is also known as argumentum ad hominem.

Ad hominem fallacy occurs when an argument is made against the person or the opponent rather than the argument itself. This kind of comment can draw on the opponent's character, actions or anything the attacker deems fit to attack on. There are several types of ad hominem arguments.

What are the types of ad hominem argument?

Abusive

Abusive ad hominem attacks aims to discredit the opponent using harsh personal attacks. By saying that the opponent is of unsound mind deems their argument unsound and baseless as well.

For example,

A: All students must pass the language test.

B: Says someone who failed their drug test.

This kind of sneer comment dismantles someone's argument. When A says the language test is crucial, they mean that is is one of the stepping stones of learning and therefore should be passed by every student. B, on the other hand, without countering the argument itself, as why should passing the language test be mandatory for all students, they attack the opponent's personal life in a way that will dismiss them. This is abusive ad hominem argument. It is also considered name calling.

This is a kind of genetic fallacy. That means, discrediting the argument on the basis of the person and their personal history.

Circumstantial

Circumstantial ad hominem happens when one attacks the other based on a situation or incident that happened, that is on the circumstance rather than the argument.

An ad hominem circumstantial argument picks up on personal life or character of a person to make an argument that deviates from the original line of discussion. For example, in an argument regarding importance of financial literacy, one opponent comments on the financial situation of the other person rather than the topic itself.

Guilt

Guilt ad hominem attaches the opponent with a group that is disproved or condemned therefore raising a negative remark on the opponent's character. In an argument ad hominem guilt can be done by saying a person is from a group that is ethically, morally, or legally shunned by society, thereby discrediting the opponent.

For example, insinuating that the opponent belongs to an anti-Semitic, transphobic, or racist group will lead to their disproval from the current argument.

Poisoning the Well

This type of ad hominem attack is done with prejudices. By remarking about a prejudice one holds they try to discredit the argument in an indirect way rather than commenting on the argument at all.

For example, Amir says, "The office basement can work as a good place for practice." To which, Jimmy says, "As if the boss pays you to talk good about the office behind them." Jimmy's remark does not address the topic, that whether the basement is good or not. Rather his comments are prejudiced against Amir, thinking that he says so because he is a kiss-up.

Tu Quoque

This type of ad hominem attack tries to bring up the past life or actions of the opponent which may apparently collide with the views that they are expressing. Tu quoque fallacy tries to surface any seeming hypocrisy that might exist against the opponent without addressing the line of argument.

For example, Kate says, "The red bells would be will go very well with the Christmas tree." To which, Ravi says, "But I thought your favorite color was blue." While this is said in a lighter sense, tu quoque attacks may not be so mild. A tu quoque fallacy also reflects badly on the person making the argument.

Ad Feminam

Ad Feminam is making a comment that is degrading and stereotypical to women. For example, it is assumed that women are bad drivers. So, in case a woman makes a mistake while driving will be counted as a mistake made because she is a woman.

Examples of Ad Hominem Use

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Hester Prynne,” said [Governor Bellingham], fixing his naturally stern regard on the wearer of the scarlet letter, “there hath been much question concerning thee, of late. The point hath been weightily discussed, whether we, that are of authority and influence, do well discharge our consciences by trusting an immortal soul, such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who hath stumbled and fallen, amid the pitfalls of this world. Speak thou, the child’s own mother! Were it not, thinkest thou, for thy little one’s temporal and eternal welfare, that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of Heaven and earth? What canst thou do for the child, in this kind?”

The Governor remarks on Hester Prynne's character rather than the topic at hand which is raising a child in the church.

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

"And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people. I need not to remind of their appearance and conduct on the stand—you saw them for yourselves. The witness for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption that one associates with minds of their calibre.”

Atticus Finch highlights the ad hominem attacks made against his client that "all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women".

How Not to Use Ad Hominem

Ad hominem arguments are easy to make if one knows personal information about the opponent. One may also end up making ad hominem fallacies around communal prejudices.

An argument consists of premises and a structure. There can be errors found in either in the content or the form of the argument.

Ad hominem is a type of informal fallacy where errors are found in the content rather than in the structure of the argument. Informal fallacies are very common in logic. Ad hominem is mostly a personal attack fallacy where the opponents are picked on rather than the arguments. But ad hominem attacks can also be done using other unrelated things.

Using ad hominem manner of argument is a cheap trick and should not be used by good debators or in good repartees. The best way to avoid making an ad hominem attack is to make sure on is following the original line of argument. But also being too cautious can affect the quality of one's argument. Not every comment made creatively is necessarily fallacious.

Summary

Ad hominem is an argumentation error. Ad hominem fallacy happens when a counterattack is made not on the line of argument but on other factors such as on the opponent, or a social prejudice, and so on. There are several types of ad hominem attacks.

An author at times uses ad hominem in their writing to influence our views on a certain topic, on create good persuasive writing. Ad hominem can be used by politicians and lawyers to make a personal attack. This is also known as informal logic, where personal information is exchanged in place of the matter at hand. Ad hominem argument is used to disprove an opponent in a debate or speech and in such cases often both the parties come off disaprovingly, the person attacking and the attacked.

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