Ad hominem

Ad hominem (Latin for "to the person"),[1] short for argumentum ad hominem, typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.[2] The terms ad mulierem[3] and ad feminam[4] have been used specifically when the person receiving the criticism is female.

Fallacious ad hominem reasoning is categorized among informal fallacies,[5][6][7] more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.

However, the term's original meaning was an argument "calculated to appeal to the person addressed more than to impartial reason".[8] Under this meaning the term does not refer to a logical fallacy. This meaning survives in philosophical usage, as explained by the philosopher R. Scott Bakker: "Classical Pyrrhonians argued ad hominem, not in the sense of the logical fallacy of that name, but in the sense that their dialectical strategy necessitates the exclusive utilization of the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of their interlocutors. In other words, they construct their arguments on the basis of what other people hold to be true."[9]

Fallacious types

Tu quoque

Ad hominem tu quoque (literally: "You also") refers to a claim that the source making the argument has spoken or acted in a way inconsistent with the argument. In particular, if Source A criticizes the actions of Source B, a tu quoque response is that Source A has acted in the same way. This argument is invalid because it does not disprove the premise; if the premise is true then Source A may be a hypocrite, but this does not make the statement less credible from a logical perspective. Indeed, Source A may be in a position to provide personal testimony to support the argument.

For example, a father may tell his daughter not to start smoking because she will regret it when she is older, and she may point out that he is or was a smoker. This does not alter the fact that she may regret smoking when she is older; and his history of smoking may give him special insight into what is regrettable about smoking.


Circumstantial ad hominem points out that someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position. It constitutes an attack on the bias of a source. This is fallacious because a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument invalid; this overlaps with the genetic fallacy (an argument that a claim is incorrect due to its source).[10]

The circumstantial fallacy does not apply where the source is taking a position by using a logical argument based solely on premises that are generally accepted. Where the source seeks to convince an audience of the truth of a premise by a claim of authority or by personal observation, observation of their circumstances may reduce the evidentiary weight of the claims, sometimes to zero.[11]


  • Mandy Rice-Davies's famous testimony during the Profumo affair, "He would [say that], wouldn't he?", is an example of a valid circumstantial argument. Her point was that a man in a prominent position, accused of an affair with a callgirl, would deny the claim whether it was true or false. His denial, in itself, provides little evidence against the claim of an affair. However, this argument is valid only insofar as it devalues the denial; it does not strengthen the original claim. To construe invalid evidence of the denial as valid evidence of the original claim is fallacious (on several different bases, including that of argumentum ad hominem and appeal to emotions); however likely the man in question would be to deny an affair that did in fact happen, he is even more likely to deny an affair that never happened. (For example, inferring guilt from a denial  or, less starkly, excessive devaluation of a denial  is a very common feature in conspiracy theories, witch-hunts, show trials, struggle sessions, and other coercive circumstances in which the person targeted is presumed guilty.)
  • Glassner suggests that Bennett is somehow unqualified to criticize rap music because of positions Bennett has taken on other issues. However wrong Bennett may or may not have been on other issues, that does not mean that his criticisms of rap were mistaken.[11]

Guilt by association

Guilt by association can sometimes also be a type of ad hominem fallacy if the argument attacks a source because of the similarity between the views of someone making an argument and other proponents of the argument.[10]

This form of the argument is as follows:

  1. Source S makes claim C.
  2. Group G, which is currently viewed negatively by the recipient, also makes claim C.
  3. Therefore, source S is viewed by the recipient of the claim as associated to the group G and inherits how negatively viewed it is.

An example of this fallacy could be "My opponent for office just received an endorsement from the Puppy Haters Association. Is that the sort of person you would want to vote for?"

Non-fallacious types

Dialectical strategy

In philosophical usage ad hominem may refer to a dialectical strategy involving the exclusive utilization of the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of those holding the position being argued against, i.e., arguments constructed on the basis of what other people hold to be true.

Attack on authority

When a statement is challenged by making an ad hominem attack on its author, it is important to draw a distinction between whether the statement in question was an argument or a statement of fact (testimony). In the latter case the issues of the credibility of the person making the statement may be crucial.[11]

Association with insults

An ad hominem fallacy occurs when one attacks the character of an interlocutor in an attempt to refute their argument. Insulting someone is not necessarily an instance of an ad hominem fallacy. For example, if one supplies sufficient reasons to reject an interlocutor's argument and adds a slight character attack at the end, this character attack is not necessarily fallacious. Whether it is fallacious depends on whether or not the insult is used as a reason against the interlocutor's argument. An ad hominem occurs when an attack on the interlocutor's character functions as a response to an interlocutor's argument/claim.[12]

Criticism as a fallacy

Canadian academic and author Doug Walton has argued that ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, and that in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue,[13] as when it directly involves hypocrisy, or actions contradicting the subject's words.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that ad hominem reasoning (discussing facts about the speaker or author relative to the value of his statements) is essential to understanding certain moral issues due to the connection between individual persons and morality (or moral claims), and contrasts this sort of reasoning with the apodictic reasoning (involving facts beyond dispute or clearly established) of philosophical naturalism.[14]

See also


  1. "Ad hominem". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  2. Dr. Michael C. Labossiere (2002–2010). "42 Fallacies: Ad Hominem" (PDF). p. 2. Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  3. Olivesi, Aurélie (2010-04-05). "L'interrogation sur la compétence politique en 2007 : une question de genre ?". Quaderni (in French) (72): 59–74. doi:10.4000/quaderni.486. ISSN 0987-1381.
  4. Sommers, Christina (March 1991). "ARGUMENTUM AD FEMINAM". Journal of Social Philosophy. 22 (1): 5–19. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.1991.tb00016.x. ISSN 0047-2786.
  5. Walton, Douglas (2008). Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach. Cambridge University Press. p. 190.
  6. Bowell, Tracy; Kemp, Gary (2010). Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 210–213. ISBN 978-0-415-47183-1.
  7. Copi, Irving M. (1986). Informal Logic. Macmillan. pp. 112–113. ISBN 978-0-02-324940-2.
  8. Fowler, H. W. (1926), A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (under Technical Terms)
  10. Walton, Douglas (1998). Ad Hominem Arguments. University of Alabama Press. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-0-8173-0922-0.
  11. Curtis, Gary N. "Argumentum ad Hominem". Fallacy Files. Archived from the original on 20 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-10.
  12. Arp, Robert; Barbone, Steven; Bruce, Michael (2019). Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies n Western Philosophy. Wiley Blackwell. p. 83. ISBN 9781119167907.
  13. Walton, Douglas (2008). Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach. Cambridge University Press. p. 170.
  14. Taylor, Charles (1995). "Explanation and Practical Reason". Philosophical Arguments. Harvard University Press. pp. 34–60. ISBN 9780674664760.

Further reading

  • Hurley, Patrick (2000). A Concise Introduction to Logic (7th ed.). Wadsworth. pp. 125–128, 182. ISBN 978-0-534-52006-9.
  • Copi, Irving M.; Cohen, Carl. Introduction to Logic (8th ed.). pp. 97–100.
  • Walton, Douglas (1998). Ad Hominem Arguments. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press.
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