Ad Hominem Definition
Ad hominem (add HOMM-inn-emm), also known as argumentum ad hominem, is a rhetorical device that involves commenting on or against the individual making an argument rather than on the argument itself. As a result, ad hominem is categorized as a logical fallacy or argumentative error.
The definition of ad hominem has evolved over time. Originally, the term referred to making a point about the opponent’s personal assumptions to show how their argument is unsound. Over time, this changed, and now the term refers to resorting to personal attacks rather than addressing an opponent’s argument. The translation of the term indicates this shift; ad hominem is Latin for “to the person,” but it has been translated as “against the person” over time.
Examples of Ad Hominem
Ad hominem arguments appear all the time in everyday life—political debates, classroom conversations, Internet forums, social media, and so on. Take the following example:
Lena: I think people should have access to their partner’s phone. If there’s nothing to hide, it won’t matter.
Maria: I don’t know . . . I feel that pressing for access to a partner’s phone gives the impression there’s no trust. Trust is important if you want a relationship to last.
Lena: What would you know about long-term relationships? You’re not even married!
In the example, Lena is dismissing Maria’s point by commenting on Maria’s marital status instead of addressing what Maria said.
Types of Ad Hominem
There are a few types of ad hominem; the following are the ones commonly used.
- Abusive: This involves insults and personal attacks to discredit an opponent.
- Circumstantial: This is a suggestion that an opponent has a bias or situation influencing their argument, thus creating doubt in the audience.
- Guilt by association: This accuses an opponent of being part of a discredited group, thus invalidating the argument by this association.
- Poisoning the well: This involves taking an indirect jab at an opponent’s stance, which creates prejudice against the stance without addressing the argument at all.
- Tu quoque: This type points out an opponent’s hypocrisy—real or perceived—rather than address the argument.
Why Writers Use Ad Hominem
Ad hominem arguments allow writers to emphasize outside factors influencing the arguer; they bring up these factors to discredit or cast doubt on the argument. This can be very persuasive because it evokes an emotional response in the reader. For this reason, ad hominem arguments are common in all platforms of discourse.
However, ad hominem arguments are not usually well received because, in recent times, this device is often used to derail a productive conversation. As a result, writers must take care when using this device.
Validity and Invalidity of Ad Hominem
Writers and rhetoric scholars often discuss when (if ever) it’s appropriate to use ad hominem, especially considering the negative connotation the device has. Ad hominem arguments are commonly seen as invalid because they take attention from the opponent’s argument and their potentially valid points and instead focuses on personal attacks. However, ad hominem arguments can be useful. When used to criticize a moral argument by demonstrating hypocrisy or to expose a conflict of interest that makes the opponent’s motive suspicious, ad hominem responses are often seen as acceptable.
Examples of Ad Hominem in Literature
1. Arthur Miller, The Crucible
In this excerpt, Proctor is defending his wife and other townspeople accused of witchcraft, bringing forward Mary Warren to admit her accusation was false. However, as soon as court official Cheever is given the opportunity, he uses ad hominem to cast doubt on Proctor’s piety instead of addressing his argument:
Proctor: I—I have no love for Mr. Parris. It is no secret. But God, surely, do I love.
Cheever: He plow on Sunday, sir.
Danforth: Plow on Sunday!
Cheever: I think it be evidence, John. I am an official of the court. I cannot keep it.
Proctor: I—I have once or twice plowed on Sunday. I have three children, sir, and until last year my land give little.
2. William Shakespeare, Othello
Rather than believe his daughter Desdemona is in love with Othello, Brabantio undermines this possibility by accusing Othello of using magic or a love potion to force her affection:
BRABANTIO: A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on?
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood
Or with some dram, conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.
Further Resources on Ad Hominem
The PBS Idea Channel has a concise YouTube video on the topic.
Kidskonnect has worksheets and examples on the literary device.
- Genetic Fallacy
- Logical Fallacy