Two types of refutation in philosophical argumentation

Catarina Dutilh Novaes*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In this paper, I highlight the significance of practices of refutation in philosophical inquiry, that is, practices of showing that a claim, person or theory is wrong. I present and contrast two prominent approaches to philosophical refutation: refutation in ancient Greek dialectic (elenchus), in its Socratic variant as described in Plato’s dialogues, and as described in Aristotle’s logical texts; and the practice of providing counterexamples to putative definitions familiar from twentieth century analytic philosophy, focusing on the so-called Gettier problem. Moreover, I discuss Lakatos’ method of proofs and refutations, as it offers insightful observations on the dynamics between arguments, refutations, and counterexamples. Overall, I argue that dialectic, in particular in its Socratic variant, is especially suitable for the philosophical purpose of questioning the obvious, as it invites reflection on one’s own doxastic commitments and on the tensions and inconsistencies within one’s set of beliefs. By contrast, the counterexample-based approach to philosophical refutation can give rise to philosophical theorizing that is overly focused on hairsplitting disputes, thus becoming alienated from the relevant human experiences. Insofar as philosophical inquiry treads the fine line between questioning the obvious while still seeking to say something significant about human experiences, perhaps a certain amount of what Lakatos describes as ‘monster-barring’—a rejection of overly fanciful, artificial putative counterexamples—has its place in philosophical argumentation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)493-510
Number of pages18
Issue number4
Early online date12 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022


  • Elenchus
  • Socrates
  • Aristotle
  • Gettier problem
  • Lakatos
  • Counterexamples


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