Raley makes two category errors in her article. Attributing poor lawn care to a neighbor’s political persuasion is not an ad hominem argument. Rather it is an example of what social psychologists call “attribution theory,” in which the same behavior is interpreted differently depending on who is doing it. For example, if I overeat, I am likely to attribute the behavior to tasty food (self-attribution), whereas if I see my overweight neighbor doing the same, I think he has no willpower (other attribution). Moreover, the attributions mentioned by Raley are not personal but sociological in nature and hence not the personal attacks meant by ad hominem—literally “against the person.”
The second category error concerns the example of the doctor. Not following our fat doctor’s advice to lose weight is what a previous generation of social psychologists working within a persuasive communication paradigm called “the source effect.” When given information, we tend to accept or reject the information based on whom we think it is coming from. For example, if we learn that Osama bin Laden says giving charity is an important God-commanded activity, we are much less likely to agree (and give charity) than if we hear the exact same phrase from our local clergy.
Source effects concern the reliability of the provider of the information, not the information itself. They are different from ad hominem attacks in that they concern the impact on the listener, not his rhetorical and illegitimate personal counterattack on the speaker.
Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University
RALEY REPLIES: Abramovitch suggests there are two category mistakes in my essay. The term “category mistake” comes from Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind (University of Chicago Press). Ryle’s famous example is of a person asking, after having been shown the buildings and offices of a university, “But where is the university?” His mistake is to think that the university is the same kind of entity as the buildings and offices of the university.
Abramovitch thinks that my example of the neighbor’s lawn care belongs to the category of attribution theory—a theory concerned with the motivations we attribute to others and how these differ from the motivations we attribute to ourselves. Therefore, he argues, the example is not an ad hominem. Although Abramovitch is right to point to attribution theory as an explanation for the example, this does not preclude its being an ad hominem. Abramovitch offers an explanation for why the speaker said what he did. In contrast, I offer an analysis of the logic of what the speaker said. Abramovitch’s analysis is descriptive (it describes what motivates the speaker), whereas mine is normative (it deals with the reasoning errors in the argument). There are explanations for a particular act of speech (the buildings and offices in Ryle’s example), but there are also the logical analyses thereof (universities). Neither precludes the other.
Apart from this, Abramovitch construes “ad hominem” too narrowly. Although the Latin ad hominem is translated as “against the person,” the concept of ad hominem is broader than that, as is generally the case with Latin terminology when employed in the sciences. One would be confused if one tried to understand the contemporary usage of Tyrannosaurus rex by reading the Latin literally (“tyrant lizard”). No more does every ad hominem have to involve a direct accusation—it just has to unfairly discredit the individual.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Letters".