On Refutation

To “refute” and to “reform” have different meanings. To “refute” something, I need, after understanding the issue at hand, a counter-argument to a position that itself claims to be true. I cannot just say that something is “not true” while giving no argument to validate my position. My view, in turn, has to stand the tests of consistency and logic.

Something affirmed as a “feeling” or a “sentiment” cannot be “refuted.” “About tastes, there is no disputing,” as the old Latin adage (De gustibus non disputandum) goes. A society or an individual in which only “feelings” count presumes one intellectual thing. Namely, the truth of the proposition that only feelings, not truths, exist. Refute that proposition and the world of the primacy of feelings collapses.


To “reform” anything means that something is diminished in or has lost its “form.” To be what it is supposed to be, it needs to be re-formed, to re-establish what it is. Thus, I have to know what the original form was or ought to be. A technician who does not know the “form” of a motor or a computer cannot fix it except by luck.

In other words, I must understand what the thing is that I am talking about. Otherwise, I should shut up. This knowing implies that the thing that I am talking about is what it is. If it keeps changing into something else other than itself, I cannot know it for what it is. And that is what my mind is about, the knowing and affirming of what something is.

People, most of them anyhow, are embarrassed if they find out that their minds are filled with errors. Aside from the divine mind, however, all existing minds, at some point, affirm some, often many, things to be true that are in fact not true. In this light, we should want to be “refuted” in our errors. We want to know, however annoying, when we are wrong, why we are wrong. The virtue of “docility” allows us to be shown the evidence for truth, if we do not ourselves as yet grant the reasons to affirm it.

To be in error about something is not, in itself, a bad thing. Initially, it just means that we do not see the counter-argument that proves something is true. We should want our errors to be refuted. But the understanding of what is wrong is intrinsic to the intellectual life. It is good to know what is not true and why it is not true.

To want our errors not to be refuted, however, is intelligible. It is an aspect of vanity or pride, something to be overcome, acknowledged. No one wants to be wrong about important things, indeed about anything. As Plato put it, no one wants to lie to himself about what is. In Luke (17:3-4), the story is told of the man whose brother sins against him. He is to seek to correct him. Granted prudence, not to do so is considered to be a vice; and it is a vice in the brother if he will not be corrected.


To pursue truth is a “reformation” in the sense that our minds are designed in their very being to be filled with the true being, the true “what-ness” or forms of what is not ourselves. It is all right to be a finite, limited human being precisely because we have minds that are open to what is not ourselves. We are called to understand as true what is not ourselves.

Debates and disputations are more formal endeavors to affirm the truth by “refuting” what can be shown by argument to be in error. Some classical “refutations” are still amusing. The philosopher Zeno proved that we could never move because, he argued, we would have to cross at each step half the distance to our goal. But this lead to crossing half the way ad infinitum, so, therefore, we could never move. Socrates solved the problem by simply stepping from one side to another. What we do “do” is possible, even if we think it is not.

But isn’t trying to “refute” errors in order to “reform” what has gotten out of its proper shape or form a dangerous thing? Are we not supposed to “tolerate” all sorts of opinions whether true or not? Isn’t Western civil society now based on the proposition that nothing is true? Who holds any such things as “self-evident” truths? Is not the pursuit of truth and effort to refute errors – dare we say it – a matter of “hate-language”?

The works of Thomas Aquinas are little more than collections of the refutations of sundry errors. The wars of the world and the disorders of the civil order are usually the results of ideas that were once refuted. What we need, perhaps, is a re-formation of the refutations.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, and Catholicism and Intelligence.

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