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The Homonymy


Techniques General persuasion > The Art of Being Right > The Homonymy

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



This trick is to extend a proposition to something which has little or nothing in common with the matter in question but the similarity of the word; then to refute it triumphantly, and so claim credit for having refuted the original statement.

It may be noted here that synonyms are two words for the same conception; homonyms, two conceptions which are covered by the same word. "Deep," "cutting," "high," used at one moment of bodies at another of tones, are homonyms; "honourable" and "honest" are synonyms.

This is a trick which may be regarded as identical with the sophism ex homonymia; although, if the sophism is obvious, it will deceive no one.

Every light can be extinguished.
The intellect is a light.
Therefore it can be extinguished.

Here it is at once clear that there are four terms in the syllogism, "light" being used both in a real and in a metaphorical sense. But if the sophism takes a subtle form, it is, of course, apt to mislead, especially where the conceptions which are covered by the same word are related, and inclined to be interchangeable. It is never subtle enough to deceive, if it is used intentionally; and therefore cases of it must be collected from actual and individual experience.

It would be a very good thing if every trick could receive some short and obviously appropriate name, so that when a man used this or that particular trick, he could be at once reproached for it.


Schopenhauer suggests:

"You are not yet initiated into the mysteries of the Kantian philosophy."
..."Oh, if it's mysteries you're talking of, I'll have nothing to do with them."

I condemned the principle involved in the word honour as a foolish one; for, according to it, a man loses his honour by receiving an insult, which he cannot wipe out unless he replies with a still greater insult, or by shedding his adversary's blood or his own. I contended that a man's true honour cannot be outraged by what he suffers, but only and alone by what he does; for there is no saying what may befall any one of us. My opponent immediately attacked the reason I had given, and triumphantly proved to me that when a tradesman was falsely accused of misrepresentation, dishonesty, or neglect in his business, it was an attack upon his honour, which in this case was outraged solely by what he suffered, and that he could only retrieve it by punishing his aggressor and making him retract.

Here, by a homonymy, he was foisting civic honour, which is otherwise called good name, and which may be outraged by libel and slander, on to the conception of knightly honour, also called point d'honneur, which may be outraged by insult. And since an attack on the former cannot be disregarded, but must be repelled by public disproof, so, with the same justification, an attack on the latter must not be disregarded either, but it must be defeated by still greater insult and a duel. Here we have a confusion of two essentially different things through the homonymy in the word honour, and a consequent alteration of the point in dispute.


Homonymy seems very simple and a tad obvious. Being easy to detect, it is easy to refute. Yet done with speed and panache, it can be carried off.

The underlying method is that of reframing -- taking a word and looking at it differently. There may be initial confusion, but, done well, this only serves to open the other person to acceptance of whatever is being said.

As the principle is one of similar sound, homonymy can only be used in spoken contexts.

The Homonymy is the second of Schopenhauer's stratagems.

See also



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