eristic (rhetoric)


In rhetoric, a contentious type of argument in which defeating an opponent (or apparently "winning" the argument) is considered more important than examining the issues and discovering the truth. Adjective: eristic or eristical. Adverb: eristically.

Plato regarded eristic (which he also called antilogic) as the art of quarreling, criticizing it as "something superficially like dialectic, and yet as bad as dialectic is good, something against which the would-be dialectician must always be on guard" (Richard Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 1985).

See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:

From the Greek, "quarrel, strife"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Too often, the labels we affix to others are simply an attempt to discredit or pigeonhole them so we don’t have to consider what they’re saying. That’s fine and dandy if our goal is simply to 'win' an argument at any cost.

    "But if we’re actually trying to improve our understanding, labels mean nothing."
    (Bryan Hyde, "Perspectives: How Mountain Biking Cured My Belief in Labels." St. George News [Utah], August 7, 2014)
  • "They had a major fight about twice a week. Each followed the pattern of their first row, in his hotel suite. He would say something high-handed, or make a decision about their evening's plans without consulting her, or assume he knew better about some subject: radio or automobiles or tennis. She would protest hotly, and he would accuse her of overreacting. She would get more and more angry as she tried to make him understand what was wrong with his attitude, and he would start to feel like a hostile witness under cross-examination. In the heat of the argument, she would exaggerate, or make some wild assertion, or say something she knew to be false. Then he would accuse her of insincerity, and say there was no point in talking to her, because she was willing to say anything to win an argument. He would walk out, more convinced than ever that he was right."
    (Ken Follett, Code to Zero. Pan Macmillan, 2000)
  • Motives for Quarreling
    "In some cases, a quarrel breaks out in a natural but unpredictable way, when one party cannot contain an unexpressed grievance any longer. But in other cases, argumentation in eristic dialogue is put on purposefully to impress others. For example, academics may use combative argumentation to 'cut an opponent to shreds' in order to show other academics how clever they are.

    "In other cases, a quarrelsome mode of argument may be adopted as an attempt to entertain an audience."
    (Douglas N. Walton, The New Dialectic: Conversational Contexts of Argument. University of Toronto Press, 1998)
  • Dialectic and Eristic
    "Dialectic has a game-like quality to it. . . . A parodic example can be found at [Plato's] Euthydemus 298DE (here, in an abridged version):
    Q: Have you a dog?
    A: Yes.
    Q: Has he got puppies?
    A: Yes.
    Q: Then your dog is a father?
    A: Yes.
    Q: Now, is the dog yours?
    A: Of course.
    Q: Then being a father he is yours, so the dog becomes your father and you are the puppies' brother.
    This exchange might perhaps more accurately be called an example of eristic, but eristic and dialectic differ only in that the eristic is not serious and dialectic is."
    (Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Longman, 1990)
  • Criticism of Eristic Practices in Classical Rhetoric
    "Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle were all critical of eristic practices. In Sophist, Plato compared a contentious speaker to a prizefighter whose goal is victory rather than knowledge or truth: Eristic lacks legitimacy because it countenances ambiguity. Isocrates offered detailed criticism of other speech teachers in Against the Sophists and Antidosis. He attacked his contemporaries for their ignorance and defects of character in general, but in particular for their claims to be able to teach standard techniques guaranteeing success.

    "Aristotle wrote of eristic as both a branch of rhetoric and a type of reasoning. In Rhetoric he included eristic among activities that give pleasure--at least to those who have the experience and ability to secure victory (1371a)."
    (Janet B. Davis, "Eristic." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 2010)
  • Isocrates on the Uses and Abuses of Eristical Exercises
    "Isocrates notes that the teachers of Eristics, the eristikoi, are criticized by others for wasting their students' time since none of what they teach 'is applicable either to private or public affairs, and their studies do not persist in the memory of students for any length of time because they do not serve life or assist in business, but are entirely apart from essential needs' (15.262). Isocrates agrees with such criticism, but acknowledges that students develop helpful learning skills from eristical exercises: 'By studying the subtleties of astronomy and geometry and paying attention to difficult material, even by acquiring the habit of persevering and toiling over what is said and demonstrated and not letting their attention wander, so as to exercise and sharpen their wits, students become able to take in and learn more easily and quickly matters that are more worthwhile and important' (15.265). . . . The problem, from Isocrates' perspective, is that critical disputation becomes an end in itself, rather than contributing to civic virtue."
    (Edward Schiappa, The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece. Yale University Press, 1999)
  • "Settle Down, Captain Happy"
    "Shocking audio of a heated exchange between a Delta pilot and an air traffic controller has flyers wondering just who's in charge of keeping them safe during air travel.

    "All the more disturbing is the time . . . the argument occurred: just as the pilot was landing the jet at the Atlanta airport on the wrong taxiway. . . .

    "The pilot was on the taxiway called Mike and another plane was on its way to that very taxiway.

    "'Delta 2242, you're supposed to be on Mike,' the unnamed, cool-headed air traffic controller says in audio posted to

    "'Yes sir,' the pilot responds. 'We're going out there now.'

    "The air traffic controller responds: 'It looks like you joined Lima,' in reference to the taxiway on which the pilot had actually landed.

    "That's when the pilot gets nasty.

    "'You know what,' he snaps, 'We'll taxi out there anyway we want when you tell us to. I don't like your attitude.'

    "Still, the Atlanta controller, charged with keeping hundreds of thousands of passengers per day safe at America's busiest airport, stayed cool.

    "'Good morning, there was no attitude. I was just trying to correct you. That's my job to correct you if you mess up,' he said.

    "The pilot again accuses the air traffic controller of being the one neglecting his duties before another pilot on the same frequency chimes from another plane to sum [up] the confrontation perfectly.

    "'Settle down, Captain Happy,' he quips."
    (Joshua Gardner, "'Settle Down, Captain Happy': Shocking Audio Revealed of Heated Exchange Between a Delta Pilot and Air Traffic Controller." The Daily Mail [UK], July 27, 2014)


Pronunciation: e-RIS-tik