Definition of Refutation

A refutation is a statement that proves, or attempts to prove, that another statement is false. Refutations occur in arguments, whether informal or formal. Formal refutations require evidence or logic that contradicts the original statement the speaker wants to disprove. These types of refutations require logos (an appeal to logic or reason). Informal refutations, however, may deal more with pathos (an appeal to emotion). These types of refutations would not probably hold up in a court of law or official debate, yet they are common in speeches and normal conversation when someone doesn’t have enough evidence to prove his or her point, or want to strike a different chord with the audience.

The definition of refutation developed in the mid-1500s from the Latin word refutationem, which means “disproof of a claim or argument.”

Common Examples of Refutation

Some famous orators have included informal refutations in their speeches as appeals to the emotions of their audiences. The following examples of refutations also include hypophora examples, in which the speaker poses a question or opinion and immediately answers it.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream” speech

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.

—Barack Obama, 2004 DNC Keynote address

Significance of Refutation in Literature

Refutation examples are most commonly found in formal logical arguments. Therefore, they are not so common in works of literature, as literature generally does not have as much of a point to prove as a debate might. However, some examples of refutation can be found in courtroom scenes in literature. We’ll take a look below at three of the most famous courtroom scenes in all of literature and see how refutations work in these scenes.

Examples of Refutation in Literature

Example #1

And you must cut this flesh from off his breast:
The law allows it, and the court awards it.
Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare!
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

Portia dresses herself as a male lawyer in William Shakespeare’s drama The Merchant of Venice, and very carefully constructs her argument. At issue is a bond that a man named Antonio has not paid to a money lender named Shylock; in their contract Antonio has promised that Shylock may take a pound of his flesh if the bond goes unpaid. The matter goes to court, and Portia logically argues that, while Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh, he may not spill any of Antonio’s blood. Portia successfully refutes Shylock’s claim to this pound of flesh and, in so doing, saves Antonio.

Example #2

What did her father do? We don’t know, but there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Mayella Ewell was beaten savagely by someone who led most exclusively with his left. We do know in part what Mr. Ewell did: he did what any God-fearing, preserving, respectable white man would do under circumstances—he swore a warrant, no doubt signing with his left hand, and Tom Robinson now sits before you, having taken the oath with the only good hand he possesses—his right hand.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Atticus Finch, the father of Harper Lee’s narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a well-respected defense attorney in the town of Maycomb. However, he is in a difficult case as he represents an African-American man named Tom Robinson against a charge of rape. The difficulty is not in the evidence, but instead in the prejudice against Tom. Indeed, Atticus is easily able to provide a refutation example in this passage. Atticus argues that the girl Mayella was beaten by someone who would use his left hand, and Tom is unable to use his left hand. However, he knows this logical refutation that includes tangible evidence is not enough to overcome the emotional prejudice against Tom.

Example #3

GILES: My proof is there! Pointing to the paper: If Jacob hangs for a witch he forfeit up his property—that’s law! And there is none but Putnam with the coin to buy so great a piece. This man is killing his neighbors for their land!
DANFORTH: But proof, sir, proof.
GILES: Pointing at his deposition: The proof is there! I have it from an honest man who heard Putnam say it! The day his daughter cried out on Jacobs, he said she’d given him a fair gift of land.

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

The case in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible concerns accusations of witchcraft against many of the inhabitants of the citizens of Salem. It is difficult to argue against these accusations, as there is almost no evidence that a person could show to prove he or she was not a witch. Instead, the character of Giles attempts to make an example of refutation by proving what someone else might have to gain by other citizens being accused and later killed for being witches. Giles’s refutation is that a man named Putnam stands to inherit the land, and therefore has supported false accusations for his own monetary gain. Unfortunately, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, this evidence toward a logical reason why there might be such a witch hunt cannot overcome the emotional fear of witches in the community.

Test Your Knowledge of Refutation

1. Which of the following statements is the best refutation definition?
A. A piece of evidence supporting a certain argument.
B. A statement that proves another claim is false.
C. A statement that is untrue.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is NOT a method in which someone would want to make a refutation to an argument?
A. An intentional fallacy.
B. An appeal to reason.
C. A piece of evidence.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following passage from the courtroom scene in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale in which Hermione has been accused of adultery by her husband, Leontes:

HERMIONE: Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say ‘not guilty:’ mine integrity
Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it,
Be so received. But thus: if powers divine
Behold our human actions, as they do,
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush and tyranny
Tremble at patience.

How is Hermione attempting to refute the accusation that she has been unfaithful to her husband?
A. She has tangible proof to show to the court that will guarantee her innocence.
B. She is constructing a logical case that no one will be able to deny.
C. She is appealing to emotion, since she only has her own word to hold up against her husband’s.

Answer to Question #3 Show

3. Consider the following passage from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:

PROCTOR: He takes out a paper, and turns to Danforth: This is Mary Warren’s deposition….She swears now that she never saw Satan; nor any spirit, vague or clear, that Satan may have sent to hurt her. And she declares her friends are lying now.

Which of the following methods is Proctor trying to use to issue a refutation to the charges of witchcraft?
A. Evidence in the form of a deposition.
B. Emotional proof that none of the girls could have been telling the truth.
C. A false piece of proof that the court will likely throw out in favor of better evidence.

Answer to Question #4 Show

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