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In the context of medieval scholastic disputations, what is the origin of the axiom "Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish" ("Numquam negare, raro affirmare, semper distinguere")?

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  • A recipe for intellectual dishonesty - weasel-speak. Refusal to commit. What would we say of a scientific theory that refuses to affirm or deny any predictions?
    – causative
    Feb 9 at 22:02
  • @causative It does remind me of the Duhem thesis, that theories can be patched up no matter how discordant with experimental data they may be (that theories aren't falsifiable).
    – Geremia
    Feb 9 at 22:59
  • According to at least one source from a quick search on the Internet, Thomas Aquinas. Here, a Dominican uses the quotation as his theme. Perhaps Summa Theologiae. enter link description hereHere's another reference in theological matters. See the [IEP article on Aqu
    – J D
    Feb 9 at 23:04
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    According to Johnson, Incarnate in Word and Song, p.60, "a Dominican maxim dating from early in the order's existence... attributed to Thomas Aquinas". And it is advice for constructive debate, not designing scientific theories. "Never deny" out of charity to the speaker, "seldom affirm" to avoid verbal traps, "always distinguish" to capture nuances.
    – Conifold
    Feb 10 at 4:23
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    @causative True honest thoughts can be given courteously and a grain of truth acknowledged even in errors. Avoiding full affirmation of someone else's phrasing is typically wise, people tend to put peculiar meanings into commonest of words and read too much into the agreement. Always-distinguish gives more than enough room to communicate honest thoughts while minimizing acrimony and discussion stoppers. And humility about assuming one's honest thoughts to be true is heavily underused. Truth is a long way in the making, hammering fellow seekers in debates does not bring it any closer.
    – Conifold
    Feb 10 at 8:40

1 Answer 1

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The quotes reachable through search on the Internet can all be traced back to Randall B. Smith's book which was first published in 2021. By terminus ante quem, this is probably Smith's or a fellow's own composition based on several maxims and considerations dating from the period (cc. 13th century) or a misattribution from a later period.

It should be remarked that it is not seldom that Latin phrases are given wrong attributions. For example, an aphorism is thought to be passed down from Romans, though the wording is not the one Romans would utter in their evolutionary stage of the Latin language.

It points to the general ethos of medieval scholastic disputation already gaining acceptance through Peter Abelard. It's likely an orientation of that intellectual tradition, reflecting its emphasis on nuanced reasoning and avoiding hasty pronouncements. It's possible that such advices emerged organically within scholastic circles, reflecting a shared approach to disputation.

Pater Edmund Waldstein, though failing to pinpoint its exact source, cites some early instances, p. 16 n. 58 of

The Scotist: Bartolomeo Mastri da Meldola (1602–73) / Bonaventura Belluto (1603-76): Institutiones dialecticæ I, 125, in: Cursus philosophicus ad mentem Scoti (Venice 1727) vol. 1, 41a

defendens […] totum onus probandi relinquat arguenti. […] semper ante oculos habeat commune adagium inter disputantes saepe nega, raro distingue, numquam concede

The defendant should leave the entire burden of proof to the objector. He should always have before his eyes the common adage among disputants: often deny, rarely distinguish, never concede.

Waldstein claims this version is found in Thomist Matteo Liberatore's Institutiones philosophicæ (Prati 1883) vol. 1, 100:

Sæpe nega, concede parum, distingue frequenter

Often deny, seldom concede, frequently distinguish

But I can't find it there; it does not seem to be a Thomist axiom, but rather a hair-splitting Scotist one.

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  • @Geremia thank you for the contribution. Feb 13 at 21:12
  • Thanks for the lead. 👍
    – Geremia
    Feb 13 at 21:13
  • Thanks for looking this up. "Often deny, rarely distinguish, never concede" is an even worse maxim! Mostly because of the "never concede." If you want to have a reasonable discussion it is absolutely required to concede points you can both agree on. To refuse to do that is to refuse to argue in good faith. It's dishonest to refuse to say X, even though you do agree with X or have been convinced of X, just because the other person said X first.
    – causative
    Feb 13 at 23:33
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    I guess it's the first sentence in the Law School curriculum.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 14 at 2:31
  • @causative I agree. "Never concede" is terrible and intellectually dishonest. The adage doesn't seem Thomist, but rather hair-splitting Scotist (I can't find it in Liberatore).
    – Geremia
    Feb 19 at 4:37

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