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I refute that A is B.

If this structure is ok, which of the following does it mean:

  1. I argue that A is not B.
  2. I argue against some other position (such as X is Y), by arguing that A is B.
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If to refute is to prove to be false or erroneous, or to deny the accuracy or truth of something, then the first change I would make in your question would be to insert the word "can," as in "I can refute that A is B." Even so, I would appreciate your adding a little meat to the bones of mere "A is B." Care to expand your question? –  rhetorician Feb 19 '13 at 1:19
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Refute does not take a that-complement; it can take an object representing an idea or a person presenting the idea, but not a that-clause complement. –  John Lawler Feb 19 '13 at 4:08

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The first step in refuting something is to have an object of the refutation—George Berkeley, for example, or a specific proposition of Berkeley's, or some statement that someone else asserts is factual. In the example given in the original post, the object of the refutation is unspoken but implicit: "I refute [the proposition] that A is B." The assertion in this case amounts to saying "I prove that A is not B." To claim to refute some proposition is not merely to announce an intention to argue against that proposition, however; it is to demonstrate that the proposition is false. Whether refuting the proposition that A is B has some bearing on the validity of the further proposition that X is Y is not essential to the original refutation, though it may flow as a logical consequence from the original refutation.

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The most famous expression of a claimed refutation is Samuel Johnson's, in response to Berkeley's philosophical claim that material things do not exist outside of ideas and the spirits that think them. As James Boswell reports the incident, "I observed that though we are satisfied that his [Berkeley's] doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute him thus.'" To which my philosophy professor added, "Of course he hadn't." –  Sven Yargs Feb 19 '13 at 2:24

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