The more and the less of sophistry

Aristotle and Plato – who were in a position to know what they were saying – defined sophistry as the desire to appear wise. But the desire to appear wise requires attracting attention to oneself, and we attract attention to ourselves by various sorts of novelty: shocking statements, dramatic denials of the commonplace and traditional, originality, provocative statements, acts of violence, obscure vocabulary, sharp irony, affected indifference in the face of the shocking, seriousness about trifles, jokes about serious things, etc.. Part of an Intellectual’s examination of conscience, at least for me, is facing the very difficult question of how much of a sophist one is in light of these indicators.

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4 Comments

  1. May 22, 2012 at 10:55 am

    “dramatic denials of the commonplace and traditional, originality, provocative”

    These are more likely to cause derision. Sophistry as I’ve seen it used typically plays upon what is commonly accepted. The sophist may put a new spin on what is commonly accepted, but that new spin is grounded in the listener thinking that the new concept somehow remains commonplace and traditional.

    And frankly, when I think about it, I don’t see how any of your examples would typically induce people to see the speaker as wise.

    Grabbing attention is good for marketing, but marketing and sophistry are not the same.

    • May 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

      You don’t see how someone who says shocking, revolutionary, novel, up-to-date, or startlingly original things could be viewed by the multitude as being the wisest and most insightful? “He made me look at everything in a totally new way” or “he totally changed my opinion on everything” has never been said by someone who was describing a person they thought was wise or insightful?

      • May 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm

        Not when viewed by the multitude.

        When a person says “he made me look at everything in a new way” what is typically meant is he gave me an insight to see what I already accept from a different perspective.

        A total transformation would occur if the authority of the sophist was sufficient for the person to abandon his prior belief. But then once again the person would be falling back on a known as a standard for accepting the new belief.

        Of course there are always exceptions. But for the multitude its difficult for them to even see a simple argument from a different perspective, let alone for them to abandon their prior notions.

        When I look at changes throughout society over a period of time what stands out is how societal changes are grounded in a prior understanding with a twist.

        In fact the brilliance of the enemy is how he can subtly twist a minor nuance to bring about a revolution of destruction.

        Orwell shows this wonderfully in 1984. Or to give a current example, that the simple understanding of the two parts of marriage and how they take the given and slightly twist it to forward their unnatural ends. Which of course makes it all the more difficult to fight because it starts coming down to distinctions that most have no time for or understanding of.

        That is what sophists do. The twist the given subtly.

  2. May 23, 2012 at 5:55 am

    I know my last comment doesn’t fit with your self examination, but I think it does fit with how sophistry tends to operate.


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