Sophistry - A Misunderstood Art - Part I

Sophistry! What a misunderstood word!

soph·ist·ryˈsäfəstrē/nounnoun: sophistry the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving - a fallacious argument.

That sounds like a pretty bad word. But how did it become so?

The word comes to us from Ancient Greeks - named after a group of philosophers who were called the Sophists. As described in The Story - Socrates hated the Sophists. He didn't like that they charged a fee to teach the art of Rhetoric and the persuasion that went with it.  They neglected, in his eyes, the importance of logic and truth. One of them said one thing, while another said something different. To him there were too many logical contradictions and lack of any intellectual clarity for them to claim any knowledge whatsoever.  And in this way, he was not only right but also successful in his attack on the Sophists and this is why the word has the negative connotations it does today.

But there is one key area, with enormous implications, where the Sophists were right and it's time our shared intellectual culture comes to terms with this fact.  

The Sophists were right when they insisted that Socrates, as with everyone, knows what arete or Quality is.

Because Quality is metaphysically before all descriptions of anything. Because we all  experience Quality.  Because rather - Quality is experience.

And when we make this fact an explicit intellectual assumption we can then see that things which were hard to understand are immediately made a whole lot clearer. Definitions of things which previously were very hard to understand are made clear to a point where we wonder why we never realized what was so obvious.

The idea of truth for example. Truth forming the foundation of all intellectual thought.  What is it? Why does it have so much power? Why should we prefer what's true over what's false? Why do intellectuals spend all their time finding it? What's its power?

Now try and answer those questions without using any valuation of quality. You cannot do it. I'll renounce everything I've ever written if you can show me why truth is so powerful without using an evaluation of quality. Quality is even right there in my request.  Quality is an unavoidable part of experience. It's so obvious that we immediately rush right past it and are instead interested in the truth.  This is so for historical reasons and yet somewhat ironically it's more true to say that Quality is fundamental and everything else, including truth, follows.

So the truth instead then, is high quality descriptions of experience.  Just because the Sophists may contradict each other - this isn't because any one of them is entirely wrong or they are being intentionally deceitful.  The ideas and thoughts they have, as with everyone for the most part, are for a good reason.  

Each of us gives our unique descriptions of experience.  And the better a description is, the better it describes everyone's shared experience.  Indeed, some descriptions may be better than others to the point where we can then call some low quality descriptions as 'false' and other high quality descriptions as 'true'.

Upon hearing an idea for the first time you will notice that the first impression you get is both of the quality of it in describing experience as well as how well it coheres with what you already know.  If, suddenly, whilst hearing a new idea you notice a change from a high or low evaluation to confusion - this is the point at which one of three things can occur:

  1. The new idea is worse and doesn't capture things as clearly as your current thinking.
  2. The new idea is better and actually increases your understanding of an issue.
  3. The new idea captures aspects of experience your current thinking doesn't, whilst misses key aspects of experience yours does.

Depending on the ideas, how long one reflects for, and how one artfully applies their logic - what can happen, with our varied life histories and experience, the third of these three potential scenarios occurs.   And when it does, using the Metaphysics of Quality, not only does this mean that you can use this new idea and call it true when the time is appropriate but also expand your own understanding and aim to combine both ideas into a new, better, single coherent whole.  And the way you'd do this wouldn't be just by just using logic, but again the art of intelligence with Quality as your guide.

I carefully outline above how the Sophists were right and how Quality plays a key role in our experience and intellectual thought formation because what should be obvious is entirely neglected by our current metaphysics, intellectual understanding, and the intellectuals who support it. Our current metaphysics would say the best way to determine the truth is to ignore Quality, your values, and to exclusively use logic to get to the truth.  The rules to be followed are for each interlocutor to logically argue over what's true - Quality and values be damned. But that description of reality doesn't get to the heart of our experience and so is dishonest.  And this dishonesty sadly often results in ugly and unproductive intellectual discussions whose goal is not clearly defined when the Quality and values of the two interlocutors are ignored.

Indeed this is in line with the Ancient Greek concept of Mythos over Logos.  Before the logic of an idea, so say the Greeks, there are the myths of our shared cultures that support it.  This is described by Robert Pirsig In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig as so:

The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation  is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is.

So what then becomes of the art of Rhetoric and persuasion that was taught by the Sophists?  How do we convince others that we fully understand and know their experience and may even have a better understanding than they do - but yet also remain open enough to change ourselves?  In other words - what is the shape of a beautiful intellectual discussion?  

In the next post I hope to go into further detail on how best we can achieve this beauty in light of this better understanding.  Intellectual discussions that wouldn't have a blind adherence to logic or argumentation but with an appreciation of the reduced role of logic and an appreciation of the increased role that artful rhetoric plays in our logical understanding of the world.