What’s wrong with being a sophist?

by Dave Maier

Romano bookCarlin Romano is at it again. On the last occasion, he was eulogizing Richard Rorty; and here he is doing it again, among other things, in a new book, reviewed last week by Anthony Gottlieb in the New York Times. As Gottlieb quotes him, Romano tells us that the sophist Isocrates “should be as famous as Socrates”, given that his conception of philosophy “jibes with American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than Socrates' view [i.e. considering the latter as the progenitor of Plato and Aristotle, and thus the entire Western philosophical tradition Romano takes Rorty to be rejecting]”.

Gottlieb is not impressed: “My first thought about this claim was that it is simply nuts, which is also my considered view.” (Heh.) As before, Romano enlists Rortyan pragmatism as an ally in his brief for sophistry. Gottlieb: “Rorty had urged philosophers to abandon their intellectual hubris and instead content themselves with interminably swapping enlightening tales from diverse perspectives. It was never clear why anyone would want to listen to such stories without endings.” I'm not particularly happy with this dismissive slap at Rorty's conception of philosophy as “conversation”, of which more below; but let's let Gottlieb continue:

According to pragmatism, our theories should be judged by their practical value rather than by their accuracy in representing the world. The ultimate fate of this idea was neatly put by a great American philosophical wit, Sidney Morgenbesser, who said it was all very well in theory, but didn't work in practice. He meant that pragmatism sounds like a good ruse, but it emerges as either trivial or incoherent when you try to flesh it out.

Morgenbesser was long retired from Columbia when I got there, but he was still around, and he never struck me as having so negative an attitude toward pragmatism as that (he would never have called it a “ruse”; he had too much respect for Isaac Levi to do that). In fact, the way I heard this quip, it was “Pragmatism is true, but it doesn't work.” This is much cleverer (if not thereby more authentic), and a direct response to the Jamesian dictum that “truth is what works.” (Wikipedia has Gottlieb's version, for what it's worth.) My version also avoids (roll that first half of the quip around in your mind for a bit) the lazy equation of pragmatism with sophistry shared by both Gottlieb and Romano, in dismissal and endorsement respectively. Several versions of pragmatism are perfectly compatible with the truth-directed nature of inquiry, even – with some tweaking – Rorty's own. But what about sophism itself? What exactly is wrong with it, that pragmatists should object to the comparison?

“Of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren't?”
“My dear Doctor, they're all true.”
“Even the lies?”
Especially the lies.”

– the simple tailor Elim Garak, in conversation with Dr. Bashir, on the space station Deep Space Nine

GarakTruth is a very tricky subject. It seems so straightforward, but what turns out to be the trickiest part is how very straightforward it is, making us look for theoretical explanations we don't really need. So when we turn toward the various attitudes one might have toward truth, especially when we want to defend it against attack, it's easy to get tangled up. For example, nowadays the term “sophistry” is used as a catch-all term of abuse; but here we will want to be more precise. Let's begin by distinguishing sophists from their equally anti-Platonist cousins the relativists. Depending on how you look at it, relativists either don't believe in truth at all, or believe that everyone has “their own truth”, whatever that means. Sophists believe in truth all right; instead, there is a certain sense in which they just don't care about it (and, as we will see, another in which they do).

We often complain about “mere sophistry”; but just as in the related putdown “mere rhetoric”, it is the adjective which wears the trousers here: everything is “mere” when you were hoping for something else. In Philosophy 101 we see the sophists as Socrates's playthings (in Ion, Gorgias, Protagoras, and Book 1 of the Republic, for example). True, Plato does let them make a decent point every now and then – Callicles has a few good lines in Gorgias – but always followed up by Socrates's devastating counter. More recently, Harry Frankfurt captured the sophistic attitude toward truth in his surprise hit single of a few years back, in which he distinguishes lying (speaking falsely with intent to deceive) from what he might as well have called sophistry: a complete disregard for the truth or falsity of what one says.

Frankfurt concludes that since the liar at least shows respect for the truth in trying to conceal it, “[sophistry] is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”. This is generally right, and the distinction between liars and sophists is indeed fundamental, but this is as far as we can go with Frankfurt, whose conception of truth cannot – as the facile platitudes of his subsequent “On Truth” make painfully clear – help get us any farther than Plato does. Instead, let us take a look at another philosophical bad boy: Machiavelli.

Nicolas-maquiaveloAs most people use the term, “Machiavellian” behavior is straightforwardly amoral: one simply manipulates others for one's own benefit. However, in The Prince Machiavelli makes clear that in advising such behavior he is explicitly motivated by ethical concerns. Briefly, he argues that the political chaos in Renaissance Italy requires that princes act this way if they are to avoid even worse outcomes than a few moral cut corners – such as entire populations being put to the sword. Avoiding this latter fate seems to Machiavelli both to require, and to justify, his unorthodox methods.

Ethically, this may be consequentialism – and thus not everyone's idea of an ethical good time – but it is not simply amoral. Sophists (of the sort I shall discuss anyway – the early sophists were all over the place philosophically) are in one way less morally dubious than Machiavellians, and in an analogous way equally dubious, although not specifically morally so. Let me explain.

We've already seen the sense in which sophists don't arouse our moral ire as Machiavellians do (if they do). Machiavellians are up for anything – any action – which will advance the goals they believe it their moral duty to bring about, and this includes lying (not to mention killing the Pope when he visits your city under a flag of truce). Sophists, however, are neither liars nor papicides. They simply do not take the truth or falsity of an utterance into consideration in furthering their conversational goals. (Another comparison here might be Stoics, who do not take pain or pleasure into consideration in deciding what to do.) In fact, they may not even be deceptive about their intentions; one of Frankfurt's examples is someone who is simply trying to entertain or impress (that is, with his crazy stories, which may or may not be true).

On the other hand, the sophist does cut the same sort of specifically argumentative corners as Machiavellians do. Consider a lawyer who knows his client to be innocent – let's say by conclusive although unfortunately inadmissible evidence. A Machiavellian would do everything he can to secure a not guilty verdict, including lying, concealing evidence, and other presumably unethical activities. Sophists don't go that far; but in their use of rhetoric they manifest an analogous attitude toward truth.

As we have seen, we naturally associate sophistry with rhetoric in opposing both to the Platonic dialectic and its ascent to transcendent capital-T Truth. And sophists do use rhetoric; but so does everyone else (again, it's “mere” rhetoric which bugs people). If I'm simply a rhetorician, I try to convince my audience that what I say is true, albeit by manipulating their emotions rather than giving a conclusive argument. Not only is this not necessarily morally objectionable, it is sometimes just what we need – as Aristotle concedes in his classic treatise on the subject. But like Machiavellians, sophists go further: if they get what they want, conversationally speaking, then they don't care how they get it. In our context that means that if he can get an acquittal, our lawyer doesn't care what jurors believe, even about the defendant's guilt (think about jury nullification here).

Take it farther: they don't even care whether their audience is onto them, as long as they are willing to play along. This makes sense not only of Frankfurt's entertaining b.s.-er, but also all manner of “players”. As pick-up artists know, it doesn't matter whether she knows you're full of it. In fact this is even a good thing, as it puts you on the same page right away, allowing you to conduct your amatory negotiations “behind the scenes,” so to speak, of the statements making up your conversation (their truth-values in particular).

This also makes sense of the improvisatory nature of the sophist's procedure: work backward from the desired goal, and deal with problems as they come up, whether that means practical problems (for the Machiavellian) or conversational tight spots (for the sophist). In fact this focus on the contextual nature of our linguistic behavior is part of the appeal of the position, in contrast to the flat-footed a priorism of Platonists and (other) moralists. In fact, if you're not pushing the envelope – going where those less imaginative or more constrained by convention dare not go – then you're not doing enough. Players tend to value a coup for its own sake, as if to confirm the superiority of their methods; but here we are in danger of losing an important feature of the sophist's proper attitude.

FishFor this we turn to literary theorist Stanley Fish. Fish is often linked with Rorty, and there are indeed many striking similarities; but I prefer to think that sometimes Fish says things that sound like Rorty rather than the other way around. (We'll see why this matters in a minute.) In response to accusations of relativism, Fish insists that he believes as strongly as any (other) realist that what he believes is objectively true. Unlike them, however, he realizes that there can be no non-question-begging argument for his conclusions (nor, of course, for their negations). So just as the Machiavellian cares deeply about morality, so does the sophist care deeply about truth: that is, he believes things just as everyone else does – he's not a skeptic, after all – and would give them up in the face of contrary evidence, should he find it convincing.

This saves the sophist's position from the paradoxes which undermine relativism. Yet even so, sophistry still sounds funny. Consider: like other sophists – remember our lawyer – Fish is perfectly willing to use rigorous arguments for his conclusions if he thinks they're available. In this context, as we've just seen, he'll swear up and down that he's just as much a realist as anyone else. Yet we know – Fish tells us so explicitly (I'm not sure where; check Doing What Comes Naturally) – that if he didn't see a good argument, he'd be perfectly happy to manipulate you rhetorically into believing what he sees as the truth; or if that fails, into doing what you would do if you did indeed understand how things are (by his lights). As he points out, this is perfectly consistent with a love for the truth as ardent as that of any Platonist.

This is what's so maddening about Fish, and I would argue, about sophistry generally. He's telling you to your face not to take everything he says at face value – which will of course include this very explanation of his attitude. This is not a contradiction, but instead perfectly consistent as regards the truth of what he says. (This is part of what's so maddening about it; at least the relativist isn't making sense!) How should we understand what bugs us here?

Here's one try: sophistry is short-sighted. Just as the boy who cried “wolf” – a liar – is no longer believed, the boy who says that while he's not claiming there was certainly a wolf, it seems to him that it would surely be better to take preventive measures unnecessarily than to ignore the possibility and risk disaster – which is probably true – will eventually no longer be taken seriously once we catch on. That may not bother him in the short run; but it seems that the effectiveness of his game is undermined if we can no longer even see ourselves as concerned with the truth of what he says. This gets us partly toward my point; but we're not there yet. In some contexts – remember the pick-up artist – neither the sophist nor his audience is concerned with truth, so losing that possibility does not undermine this particular game.

How about this: just as critics (e.g. Kant) complain about the moral “free riders” of consequentialist morality, so is the sophist a “free rider” of a different sort. On my reading, the point of a Davidsonian account of interpretation – to which Rorty is at least nominally committed – is to stress the conceptual interdependence of belief and meaning, or in other words, of interpretation and inquiry. In the standard case, we understand the meaning of someone's utterances only when we can correlate them with states of affairs in the world and thus see them as manifesting true or false beliefs, a process of mutual orientation toward a shared yet objective world which Davidson calls “triangulation” and Gadamer calls Horizontverschmelzung.

In this context, the sophist's attitude toward the relation of his utterances to his beliefs, while not making him a liar, does make him a conversational and thus a semantic free rider: just as Kant's liar helps himself to the very moral conventions which make his transgression effective, so too does the sophist help himself to the conversational conventions which allow him to mess with us effectively. We can still interpret him, but to do this we need the “sincere” utterances of the remainder of his speech community (“sincere”, that is, in the sense of caring about truth in the way that even liars do but sophists do not). He has, in an important way, failed to engage with us. In the philosophical context, this makes hash of the idea of philosophy as a cooperative endeavor.

It is thus ironic that the sophist's conception of philosophy runs afoul of specifically conversational convention, given Romano's and Gottlieb's equation of Rortyan pragmatism with sophistry. Rorty's appeal to such conventions is indeed directed against irresponsible Platonic fantasy, but its explicitly Davidsonian nature shows it to be just as clearly opposed to sophistry as well. If Rorty himself had been clearer about this – and indeed, sometimes when he sacrifices clarity for a clever jab at Platonism you just want to smack him – we ourselves might not be having this pleasant conversation.