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?

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