When a poorly skilled or experienced philosopher loses an argument, they will inevitably resort to an accusation of sophistry on the part of their opponent. They may not even grasp the fact that their ‘opponent’ is not an opponent at all; rather a peer simply seeking to issue a word of caution, not disagreement. Caution which they interpret to be a threat; an advisement they possess a dearth of intellect with which to grasp.
I have run into numerous instances recently wherein, poor philosophers will position an initial claim in so bull-headed a fashion, such that they cannot perceive a simple word of skeptical caution, as anything other than a threat to their very existence. Arguments such as ‘infinity proves god exists!’ and ‘infinity proves there is no need for a god!’ or ‘proves there is no god!’ or ‘absence of evidence stands as disproof’ or ‘my hypothesis is true until someone proves to me that another hypothesis is true’ – these types of baseless sophist (rhetoric) arguments to begin with, foisted at such a ridiculous level of the sublime that they stand absurd or Wittgenstein incoherent in their very offing. This last argument ‘my hypothesis is true until someone proves to me that another hypothesis is true’, was even foisted on me by a celebrity PhD in Philosophy, out selling Stoicism for income, of all people. I remain a bit disillusioned over that bit of Philosophy 1001 pseudoscience inhabiting the halls of academia.
Sophistry (ancient) – as defined by Plato, by means of its contrast to philosophy “The philosopher is happy to be refuted if that leads to better understanding; wisdom, and not just striving to “win” the argument (rhetoric), is the goal.”1
Sophistry (modern) – as defined today is the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving. The art of convincing an audience with the best sounding argument, regardless of its soundness or logic.2
Sophistry (false) – to the dilettante, is any argument or caution which sounds unnecessarily philosophical, hard to understand, employing lofty phrases or big words (no matter how applicable and accurate), and inconveniently appears to disagree with the point they are attempting to slip by as proved truth.
I even had this last, invalid dilettante definition of sophistry thrown at me by a teacher of ancient religious philosophy, merely for the act of issuing a caution on trying to prove the existence of god through the principle of ‘infinity’. She never got that I was not proposing a counter, nor trying to convince anyone of anything; rather, simply issuing a warning about the limits of what ‘infinity’ as a concept can relate to us as an epistemic base. I was not proclaiming that there was or was not a god, nor even that she was wrong. Simply that there were differing and widely recognized schools of thought on the subject; eight to be exact. Some agreed, some disagreed and some were inconclusive. I was seeking clarity, not victory – but in her fanatic (victory seeking) state of mind, she could not discern this. She started preaching (screaming) at me, with some obvious third party audience in mind. Plenitude proves god! If some of our best and brightest PhD and collegiate level academics, cannot fathom what sophistry truly means, to the point of even committing it (Plato definition) themselves in the process – it is no wonder that the average person will not as well (and will reject their religion because of the poor example).
‘Sophistry!’ is the cry of the rhetorician, when a philosophical mirror is placed in front of their face, and they catch a glimpse of the incumbent insincerity before they recognize the character in the mirror.
When I assert that the null hypothesis is not the ‘true’ hypothesis, rather a threshing board for science, for example. When I counter with a word of caution, not that I am contending they are wrong, rather simply a caution for example, around employing Plenitude as an epistemological base of understanding. These are cases wherein one caught up inside this fallacy will inevitably retreat into defensive mode to protect their committed agenda or income stream. They will yell “sophistry!” They lack the skills and/or position footing necessary to argue the point at face value. They are arguing to win, and not for clarity, value and a reduction of epistemic risk. Plato’s sophistry itself.
They begin the tired old rehearsed exit dance. The Shuffle Off to Buffalo, The Sophistry Fallacy. A pseudo-argument (can always be levied in any circumstance) of last recourse, based upon the false definition of sophistry above, which normally goes like this:
/philosophy : argument : bias : fallacy: pseudo-argument/ : when a poorly skilled or experienced philosopher loses an argument, they will inevitably resort to an accusation of sophistry on the part of their opponent. They may not even grasp the fact that their ‘opponent’ is not an opponent at all; rather a peer simply seeking to issue a word of caution, not disagreement. Caution which they interpret to be a threat; an advisement they possess a dearth of intellect with which to grasp.
1. One introduces the philosophical level of discussion in the first place,
2. One banks their ‘win’ on the assumption that no one else is around who is sufficiently skilled to discuss the issue (an appeal to self-authority),
3. One perceives a word of open-minded skeptical caution, incorrectly as an argument in opposition,
4. One perceives (correctly or incorrectly) that an inner hypocrisy is now potentially exposed and they are now in danger of losing the argument which they started,
5. The discussion resides now at a level above the original claimant’s intellectual or experiential capacity, and
6. Its last recourse argument is foisted, after exhausting all other memorized arguing scripts (save for the sophistry claim itself).
A less sophisticated but related variant to this would be, the instance where an argument or its requisite vocabulary is completely over the head of someone who started the argument to begin with, otherwise known as the ‘Word Salad’ Fallacy:
brevis lapsus (‘Word Salad’ Fallacy)
/philosophy : argument : bias : fallacy : pseudo-argument/ : the inability to understand technical or precise writing, mistaking it for constituting a pleonasm. This in favor of simplistic writing which is, either with or without the intent of the opponent, subsequently rendered vulnerable to equivocation. An accusation made when a dilettante person fails to understand philosophical or technical writing, wherein the base argument or its requisite vocabulary reside completely over the head of the individual who started the argument to begin with.
The Ethical Skeptic, “The Sophistry Fallacy” The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 1 Jan 2018, Web; https://wp.me/p17q0e-6Wf%5B/note%5D
- Griswold, Charles L., “Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/plato-rhetoric/>.
- http://www.dictionary.com: sophistry