Trying my patience: The distinction between philosophy and sophistry

I have recently been confronted with the idea of sophistry, and the weaponisation of this term to attack philosophy. But I do not think this is philosophical. Indeed, to use sophistry to attack philosophy is itself sophistical. Let me explain how sophistry and philosophy differ, by contrasting two ancient Greek individuals: Isocrates, and Socrates.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930, who reportedly told his examiners after the viva for his PhD dissertation not to worry — he was sure they’d never understand it! This act of seeming pride may actually reflect the humility of his stance on the limitations of communication.

Isocrates is less well-known than Socrates, but was confident about one thing. Speech can never relate to the truth, and never should. It is merely a tool of power, for speakers to use to persuade audiences with rhetoric. We should not be afraid of speakers using rhetoric to undermine the truth, for Isocrates, as there is no truth beyond rhetorical utterances.

Socrates, by contrast, thought that speech must relate to the truth if it is to have any meaning at all. Speech is inevitably distorting and distracting from the truth, so must be used cautiously. But neither should it be taken literally, for no word can express the pure form of an idea. To echo a more modern philosopher George Berkeley, ‘nothing can be like an idea but an idea’. All words are but shadows of ideas.

Philosophy attends to truth, to the ideas themselves. Sophistry believes in the power of speech, of words themselves. We are all condemned to sharing ideas through expression, since we cannot share ideas directly. We must interface through words and deeds to share the ideas in our heads. That inevitably distorts the ideas. But we must remember both the necessity of expression and the tragedy of it. For to forget the need to speak is to stay in our heads, in the realm of ideas. But to speak is to share ideas and inevitably distort them from their pure form. To balance between action and contemplation through communication is a difficult task to undertake. Either we mistake words for deeds or words for ideas. But we must not do either.

We must remember that words help to bridge between ideas and deeds while remember the imperfection and fragility of this bridging role. Above all, we must remember that sophistry, which cares only about speech, is but a shadow of philosophy, which cares only about truth. Some sophistry may be required to communicate philosophy, but then it is not sophistic speech but philosophical speech: speech that acknowledges its limitations, while endeavouring constantly to meet or surpass them.

But for all that, as linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his early career, at the conclusion of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, it is also true that: Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent. So we shall — for in silence, there is true peace found. In speech, there is only the war of passion, enlightened only occasionally by the light of reason. And in the darkness, truth will shine bright. Let there be light —

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s