I have a friend, much more intelligent than I and trained in philosophical issues, that would disagree vehemently with me on my title above. I’m sure anyone named a “Sophist” would agree with my friend,but I think any supporter of the sophist position would have to at least concede that the connotative meaning of the word has devolved in its perceived value to a brute ugliness the Sophists certainly never intended.
Apparently raised in opposition to the Stoics, the Sophists’ goals were to, as I understand, reveal every nuance and subject any possible argumentation to careful scrutiny. Perhaps their mantra was “Nothing is as easy as it first appears.” Under their gaze, tautologies and red herrings were discovered and laid bare. Nothing was sacred: if an argument or proposition withered under sophists’ dissection, it was not meant to stand at all.
That original noble aim quickly degraded into a cynicism bereft of any desire for antithetical truth. Sophistry became the waystation of self-delusion and convoluted argumentation simply for the sake of argumentation. Today’s version has the goal of cutting the legs out from under an opponent before being forced to consider his or her suppositions. The physical manifestation is a dismissive wave of the hand, or, now, just being “shown the hand”. A quick slice or two in the riposte is adequate for the win, and pondering a point is for the slow-witted. How unfortunate.
It seems that political leadership in the U.S. has re-molded sophist argumentation into “zingers for us” versus “talking points and sound bytes” for you. Contained within those snippets is the arrogance that the argument is over, and our side doesn’t need to hear what your side is saying. This is hardly the sophistry of old. It is, however, a distillation of the idea of “gotcha”, of such clever argumentation and anticipation of the response that your king is felled in five moves. And this is what a sophist’s argument has become: a parody of the original intent.
You see this in the simplistic book-length rants of modern atheists, totally self-absorbed and unconcerned with counter-argument. For them, they are so smug in their cleverness that the end game is assumed, for they certainly must have covered everything in their original contention. They aren’t going to wait around for you to posit your points- there are no other points.
In the political realm, leadership now dogpiles the opposition with multiple players laying out individual canards designed to confuse the enemy, much as the smoke from the back-end of a Panzer or our Sherman hid the real work of the tank. Stripping the time element away from the opposition leaves him or her stuttering, and wondering where to start. Obama has used this element in a chronological fashion, dumping one bill/issue after another on a weary front stretched too thinly to adequately fight back. This then, is what sophistry has been dumbed down to: not attacks on the merits of the argument, but mellifluous-sounding mortar shells cascading in a death rain of clever quips. In short, sophistry is a style, and a style designed to obfuscate or obliterate not the substance of a counter-argument, but the perception that a counter-argument even exists. When “we” make a statement, we have already considered all the possible contraindications, and we have made allowances. All, therefore, is OK. The statement is produced as the fait accompli, and we receivers of such are expected to lap it up willingly and without question.
I don’t think we’ll ever get back to a world of mutual consideration of an idea from, perhaps, mutually-exclusive positions. Our ideologies no longer permit the other side demonstrating that we’re wrong about anything. As a Christian, I’ve claimed for a number of years that if someone proved to me I was wrong in my theological perceptions, I would admit it and change. Now, I’m rather confident, after 34 years in my faith, that such proof doesn’t exist, but if it does, I’m ready. Of course, I demand that the other side be forthright and concede Pascal’s Wager, and that they consider that if they haven’t been able to disprove my beliefs, that they go with the odds and believe with me. By example, I must admit that even Mortimer J. Adler never really adequately answered the theodicy question, and that is a legitimate stab at my faith… but it is not even close to checkmate. By not wrapping myself up in protective layers of dismissive chain mail, however, I can better handle the thrust, consider the argument (for years, if necessary), and wrestle( Ok, mixing metaphors here, but the only thing I know about fencing is that it comes, often, in rolls) with it until I make a valid counterpoint, answer the charge, or concede. Wrapping oneself in the new sophistry only serves to kill thought and to be disinterested in truth. Less insecurity would go a long way to ending conflicts in places like, for example, Sacramento, where Democrats consistently ignore ways to solve the budget woes without raising taxes and dump illogical but emotive sound bytes on their constituents in order to throw the voters off the scent and get themselves re-elected. By example, Democrats willingly flushed away 30K or so of their probable Latino voters in California’s Central Valley in order to promote their environmental sensitivity for the Delta smelt, a meaningless fish in the grand scheme of things. Conservatives- now that sounds like an argument!