(Some sort of) Introduction to sophistry
The distinction between truth and truth-seeming is a central ‘theme’ in Greek philosophy and it could be argued that it represents still a major ‘theme’ in Western thought and philosophy. The subject matter survived up to modern times at least in that it has been regulating the (analytical) processes of what we now know as ‘science’. We know we have a ‘problem’ (that is, a ‘real problem’, let’s call it an ‘analytical puzzle’) when truth displays itself two- or three- or n-fold as truth-seeming1 versus truth-seeming2 versus truth-semingn…, each incompatible with the other. I will not go deep into these issues – it evades our present purposes and I have little training to pick on this history-of-philosophy-size package; nevertheless, let me just get a little cranky about the subject.
[The last sentence of this paragraph was still containing the idea that I was going to make an introduction to Aristotle on the subject of fallacies. Which I think failed, but at least ‘degenerated’ into what follows].
Consider this: sophistry is different from Philosophy (at least after the Aristotle-Plato Team decisively won the battle), different from classic (our?) Metaphysics, different from ideology (although postmodernism would probably rush to argue the reverse); it is not ‘just’ a psychological vice and clearly not ‘just’ falsehood/error. Not sole practice although not mere theory. Fallaciousness somehow has a peculiar status different from that of a lie, invention, error or fiction. And yet despite all these noteworthy attributes which qualify it as a ‘faultless’ subject of study, much of what Argumentation Theory is today could be regarded as finding the best means of (finally)(counter)attacking fallacies. Tell me how this sounds. It is taken from a contemporary account on fallacies:
Which requirements should an adequate theory of fallacies, in our view, fulfill? First it should provide norms for distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable moves in argumentative discourse. Second, it should provide criteria for deciding when such a norm is violated. Third, it must provide interpretation procedures for determining whether an utterance satisfies these criteria. (van Eemeren, Grootendorst 1992, 104)
The law-crime analogy seems admittable, but to my mind this sounds like a description of a perfect “Swiss army knife” for fallacy hunting. They are delineating a morally and theoretically virtuous weapon. Now, although I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be a/the normal trace of Argumentation Theory practice, one could shoot for a weaker claim such as: If history of philosophy would ever interfere with Argumentation Theory, maybe – just maybe –, the latter’s presuppositions will be intensively questioned and maybe – just maybe – the effect will be salutarily favorable.
Let’s just dart a glance at how some other approaches keep up with things. The maximal account one could squeeze out of an Argumentation Theorist is an overpassing formulation like:
While there was certainly an appreciation of such mistakes in reasoning earlier, Aristotle was the first to begin categorizing them in a systematic way, first under the title of ‘sophistical refutations’, in a way … (Tindale, 2007, 6)
If adopting an unassuming tone, a more close regard towards that issue seems natural. One doesn’t even have to go very far with it, since simple questions like “Why?” and “Then what?” will most certainly do the trick. Let’s try the “Why?” here (translation in footnote):
Le chef d’accusation sous lequel Aristote parachève la condemnation platonicienne et relègue le sophiste hors de la philosophie, voire même hors de l’humanité : en instaurant à la fois le principe de non-contradiction et le régime de la signification[i] (Cassin [ed.], 1986, 2)
The law of noncontradiction gets hopping mad with sophists because, while the former states bivalence (truth-falsity) and fixed epistemology, the latter works with speech as phármakon: “The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies” (Gorgias, 14) Thus, one of the two fundamental differences in sophists’ conception of language is that it makes us pass through stages, from better to worse or the other way around, it makes us fill the gap between truth and falsity with truth-seeming. This is wrong for many reasons, sais philosophy (aka The Plato-Aristotle Team): (1) the sophists put the medicine to wrong purposes such as deceiving or … salaries[ii] (2) even if they wouldn’t put in to wrong purposes, we wouldn’t know if they aren’t faking the practice of medicine (3) sophists turn “speaking of” into “speaking to”, orienting the axis of language from reference toward the hearer.
The other roadblock of Philosophy, le régime de la signification, is explained in a latter passage (translation in endnote):
[…]le sophiste fait vraiment pour Aristote beaucoup de bruit pour rien […] sous le régime du «parler de» massivement sémantique, qui est normalement le nôtre, sous lequel nous parlons et écrivons ici comme ailleurs, il va de soi que parler de rien équivaut à ne pas parler[iii] (Cassin, 7)
This means that the sophists speak without saying, which should be understood as without signifying/denoting. As the classic philosophy has it, a word has a meaning because the thing he denotes (refers to) has an essence, therefore and the latter determines the former, things command upon words. Notwithstanding, sophists revolve this conception by averring it thus:
Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity (Gorgias, 8.)
Which means that the logos now creates being, it is comes prior to being, for one cannot apprehend significance (reference) unless it is drawn by meaning (sense) – notice the Fregean atmosphere of this dichotomy[iv]! Which means we cannot mentally grasp being and extract ourselves from it in order to gain knowledge (about it) – notice the breeze of late Wittgenstein here[v]! Which means that the rhetorical effect of persuading is only a part of a much larger effect of … making (“l’effet-monde”, Cassin [ed.], 18), and aren’t we now in the air of Austin’s perlocutionary in – notice the … “sophistical” title – How to do things with words? Tell me now how this passage, brutally lifted out of context (Plato’s Gorgias, p.16) sounds like:
Socrates: It is knowledge about which of the things that are?
Gorgias: About speech (logos).
I will now stop for conclusions, yet very timid ones, since all I did was an outline of something of greater complexity. I am not suggesting that the allrights aren’t or weren’t good enough. My standpoint is that if we are to have a holistic approach on fallacies, the adjacent history-of-philosophy-wise approaches on sophistry should play their part; and that is even if this liaison it will produce a short-term shift of interest towards some unpractical questions (such as the “Why?” we sketched above). I know it sounds like demanding from logic to take a strange notice of history of thought but, as I understand it, it is more like demanding from practice to take a natural notice of the history of the theory from which it was generated.
[i] The main accusation with which Aristotle perfects the platonic condemnation and relegates the sophist out of philosophy (or even out of humanity) consists in enthroning the Law of Noncontradiction and the System of signification.
[ii] Rhetoric, 1355b 20, for sophistry is not a matter of ability but of deliberate choice [of specious arguments]
[iii] For Aristotle, the sophist actually makes much ado about nothing. Under the eminently semantical regime of “speaking about”, under which we now live, write and speak, it goes without saying that “speaking about nothing” literally means “not speaking”.
[iv] see Gottlob Frege, On sense and reference, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 57, No. 3 (May, 1948), pp. 210 It is natural, now, to think of there being connected with a sign (name, combination of words, letter), besides that to which the sign refers, which may be called the reference of the sign, also what I should like to call the sense of the sign, wherein the mode of presentation is contained.
[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On certainty, p. 5 The idealist's question would be something like: "What right have I not to doubt the existence of my hands?" (And to that the answer can't be: I know that they exist.) But someone who asks such a question is overlooking the fact that a doubt about existence only works in a language-game