2.15.2010

A Friendly Welcome, with some Nuance

The conception of a new blog (a friend's) gives cause to re-publish an important definition/distinction that seems to be lost on those who self-identify as "sophists" or "rhetoricians." These sophists love to argue against Plato, and in particular against what they see as Plato's mythico-magical "transcendental standard of truth." They always say, "Isn't that dumb?--what about subjectivity?"

So sophistry flourishes always in opposition, but never in the primary place. They need to "frame" themselves as outsiders.

My sophist friend Wrangler quotes John Locke then writes of his own blog's position:
"Be sure not to let your son be bred up in the art and formality of disputing, either practicing it himself, or admiring it in others; unless, instead of an able man, you desire to have him an insignificant wrangler, opiniator in discourse, and priding himself in contradicting others; or which is worse, questioning everything, and thinking there is no such thing as truth to be sought, but only victory in disputing."
In an effort to distance myself from Locke's notion of enlightenment, I celebrate mere wrangling, and relish my insignificance. Play the world away.
And my new-blogging friend, Pure Sophist Monster, writes of his:
The historian of rhetoric Susan Jarrett says that the sophists have historically been seen as "arch-deceptors, enemies of Truth, manipulators of language" (xi Rereading the Sophists). Viewed less pejoratively (and more productively), however, we can say that the sophists were committed to an understanding of truth and values as (culturally and situationally) contingent, and that they were invested in language as means of navigating these contingencies.
So the sophists oppose a notion of truth that is transcendent and uncontingent with one that is culturally and situationally contingent. But regardless of what Plato said, I don't think that the sophists are opposing the important point.

Truth is like this: either the planet is warming because of CO2 emissions, or it's not. No amount of "framing" can undo that point. Now, we may not have perfect knowledge of the causes, and we may even disagree about whether the supposed warming is a problem (certainly Russia would be less averse to the ridiculous specter of rising sea levels than New Orleans would be). But there is a Truth here, uncontingent, un-cultural, un-situational.

So leaving Plato aside, my renewed critique of sophistry is that it proposes to speak on all issues with authority, without bothering about gaining expertise in any particular issue.

4 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

Thanks for the buzz! As a sophist I believe all press is good press.

ALSO: Sure the earth is warming (and we "know" this because of science, which is work supported because it is argued for and valued by many): but point to such a truth with respect to how we should proceed in response to it. Less you fallaciously move from an "is" to an "ought."

Casey said...

Actually, the earth isn't warming:

Click here.

But whatever. Was your "ALSO" implying that sophists will defer to scientists to collect the data, and wait to participate in the "ought" phase, rather than participating in the "is" phase?

If that's true, I'll need you to do a post on what I've been asking Santos lately: shouldn't a sophist defer to a physician on matters of health, and to an economist when it comes to economic matters, and to a guru when it comes to guruing, etc.? And if so, then when would a person ever "use" (or "seek out") a sophist?

With apologies, I still find Socrates' argument persuasive in the Gorgias, even if "Gorgias" in that dialog is Plato's invention.

But whatever. Glad you're blogging!

pure_sophist_monster said...

To answer the ALSO, I need to make an important distinction. Namely, the difference between a rhetorician and rhetoric. I am someone that studies the art and practice of rhetoric. As a student of rhetoric, I see it operating in many places. It's not that either the physician or the rhetor should defer to one another but that the physician is not not a rhetor. That is, when Santos and I talk about rhetors and sophists we are not talking about a discrete activity.

That is the trick of Socrates' question. He treats rhetoric as he treats medicines: as two separate fields or disciplines somehow in competition. If that is indeed the case then, yes, I would want to the doctor to take precedent. But rhetoric can be treated like, psychology or biology for example. Psychologists study psychology and biologists study biology, but everyone enacts psychology and biology in their daily life.

So we have rhetoric as a practice and rhetoric as a study of the practice. I see the doctor as a rhetor him or herself.

In other words, as always, Socrates' question to Gorgias is a loaded one - the distinction he makes having already answered the question ahead of time.

I trust doctors for medical opinions, scientists for scientific opinions, historians for historical opinions, but I would also argue that all of these professions make choices and those choices are value laden, and it is with/through rhetoric that such decisions are implicitly and explicitly made.

pure_sophist_monster said...

UPDATE: I have polished my response and posted it on my blog here.