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I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “sophistry” when discussing the Ancient Greek ideas about sophistry, due to the tendency for the word “sophistry” now to mean any example of arguing in bad faith. If I take Foucault’s discussion of ‘sophism’ seriously (in Lectures on the Will to Know), though (and I do), then blithe dismissal of sophistry as bad faith argument is insufficient in dealing with..sophistics? The word will suffice for now.

The ancient texts on “sophism” that Foucault discusses are Plato’s The Sophist and Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations. Both are concerned with some degree in trying to position the art of sophistry – as it was practiced in Ancient Greece – in regard to philosophical reasoning. Aristotle’s text interests Foucault most of all, in terms of how it tries to define a ‘sophism’. Here sophism stands within sophistry roughly equivalent to how ‘sound argument’ stands within philosophical reasoning. Aristotle’s own remarks on the issue treat a sophism as a set of claims deceitfully being treated as a sound argument, an argument that the inexperienced and untrained could mistake as genuine reasoning, just as those who have difficulty in mathematics can be fooled into believing that totally wrong sums are actually correct. Foucault’s interest is in how Aristotle seeks to teach how to guard against such sophisms,  and how this implicitly defines how a sophism works more generally.

A sophism, Foucault argues, is a statement that uses the finitude of words, and the infinitude of things, to avoid an easy correspondence between any given word and any given thing. It deliberately carries a double meaning, without seeming to. It is a statement whose meaning is, in practice, only resolvable by reference to other statements. The art of sophistry is not one of pitting argument against argument, but of curtailing another’s ability and desire to make further statements through the impact and effect of one’s own statements. The goal is not truth but victory.

A matter that Foucault doesn’t really address is Aristotle’s characterisation of Ancient Greek sophists’ motivations. Sophists, he claims, want to seem wise, without actually going to the trouble of being wise. Sophisms, through their seeming resemblance to rational arguments, enable them to accomplish this. A matter that Foucault does address is that sophisms are not merely flawed reasoning: per Aristotle, they do not belong to the category of “reasoning” at all. The whole apparent chain of reasoning in a sophism is merely a shadow of the real effect, which is entirely at the level of uttered words. In my view, this means that approaching a sophism as if it was merely fallacious reasoning is insufficient to really root out the problem. Nor, I think, will an actual sophism (as opposed to a merely fallacious argument) be readily identifiable or discernible, or as easy as to expose as simply uttering out “Strawman!” or “Ad hominem!” or similar. The problem goes deeper than that. Foucault, for his part, did note the general solution offered in Aristotle’s works.

Foucault termed it the “introduction of difference”. Besides the overarching difference of actual statement and what is stated (or, in modern terms, the difference between signifiers and signified), the introduction of difference also makes it possible to expose where correspondence between what is spoken, and what is being spoken about, is being deliberately avoided: clarity, precision and agreement come about through using slightly different words to indicate slightly different meanings; covert and deniable obscurity and ambiguity come about through using the same word to mean two or more possible things. And – most importantly – specification of what was “actually” meant only occurs as part of a strategy to expose the sophist’s opponent as a liar. Prior to this, there is no intention to choose between one meaning or the other of an ambiguous statement. The ambiguity must be caught, and the difference between the multiple possible meanings highlighted. I suspect that this is a lot harder in practice than it looks.

So, I try to introduce here a difference between the Ancient Greek understanding of the term “sophistry” and the modern-day understanding of the term. I leave the modern-day understanding intact (it’s easier than trying to explain what I really mean over and over) and use the term “sophistics” to call back this specific understanding of how sophists faked their appearance of wisdom, which is somewhat different, and entails a different approach to address it. This matters, I think, because I suspect that contemporary configurations of the Internet have vastly improved the opportunity and impact of sophistics, specifically.


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