Freitag, Juni 24, 2005

Just an observation...

When I started this blog, I wrote a really long screed on sophism and its relevance to the modern political realm, but never posted it because I didn't feel that it was read for prime time. Add to that the fact that I started voting as a Democrat - voted for Carter in my first election since I disliked the Nixon pardon of Ford and thought that a DC outsider would be a change for the better (woops), I wanted to get this down pat.

With the current continuing meltdown of the Democratic party in the US - and I can't see it being anything but that - I thought I'd posit the following:

The driving philosophy behind the current incarnation of the Democrats is sophistry.

Let's take what sophistry first meant (this is all taken from Wikipedia, so don't blame me for the interpretation: I am also very loath to get into any sort of academic discussion on whether angels are discorporeal but human or whether they are instantiations of the divine spirit, if you get my drift):

The meaning of the word sophist (gr. sophistès, meaning "wise-ist," or one who 'does' wisdom; cf. sophós, "wise man") has changed greatly over time. Initially, a sophist was someone who gave sophia to his disciples, i.e., wisdom made from knowledge.

Remember Kennedy and the Democrats of the day? Of MacNamara and the Whiz Kids that he brought on? We're talking about some of the brightest and best minds that the US ever had to offer, and this is what I grew up believing that the Democrats embodied.

And this is still what the Democrats believe: that they are the clever ones, that they are the ones with the wisdom and knowledge to deal with the challenges of the day. That's been the thrust of the Kerry campaign, it's been the thrust of the demonification of Bush, Rove and the Republican party. Democrats are supposed to be the clever ones.

In the second half of the 5th century B.C., and especially at Athens, "sophist" came to be applied to a group of thinkers who employed debate and rhetoric to teach and disseminate their ideas and offered to teach these skills to others. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life of Athens, acclaimed teachers of such skills often commanded very high fees. The practice of taking fees, coupled with the willingness of many practitioners to use their rhetorical skills to pursue unjust lawsuits, eventually led to a decline in respect for practitioners of this form of teaching and the ideas and writings associated with it.

Here we have the first inklings of the problem: the emphasis came to be less on the content, the what of what is said, and more value was laid on the how of how it was said. A simple mistake: of assuming that it's not what is said that is important, but how it is said. Generating original thought in the political realm is extraordinarily difficult. Generating lovely rhetoric without any regard whatsoever for its content is a skill that most intelligent people, if so trained, can master relatively easily.

The essential claim of sophistry is that the actual logical validity of an argument is irrelevant; it is only the ruling of the audience which ultimately determine whether a conclusion is considered "true" or not. By appealing to the prejudices and emotions of the judges, one can garner favorable treatment for one's side of the argument and cause a factually false position to be ruled true.

Isn't this exactly what is meant by "accurate though fake" of RatherGate fame? Isn't this the case when politics is driven not by ideas and how to implement them, but rather by slavish addiction to polls and interest groups?

Now, from another source:

The Sophists taught men how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate. A Sophistic education was increasingly sought after both by members of the oldest families and by aspiring newcomers without family backing. The changing pattern of Athenian society made merely traditional attitudes in many cases no longer adequate. Criticizing such attitudes and replacing them by rational arguments held special attraction for the young, and it explains the violent distaste which they aroused in traditionalists.

Now if this doesn't describe what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the western world, I don't know what does.

From the same source:

It is fairly clear, however, that the Sophists did concentrate very largely upon man and human society, upon questions of words in their relations to things, upon issues in the theory of knowledge, and upon the importance of the observer and the subjective element in reality and in the correct understanding of reality.

In other words, a very, very strong cultural relativism: sound familiar?

This emphasis helps to explain the philosophical hostility of Plato and Aristotle. Particularly in the eyes of Plato, anyone who looks for the truth in phenomena alone, whether he interprets it subjectively or relativistically, cannot hope to find it there; and his persistence in turning away from the right direction virtually amounts to a rejection of philosophy and of the search for truth. Many a subsequent thinker for whom metaphysics, or the investigation of the deepest nature of reality, was the crowning achievement of philosophy has felt with Plato that the Sophists were so antimetaphysical that they have no claim to rank as philosophers. But in a period when, for many philosophers, metaphysics is no longer the most important part of philosophy and is even for some no part at all, there is growing appreciation of a number of problems and doctrines recurring in the discussions of the Sophists in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the Sophists were considered charlatans. Their intellectual honesty was impugned, and their doctrines were blamed for weakening the moral fibre of Greece.

Now my take on this is simple: for the sophists, ideas as such don't really matter: there is a contempt for classical societal conventions that gives them an aura of moral superiority when in fact it is based on the rejection of objective truths.

The charge was based on two contentions, both correct: first, that many of the Sophists attacked the traditionally accepted moral code; and second, that they explored and even commended alternative approaches to morality that would condone or allow behaviour of a kind inadmissible under the stricter traditional code.

Isn't this clear in the fact that the Democratic party embraces those whose behavior is inadmissable under traditional mores? Piss Christ, anyone?

The Sophists, in fact, were attempting to explain the phenomenal world without appealing to any principles outside of phenomena. They believed that this could be done by including the observer within the phenomenal world. Their refusal to go beyond phenomena was, for Plato, the great weakness in their thinking.

This provides the basis, to a large extent, of situational ethics, of the rejection, for instance, that a member of one societal group can ever understand the problems of a member of another societal group: according to this doctrine, they can't. Isn't this the basis for any sort of -study, where fill-in-the-blank is a minority of one kind or another? This is fundamentally anti-intellectual and from what I've seen often prevalent in academia.

A second common generalization about the Sophists has been that they represent a revolt against science and the study of the physical world. The evidence is against this, inasmuch as for Hippias, Prodicus, Gorgias, and Protagoras there are records of a definite interest in questions of this kind. The truth is rather that they were in revolt against attempts to explain the physical world by appeals to principles that could not be perceived by the senses; and instead of framing new “objective” explanations, they attempted to explain things, where explanation was required, by introducing the perceiver as one element in the perceptual situation.

Hoo boy: ever wonder why the number of American PhDs in the hard sciences have been in such a decline and why there is such a dislike of polticians who actually discuss their beliefs?

Enough for now: suffice to say that for me the parallels cannot be lightly dismissed: ideas matter, transcendental concepts matter, and there are objective truths out there. All concepts that many liberal intellectuals hold in disdain and therefore reject: unless you're a minority, you're not allowed to comment on what is happening and has happened to minority families. It's the perversion of lofty ideals, it's a corruption of intellect.

But not like the Democrats, at this point in time, would understand that if you walked up to them and hit them on the head with a salmon to make the point.



tCO hat gesagt…

I find a lot of sophism from the Euro thinking class. They do learn to write well in their schools, so they can express ideas well. However, they cite parts of sources in a non-representative manner, tend to be data dumpers versus logicians, etc.

John F. Opie hat gesagt…

tco -

I donÄt think you understand: being able to argue well is not sophistry, but rather rhetoric.

Being able to spin like the Tasmanian devil without any regard for facts and without any regard for the truth is what sophistry is all about.

Not that there aren't any in Europe: if anything, the European elite has been living the sophist life for the last 15 years or so. In France it seems to be part of growing up.