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“”A sophist is either a philosopher who works for money, or a philosopher you don't like.
|—Eric Kaplan in Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation|
Sophistry is a modern term, and occasional snarl word connoting the use of rhetorical trappings that involve deception, obfuscation or equivocation. In other words, it is a fancy way to sound authoritative even when you're wrong.
The term "sophistry" is derived from the Sophists of Ancient Greece, a loose coalition of nomadic educators who taught life-skills to anyone with enough money to pay. They didn't have a defined school of thought or unified set of beliefs, in fact they occupied a similar role to modern Motivational Speakers. They traveled Greece holding seminars on public speaking, rhetoric and persuasion to anyone who would pay them. Regardless of whether you were wrong or right, a Sophist could teach you how to sound right.
They tended not to concern themselves with difficult ideas like Truth or Right and Wrong, instead leaning toward cynicism and relativism. Because of their tendency to live on the fence and charge quite a lot of money to teach other people how to think badly both Plato and Socrates considered them to be pretentious and generally detrimental to society.
Independently, a similar line of philosophy arose in ancient China around the same time; the word-for-word translation of their philosophy is the School of Names. The three best known today are Gongsun Longzi, Huizi, and Zhuangzi; the latter two were contemporaries. They earned the ire of other philosophers, so much so that the Legalist Han Feizi produced an extended rant about them.
Etymology and modern usage
The term "Sophist" comes from the Greek word for "wisdom", and is therefore a little ironic in retrospect. Nowadays it is mostly used as an ad hominem argument. People often use it to mean someone lying with pretense or style, but this isn't technically correct. It is sophistry to play Devil's Advocate, and people don't usually do that with sincerity. Debate contests are sophist affairs as well, with sides being assigned a position they need to support regardless of what
they believe is true, but you wouldn't call that lying.
- From his 2014 book,Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation, page 23.
- Although they were generally skeptical with an atheist bent. "Protogoras the sophist announced: 'About the gods I cannot declare whether they exist or not'; other sophists speculated about why men had never come to believe in deity, and it is possible that Anaxagoras, the leading scientist of his day, was an atheist. Men began to notice the moral implications of the scientists' physical explanations of the world, which left the gods powerless to intervene in defense of their ordinances." The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World p326
- Plato accused them of having an "undifferentiated and confused" philosophy. p280
- Who felt they argued by quoting endlessly and using rhetorical devices instead of genuine reason. http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialSciences/ppecorino/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter%202%20GREEKS/Sophists.htm