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What Is Sophism?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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In modern English, the term "sophism" refers to any false or specious rhetoric which deceives the listener. The term originates in ancient Greece with a group of philosophers and rhetoricians known as Sophists. It was not originally negative, but has acquired a negative meaning largely as a result of the philosopher Plato, who was highly critical of the Sophists.

In classical Greece, the term 'Sophist,' which derives from 'sophia,' the Greek word for wisdom, originally seems to have denoted a sage or wise man. In Athens during the 5th century BC and later, the term came to refer to scholars who offered instruction in philosophy and rhetoric, particularly to young men of aristocratic families. Sophism in this sense consisted of an education which would prepare them for public life, especially for political and legal oratory. In Athens, all male citizens were directly involved in affairs of government such as trials and legislation, making these very useful skills.

Students of Socrates, particularly Plato, criticized the Sophists, who charged for their teaching. Plato argued that the Sophists taught their students how to manipulate arguments and use dishonest rhetoric in order to win, rather than to use philosophical inquiry to arrive at the truth. Protagoras, one of the most prominent Sophists, was said to boast that he could make the weaker of two arguments appear the stronger. Plato's dialogues show Socrates in conflict with Sophism; Socrates engages in debates with Sophists such as Protagoras and defeats them. Historians of philosophy believe that Plato's dialogues may be unfair to the Sophists, exaggerating their views and painting them in an unflattering light.

Sophism, however, became permanently associated with the criticisms of Plato and his student Aristotle. The term came to mean any argument in which one participant relied on rhetorical skill and trickery rather than fact and reason to persuade the other. Today the terms 'sophism' and 'sophistry' are negatively charged, and to accuse an opponent of sophistry is a very serious criticism.

In modern terms, sophism or sophistry is the deployment of logically flawed arguments which persuade hearers through their emotional content. For instance, when accused of an immoral action, a speaker might point out that others have engaged in the same conduct. This has a powerful emotional effect, making the accuser appear to be a hypocrite or bully for singling out one person, but it fails to answer the question. This logical fallacy, known to philosophers as the "tu quoque" or "you yourself" fallacy, is a common piece of sophistry.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jul 18, 2012

@browncoat - Well, I don't think everyone who argues like that is doing it on purpose. I mean, I think that people, especially young people, just don't know how to apply logic to an argument. They might understand in their own head what they mean, but not know how to express it.

Which is not to say that there isn't a class of people still who like to argue in order to upset someone, or to prove a point which isn't really supported by evidence.

I think it's really funny that sophistry comes from a word that means wisdom, as those kinds of arguments often seem like the opposite of wisdom to me.

By browncoat — On Jul 17, 2012

@KoiwiGal - You have to really watch that movie carefully (or read the book) to even realize that it's a critic of sophism, it's so subtle.

I think more people are aware of these kinds of arguments though, since they are so analyzed over the internet. People get into "flame wars" all the time over silly things and they bring out all the big guns in sophistry, using big words, accusing people of prejudice or of various evil intentions, arguing around the point and so forth.

None of which actually address the real point of the argument. It's difficult not to get annoyed when people argue like that, but getting annoyed, according to those people, is proof that they are right.

By KoiwiGal — On Jul 16, 2012

One of the most entertaining indictments of sophistry I've ever seen is the movie Thank You For Smoking. It's about a spokesman for cigarette companies, and his relationship with his son.

At one point he explains to his son how to win an argument when you know you aren't actually right. He shows him all kinds of methods that could fall into the range of sophistry and of course, his son picks it up pretty quickly.

It's actually a really good movie to show people, as it examines the ways in which politicians and lobbyists can bend or distort the truth in order to advance their own agenda. One example is that at one point the protagonist objects to someone complaining about cigarettes killing people, when he himself promotes cheese which can also kill people with heart disease.

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