Your Obsession with Sophists Is Juvenile Sophistry! Research Time, 31/07/2013

After working on post-doc proposals, going back over my fiction work, and a series of happy developments in my personal life, I’m back into research for my utopias project. This means, for the moment, more of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. One idea at the close of his chapter on ancient Greece caught hold of me, which was his account of the Sophists.

These were the people who, in ancient Greek terms, were teachers of rhetoric. If I were to update this into the parlance of our times, I suppose they’d be debate teachers, speaking coaches, or maybe law school teachers. It’s a stretch to put a profession that developed in the cultural industry of ancient Greece in contemporary terms. But basically, a Sophist was someone whose job it was to prepare people to speak in the constituent assemblies of Greek city-states, or speak themselves on behalf of clients. The assemblies operated by debates leading to consensus on practical political decisions, and Sophistry was the art of speaking in ways that could dominate these debates. The nature of the advocated cause was immaterial to the techniques of convincing people to follow it.

As far as Hegel’s concept of world-spirit developing historically goes, the Sophists were the conduit for world-spirit to become conscious of thought’s worldly power. After all, if man is the measure of all things, as Protagoras said, then even the weakest version of this idea, that humanity has the potential to investigate and understand everything in the universe, suggests that we have an incredible power. Socrates was progress over this way of thinking, says Hegel, because he used the rhetorical tools of the Sophists — intense and fleet-footed critical argumentation — to seek a universal truth. Sophists themselves were content with being able to convince anyone of anything. This, after all, was the point of their art: being able to convince the city-states’ assemblies to go along with you. This is reason’s power directed toward the relative, when it should be directed toward the universal. 

All’s well for Socrates and Hegel. They’re dead, and so have more important priorities (or the luxury of having no priorities at all!). Yet if I have one beef with this idea so far, it isn’t a particularly deep philosophical one, but a beef as a contemporary philosopher working in a university setting. One of the major pieces of Socratic rhetoric students encounter when they first learn about ancient Greek philosophy is his opposition to Sophistry. He extols the universal over the relative, the enlightenment of truth over manipulation to convince. It’s very inspiring, and it does indeed inspire many students to condemn relativism and Sophistry, seeking instead the universal through pure thought.

If my language got a little pretentious explaining that point of view, then that was some of my rhetoric. See, one of the problems contemporary philosophy faces as an academic discipline is that there are so few women in it. It’s just us and the economists who still have a majority of male majors, graduate students, professors, and significant authorities in all the humanities and social science disciplines. What’s more, philosophy has become very isolated as a discipline, with few professionals in other disciplines interested in philosophical input in their concerns, or even conceiving of common problems in terms similar enough to have a productive conversation. And one of the many reasons why I think this is, is that a noticeably prevalent tendency of young, impressionable students when they first get into philosophy is go full anorak* on it. And many of those never recover.

* Anorak: a geek, usually male, whose obsession with his chosen subject matter often expresses itself in impressive feats of memorization of facts or the ability to manipulate debates, which are often displayed in public to assert dominance in the geek community and establish a twisted moral superiority over those who are inferior in this regard. 

Anoraks tend to create a climate very hostile to women, or indeed anyone who doesn’t find confrontational argument fun. To the degree that the anorak mode of thinking and conversation tends to dominate the culture of academic philosophy, it gives us a lot of problems, because confrontational argument has the practical effect of shutting down productive conversation and quiet careful thinking, in favour of sharp retorts and acidic critique. Insofar as we’re the only academic discipline that teaches its undergraduates to speak this way, philosophy has become largely shunned in most interdisciplinary conversation. It doesn’t help that our grown-up anoraks tend to consider other disciplines unworthy of conversation with philosophers because they do not speak with sufficient ‘rigor.’ Among good philosophers, rigor is precisely rigorousness. Among mediocre to bad philosophers, rigor is simply an excuse for dismissing a conversation partner because they aren’t talking to assert dominance, or they disagree with you and you want them to shut up.

This meme is the creation of a politically conservative
philosophical anorak. A politically liberal philosophical
anorak would call memes like this an example of modern
sophistry. They would both be wrong, because anoraks are
You can spot a philosophy anorak by seeing how much of Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Song” they have memorized (hint: all of it), or whether they use the term “Sophist” as an insult. The irony is that most philosophical anoraks speak like stereotypical Sophists: they argue to win, and in winning, they belittle their opponent as the inferior philosopher. In second year, when serious students usually declare their majors, the most enthusiastic ones get involved in the department's student societies. If a high enough percentage of these are anoraks who, because he is the most romanticized hero in the history of philosophy, superficially take after Socrates, then anyone less aggressive in argument than history's greatest gadfly isn't fit to take part. And like a good anorak, if you can't meet their standard, you don't deserve to be here.

This is what upsets me about the contemporary use of the word Sophist: there isn’t one. The centuries-old rhetoric about the nature of philosophy is based on this confrontation between Socrates and Sophistry, the universal and relativism. So an anorak tends to believe that philosophical problems are universal, relevant to all times and places, and unaffected by change. But that’s simply not true. The priorities of philosophy have always been focussed on the problems of the time. Indeed, one of the positive aspects of Hegel’s account of ancient Greek thought in Philosophy of History is that he explains the Socrates-Sophistry conflict as a function of the political and social upheaval of the Greek peninsula at that historical epoch. It was a deeply unstable period for their society, their customary moralities under threat from foreign wars. The time cried out for someone to shore up their morals by grounding them in the universal instead of their contingent historical tradition. Or so Socrates may have thought. The ideas of the Socrates-Sophistry conflict can only apply indirectly to my modern world because those ideas were generated in an ancient world. And my world is incredibly different from the world of Socrates. This isn’t the cheap relativism that an anorak would accuse me of; I simply admit that different problems require different thinking to solve them.

Say a young person discovers philosophy and becomes an anorak about it, obsessing over cheap facts; technical terminology; talking to me about Kant’s theory of apperception when I’m 20 years old, at a house party, it’s 3.00am, and I’ve already had two bottles of wine; and going to war against ‘modern Sophistry’ in the name of ‘the universal.’ He isn’t doing anyone any favours, especially not himself. Philosophical progress doesn’t come from approaching closer to the final answers to the eternal questions of life, the universe, and everything. It comes from profound engagement with the contemporary world to figure out what life, the universe, and everything all means now.


  1. Interesting conceptual pivots here.

    I hadn't heard the term "anorak" before but I'm glad to have made its acquaintance.

    The supposed rise of nerd culture seems to be positively correlated with a rise in trivial, meaningless blathering, but cultural structures have emerged that are so defensive in nature that it is hard indeed to criticize any given aspect without being accused of some sort of anti-nerd bigotry. With this term, you distinguish a dysfunction in the process of argumentation from the broader content of this cultural realms (I know you're just adopting an existing term); but what is really interesting is to see this dysfunctional model be adopted in other arenas of life.

    My guess is that you're quite right: this anorak personality structure/ argumentative style was succored in enthusiast-critical forums and through the myth of Socrates often finds fertile ground for continued tumerous growth in philosophy departments. However, I think this is a parallel development to a broader style of debate, the adversarial model that is at the core of our legal system (popularly understood) and which is increasingly dominated our political discourse e.g. through endless chatter on Fox News, MSNBC etc.

    In other words, I'm advancing the following hypothesis: just as our political culture has been increasingly presented to the mass public by news networks to be defined by gamesmanship and crass adversarialism, so too our popular culture has been increasingly dominated by traditionally low or marginal fields of culture that has independently developed quite toxic intellectual traditions. The result is that even in philosophy departments, even under the sign of Socrates, young men (mostly) are strutting about with sophistic methods, coarse ends, and all the confidence in the world that they're meager truth is all that matters.

    1. Anorak is a British term, but I think it's very appropriate to precisely who those annoying undergrads are. And yes, someone once tried to have a dense, technical conversation with me about Kant's theory of apperception at a party when I was an undergrad. It did not go well for him.

      As for professional philosophy, I think the anorak mind-set is something present at all levels of my discipline, and that the atmosphere it creates is so hostile that it does serious harm. I especially think it's the reason why you don't see many female philosophers at the undergrad level (and therefore at the more advanced professional levels). An atmosphere where argument basically takes the tone of verbal abuse isn't exactly welcoming to women. Not because of some stupid essentialist reason like, "Women naturally speak in more conciliatory or exploratory ways." It's because most women have at some point been abused verbally (if not worse) by their families, friends, bosses, or intimate partners. And they don't want the same tone of conversation to dominate their fun student societies or their classes.

      Are you familiar with these blogs? They're about cataloguing and publicizing the rampant sexism problems in philosophy. And almost all the everyday horror stories are the result of male anorak behaviour.