Friday, June 9, 2017

Plato's Sophist

Plato’s dialogue The Sophist involves an attempt to define a sophist. Sophists on one level were educated people who tried to make a living as tutors to wealthy youngsters. They also acted as consultants or did training workshops for lawyers, politicians or anyone interested in the art of winning arguments and getting one’s own way.

Lobhado enjoyed the book as a discourse about how one describes or attempts to think about reality. There’s a long section on being, non-being, or the nature of true and false, images, copies, illusions, reproductions, representations of some ideal or transcendental reality or essence of being. One experiences appearances or reflections, based on sensations. Reason attempts to organize or make sense of the whole thing. Reason gets entangled in paradox or unanswerable questions. Reason is one’s connection to the intelligible world, into the transcendent realm of forms.

A sophist specialized in discourse, using words as persuasion. A sophist was a creator of images and illusions. The goal was to win an argument, even if one said things which were not true. They used rhetorical techniques, such as constantly disagreeing, or saying the opposite of whatever someone said. They acted like know-it-alls. A habitual stance would be to sneer at no matter what the opponent in a discussion said. To sneer and disagree is a strategy, not concerned with truth. It also implies that one knows better than everyone else.

So then the question is raised about the nature of falsehood. When one speaks falsehood, one enters the world of things,  which exist as not true. There’s a sense in which the opposite of how things are is not, or a void nothingness. However, even if the content of a statement is false, the statement still exists as images, like a magician. Such a sophist could be compared to a producer of illusions. There’s a famous discussion involving a version of the question: Can “This is not a true statement” be a true statement? To say it’s a true statement contradicts the content of the statement, namely that it is not a true statement. How can a statement be both true and false? It’s a fun puzzle to discuss over a few pints of beer. How can one say “the thing which is not”? What is not? Not being, non-being. To say non-being is to say something, it is to generate words or images. To speak is part of being, therefore one can’t use words to connect with non-being, other than as a category of absence, or as Deleuze later added, difference.

A moral concern is present throughout the discussion. Sophists are viewed with disdain, as degrading knowledge into objects for sale, without regard for truth. “Wisdom” for sale… the art of creating illusions, manufacturing images, to appear clever, to seduce the listener and above all, to earn money, to hopefully gain a reputation and to be in demand, the Stranger found this revolting. But there’s a problem. To carry on a discussion is to use words and images. Even someone exploring truth uses images. Words are images, or copies of things. Words refer to objects. The book ends with a lot of questions, which inspire respect for the vast mysterious nature of being and the need to be humble and scientific when exploring the nature of things.

It’s a legendary book. Centuries of scholarship, fascinating commentary and discussion are part of its heritage. It’s a delightful book filled with profound insights into the nature of existence and the human condition.


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