Sociological Sophistry

The best thing I did in 2010 was to drop a course because it had a seventy dollar course pack, it was difficult to decide because t he subject matter was interesting and could well be integral to any work I ever look to do in the social sciences. I don’t blame the prof. for the price of the package, he was working from the broader literature at his disposal.

The title of this article is unfair, the sophistry I wish to explore is more broad, and the accusation I level is more at myself than at others. I could rant about the price of textbooks, but this has surely been well documented in many other forums. I’ll go on instead about the one freedom I thankfully can never truly lose in a consumerist society; the right not to buy. If I take introductory science courses I will do what I did last semester: find an older edition (or even just a different book on the same topic) and buy second hand or just access it at a library. I made it through courses in ecology and physics and I’m convinced the extra work was well worth it not just in dollars saved, but in the goddamn principle of discouraging production by avoiding consumption.

Classic sohpist rhetoric a la Catbert. Check the source for more randomness.

Sophistry is a word I’ve heard thrown around all over the place in academic or such circles. Its definition finally came to me, of course not by revelation, but by reading. Leo Strauss gave me the exact means to define it, in his analysis of the survival of the principles of the American Declaration of Independence in the mid twentieth century; Natural Right and History:

“The sophist is a man who is unconcerned with the truth, or does not love wisdom, although he knows better than most other men that wisdom or science is the highest excellence of man. Being aware of the unique character of wisdom, he knows that the honor deriving from wisdom is the highest honor. He is concerned with wisdom not for its own sake, not because he hates the lie in the soul more than anything else, but for the honor or the prestige that attends wisdom.” (p. 116)

So safe to say the sophist is a hack. In brief readings of Aristotle in the same class for which this book was assigned, there was a great concern with separating those who actually possess virtue from those that are essentially good at faking it. (This guy has good sources in Plato’s own work and cites some of the same sources as Strauss).

Strauss is arguing against conventionalism as a philosophical doctrine (sophistry for him is “vulgar conventionalism”), which itself argues that knowledge is entirely decided by convention alone, and therefore can have no access to any  overarching or transcendental truth. All knowledge becomes values rather than facts, based in mere opinion and not transcendent it any way. The ‘good’ artifacts we garner from conventionalism are multiculturalism and cultural relativism. More broadly it goes under the names of relativism or constructivism, and is arguably closely related to structuralist interpretations of society.

Aside from the christian criticism of cultural relativism I found here, as a secular thinker, I would like to explore the possibility of a natural right not based on our relation to god, but rather our relation to and origin in the natural world. The question I would like to work with later is: If one builds a ‘natural’ foundation of right, where does it end? Does it extend beyond humans to simians, all potentially sentient creatures, all mammals, perhaps even all living creatures? I may never wash again for fear of the mites, viruses and bacteria I might unjustly displace. Obviously modern hygiene would take issue with this stance.

I’ll end this discussion with an apparent paradox that came to me while I was walking in this morning:

“All knowledge is a social construct and as such cannot transcend its cultural perspective. This statement is transcendent and therefore true in all places and all times.”

(Or; “Change is the only constant, excluding the statement ‘change is the only constant’; that phrase is unchanging.”)

I think the only way to avoid individual sophistry (pursuing wisdom for ones own gain) is to ask difficult questions and be prepared to give the wrong answers. Maybe being wrong is the highest virtue we can strive for.


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