Good and Bad Arguments: What’s the Difference?

“You can never reach another physical location: to get there, you have to cross half the intervening distance; next, you have to cross half the distance that remains; next, half again—no matter how far you go, half the remaining distance remains.”

That’s Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, and it’s easy to disagree with. It’s much harder to refute. (Aristotle countered Zeno’s paradox by arguing that as distance decreases, the time needed to cover it decreases correspondingly. Archimedes, and modern calculus, found a way to calculate the sum of infinitely many terms as they get progressively smaller. Diogenes the Cynic simply stood up and walked.)

It’s what’s called sophistry: “the use of reasoning or arguments that sound correct but are actually false,” (From Merriam-Webster.) or at least misleadingly strong.

But sophistry hasn’t always meant something bad, and the sophists—teacher-scholars who flourished first in Greece and later in Rome—are absolutely worth knowing.

  1. They made some key contributions to early Western thought.
  2. They provided the counterarguments against which Plato and Aristotle, pushing for objective truth and virtue, defined philosophy itself.
  3. They can help you learn to recognize misleading arguments, which, unfortunately, aren’t just an ancient phenomenon.

Trace the sophists’ influence

The sophists’ interests remain very relevant today. These thinkers focused on:

  • Skepticism and relativism. The sophists made a virtue of doubt—it was Protagoras who said that “man is the measure of all things.” This strain of thought remains influential even in (especially in) postmodernity.
  • Language vs. reality. The sophists thought that human discourse plays an important role in shaping our experience of the world. Rhetoric was central to their teachings, along with literary interpretation. This focus on language as mediator of reality far anticipated the twentieth-century “linguistic turn” of such thinkers as Saussure and Wittgenstein.
  • Making money. Socrates railed against the sophists not only for favoring rhetoric over truth, but also for charging for their teaching—he, in contrast, accepted no fees. A look at higher ed today makes it clear whose method won. (Of course, there are some exceptional values out there for the discerning student.)

The sophists, then, represent much more than just a codeword for misleading persuasion—they’re of great historical importance.

Explore the origins of philosophy

Plato understood his work not only as different from sophistical argument, but as essentially opposed to it—the dichotomy between philosophy and sophistry runs all through his dialogues. But it’s hard to distinguish the two by method: after all, arguing both sides of a position isn’t so different from rigorous philosophical thought. (Indeed, Diogenes Laertius claimed that Protagoras was the real inventor of the “Socratic” method.) Instead, the difference between philosophy and sophistry is intent. The sophist is interested in what is persuasive; the philosopher is interested in what is true. The sophist is interested in mastering argument and knowledge; the philosopher is interested in the lifelong process of learning. Were it not for the contrast provided by the sophists, philosophy wouldn’t understand its goals in such moral terms.


Recognize attempts at persuasion

The sophists’ whole point was to teach others to be persuasive; as you study their thought, you’ll learn directly from these ancient masters. In the Sophists of the Roman Era collection, for example, you’ll study public speaking, political questions, and moral concerns. But you’ll learn more than that—when you examine the Greek sophists in the context of Socrates’ and Plato’s counterarguments, you’ll learn to pick out misleading claims. You’ll be better prepared to argue against the sophistry of our time.

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Get Sophists of the Roman Era collection or Classical Greek Bundle with LSJ and the Perseus Classics.

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David Davidson
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Written by David Davidson
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