Skeptical enough? Socrates vs. Sophists: Lessons for modern skeptics

Today’s guest post is provided by Sachin, a writer affiliated with of Australia.

Skepticism in its modern form is the mind’s SEO at work. If you’re a skeptic, you’ve got some obligations to yourself, as well as to your perspectives. Socrates was one of the first true Western philosophers, and arguably remains the best in many ways, particularly in construction of logical arguments. Skepticism isn’t “just skepticism”. It’s a commitment to the truth, and that was Socrates’ major forte.

Not many people have the ability to really take apart an argument and see if it works, and that’s perhaps the most important mechanism in skepticism. Socrates’ main protagonists, the Sophists, were invariably portrayed by Plato, Socrates’ recorder in Protagoras, as specious and manipulative of facts.

Socrates did thoroughly disembowel a few of the Sophist arguments in Plato’s book, which is one of the classic anti-Sophist texts. But does that mean Socrates himself was anti-Sophist? This is where skepticism comes in, in the course of unraveling Plato’s view as translated through Socrates’ dialogues.

This is the classic skeptical position:

  • The name Sophist originally meant “wise”.
  • The original Sophists, notably Gorgias, predated Socrates.
  • Socrates is traditionally represented as anti-Sophist.
  • Plato definitely was anti-Sophist, to the bone.
  • The modern term sophistry is derived from Plato, and is entirely negative. It means phony, hollow, empty, and is a virtual synonym for specious arguments and statements.

So- What was Socrates’ relationship with the Sophists? Is the historical representation accurate, or distorted by Plato?

Grounds for skepticism are many:

  • Sophistry predates Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. That implies at least the possibility that the new philosophers directly conflicted against the old.
  • Greek culture could get as political as Greek politics. Aristophanes considered Sophists to be mere bean counters and pedants, and included Socrates as the foremost Sophist. There were many conflicts and depictions of rivals can’t really be trusted.
  • Selective use of information in literature isn’t exactly unknown. Plato, like any other writer, would have had no problem in using convenient, self-serving examples of Sophist thinking.

Which leaves us with exactly what, in terms of hard facts?

Not a lot, but there is one working clue, through Plato, that undermines his own position. If you read Protagoras, you’ll notice that Socrates never simply makes flat statements. He’s an exponent of if/then logic. He asks questions, clarifies and follows up systematically with extrapolation, based on a logical sequence to defeat Sophist arguments.

This is consistent in all references to Socrates, and it’s a killer in terms of Plato’s representation of Socrates as a purely anti-Sophist thinker. The skeptical finding can only be that Plato used Socrates for his own purposes, in terms of a cultural conflict with the Sophists. There’s no evidence of anti-Sophist intent, simply superior logic and reason.

This is a typical case where you need to decide if you’re skeptical enough. Like Socrates, ask questions, particularly of yourself. You’ll notice that your internal search engine optimization works much the same way.



  1. latsot said,

    March 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    “If you’re a skeptic, you’ve got some obligations to yourself, as well as to your perspectives.”

    Do I really? What are those, exactly? I might say that skepticism is a practice or an attitude or even a whim or an escapade and who is anyone else to argue? It isn’t automatically clear to me that any obligations come with being skeptical or that I should be bound by classical descriptions of what skepticism might or ought to be.

    Personally, I just go around not believing in shit I’ve no reason to believe in but I still feel entitled to call myself a skeptic. But I’m always pleased for first year philosophy students to try to teach me about logic…. 🙂

  2. Jay Walker said,

    March 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    To answer lastot, I think what Maria might have meant by “skeptic” here is a skeptic in the sense of someone who identifies with the modern skeptical movement that includes people like Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, James Randi, Paul Kurtz, et al.

    People who self-identify as this type of skeptic do have a obligation to themselves and their perspectives. My understand of being this kind of modern skeptic is that it isn’t just a label but a way of thinking and living that compels us to be active and constantly questioning our motivations, beliefs, and biases.

    • latsot said,

      April 18, 2011 at 11:34 am


      I wasn’t replying to Maria’s post but to some other replies on this thread which are no longer here for some reason.

      My post hopefully made more sense in the light of those now vanished other posts. For example, the quote doesn’t appear in Maria’s original post.

      • latsot said,

        April 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

        I take it back – I remember this as being part of a wider thread with some other commentators but it looks as though I was wrong. I frequently am.

      • latsot said,

        April 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm

        Although I stand by my first point, of course.

  3. March 22, 2011 at 4:31 am

    […] Skeptical enough? Socrates vs. Sophists: Lessons for modern skeptics ( […]

  4. August 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    […] Skeptical enough? Socrates vs. Sophists: Lessons for modern skeptics ( […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: