The Return of Sophism

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.

 

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  1. Kevin Henderson

    Relativism breaks in the face of empiricism. Physical laws are never questioned by the public, e.g., gravity, electromagnetism. Engineering controls are rarely disputed, e.g., clean water, air bags. Public funding, on the other hand, and government endorsed policies and regulations are enthusiastically debated.

    Truth in the public sphere does tend to be statistically Bayesian but with time constants that are not instantaneous and mutually exclusive solutions. The natural world, however, does not care what truth is and lives are put together by those things that matter.

    Sophists do have an advantage over the ignorant. They can make them inactive spectators always consumed by wandering for the truth. Better to take advantage of the many things we already know about a make use of that knowledge.

  2. It should be mentioned that there are two different ontological conceptions of facts:

    1. “Fregean facts” as things that are true: facts as truths, as true “thoughts”, i.e. true propositions.
    2. “Russellian/Wittgensteinian facts” as things that are the case: facts as actual, obtaining states of affairs.

    By the way, people should listen to Frege:

    “Being true is different from being taken to be true, whether by one or many or everybody, and in no case is to be reduced to it. There is no contradiction in something’s being true which everybody takes to be false.” (p. 13)

    “One could scarcely falsify the sense of the word ‘true’ more mischievously than by including in it a reference to the subjects who judge.” (p. 14)

    (Frege, Gottlob. The Basic Laws of Arithmetics: Exposition of the System. 1893. Translated and edited by Montgomery Furth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.)

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