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Sophisticated October 26, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Philosophy.

In ancient Greece, the sophists were intellectuals who charged money for teaching the art of rhetoric. They were of the opinion that language cannot be used to uncover truth, but is rather a tool for convincing others and getting one’s way. They maintained that language can be used to construct equally valid arguments which lead to opposite conclusions.

There is a tale about a student of the sophist Protagoras (known for saying that “man is the measure of all things”), who declined to pay at the end of his lesson — claiming that he had not in fact learned any persuasion skills. Protagoras thought for a moment, then suggested that they argue the case before a judge. If the judge ruled in Protagoras’s favor, then the student must pay; on the other hand, if the judge found in the student’s favor, then the student must have learned some persuasion skills from Protagoras after all, and should therefore pay for the lesson.

The student considered Protagoras’s proposition, and finally declared that he had no objection to taking the case before a judge. After all, if the judge should find in the student’s favor, then he need not pay; and if the judge ruled against the student, that would show that the student’s rhetorical skills remained poor — and so Protagoras had not earned his fee.

The Greek philosophers detested the sophists.


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