Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On sophistry and modern variations

One of the more unfortunate aspects of modern debates is the fascination with 'meta.' In particular 'meta' discussions I have found to be particularly distracting and at other times those who employ such tactics are simply dishonest.

My feelings about 'meta' are aptly described by Jeff Atwood:
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the meta. It's seductive in a way that is subtly but deeply dangerous. It's far easier to introspect and write about the process of, say .. blogging .. than it is to think up, research, and write about an interesting new topic on your blog. Meta-work becomes a reflex, a habit, an addiction, and ultimately a replacement for real productive work.
In particular meta-argument and meta-discussion I find to be particularly odious. While at times it may be useful to reflect on style of argumentation, it can quickly become a substitute for actual thinking, as well as a dishonest form of argumentation.

But such people are not new to the world. The ancient Greeks struggled with what are called 'sophists.' Sophists studied rhetoric solely for the purpose of learning how to convince people. What they convinced people of what irrelevant, only that they got paid.

The Greek philosophers reviled the Sophists for good reason. The Sophist offered nothing save for the power to convince. There was no truth, no purpose in such thinking. Only the perversion of language and discussion to manipulate people. It was an anti-philosophy.

The modern inheritors of sophistry are the meta-discussion and meta-argument types. Like their predecessors they propose nothing and advance nothing save their own entertainment. Far from advancing knowledge it hinders because truth is not what is sought, but a side effect at best. In another post we will examine why sophistry and its modern permutations are so dangerous to actual thought.

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