Ethical Realism

September 23, 2012

The Difference Between Sophistry & Philosophy

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 11:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Many people confuse “sophistry” with “philosophy.” They think that philosophers are arrogant charlatans who foolishly think they know something. However, that description better fits those we now call “sophists.” What is sophistry? And what is philosophy? Socrates considered philosophy to be a force of good in opposition to sophistry. I will discuss both of these domains in order to help us understand what philosophy is, and why philosophy is not sophistry.

What is sophistry?

The sophists were rhetoric teachers in Athens who lived at the same the as Socrates. They were major intellectual figures, and the term “sophist” means “wise person.” We still use the term “sophisticated” to refer to intelligent or crafty people. At that time “sophistry” was roughly equivalent to “rhetoric,” and rhetoric is the art of persuasion using language. However, the term ‘sophistry’ is now generally used to refer to manipulative forms of rhetoric.

Why sophistry was important

The reason that rhetoric was considered to be important at the time was for at least two reasons:

One, public persuasion (i.e. “oratory”) was very important for their democratic form of government—especially when concerning matters of justice. The citizens would side with experts, such as doctors, when making decisions relevant to the domain of the expert, but no one was considered to be an expert of justice. Justice was a “matter of debate.” So, they relied on arguments and debate in order to decide what should be done concerning matters of justice. Many such arguments were manipulative, just as they are now. You can watch television and see political pundits debate moral issues to see what I’m talking about.

Two, people needed to know how to argue well in case they would go to court. The Athenians settled disputes and investigated crimes similar how we do now. They went to court and sued each other. It happened a lot at the time, and people who knew how to argue well were at an advantage.

Sophistry and manipulation

The fact that rhetoric concerns persuasion means that it can be used for any situation and for any purpose. The orator, Gorgias, said that having profound oratory skills allows him to be more persuasive to non-experts than the experts are. He could convince a patient that his medical advice is superior to a doctor’s, even though he personally knows little to nothing about medical science. Sound familiar? Gorgias is referring to the sophist’s ability to be a charlatan—a false expert who people take too seriously. For example, he could trick people into buying a product for the wrong reasons, just like a snake oil salesmen. Snake oil salesmen sell medicine that doesn’t actually work, so no one should buy their product. And yet these guys have been incredibly popular for thousands of years and can make a great deal of money.

Experts can be persuasive, and rhetoric can be used by experts. The problem with rhetoric is that it is so often used for the wrong reasons. For example, by charlatans.

Consider all the unqualified charlatans who pretend to be experts, such as snake oil salesmen, new age gurus, cult leaders, astrologers, fortune tellers, spin doctors, political pundits, and conspiracy theorists. These people can make a lot of money, even though they have no relevant expertise. They are masters of the art of deception and manipulation. False philosophers, false scientists, false doctors, false political experts, and false wise people have been swindling people out of their money for the entirety of human history. There’s more of them than truly qualified philosophers, scientists, doctors, and wise people—and those who are truly qualified rarely make very much money.

Manipulative argument techniques are known as “fallacies” or “sophisms.” For example, to slander one’s opponent often causes an audience to dismiss the arguments of that opponent even though arguments are either good or bad regardless of who makes them.

Socrates saw sophistry (and rhetoric) as being manipulative. He thought we should rely on the best arguments and expertise rather than the nonrational forms of persuasion that rhetoric was often using. The terms ‘sophistry’ and ‘sophist’ are usually defined in the way Socrates saw them—sophistry as manipulation and sophists as manipulative people.

Sophistry and ethics

Many of the sophists traveled the world and realized that each society had somewhat different moral rules. This convinced many of them that morality is relative—there are no moral facts. Instead, there are merely conventional moral beliefs that people in an area will agree with. Perhaps this also reinforced the “democratic spirit” that everyone’s opinion concerning justice was equally good because there are no ethical experts.

Socrates thought that philosophers could become ethical experts, so he rejected the idea that everyone’s ethical opinion was equal. Socrates thought the sophists who used persuasive arguments in political debates were being charlatans—they were not experts, and their opinions were being taken more seriously than the actual experts.

What is philosophy?

Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom” in Greek. It refers to the attitude of those who want to know the truth and be wise rather than dogmatically hold onto their false beliefs. At one point in time philosophy referred to this general attitude being applied to all domains—science, theology, ethics, and logic were all part of philosophy. Moreover, philosophy referred to a method of rational argumentation and debate to be used in order to attain knowledge. We can then try to sincerely consider what beliefs are supported by the best arguments and evidence. We should generally believe whatever is best justified by arguments in this way. That is also how natural science works. Scientists also consider how well justified various beliefs are, and there are arguments they consider for and against scientific beliefs.

Philosophy is often confused with rhetoric, and people often think philosophers are charlatans—false experts who are taken too seriously. However, the truth is that philosophers are the closest thing we often have to experts, and yet good philosophy is rarely taken seriously by anyone. Philosophers know a lot about logic, but people are rarely interested in learning about logic. Formal logic is now used by computers, and informal logic helps us understand and identify fallacious arguments.

The domain of philosophy

The domain of philosophy is now based on what educational institutions teach in philosophy classes. Natural science is no longer considered to be part of the philosophical domain mainly becauseit’s now better taught in classes outside of the philosophy department. Now philosophy includes ethics, metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of justification, rationality, and knowledge), and logic (the study of consistent, valid, and nonfallacious reasoning). This means that philosophy now mainly involves topics that are more controversial than scientific ones. However, that is not the case with logic, which is less controversial than natural science. Scientists have to rely on our best logic rather than the other way around.

Philosophy as a way of life

The term ‘philosophy’ now mainly refers to the domains of philosophical expertise rather than to general concern for wisdom and knowledge. The interest to attain knowledge is merely assumed to be a goal of philosophy, just like it’s assumed to be the goal of any other person who wants to attain expertise (such in mathematics or science). Such an interest could be considered to be part of a concept of philosophy as being a “way of life.” Additionally, philosophy as a way of life includes an interest to become a better person, to attain happiness, and to live one’s life in accordance with the best ethical expertise available. Those who live a philosophical as a way of life want to know how we should behave, and they try to behave in better ways. They also try to improve themselves by improving their skills of rationality, skills of ethics, and to learn anything that will help them become more ethical.

Are philosophers experts?

Although we know that philosophers want to know something about various things that doesn’t mean they ever do know something about anything at all. However, I think they do know quite a bit. Consider the following:

  • Philosophers who later became known as “scientists” seem to clearly know something. We seem to know a lot about the laws of nature and how we can apply our knowledge to technological achievements.
  • Philosophers who are experts of logic (also known as “logicians”) seem to clearly know something. We now know how to use formal logic to create computers and knowledge of informal logic is used by scientists in order to know which beliefs are best supported by arguments. For example, we know that an insult against a person is not a good reason to reject the person’s argument.
  • We do seem to know something about epistemology. For example, we know that we shouldn’t form beliefs based on fallacious arguments. If we find out that an argument is fallacious, then we should reject the argument. Epistemologists can study hundreds of arguments concerning epistemology in order to have the most informed epistemological beliefs possible.
  • We do seem to know something about ethics. For example, we seem to know that killing all the people we can is the wrong thing to do. Ethicists can study hundreds of arguments concerning ethics in order to have the most informed ethical beliefs possible.
  • We do seem to know something about metaphysics. For example, we seem to know that other people exist and they have minds of their own. Metaphysicians can study hundreds of arguments concerning metaphysics in order to have the most informed metaphysical beliefs possible.

Finally, having informed beliefs are better than uninformed ones. We often form beliefs for the wrong reasons and being informed gives us an opportunity to realize which beliefs are the best supported by arguments.


Experts can persuade others using language. That means experts can use “rhetoric.” However, rhetoric alone does not actually offer us the expertise we need, and it’s often used in manipulative ways. We can call that use of rhetoric “sophistry.” We have a good reason to think that there are philosophers who are not sophists—philosophers who genuinely want to be experts. Finally, we also have a good reason to think that some philosophers are experts.


  1. Great post; indeed the distinction between philosophy (sincere sceptical search for truth, aka a love of wisdom) and sophistry (insincere presentation of falsehood, aka a love of wordplay) is of great importance. The application of philosophy is subtle…yet so deeply engrained in modern society. Those who ridicule philosophy and its nature ironically do so from the edifices which philosophy helped build. Keep up your great work; I enjoy reading your blog posts.

    Comment by Phil — September 24, 2012 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  2. So few are willing to understand this difference. I don’t think the use of sophistry is inextricably linked to falsehood. One could very well be using rhetoric to endorse a truthful claim. Genuine philosophers have all been false at some point or there would have been no need for new ones to emerge. To me philosophy is the acknowledgement of the fallacies of “knowing” and avoiding, even at one’s peril, the end of the examination of all knowledge.

    Comment by mma4cmt — September 26, 2012 @ 3:25 am | Reply

  3. @mma4cmt

    You comment was well stated. We seem to disagree on one thing though: you place the essence of philosophy on “acknowledgement” whilst I place the essence of philosophy on “examination” itself and to this examination there must be a specific method (which would then define the nature of philosophical enquiry itself). However, I do agree that a “specific method of examination” might not be all there is to philosophy and that there is additionally an “intent” and this “intent” (summarized in my initial statement as “sincere”) is what sets a philosopher apart from a sophist whom uses rhetoric (which by its definition is elegant language usage to please, convince or even confuse); that true philosophers have been false/wrong in the past hardly makes them sophists (it merely means they have not reached their intended goal through their specific method of examination). To summarize and clarify my position better: philosophy use a specific method of examination (which involves at its heart scepticism and also something else that I am not at liberty to mention right now) coupled with a specific intent towards truth whilst sophistry uses the exact opposite method of examination (which involves rhetoric with no true regard or commitment towards scepticism on the part of the individual engaging in such) with an intent to please (or convince) regardless of whether that which is pleasing/convincing is truth or falsehood.

    Comment by Phil — September 26, 2012 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  4. We call people “philosophers” for different reasons. The most common reason is that they are truly an expert of philosophy — they have certain qualifications and training. They at least “know” a lot about certain arguments or the history of philosophy. They are qualified to teach classes and either do that or write philosophy. They have a philosophy degree or they have the same expertise as someone who does. A sophist is not qualified to teach classes and does not write philosophy of a high qualities, and probably does not contribute to the philosophical field on a regular basis.

    However, there is a “broad conception” of the philosopher as merely anyone with an interest in learning and who wants to know when they have false beliefs — someone who would only try to manipulate others very rarely based on an unusual ethical reason. Someone who does not value their own opinion enough to be dogmatic.

    I hope the above piece could imply either of these, but the focus was on the first. Sophists are not experts, but philosophers are a kind of expert.

    Comment by JW Gray — September 26, 2012 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  5. Thanks, this was helpful and concise! You cleared-up a lingering mis-definition, and therefore a fallacy. Cheers.

    Comment by Hudi — May 5, 2014 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  6. Reblogged this on Bitratchet and commented:
    Good distinctions here

    Comment by jedreynolds — July 30, 2015 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

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