Monday, September 26, 2016

Sounds Good To Me: The Importance of Resonance Conferences

Over at the Daily Nous, Justin made a recent post about what he calls resonance conferences. Much of the initial post, and almost exclusively all of the comments I read, have dealt with what did or did not happen at those actual conferences. Considering I did not attend either, and am not a member of either (though I have been wanting to attend the Society for Analytic Feminism), I am going to entirely ignore those particular controversies. Instead, I want to talk about resonance conferences as a concept.

Justin defines resonance conferences as such:
Feminism and Christianity are each rather big tents, of course—big enough for lots of disagreement within them. But still, there’s some set of substantive claims associated with each, and many of the attendees at these conferences endorse a sizable subset of those respective claims (which makes those conferences a bit different from, say, a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, or a conference on causation). It would be helpful to have a name for these types of gatherings. Let’s call them resonance conferences. Resonance connotes importance and agreement, and its technical meaning involves different objects vibrating at the same frequency—works pretty well as a metaphor, I think. Do resonance conferences have a different feel to them than standard philosophy conferences, and if so, how? I suspect one difference is that disagreement feels worse at resonance conferences. In part this is because people may go in expecting, well, resonance—people let their guard down among the like-minded—and so can be caught off guard by disagreement they did not brace themselves for. At standard philosophy conferences, one goes in expecting disagreement from top to bottom. An additional part to this may be that disagreement over one particular matter may be more frustrating with a party who agrees with you on nearly everything else than with someone with whom you have few views in common. Another difference might be that attendees at resonance conferences, in virtue of being members of a shared community of sorts, take what happens at such meetings more personally than they might at standard philosophy conferences. They may feel as if they are identified with what happens or with what others say at these meetings, so when something goes wrong, they feel it reflects on them personally. In turn, this may motivate people to try to “make things right,” either by working hard to eliminate disagreement or even by engaging in a kind of public-relations damage control. (Emphasis added, paragraph breaks eliminated). 

Let's bracket for now if the opposite of the resonance conference is really a "standard" conference (are most conferences like the APA?). I want to address why I go so often to resonance conferences, and the good I get out of them, and respond to some of the implicit critiques that Justin is forwarding.

As someone who principally does work within the field of animal philosophy, I mostly go to conferences where most people will be working on animal studies, or I know that there is specific outreach to animal scholars. This is because the usual paper times at a conferences (anywhere from 15-30 minutes) does not provide a lot of time to defend and repeat first principles. So if, for example, you are wanting to expand your work on weak antinatalism in animal ethics, you can't really do this if your only feedback is objection to veganism and vegetarianism, or questioning if we have moral duties at all to animals, and the like. There are certainly times and places where all of that is fine for debate, but a lot of us work in fields were are constantly asked to begin again from first principles, which means we don't get to do the kind of iterative work, and have the kind of feedback that is useful and exciting, that most people get to do at conferences. For example, think of trying to present a paper dealing with the ethics of geoengineering the earth because of global warming, and having most, if not all, of the Q and A eaten up by questions about if global warming is real, or caused by humans, etc. Those are all objections we have to deal with in our role as educators or public intellectuals, but the ability to engage in iterative and technical philosophical argumentation would be entirely derailed if those were the objections raised virtually every time you presented a paper on global warming no matter the specific philosophical intervention. So a lot of us go to the kind of conferences were we can do work, which means having a grounding of agreeing upon certain principles or facts, so that we can debate other principles or facts.

And this is when we need to break out of the metaphor of the resonance, with it's obvious connection to objects being forced to vibrate at the same frequency, and the etymological connections to echoing. We are not hoping to meet zero objections (or any more than any other academic who slightly hopes their paper will wow everyone into immediate agreement), but we are hoping to have different kinds of disagreements. Perhaps we can think of it as fine-tuning. I go to these conferences in order to refine, and strengthen my argument, or face counterarguments I cannot usually encounter at "standard" conferences. Indeed, with the repetition of the same objections over and over again at standard conferences, and the need to repeat the same basic principles again and again, we could in a real way call those standard conferences resonance conferences. But to find new tunes? To be able to get your work to play in a new key? Well, you need to go to these fine-tuning or technical conferences. This all has nothing to do with avoiding disagreement, but with finding interesting and productive disagreement.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Ontological Pluralism in Placebo and Nocebo

Explaining the position of ontological pluralism is both remarkably easy, and absurdly hard, all at once (which, I guess, makes sense for pluralism). It's easy because I come into this through William James' radical empiricism and Whitehead's rejection of the bifurcation of nature. The simplest way to explain James' radical empiricism is to say it refuses the distinction between primary and secondary qualities that we find in Locke. If experience gives us access to reality, than all experience is real. If you experience the German industrial noise band Einstürzende Neubauten as producing melodic and inspiring music, and I experience it as so much terrible noise, than both our experiences are real. They are both true. This is not simply the case of differing opinions dancing upon the solid ground of matters of fact, but rather affirming that we can have two mutually contradictory and equally true propositions about reality.  We can see something like this affirmation of experience in Whitehead, who contends, "Process is the becoming of experience," and the "principle must be repeated: that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (Process and Reality, 166 and 167).

The usual objection is that ontological pluralism is simply relativism. My response to explain why it isn't really an issue of relativism is to point to the question of the placebo. The placebo, as I am sure you all know, is the thing you are given that makes you feel better or cures you, but the thing that made you feel better or cured you does not contain within itself the power that made you feel better. That is a somewhat intentionally awkward way of putting it, but the placebo is really complicated. Take a look at what Elizabeth Wilson describes in her recent book, Gut Feminism.
What the epigraph quote [Placebo (plah-se’bo) [L. “I will please”]. An inactive substance or preparation, formerly given to please or gratify a patient, now also used in controlled studies to determine the efficacy of medical substances] from The American Illustrated Medical Dictionary shows is that around 1951, as the clinical trial is materializing, the placebo is operating in two registers simultaneously: as a prescribed treatment (as outlined by Pepper), and as the no-treatment wing (the control group) of a clinical trial. This confusion, where a substance both treats and does not treat, is what I will exploit in this chapter (123). 
We'll come back to this, but this duality between treatment and no treatment will be key for us. Wilson continues:
The Shapiros argue that prior to the 1950s physicians were usually dispensing placebos, knowingly or unknowingly. If these substances had any measurable effect on the patient, this was due to the powers of suggestion (the so-called placebo effect). Here, then, is another confusion that this chapter will explore: not only do placebos seem to treat and not treat at the same time, but inert placebos also seem to be able to be activated by the forces of persuasion. If an inert substance can be brought to action by suggestion, if a nondrug can become a drug under the sway of a clinician’s care, authority, paternalism, or attention, is there not a muddle (for my purposes, an appealing muddle) between the actions of body and mind? Perhaps the drug and the nondrug (physiology and suggestion) are working the same ontological ground? A third tangle now quickly appears: if the placebo is known to be a kind of sham treatment, why did it not go the way of leeches, trephination, and lobotomy? The strangest of the turns happening around 1951 is this: placebo ends up being folded inside the technology that was allegedly developing to weaken or eradicate it. These days, one of the markers of a robustly designed clinical trial is that it includes some kind of comparison between the drug and placebo [...] To add to the confusion in the literature, sometimes placebos are chosen not because they are inert, but because they mimic the adverse effects of the drug under study (the so-called active placebo). For example, in studying antidepressants, a placebo may be used that mimics the anticholinergic effects of these drugs (e.g., increased heart rate, decreased sweating, decreased gastrointestinal mobility, impaired concentration). This means that patients and doctors are less likely to guess the group (drug or nondrug) to which the patient has been assigned, thus protecting the double-blind protocol of the study and minimizing the forces of suggestion. The convolutions intensify here: use a placebo that is experientially indistinguishable from the drug in order to delineate whether that drug modulates experience more effectively than the placebo. There is a kind of logical peculiarity in such clinical trials where drug and placebo need to be more or less the same in order that we can tell them apart. My concern is not that clinical trials are incoherent or fruitless endeavors, but that there hasn’t been enough attention paid to how their capacity to differentiate between substances requires that those substances are intimately, mutually engaged (123-125).
So that is a big chunk, but I think Wilson is getting to some of the issues of "the bastard placebo." It is not clear if a placebo is treatment or non-treatment, it is not clear if a placebo works by suggestion of the physician, or by active use of whatever is going on with the placebo, and many other issues. But from the standpoint of explaining ontological pluralism, we can simplify the argument. If you are a patient, and you are given the placebo, and the placebo works, in what way can we say that the placebo didn't make you feel better? Did that not happen in reality? Is that not true? But what if you are working to create a drug trial, there is another mode and experience of the placebo. Then, of course, we can say the placebo does not work, it does not treat. So the mode within which you are engaging the placebo matters dramatically about whether it is true, or not (an aside, mode here is my way of trying to gloss James' notion of verification). Okay, so while the placebo is perhaps a strange example to think through, it is does not tend to raise more questions about pluralism than it answers, until, we begin to think of placebo's evil goateed twin, the nocebo.

So, recently I was dragged by friends to see Werner Herzog's new movie, Lo and Behold. In this movie, Herzog gives several minutes to suffers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) These people passionately, with eyes filled by tears, describe the suffering of their sickness. They talk about living in faraday cages in the city, or living in their cars because the metal helps shield them. We meet them living in a town in the middle of Nowhere, West Virginia, because no radio waves are allowed in that area. And mostly they plead to be taken seriously. And that last plea is there because there is no scientific basis for EHS. The strong consensus of the scientific community is that EHS is an example of nocebo, or being harmed by an item that does not contain within itself the thing that harms you. But, just as the people who are made better by the placebo are made better, the people who are hurt by the nocebo are truly being harmed. They are honestly suffering. However, if you look online, you will find articles that engage in various forms of mockery of people suffering from EHS (this Wired article, for example, puts the word victims in scare quotes). I don't know what to do for people who suffer from EHS, or what it means to share a globally connected world with this roughly 1-3 percent of the population that suffers from EHS. It does strike me, however, that telling people to just get over it, or that it is "merely" in their heads is both absurd, and almost certainly cruel.

The problem with pluralism, but also its strength, is that we can no longer simply proceed as if we have the truth on our side. The model of politics, but also of the good life, that sees us as subjects of truth events that we then militate on behalf of is no longer really compelling from a position of ontological pluralism. What is instead the project of pluralism is building ways to cohabit this earth together. When Deleuze raises the figure of mediators, or Stengers the idea of the diplomat, or Boaventura de Sousa Santos propose the project of translation, they are all differently refusing the model of the militant spreading their truth, and instead presenting figures who are engaged in projects of negotiation, collaboration, revision, and persuasion. Ontological pluralism is a struggle because it is the opposite of relativism and liberal tolerance, and instead the "production of novel togetherness" where we are "drops of experience, complex and interdependent" (Whitehead, PR, 21 and 18).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Against Grief Shaming: Hume and the making of sympathy

So, recently 323 reindeer died by lightening in Norway. Maybe you, like me, saw this on your social media feeds. I had several friends who are not into animal activism obviously sadden by this mass death of reindeer. But of course, certain people in animal rights circles immediately pointed out how hypocritical it was to mourn for these reindeer, but not be bothered by the deer who routinely hunted and killed here. The usual cited number is about six million white tailed deer are killed by hunters annually in the United States. So if you are sad about 323 reindeer dying, you should be devastated by the millions of deer killed every year. This isn't just about reindeer, either. Bigger examples occured after the killing of Cecil the Lion and Harambe the Gorilla. In each case we have large number of people who are not concerned about animal rights issues, suddenly being outraged or sadden by the deaths of these animals. Part of this, of course, is simply the issue of charismatic megafauna (and Jamie Lorimer's work here is canonical for good reason). But I want to focus on tendency to engage in a kind of grief shaming that certain parts of the animal rights community tries to push. While I have focused in the past on how mourning other animals is denied and unrealized in our present world, I want to briefly turn our attention to this inversion in which certain animal activists say that the selective mourning of animals is illegitimate. I am both very sympathetic to this claim, but I want us to think of trying to move in a different direction.

In order to rethink what is going on with the selective mourning of other animals, I want us to quickly think about the early modern thought experiment of the state of nature. So, if you remember your Hobbes and your Locke, the problem with the state of nature is that everyone could kill each other, or could steal from each other, and there could therefore exist no security or trust. So we engage in a social contract, where we cede part of our freedom (like my freedom to kill and steal) to the civil society or the sovereign. By ceding those bits of our freedom, we get security and trust. Now, Hume found this argument kind of strange. After all, we are born as atomistic individuals like you think reading Hobbes and Locke, but rather we are born into families. And however messed up those families were, we mostly had security and trust within them. For Hume, this changes the political and ethical project. It is no longer how do we cede part of our freedom for the social contract, but rather, how do we overcome the "inequality of affections"? To put it another way, the issue is not we are too ego-bound, but that our sympathies are too limited, too partial, too tribal. The political question is no longer how to limit the egotistic individual, the political question is how to create and build the institutions that can extend our sympathies. As Deleuze glosses in Empiricism and Subjectivity:
In this sense, the idea that Hume forms of society is very strong. He presents us with a critique of the social contract which not only the utilitarians but also the majority of the jurists opposed to “natural law” would have to take up again. The main idea is this: the essence of society is not the law but rather the institution. The law, in fact, is a limitation of enterprise and action, and it focuses only on a negative aspect of society. The fault of contractual theories is that they present us with a society whose essence is the law, that is, with a society which has no other objective than to guarantee certain preexisting natural rights and no other origin than the contract. Thus, anything positive is taken away from the social, and instead the social is saddled with negativity, limitation, and alienation. The entire Humean critique of the state of nature, natural rights, and the social contract, amounts to the suggestion that the problem must be reversed. The law cannot, by itself, be the source of obligation, because legal obligation presupposes utility. Society cannot guarantee preexisting rights: if people enter society, it is precisely because they do not have preexisting rights. We see clearly in the theory of promise which Hume proposes how utility becomes a principle opposed to the contract. Where is the fundamental difference? Utility is on the side of the institution. The institution, unlike the law, is not a limitation but rather a model of actions, a veritable enterprise, an invented system of positive means or a positive invention of indirect means. This understanding of the institution effectively reverses the problem: outside of the social there lies the negative, the lack, or the need. The social is profoundly creative, inventive, and positive. (45-46)
This means that the issues of grief over reindeer and named lions and gorillas is a classical Humean problem, that people's sympathies are too partial. I worry that pointing out hypocrisy is a way of telling people to have less sympathy. I do not clearly understand how to build the institutions to extend people's sympathies, but we have to remember when we engage, to engage at that level. This project, therefore, should be seen as a kind of extension of the work of feminist ethics of care when it comes to animals (and here I would plug Lori Gruen's relatively recent book, Entangled Empathy, as an essential way of looking as what a project of empathy looks like with other animals and humans).

Ultimately, the issue is not that some people are hypocrites, or engage in "moral schizophrenia." The issue is that they are engaged in the same sort of partial sympathies that we all engage in one form or another. We all have times we engage in an inequality of affections that keep us from extending the moral community to where it should be. So, the project is one of building institutions (not just political, but also aesthetic and ethical, that is to say, cultural and affective) to extend our sympathies. What are the institutions, practices, and artifices we can create to overcome these limitations? What are the affects and the abstractions, the precepts and the concepts, we can multiply and circulate? How do we create a matrix that allows us to change and transform the vectors of desire? These are questions about what beings we are to become, what worlds we are to make.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ancient Chaosmos: In Defense of the Sophists, part 2.

(Read Part I).

Protagoras, in Aristotle's On Rhetoric, is suppose to have said: ton hēttō logon kreittō poiein. "And this is 'to make the weaker seem the better cause.' Thus, people were rightly angry at the declaration of Protagoras; for it is a lie and not true but a fallacious probability and a part of no art except rhetoric and eristic" (p. 189). I highly suggest reading all of chapter six of Edward Schiappa's Protagoras and Logos in order to understand the nuances of this fragment, and its various translations. As both Schiappa and Gagarin point out, a perhaps better way of translating the phrase is "to make the weaker argument stronger." There are several ways to analyze this fragment, few of them as being fundamentally about deception or being misleading. However, as Schiappa points out, many of the translations add words to translate the fragment as to make the weaker argument appear, seem, or otherwise be better than another argument, which is the better argument. But when we see the fragment as to make the weaker argument stronger, we can take it as a fundamental pedagogical point. When I am grading students' papers, and I am telling them how to improve their arguments, I am engaged in ton hēttō logon kreittō poiein. This interpretation would follow (as several commentators have pointed out) by looking at Protagoras' defense in Plato's Theaetetus
Remember what has been already said, that to the sick man his food appears to be and is bitter, and to the man in health the opposite of bitter. Now I cannot conceive that one of these men can be or ought to be made wiser than the other: nor can you assert that the sick man because he has one impression is foolish, and the healthy man because he has another is wise; but the one state requires to be changed into the other, the worse into the better. As in education, a change of state has to be effected, and the sophist accomplishes by words the change which the physician works by the aid of drugs (emphasis added).
Not all arguments that begin off weak are false, and it is the pedagogical duty to, like the physician, help make weak arguments into stronger ones. As Gagarin points out, "The weaker logos sometimes turns out to be the just logos" (p. 26). Sometimes it is the logos that is seen as absurd and unhearable that most needs to be turned stronger in order for justice to occur. But, you may be asking, didn't the sophists still, as Aristotle argued, train their students in the art of eristic?

Eristic, as Wikipedia informs us, can be glossed as in "philosophy and rhetoric, eristic (from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord) refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, rather than searching for truth." What we have here, as Kerferd argues in The Sophistic Movement, is a relationship between eristic, antilogic (or antilogy), and dialectic. The dialectic of Plato and Aristotle is the method, whatever differences there may be, that they both support for the discovery of truth. Antilogy (which, following Gagarin, we are using to gloss Antilogiai) is the method of bringing opposing logoi on the same issue together. Antilogy is a key strategy of the sophists, reflecting Protagoras' statement that "there are two logoi on every subject opposed to one another." Now, neither Plato nor Aristotle were opposed to antilogy, they both saw it as an important part of the dialectic. The problem, however, was that the sophists refused the dialectic, and thus Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle all come to see the sophistic antilogy as key to the eristic; in other words antilogy divorced from the dialectic and therefore divorced from truth. But if the sophists were so interested in winning arguments, why did they refuse to push the antilogy into the dialectic? As Michael Gagarin asks in his article of the same name, did the sophists aim to persuade? 

I can't fully relate the subtle moves and proofs of Gagarin's article, and I suggest reading it in full. However, Gagarin argues that the central practice of sophistic oratory and arguments were not persuasion. If they wanted to persuade, why were so many of the most famous sophistic arguments too clever by half? He spends time with Gorgias' defense of Helen. Rather than pursue the easier, and more persuasive elements, Gorgias focuses on the more counter-intuitive defenses of Helen. Indeed, the speech itself is strange, characterized by extreme assonance, and Diodorus Siculus said the audience was captivated by "the strangeness of [Gorgias'] style." (Gagarin, AA, p. 20). Or take this antilogy:
Less obvious as an antilogy, perhaps, is a logos attributed to the supposed inventors of rhetoric, Corax and Tisias (who were mentioned brie􏰝y above), the only logos of theirs that is likely to be authentic. In Aristotle’s version (Rhetoric 2.24.11, 1402a17–28), which he attributes to Corax, after a fi􏰜ght between a weak man and a strong man, the weak man gives a probability argument to the effect that it is not likely that he, a weak man, assaulted a strong man; the other replies with a reverse probability argument, that he is not likely to have assaulted a weak man, since he, a strong man, would immediately be suspected of the crime. In other words, because he was likely to do it, he was therefore unlikely to do it (Gagarin, "Did the Sophists..." p. 282). 
Such an argument, as Gagarin explains, is less persuasive, and something more like a paradox of Zeno's. Gagarin's point is that the sophists were less interested in strict persuasion, but more in pleasure, delight, and even truth. Much like a paradox from Zeno. 

I would make another point about the antilogy, one tied into the shared pedagogical focus of the sophists and current professors. When I teach my Moral Philosophy class, I often proceed through a series of antilogies (assuming that an issue can have more than two sides). So when I teach Kant, I want my students to become Kantians. And when we then to turn to Mill, I want my students to become utilitarians. I try to provide the strongest argument for each of the thinkers we explore. I do not, actually, have any desire for the students leaving my classroom to be Kantians or utilitarians. But nor am I practicing a classroom dialectic where I hope that at the end of the class, we have all come to agree about the shared truth of moral philosophy. Rather, what I am teaching by staying in the antilogy is euboulia, good judgement or deliberating well. In other words, exactly what Protagoras claims to be teaching in his dialogue by Plato. I am not hoping that students leaving my classroom merely have a better understanding of Kant or Mill or Held, but rather that they are able to think (as understood by Arendt and Deleuze). But in what way is thinking allied with the truth? 

As Barbara Cassin argues in Sophistical Practice:
That single, dominant path of ontology goes from Parmendies to Plato via a certain reading of Aristotle up to Heidegger. [...]  I found a very simple model and countermodel, perhaps also a little caricaturish. The model is Parmenides’s Poem and Platonico-Aristotelian ontology, and the countermodel is the sophistic. Parmenidean ontology is wonderfully analyzed by Heidegger. He shows the connection, the cobelonging between being and speaking: to speak is to speak Being. To be, to think and to say are one and the same. That leads directly to Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the Way to Language) and to the way in which a human being is entrusted with the “Being There” (Dasein) who will speak Being. The countermodel, I no longer call it ontology but “logology,” to take up the term Novalis used to refer to discourse insofar as it is primarily concerned with itself. Sophistics is that second type of logos. (pp. 9-12). 
It is hard not to immediately contrast Parmendies' On Nature with Gorgias provocative work On Non-Being. Also worth remembering is that Protagoras claimed to not know if the gods existed, and furthermore, famously contended that "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not." This could be a position of relativism, but is also, undoubtedly, a position of pluralism. Protagoras seems to be arguing for some sort of ontological and existential pluralism. It is for this position that, as Cassin reminds us, Aristotle specifically excludes the sophist from intelligibility in his Metaphysics, because the sophist violates the principle of noncontradiction. The sophistic position is closer to radical empiricism and Jamesian pragmatism than it is to Platonic Truth. If, as the X-Files tell us, the Truth is out there, and all we need is the dialectic to discover it, the sophists are an obvious threat, and rhetoric and philosophy stand opposed. However, if truth is complicated, perhaps even plural, and if in order to find the truth we have to hear the unhearable and see the unseeable, then rhetoric becomes an essential element of aisthesis and philosophy.
In this way the bringing into relationship of two unconnected things becomes the measure of what is incommensurable between two orders: between the order of the inegalitarian distribution of social bodies in a partition of the perceptible and the order of the equal capacity of speaking beings in general. It is indeed a question of incommensurables. But these incommensurables are well gauged in regard to each other, and this gauge reconfigures the relationships of parts and parties, of objects
likely to give rise to dispute, of subjects able to articulate it. It produces both new inscriptions of equality within liberty and a fresh sphere of visibility for further demonstrations. Politics is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds (Ranciere, Disagreement, p. 42, emphasis added). 
This is perhaps what Deleuze understood in his own discussion of the sophists in his essay, "The Simulcrum and Ancient Philosophy." Against Platonic hierarchy, the sophists introduce a kind of chaos at the heart of representation. "There is a point where Joyce is Nietzschean when he shows that the vicus of recirculation can not affect and cause a 'choasmos' to revolve. To the coherence of representation, the eternal return substitutes  something else entirely--its own chaodyssey (chao-errance)" (p. 264). Against the ontology of Parmendies the sophists introduce an ancient chaosmos. And perhaps then the sophists did practice eristic. Not in the sense as above, but as a discourse of chaos and incommensurability, where the unresolved antilogy seeks to provide us with the good judgement to live together when we must navigate the truth of the worlds.

One last point, of a far too long blog post. Recently my friend Joseph Trullinger has sought to distinguish between philosophers, the friends of wisdom, and philonikers, the friends of victory. Even if you think the sophists have it all wrong, I hope, at least, that you might take them seriously as philosophers engaged in an egalitarian pedagogy and a project of truth. But that means we might need a term for those who seek to undermine philosophical discussion by appearing too clever, by advancing needless arguments, and various other issues. Perhaps (though unlikely) Trullinger's philoniker might catch on in place of the sophist. If nothing else, Trullinger makes it clear that we are all occasionally a philoniker. Which is important, because the philoniker is not some outside threat, not another charlatan movement that needs to be unmasked (like the moves against Derrida and Butler), but is rather a tendency we are all susceptible to, and we must all work against. Our dismissal of the sophists have always provided us with an easy insult to steal the ethos of our philosophical rivals, and justify our refusal to take them seriously. Philoniker seems to gesture toward some shared issue, and therefore reflects an egalitarianism that I think many sophists would approve of.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Welcome to The Thinkery: Two Logoi Enter, One Logos Leaves

I am a professional philosopher, but I also have a long background in competitive academic debate, having both participated and coached it for many years. While I have taught more classes in departments of Philosophy, I have also taught many classes in departments of Communication Studies and Rhetoric. Now, except for the rather confused CV this has given me, it hardly seems worth mentioning. Except the feud between philosophers and sophists seems to have never ended for some. I know, I know, ever since Hegel invited the Sophists back to the party, one would have thought it was over. But again and again, we see a strange turf war between philosophers and sophists, wisdom and debate, truth and rhetoric.
Thus, Henry Sidgwick argued that the sophists were:
a set of charlatans who appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned an ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines...they were there met and overthrown by Socrates, who exposed the hollowness of their rhetoric, and triumphantly defended sound ethical principles against their pernicious sophistries (originally quoted in Patricia O'Grady's "What Is a Sophist?" p. 12). 
And here, check out this quotation of David Brooks, mostly quoting Robert George:
Read Plato's ''Gorgias.'' As Robert George of Princeton observes, ''The explicit point of the dialogue is to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy (the quest for wisdom and truth) to rhetoric (the art of persuasion in the cause of victory). At a deeper level, it teaches that the worldly honors that one may win by being a good speaker can all too easily erode one's devotion to truth -- a devotion that is critical to our integrity as persons. So rhetorical skills are dangerous, potentially soul-imperiling, gifts.'' Explains everything you need to know about politics and punditry (Originally cited in Boyarin's "The Scandal of Sophism").
We could be here all day if we continued to cite over the top accusations against sophists and rhetoricians, and on the general superiority of philosophy. But why are the sophists so hated? What vile crimes are they accused of?

This is the weird part, because so many of the terrible things about the sophists have not aged well. They are constantly charged with being foreigners. They are not citizens of Athens. That sort of xenophobia shouldn't carry much wait these days. Also, the sophists are accused of taking money for their teachings. I still hear this accusation made against the sophists. Often, awkwardly, by other people who accept money for their teaching. I mean I know lots of people who have moved to new cities in order to take pay and teach young people how to speak, write, persuade, think, and ponder morality and justice. Now, who is it that these sophists taught? Well, horrifically enough, they taught basically anyone who would have them. This trait is what led to Xenophon's Socrates to explain that the sophists are the same as prostitutes. This is part of a broader aristocratic mentality of thinkers like Plato and Xenophon, their belief that the only ones who should be taught are those who deserve to be taught. Against this view, the sophists forwarded the idea that training and practice could matter as much as human nature in terms of creating an engaged citizenry. One of the fragments we have of Protagoras makes this point, "Teaching requires natural talent (physis) and practice (askesis)." Furthermore, as Michael Gagarin notes in Antiphon the Athenian:
The Sophists were just as critical, both of earlier writers, especially the poets, and of each other. They also criticize specific institutions, such as the legal system. But unlike Heraclitus and other Presocratics, they do not criticize or belittle people in general for lacking intelligence or for having no comprehension. On the contrary, in the Protagoras, Protagoras defends the practice of allowing everyone a say on matters of public concern. Not all Sophists would go so far, but in contrast to the explicit elitism of the Presocratics, the Sophists tend to be more populist, criticizing primarily the views of traditional authorities, not those of ordinary people (p. 19).
I am laying all of this out so that you can understand that many of the attacks of the sophists were part of a broader tension around egalitarians and elitism, around cosmopolitanism and tribalism, and around secularity and religious beliefs. But all of this, you would be correct in saying, is not the real charge that allowed sophists and sophistry to be used as pejoratives to this time. Rather it is that the sophists practiced eristics and had no concern with the truth.

The idea that the sophists were unconcerned with the truth is certainly one of the odder claims made, concerning how often they wrote on it, and at least with what we have left, that they treated the truth as a positive value. Again, Gagarin:
Far more complex than their quest for correctness and precision is the Sophists' view of and attitude toward truth. Plato attacks them on this point, maintaining ironically that “Protagoras’s Truth is true to nobody” (Theaetetus I7Ic), that rhetoric deals in falsehood (Gorgias 458e— 459C, etc.), and that his predecessors honored probabilities more highly than truth (Phaedrus 267a, 272d—273c). Although both Protagoras and Antiphon wrote works entitled Truth, none of their preserved fragments explicitly discusses this subject. In their surviving works, however, the Sophists and orators consistently present truth as a positive value, even a primary goal, while recognizing that truth is often a matter of judgment rather than fact, and is often difficult if not impossible to determine (p. 28).
But, didn't the sophists seek to undermine the search of truth by making sure that bad arguments were more convincing? Isn't that the whole point of rhetoric? Didn't Protagoras say that he was going to make the worse argument appear to be the better? Well, not exactly.

Read Part Two Here.