The Pre-Socratics part 7 – The Sophists

In this next text through the history of philosophy we will be looking at a controversial, but influential group. Most of the information we have about this group comes to us from the writings of Plato, who didn’t like them very much (Kenny, 2010). So this biased view is something we have to keep in mind when reading and learning about them.

This group was known as the Sophists. They were a group of well-educated men who made their living by travelling through different cities offering education on several subjects including philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, history, geography (Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). However, their main focus of study was in debating and arguing (Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946).

They were mainly active around 5th century, a time during which Democracy and democratic institutions where at the core of most things in Athenian society (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). Thus, to either obtain political power and rise in this world, or plead for yourself in court, your main tool was persuasion (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). In either situation, you would have to use words to persuade the present assembly into taking or side or turning them against your opponents (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946) This lead to most of the Sophist’s clients to be young men either trying to get into a political career or to make a case in court (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). Initially, the word ‘Sophist’, meant something similar to what we mean by a ‘professor’ in present day (Russel, 1946). However, possibly with some influence of Plato, this name started having a different meaning. Presently, ‘sophistry’ (what is practiced by a ‘sophist’) is understood as meaning using argumentative tricks, such as using misleading words in sentences that sound true, but without any facts to back them up, to persuade people (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010) So if you call someone a Sophist, you’re saying they use deceptive arguments on purpose to persuade people of something, independently of there being any truth behind what you’re saying (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010) – basically a present-day politician.

A day to day application of Sophist relativism

Several sophists where well known throughout history, but if you had to chose one name to represent them, that would have to be Protagoras (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946)

One, if not the most famous of Protagoras sayings is “Man is the measure of all things, both of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not” (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). This is one of the first clear instances of a relativist epistemology (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946)

Protagoras firmly believed that what is true to a particular person is true for that person. The natural conclusion to this is that everyone’s beliefs are truth, but the only form of truth that exists is a relative one (Kenny, 2010). Because of this view, Protagoras was said to have been someone who could argue equally for both sides of any question (Kenny, 2010), because he didn’t see any of the arguments being truer or better in an absolute manner, they could only be truer or better than the other in a way relative to each person (Adamson, 2014). This view that an independent, objective truth does not exist fits withing the philosophical school of scepticism, leading to the Sophists also being seen as sceptics (Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). A sceptic is anyone who views the truth as something very, very difficult, even impossible, to discover (Kenny, 2010). As an universal, objective idea of truth does not exist, its replacement with a relative form of truth is considered by some a form of scepticism in itself (Kenny, 2010).

Another well-know Sophist, with similar sceptical views was Gorgias, who in his work “On What is Not”, argued three conclusions (Kenny, 2010):

  1. That there is nothing.
  2. That if there is anything, it cannot be known.
  3. That if anything can be known, it cannot be communicated by one person to another.

He reached these conclusions mainly through complex plays on semantics and wording, and all have been answered throughout history by different philosophers, the first by Socrates (as told by Plato), the second by Aristotle and the third on in the XX century by Wittgenstein (Kenny, 2010). I will cover these in other texts about the respective philosophers, the first two soon, and hopefully my sense of duty will keep me going until the last. This highlights an important role that the Sophists had, despite their fancy, misleading word-play and extreme view that as there is no absolute truth, persuasion is all we have (Adamson, 2014). It was through their role as argumentative adversaries that other philosophers where pushed to reflect on the nature of reality and truth, develop and polish some of the many influential ideas they have been accredited with throughout history.

I think this beautifully illustrates the importance of dialogue with people who share viewpoints that are different or opposite to ours. Ideas can be improved through the synthesis of a thesis and its antithesis.

Illustration of the indirect role of Sophists on the great ideas of history

If we reflect on the notion of truth, science has demonstrated certain facts about our reality, such as gravity, we know that there is certain knowledge we are still very far from attaining and we can question if we ever will. After all, we humans have limitations in our ability to understand the world and are less rational than we would like to admit.

Making parallelism to my clinical practice, we have evidence that informs on fundamental rules such as anatomy and physiology, which factors have an impact on someone’s presentation and recovery, with some of these aspects being quantifiable in an objective way. However, even in the quantifiable variables, we often work within statistical intervals, and we always must adapt the evidence to the individual in front of us: a relative application of systematically ascertained facts.

On the other hand, in no way is this a justification that all options you pick have the same value behind them and that you can just do whatever you want. One thing is being aware of a degree of relativism, another whole thing is having an uncritical approach to clinical practice. This will be answered by the same argument that Democritus presented to Protagoras: this view is self-refuting because if all beliefs are true, then the belief that not every belief is true will itself also be true (Kenny, 2010).

But what do you think? Is there an absolute truth we should strive for?

Or do you think that only our subjective perception of things will matter as long as it sounds right?

If it helped you live your life in a better or more comfortable way, would you accept and defend a belief independently of the truth behind it?

I hope to see you amazing nerds in the next text,

The Physiolosopher.


Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Kenny, A. 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy: In Four Parts. Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Russel, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: