A Philosopher's Blog

The Return of Sophism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2017

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:


Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.


Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.


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9 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 4, 2017 at 10:07 am

    There is no neutrality.
    All facts are interpreted facts.
    Everyone reasons with a priori assumptions.

    “All men have a priori assumptions in terms of which they approach the facts that confront them.” ~ Cornelius Van Til

  2. DH said, on January 4, 2017 at 11:03 am

    When I was young, I shocked my mother when I said, “The truth really doesn’t matter to people; what matters is what they think is true”. Today, I think that from a practical point of view that remains valid; but I also believe that Truth (with a capital T) is really, for the most part, unknowable. Oh, we can (and do) learn facts, but facts are only facts until they are disproven.

    You continue to offer up examples of Trump’s lies – but in the example you give today I would say that neither you nor Trump have any idea of whether or not what he said was true. It doesn’t matter if he has “facts” to back it up, nor does it matter whether or not these “facts” actually exist. As I said in an earlier post, there are a number of possibilities regarding illegal voting – it may not exist beyond what has been uncovered, it may be as Trump says or far worse and we just haven’t discovered it, or it may be as Trump says or far worse and it HAS been discovered and is being covered up. You of all people should know that you cannot prove a negative – that you cannot simply say, “I am unable to prove this, so it is not true”. Even in a court of law, the inability to prove guilt does not make a person innocent, only unable to be convicted (like OJ Simpson, for example).

    Trump’s statements, which seem to shock you and others, are really no more than populist rhetoric intended to stir up the base. Not too much different than Obama’s promise to “stem the rising tide of the oceans”, or his incessant castigation and blame of the Bush administration for all of his failures to fix the economy. There is probably some truth to it, but it was a meme that had legs and certainly worked to garner support for him and so he went with it – most likely knowing in his mind that his own ideas and attempts to fix were not working as he had planned.

    On the other hand, there are some facts that ARE provable. While you take a certain amount of glee in railing against Trump and his lies, you completely ignore those of Hillary Clinton, which have been proven, and are far more indictable than those of Trump. Trump is not lying about criminal activity, or compromising national security.

    The fact that Hillary Clinton has not been indicted for her actions or her perjury, from a pure syllogistic point of view, is irrelevant. Aside from the power she has to influence decisions from a political point of view, it is no different from the OJ Simpson trial – just because the state cannot make a compelling enough case against her with properly obtained evidence, means nothing with regard to the Truth. In fact, Director Comey even said that the evidence exists – he has shown it to us, and his decision not to indict was NOT a matter of lack of evidence, but a choice on the part of the FBI.

    • TJB said, on January 4, 2017 at 11:40 am

      Let’s not forget that the reason Comey was making this call instead of the AG was that Loretta Lynch was hopelessly compromised after having been caught having a secret meeting with Bill Clinton.

  3. TJB said, on January 4, 2017 at 11:37 am

    “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

    ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    Clearly, in order to have a conversation, people must start by agreeing on a common set of facts. What I think Scottie Nell Hughes was trying to say is that it is getting ever more difficult to agree on a common set of facts.

    Mike, thank you for trying to actually understand the point she was trying to make rather than ripping her words out of context and mocking her.

    • WTP said, on January 4, 2017 at 12:53 pm

      Mike, thank you for trying to actually understand the point she was trying to make rather than ripping her words out of context and mocking her.

      Which is it’s own form of sophistry, is it not? Do understand that as Mike closes in on the event horizon for sophistry, sarcasm, or any form of communication actually, becomes meaningless.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2017 at 7:19 pm

        Wait, are you saying that trying to understand what someone means is sophistry? If so, I’m not sure what you might mean by the term “sophist.”

        • wtp said, on January 4, 2017 at 9:13 pm

          There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

          Now perhaps this was an error on my part but I take the above to be speaking in the context of politics, not a rejection of facts existing in the real world. Thus I took TJ’s comment as sarcasm. Though I’ve never known you to be all that concerned about the real world, what with the Assuming it exists and all. I have hunted around for a full transcript (I am not sitting through 40 minutes of NPR blather) for context but could not find such. Did you transcribe the above yourself, get it from some other leftist regurgitator, or is there a source you can provide for the full thing? Perhaps I missed something in the full context in which case, I’ll admit I’m wrong here. Though as I say, as we approach the event horizon for sophistry, words become meaningless. 😉

          But in the context of truthy-truthiness, I do not see any evidence that she works for the Trump campaign. While she seems to be a supporter, she works for several media outlets, is calling her a “surrogate” truthful?

          a substitute, especially a person deputizing for another in a specific role or office.
          “she was regarded as the surrogate for the governor during his final illness”
          synonyms: substitute, proxy, replacement; More
          (in the Christian Church) a bishop’s deputy who grants marriage licenses.
          a judge in charge of probate, inheritance, and guardianship.

          If she is a “surrogate”, seems rather self-appointed. Stretching the meaning of truth itself. I did a little bit of searching around regarding the woman, whom I don’t believe I have ever heard from before, and I see where the leftist hive was all abuzz about this statement. From such truthy truth suppliers as Jezebel, Mediaite, etc. And cute how you all repeat the adjective “surrogate”. Some coincidence. So it seems that facts are facts when some obscure right-side commentor raises the issue but facts are open to interpretation when someone on the left does…Apropos of nothing but to the point of truth vs. sophistry, let me give you yet another opportunity to truthfully answer this question, posed originally a while back by TJ I believe, “Hands-up, don’t shoot” fact or fiction?

          Or for that matter, why no reply to TJ when you asked him for references on this subject and he provided them?

          Why no response to the numerous questions raised by not just DH or TJ but also newbies Joe Postove or Larry Sanger or that Byrd guy, all in the interest of pursuing truth, in regard to Fake News posts? Picking and choosing what one highlights in regard to facts refuted or facts buried is one of the key tools of sophistry. But of course you know that.

          • wtp said, on January 4, 2017 at 9:18 pm

            Damn…dropped part of my point….in the quoted material at top, the “anymore” implies, to me, unless the past has somehow transmogrified with the latest sophistry, that truth did exist at one time and thus something has changed in political discussion, not within reality itself.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      I think that Hughes was going beyond the factual claim that people agree less on facts; she seemed to be endorsing relativism as a philosophical position.

      If, however, she just means that people disagree about the facts and do so along ideological lines, then she is right.

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