Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy

By “politics” I mean the business of acquiring and applying governmental power, which involves — among other things — persuading the electorate, either directly or through advertising and the utterances of political allies and friendly “opinion elites” among journalists and academicians.

“Sophistry” is more complex. Its meaning has evolved, as described at Wikipedia:

The Greek word sophos, or sophia, has had the meaning “wise” or “wisdom” since the time of the poet Homer and originally was used to describe anyone with expertise in a specific domain of knowledge or craft. For example, a charioteer, a sculptor or a warrior could be described as sophoi in their occupations. Gradually, however, the word also came to denote general wisdom and especially wisdom about human affairs (in, for example, politics, ethics, or household management)….

In the second half of the 5th century BC, particularly at Athens, “sophist” came to denote a class of mostly itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in various subjects, speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others: “Sophists did, however, have one important thing in common: whatever else they did or did not claim to know, they characteristically had a great understanding of what words would entertain or impress or persuade an audience.”…

Plato is largely responsible for the modern view of the “sophist” as a greedy instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. In this view, the sophist is not concerned with truth and justice, but instead seeks power.

Here, I am concerned with sophistry in its modern, political sense: the cynical use of language in the pursuit and application of power. In a word, propaganda. Josef Pieper (1903-97), a German Catholic philosopher, has much to say about this in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (for which I thank my son). There, Pieper notes that propaganda

can be found wherever a powerful organization, and ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their “weapon”…. (p. 32)

A bit later, Pieper says that “the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word” (p. 32). But this is nothing new under sun, and should come as no surprise to anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of modern history and understanding of politics.

Less evident, I believe, is the tragically corrosive confluence of politics and sophistry in the academy. To push the metaphor, what was a trickle in the middle of the twentieth century has grown to a wide, roaring river of academic dishonesty in the service of political ends.

About the corruption of the academy, Pieper writes:

[T]he term academic expresses something that remained unchanged throughout the centuries, something that can be identified quite accurately. It seems that in the midst of society there is expressly reserved an area of truth, a sheltered space for the autonomous study of reality, where it is possible, without restrictions,to examine, investigate, discuss, and express what is true about any thing — a space, then, explicitly protected against all potential special interests and invading influences, where hidden agendas have no place, be they collective or private, political, economic, or ideological. At this time in history we  have been made aware amply, and forcefully as well, what consequences ensue when a society does or does not provide such a “refuge”. Clearly, this is indeed a matter of freedom — not the whole of freedom, to be sure, yet an essential and indispensable dimension of freedom. Limitations and restrictions imposed from the outside are intolerable enough; it is even more depressing for the human spirit when it is made impossible to express and share, that is, to declare publicly, what according to one’s best knowledge and clear conscience is the truth about things….

Such a space of freedom needs not only a guarantee from the outside, from the political power that thus imposes limits on itself. Such a space of freedom also depends on the requirement that freedom be constituted — and defended — within its own domain. By “defended” we mean here not against any threat from the outside but against dangers arising — disturbingly! — within the scholarly domain itself…. (pp. 37-8)

Pieper’s depiction of the academy may seem, at first glance, to be unrealistically romantic. But Pieper is merely setting forth an ideal toward which the academy should strive. If the academy would renew its dedication to the ideal, it would banish and bar the sophists who lurk within and seek to infiltrate it.

Where are the sophists most likely to be found in the academy? In such pseudo-disciplines as “women’s studies,” “black studies,” and the like, of course. But also throughout the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences, where artistic forms, economics, history, literature, and sociology serve (to name a few) serve as vehicles for those who would destroy the foundations of Western civilization in the name of “liberation,” “equality,” and “social justice.” Even the sciences are not immune, as evidenced by almost-obligatory belief in anthropogenic global warming, and the need to subscribe to that belief or be ostracized. More generally, there is the selection bias that works against the hiring and promotion of those who come from schools that have a reputation for dissenting from left-wing academic orthodoxy, or who have themselves overtly dissented from the orthodoxy. Especially damning is the fact of dissent based on hard evidence and impeccable logic — especially damning because it is especially threatening to the orthodoxy.

The last word goes to Pieper:

“Academic” must mean “antisophistic” if it is to mean anything at all. This implies also opposition to anything that could destroy or distort the nature of the word as communication and its unbiased openness to reality. In this respect we are well able to pronounce the general principle and at the same time to to be very specific: opposition is required, for instance, against every partisan simplification, every ideological agitation, eery blind emotionality; against seduction through well-turned yet empty slogans, against autocratic terminology with no room for dialogue, against personal insult as an element of style … , against the language of evasive appeasement and false assurance …, and not least against the jargon of the revolution, against categorical conformism, and categorical nonconformism…. (pp. 38-9)

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