It was a number of years ago that the book you see pictured here on the right caught my eye. I was wandering around a bookstore, as book-lovers do, seeing what there was to see (and possibly buy). This may surprise you, but I’ve always enjoyed a good debate, so the book’s topic seemed attractive and a nice change of pace from baseball and science books or SF novels.
Plus: Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson! Who could resist that? A glance at a few of the pages showed an easy and breezy open writing style that went down nicely, and the bits I read were quite intriguing. I snagged it thinking it would be right up my alley, and that I’d enjoy it thoroughly.
I never got more than a third of the way through it!
It’s not the writer’s fault. He does exactly what he sets out to do, and he does it in a manner that is enjoyable and easy to understand. The problem was that I wasn’t that interested in what he sets out to do.
As is often the case with rhetoric and philosophy, this traces back to those infamous Ancient Greeks who invented an awful lot of ideas.
A favorite quip of mine is about the Philosophy Professor who bemoans that, “Every time I have an original thought, I find out some damned Greek thought of it first!”
The Sophists of (Ancient) Greece were roving philosopher-teachers who taught important life skills… to those who could afford it (and they didn’t come cheap). In particular, they taught the art of rhetoric as a skill to use in debate.
The title Sophist — not unlike the title Intellectual — was originally used either respectfully or derisively, depending on the speaker’s views. But Plato, through Socrates (two of the most famous of those famous Greeks), excoriated them as mercenaries offering no real knowledge.
Ever since the term has a definite pejorative tint. (I would have written ‘taint’ but that word means something else to most people these days.) Sophistry has been referred to as ‘the art of telling fancy lies.’
John Adams wrote, “Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.”
Leonardo the Vinci wrote, “Fire destroys falsehood, that is sophistry, and restores truth, driving out darkness.”
Leonardo the Caprio wrote, “If you can do what you do best and be happy, you’re further along in life than most people.” (True, but that is neither here nor there.)
John Locke may have written, “Sophistry is only fit to make men more conceited in their ignorance.” [Another source replaces “sophistry” with “subtlety” and adds a number of sentences after that first word.]
The point is, sophistry… not so highly regarded. Even The Bible has a couple of lines slamming it (Galatians 3:1 and Colossians 2:4).
You might wonder about the word ‘sophisticated.’ It is, in fact, related, but the root term, sophós, means ‘wise.’ A Sophist was originally considered a ‘wise man.’ It’s only post-Plato that it’s pejorative.
So, getting back to Thank You For Arguing, what Heinrichs seeks to do in the book is teach you to be a Sophist. He teaches you how to apply the tools of rhetoric to win arguments, and nowhere (at least in the first third) does he address the truth value of those arguments.
This is not a book about getting to the truth. This is a book — a very good one, actually — about winning arguments.
As I was reading and began to realize that, I became less and less enchanted with the book. About a third of the way through, I put it down and never did get back to it.
About a year ago, blogger I know mentioned the book and that she’d picked it up to learn defensive techniques against sophistry in others. That struck me as a great idea, and I put the book back on my reading list (although I so far haven’t gotten back to it).
But For The Record, I want to be clear about something:
I’ve been — more than once — accused of using verbal Jujitsu (or some other form of martial art) to win arguments. The implication being that I’m more concerned with winning than truth.
I take a fair amount of offense at that accusation!
I’m a lot of things that aren’t flattering, but I do have a reverence for truth and facts and logic. Those who know me know that, if you show me wrong about something, I do change my position. In fact, even convincing arguments on a matter of taste or opinion has swayed me.
Now, some of the topics I hold near and dear are things I’ve been debating for decades (over four of them in some cases), so I’ve heard most of the counter-arguments. That often lends a sense of facility to my responses that can come off, I imagine, as sophistry.
I just want to be clear that it isn’t. It’s just that I’ve seen this movie. Hell, I probably own the DVD. Which I bought to replace the VHS. After having seen it several times in reruns. I may even own the tee-shirt.
As an open letter, I do apologize to anyone who has felt stampeded by that. It’s not meant to be intimidating. (This isn’t my ego speaking here. I’ve been told I’m intimidating. That really bemuses me, since I’ve never in my life felt intimidating. Go figure.)
So that’s that.
This post is also the first in an open-ended series of posts I’ve been planning to write for a while now. The intention is to sum up my opinion or feelings about some topic For The Record. This blog is, in large part, my only legacy (being, as far as I know, childless). It’s always been intended as a record of who I am and what I think.
Future FTR posts will come along from time to time. I’d originally thought of doing them all at once, but I’ve decided that would be a bit much (for both me and you).
They’ll also provide a reference I can point back to if I find myself in an online debate over one of the usual suspects. The odds of that decrease every year, though. At some point one just gets weary of debating a complex topic for the 33,102nd time.
Most complex unresolved topics are unresolved because they’re complex and don’t offer clear, let alone pat, answers. Many of them depend a great deal on ones value system, and it’s entirely valid to have differing value systems.
One thing that’s kept me from doing these FTR posts is the realization that they may lead to long, even bitter, debate in the comments section. I haven’t decided what I think about that, yet. The intent isn’t really to foment debate, but to lay out (sometimes just for myself) what I think.
So I’ll see how it goes. I will absolutely insist on cordiality, but then I always do.
And that’s the way it is, February 17th, 2015.