For The Record

Thank You For ArguingIt 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.


“And therefore…”

When it comes to rhetoric — the art of discourse — there is such a thing as sophistry, which essentially is the art of arguing a point regardless of its truth value.

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.


Plato — one of those old Greeks who took all the good ideas.

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).

sophisticated dog

Sophisticated and well-read!

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:

for the record

Wrong kind of record!

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.


And a coffee mug!

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).


This one is easily resolved: just don’t drink pretend beer.

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “For The Record

  • Lisa Smestad

    One of the tricks I like to use in debates at work is to switch sides. This works as a great tool to kick all the ideas around for the pros and cons and look for those sneaky unintended consequences. You and I have had more than one good debate and even if we haven’t swayed the other to our viewpoint, it really has added clarity to my thinking to have my ideas/assumptions/values questioned and have to defend. Is this a “true truth” or just something I was told at such a young age that I never even thought to question the logic behind the door.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Two very good points there! One of the things that’s great about a debate is that it does require to think clearly enough about your position to offer cogent argument. And you find out quickly if your argument holds in the face of critical analysis or not!

      The other thing is the value of playing “Devil’s Advocate” to explore the opposing side. I’ve done that just because I was in a group that was too group-minded about something, and I felt opposing views weren’t given the credence they seemed to deserve. (As an agnostic, I usually find myself in opposition to both theists and atheists!)

      If (hopefully: When) I write the FTR: Abortion post, I’ll tell about how taking the Devil’s Advocate position (for reasons just stated) forever altered my view. The bottom line didn’t change (pro-choice), but I did end up going from 99-1 on the matter to something like 60-40.

  • Hariod Brawn

    I just finished reading Schopenhauer’s “The Art of Always Being Right” which has the subtitle added by A.C. Grayling of “38 ways to win when you are defeated”. Recommended!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I looked it up: sounds delightful! It appears the text may be available online for free. I found what appears (?) to be the complete book at Wikisource: The Art of Being Right

      • Hariod Brawn

        That’s the one – concise it is. Grayling added some background to it all.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I breezed over it last night. It made me LOL a few times!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Meanwhile, I’m still trying to catch up from my January break. I realized last week that you’d posted a few times since. I’m headed over there now to catch up. You’ll see a subscribe from me. I don’t know what it is, but even when you comment here, I don’t get an email. I’m thinking either: [A] you have some kind of British Secret Service stealth mode from all your covert work for MI5; or [B] somewhere along the line a spam filter is objecting to something.

        But nothing shows up in any spam filter I can access, so I’m guessing you’re actually a Secret Agent. Sorry if I’m revealing top secrets. Please don’t kill me. o_O

        All seriousness aside, it might have something to do with your blog being a ‘dot-net’ (not that I have any clue why that would be a problem). I’m going to try subscribing again to see if that changes anything. (Although why don’t your comments here result in an email notification? I get one from everyone else.)

        I’m experimenting for the first time with RSS feeds (which turn out to be pretty cool). If nothing else works, I’ve got an RSS feed for your blog, so I can easily see new posts.

        Technology. [sigh] Isn’t it great how it makes our lives so much easier?! >:D

      • Hariod Brawn

        Sorry about this Wyrd; I have no idea what may be happening. What I do know is that I hear this sort of thing regularly around different blogs, and am reasonably confident that my site is not behaving too differently to the less-than-entirely-satisfactory norm. I only post once a month, but a fair proportion of my regulars show up before too long. I am a fairly prolific commenter around Blogoland, and have not detected any strange effects or delays in their appearance. As you know, I am hopeless with web technology, so all I can do is shrug my shoulders and apologise once more.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, no need to apologize (or apologise 🙂 )… about the only thing I’m sure of is that it has nothing to do with you. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if my email system is somewhere at fault. I’ve tried re-subscribing to see if that helps (if I’m right about my email system, it won’t, but that’ll at least be another clue).

  • dianasschwenk

    I think I can see why some folks are intimidated by you, mostly because you are very intelligent Smitty.

    Having said that, I have never found you to be obnoxious or closed minded. I can only remember one post you wrote that I vehemently disagreed with, and even that one probably boiled down to different values, as you noted in this post. ❤
    Diana xo

    Oh and I used to love debating – maybe even too much. Now I really don't engage unless it's a subject that very important to me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It is, perhaps, the sport of the young and passionate. The older one gets, the more one starts to see both sides of things, and that can make it hard to be vehement about one side.

      I’ve been trying to remember where we might have found ourselves on opposite sides of a discussion. (Was it the time about the porn industry? That’s the only one I can recall. Given what you said about your past experience working with former sex workers, I can understand why’d you’d have the feelings you do.)

      I wish intelligence was attractive, not intimidating. Before I was born, they asked me if I wanted to be tall, dark, and handsome, or short, smart, and near-sighted… Oh, well! (Next time I’ll pick “Rock Star” instead of “Computer Programmer.”)

      • dianasschwenk

        LOL Smitty regarding your last paragraph!

        Yes that was the post – good memory!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, you remember it; me, too! 🙂 I pay attention to those I care about. I hear and remember. (Maybe that’s why I can never remember the plots of books or movies. I’ve allocated that memory space for my life and the people in it? Would be nice to think so, anyway.)

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I can see why you might find rhetoric a bit, um, empty. I feel the same way about it…it feels so dirty! I remember doing a debate in drama class and I hated every minute of it for these reasons. I picked the unpopular side on purpose (FOR animal testing…and we’re talking about middle school.)

    Leonardo di Caprio…that was good. You got me thinking, “Oh wow, what did HE have to say about rhetoric?”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I like the original idea of the dialectic — a debate intended to find the truth of a proposition. I have no real problem with rhetoric used honestly in service of ones genuine belief, but the sophistry of, for example, advertising and politics is so repugnant to me.

      There is something to be said about occasionally arguing the opposing view (see above comments). And I seem to have an almost knee-jerk response to underdogs in arguments. I’ve played Devil’s Advocate just to give an under-represented side a fair hearing.

      I couldn’t resist the DiCaprio joke. He is, as it turns out, named for Leonardo. His folks were in the Uffizi Gallery looking at a Da Vinci when his mom felt him kick.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I’m the same way about Devil’s advocate…and like you, I’m an agnostic, so I find myself in that position all the time. I’m also fairly middle-of-the-road politically, so same holds true there too. In Vermont people think I’m a conservative, here they think I’m a liberal. What can you do? 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, exactly! (Also, me, too.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        As to, “What can you do?” I have to admit that, at times, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out!” seems worthy of at least consideration. OTOH, the traditional response to that idea is, “If I were God, I’d be pretty pissed at whoever created all that work for me!”

        The Buddhists have the right idea: Life is suffering. 😮

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more convinced that Dale Carnegie was right, you can’t win an argument. Even when you win, you lose, since the defeated party virtually never admits defeat or changes their position. Even if they do, their attitude toward the victor is usually not pleasant.

    Some people say that they’re not arguing to sway their opponent, but to sway other people who may be watching. But even there, I tend to think that third parties will inherently tend to sympathize with the person whose opinion they share, or be frustrated if they’re not making better arguments. And devastating rhetoric, while red meat for those who agree, usually just increases the prejudice of those who disagree.

    In the end, I think the best strategy is to state my position and explain how I came to it, and listen to others when they do the same. And then, if necessary, agree to disagree. As in arguments, people are almost never convinced on the spot, but it can lay a better groundwork for them to be in the future, and the person persuaded may well end up being me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes! I agree with every word.

      When I was online back in the 1980s, there was a regular contributor whose intelligence and demeanor I really respected. He once wrote that you should state your position, defend it against any points raised that require new points, but once you’ve said what you can, don’t repeat, disengage. I’ve tried to be like that ever since.

      You want to avoid the Call of Duty:

      There is sometimes expressed the ethic that blatant misinformation shouldn’t be allowed to stand unchallenged, and people who care about misinformation really hate seeing it, but the ‘web is so increasingly filled with it, that it seems like a lost cause.

      As you say, people just need to find their own way.

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