I have been teaching lots of Plato lately: The Theaetetus in my Intro to Phil class; the Euthydemus and the Phaedrus (so far) in Ancient; and I’m doing a reading group on the Symposium (using Shelley’s translation–edited and introduced by the inimitable David O’Conner). It’s been a long time since I have been so Plato supersaturated. One thing that has struck me is the depth of Plato’s engagement with sophistry–and just how difficult he finds isolating the threat of sophistry to be: I don’t think I realized before just how formidable and how central a philosophical problem sophistry itself is for Plato. Part of what makes it so formidable and so central is the remarkable way in which, over and over, sophistry looks more like philosophy than philosophy itself does. (Put in other terms, it is the sophists who look like the rationalists, Socrates who looks like the irrationalist.)
Sophistry is internal to philosophy; philosophy cannot eliminate (the possibility of) sophistry without eliminating (the possibility of) itself. And so Socrates’s war with the sophists never ends, even if battles sometimes do.
I know this is a leap, but (what the hell) I will make it: one of my chief complaints about the self-understanding of many analytic philosophers I know is their easy confidence that philosophy as they do it can eliminate (the possibililty of) sophistry through a new acquist of ever more sternly regulated techniques–a technique for clarity, a technique for rigor, a technique for explicitness. But of course it is just this elevation of and reliance on technique that typifies sophistry. Now, by that I do not mean that these analytic philosophers I know are sophists. They aren’t—mostly. But they are far closer to sophistry than they know. What is meant to safeguard them from sophistry is what keeps them exposed to it.