What is Sophism in Rhetoric?

Definition and Examples

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A plausible but fallacious argument, or deceptive argumentation in general.

In rhetorical studies, sophism refers to the argumentative strategies practiced and taught by the Sophists.


From the Greek, "wise, clever"

Examples and Observations:

  • "When a false argument puts on the appearance of a true one, then it is properly called a sophism or fallacy."
    (Isaac Watts, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth, 1724)
  • "It is too often that sophism is mistaken for sheer falseness, or even more annoying, for paradox. . . . When logical incorrectness . . . is aimed at deceiving we are dealing with a sophism (abuse of intelligence)."
    (Henri Wald, Introduction to Dialectical Logic. John Benjamins, 1975)

Sophism in Ancient Greece

  • "Because of their developed ability to argue either side of a case, the Sophists' students were powerful contestants in the popular debating contests of their day, and also were highly successful advocates in court. The dialectical method was employed in part because the Sophists accepted the notion of dissoi logoi or contradictory arguments. That is, Sophists believed that strong arguments could be produced for or against any claim. . . . "[W]e should note that Western culture has come closer to following the argumentative model set out by Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias in the actual conduct of its affairs than that suggested by Plato of seeking the truth by means of philosophical inquiry." (James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric. Allyn and Bacon, 2001)
  • "Sophism was not a school of thought. The thinkers who came to be called Sophists held a wide variety of views on most subjects. Even when we find some common elements in Sophism generally, there are exceptions to most of these generalizations." (Don E. Marietta, Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. M.E. Sharpe, 1998)

Contemporary Sophism

  • - "What we find in both ancient Sophism and contemporary Sophistic rhetoric is a basic faith in civic humanism and a pragmatic approach to civic life. [Jasper] Neel, in Aristotle's Voice [1994], however, points out that the contemporary Sophistic movement is not dependent on what the ancient Sophists may or may not have believed or taught. Rather, Neel argues, contemporary Sophism should 'inhabit the (human) discourse that Plato and Aristotle excluded under the name of Sophistry, regardless of whether that excluded and debased discourse correctly reproduces what anyone else in ancient Athens may have advocated' (190). In other words, the mission of contemporary Sophism is not to figure out what the ancient Sophists believed and practiced, but rather to develop concepts that allow us to turn away from the absolutism of Western philosophy.
  • "Contemporary sophism, however, has been mainly occupied with the historical restoration of Sophistic beliefs and practices, using concepts from postmodernism to patch together and flesh out a coherent Sophistic perspective." (Richard D. Johnson-Sheehan, "Sophistic Rhetoric." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory And Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. IAP, 1998)
  • - "In using the term 'sophist' in my title I am not being insulting. Both Derrida and Foucault have argued in their writings on philosophy and culture that ancient sophism was a more significant critical strategy against Platonism, the hidden core in both of their views for philosophy's suspect impulses, than traditional academics fully appreciate. But, more important, each makes an appeal to sophistic strategies in his own writing." (Robert D'Amico, Contemporary Continental Philosophy. Westview Press, 1999)

The Lazy Sophism: Determinism

  • "I knew an old man who had been an officer in the First World War. He told me that one of his problems had been to get men to wear their helmets when they were at risk from enemy fire. Their argument was in terms of a bullet 'having your number on it.' If a bullet had your number on it, then there was no point in taking precautions, for it was going to kill you. On the other hand, if no bullet had your number on it, then you were safe for another day, and did not need to wear the cumbersome and uncomfortable helmet.
  • "The argument is sometimes called the 'lazy sophism.' . . .
  • "Doing nothing--failing to put on a helmet, putting on an orange shawl and saying 'Om'--represents a choice. To have your choosing modules set by the lazy sophism is to be disposed toward this kind of choice." (Simon Blackburn, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1999)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What is Sophism in Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/sophism-rhetoric-1692113. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What is Sophism in Rhetoric? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sophism-rhetoric-1692113 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Sophism in Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sophism-rhetoric-1692113 (accessed May 31, 2023).