Philosophy vs Sophistry and the EU Referendum

A View From The North


Philosophy vs Sophistry and the EU Referendum, Going Postal
Rodin, The Thinker

“…Those who fail to provide balance are not giving advice, but lobbying. It is with the deepest regret that I must now state that this is the role which has been adopted by the Royal Society. And when scientists abandon neutral inquiry for lobbying, they jeopardise their purpose and integrity”….. 

Professor Michael Kelly FRS

When my paternal grandmother spoke, I listened. Born in 1916 she was a teacher, the only daughter of a one-time mayor of a Cumbrian town. My brothers and I referred to her as ‘Brown Nanna’, owing to her naturally tanned skin emphasised through her penchant for tanning products. Brown Nanna’s words carried an enchanting authority. That authority came from what I now understand to be: logic; consistency; truthfulness; sense; reason; scepticism and openness. No topic was out of bounds and our questions drew answers spawning questions and further answers. Brown Nanna died at the age of eighty four when I was thirty one, having suffered from cancer of the oesophagus. I visited her shortly before her death and also, in the mortuary room of her local hospital in the hours after her death. This was the first close family member I had seen post mortem, alone. I spent less than a minute with a corpse. Brown Nanna wasn’t there anymore, but she continues in her offspring. 
My first distinct recollection of what I would regard as a conversation of a philosophical nature was with Brown Nanna when I would have been about 10 or 11 years old. It related to the ’water cycle’, and her small part in it, and my part in it. She described to me how the structures of our bodies change from the moment of our conception to our death. How our body size changes and our bones and muscles grow. How we continually shed skin and grow hair. How we drink and eat and consume and eject gaseous, solid and liquid combinations of chemicals (especially water, which accounts for some 60% of an adult human). She then asked me to recollect an early memory from my childhood, and told me that she guessed the earliest childhood memory of hers was when she was about 4 years old. She then asked me to imagine how many of the atoms and molecules in her body were the same atoms that comprised her body at the age of four. The discussion developed and questions such as ‘what defines ‘I’? Is it my body? My thoughts? My mind? My memories?’… And ‘Do I have a soul?’…and ‘If my body dies, does my soul live on?’.  Answers to questions, spawning more questions, more answers. I guess I have always had a thirst to know.  A thirst for knowledge. A thirst for the truth.

Philosophy vs Sophistry and the EU Referendum, Going Postal

Misunderstanding is a barrier to finding the truth. To express one’s ideas and thoughts to others requires honesty, both on the part of the communicator and on the part of the recipient of the communication. The English language is our common tool of communication, thus, an honest and universally agreed interpretation of the meaning of words is essential if the communication of ideas is to be truly effective. Many words in the English language can often be interpreted differently, due to the work of our dictionary writers. The construction of clearly understood communication is, by the natural limitations and inherent confusions of the language (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary), not an easy task. In an attempt to reduce confusion and increase clarity, definitions of key words are essential.

So in a discussion of philosophy vs sophistry, it would be natural to define these terms.

The term ‘philosophy’ is defined in the OED as ‘…..the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.’ Or,  ‘…..the study of truths.’ However, the subjectivised definition of  ‘philosophy’ regretfully appears in the OED and describes a personalised ideology or belief system ‘……A theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour’. This second definition pollutes the English language. As there are no such things as: my chemistry, my quantum physics and my logic, but only: chemistry, quantum physics and logic, so there is no such thing as ‘my philosophy’. There is only ‘philosophy’.  Hence, if an individual is to be regarded as a philosopher, she is a lover of wisdom, a student of truth, a strict applicant of logic and reason and to be these things she must be honest with herself. Philosophes exist in all walks of life.  A philosopher is not merely someone who has a personal ‘belief system’. To suggest this, is sophistry. The OED, in its very definition of the word ‘philosophy’, aids the sophists.

Sophistry is defined in the OED as ‘….the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intent of deceiving.’ And ‘….a fallacious argument.

A philosopher is interested in the truth. Words are used to share ideas and attempt to communicate ideas clearly, so a philosopher will define interpretable words and use plain English (for those communicating in English). The sophist’s interest lies in convincing others of the correctness of their opinion. Words are chosen to achieve this end. The sophist will only attempt to communicate clearly if that suits her goal.

Philosophy vs Sophistry and the EU Referendum, Going Postal

For those who want to know the truth – whether it be about ‘global warming’; ‘climate change’, ‘inflation’;  ‘recessions’; ‘equality’; ‘The War on Terror’; ‘The War on Drugs’; ‘The deficit’; ‘Sovereignty’; and the most pressing current issue: The relationship of the UK with the evolving EU – the barriers to understanding, through the work of sophists (some well-meaning, others not) and their obfuscation of truths, have been built high. Whether through the mainstream media, state education, internet content or other means, philosophical clarity is attacked by the opaque offerings of sophistry.

To get to the truth requires discipline and an attuned bullshit detector. Professor Harry Frankfurt, in his essays ‘On Bullshit’ and ‘On Truth’ gives an insight into the fundamental moral importance of truth and the socially corrosive nature of lying. In Plato’s dialogue ‘Gorgias’, Socrates demonstrates the utilitarian usefulness of philosophy and the socially corrosive nature of sophistry (or ‘oratory’). The parallels between the conversations between Socrates and Gorgias and his friends, some 2450 years ago, and the battle of philosophy and sophistry which is evident today in our local, national and international politics, are striking. Yet we have the lessons of those such as Plato and Frankfurt, two of many, to guide us.

To get to the truth in 2016 one has to be prepared to swim through a sea of sophistry. For those who seek to spread truth and to defeat sophistry, what tools can each one of us use such that ‘each one of us’ might become ‘each two of us’?

“……Once you know the facts, the decision to Leave the EU is an easy one …..” 

Jim Mellon.

I have sought facts relating to the EU and the UK’s relationship with it. I have studied its structure, processes and the effects it has had on our society and law. I believe that we, the peoples of the UK, should make, amend and remove the laws that govern us, and that this is not our current situation. The EU is anti-democratic, and does not serve the interests of the peoples of the UK.

I agree with Jim Mellon: Once you know the facts, the decision is an easy one to make – we must vote to leave the EU and take back control of our governance. It saddens me to witness so many representatives of our peoples, including the Prime Minister, who appear genuinely frightened at the prospect of assuming and embracing that responsibility.

Ang Ryman ©