Sophistry: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson we are going to learn what a sophism is. We will see where the word comes from, and review various types of sophism to understand more about this type of reasoning.

Who were the Sophists?

In ancient times, Sophists were wise men; the word comes from sophia, which means wisdom in Greek.

Around the fifth century B.C., wise men who traveled around, teaching various subjects for a salary, came to be called ''sophists.'' Sophists taught the philosophy of the old masters, but they held that truth and goodness were matters of opinion. So, they taught their disciples the art of rhetoric, so that they could speak convincingly about these opinions.

Little by little, this whole system began to degenerate and almost all the sophists became people who could defend an opinion one day, and the next day defend the opposite, depending on who paid more.

For this reason, ''sophist'' became a derogatory term; and sophistry was called a flawed mode of reasoning, typical of the sophists.

Protagoras, a famous sophist.
protagoras

What are Sophisms?

A sophism is a false statement that has the appearance of being true. Not all false statements are sophisms; only those that seem to follow a rigorous line of reasoning, but arrive at incorrect conclusions.

To better understand how a sophism is constructed and how one is detected, let's look at an example of logical reasoning.

The Greeks structured logical reasoning in terms of premises and conclusions. Premises are statements that are made before, and leading up to, a conclusion. A conclusion is the final statement, which contains the truth or affirmation that has been arrived at. For example:

  1. All mammals have warm blood. (This is a premise.)
  2. Humans are mammals. (Another premise.)
  3. Therefore, humans have warm blood. (This is the conclusion.)

The example above is an example of structured reasoning leading to a true conclusion. However, structured reasoning can also lead to false conclusions. Sophists were very clever in formulating statements that seemed true, but were not. That is to say, they formulated sophisms, reasonings that appear correct, but have false conclusions.

Examples of Sophistry

The great philosopher Aristotle, in his book Sophistical Refutations, gave us the key to identify false reasoning.

Aristotle, author of Sophistical Refutation.
aristoteles

Sophistry by Accident

This type of erroneous reasoning happens when we make hasty generalizations and do not take into account possible exceptions. For example:

  1. Driving through a red light is an infraction.
  2. Ambulances drive through red lights.
  3. Therefore, ambulances commit infractions.

We can clearly see that the conclusion, ''ambulances commit infractions,'' is false. This is due to the fact that we have not taken into account exceptions to the general rule.

Aristotle and Plato, critics of the sophists.
plato

Sophistry of the Irrelevant Conclusion

This type of sophism occurs when the conclusion reached may be true, but has nothing to do with the premises leading up to it. For example:

  1. John earns very little money in his work.
  2. John is a good guy; he is also very nice and very handsome.
  3. So, John should earn more money in his work.

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