I was wondering if in professional philosophy there are modern sophists. That is, people who have no qualms publishing on both sides of an issue, perhaps not being able to themselves come to conclusions. This would be very interesting if there were people in philosophy who treat philosophy as a rhetorical game rather than "seriously". I don't see any reasons philosophers should disbar such practices. Producing powerful arguments on both sides of an issue would advance the conversation forward, regardless of whether the sophist believes either side. I feel like in today's intense academic environment, many people are just sophists in disguise anyway; they just hide it by remaining consistent.

  • I think the philosophy or philosophers who can not deal with the reality observable now is a pure wordplay. I am currently reading a book which was published in 70 years ago, man, how is it concrete and still giving me today's question. Many of the thinkers I personally favor tends not to be called a philosopher. like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt. Isn't it better for us to call your people as "professors of philosophy in universities" instead, I thought. Though I know it may sound offensive to some. This is just my personal idea.
    – user13955
    May 3, 2015 at 15:37
  • Book 1 Chapter 1 from the person in the above link : For Greek sophists the most important thing for them is to gain the temporary victory of their theory while sacrificing the truth. On the other hand, for modern ideologues, the most important is always to gain a permanent victory of their theory sacrificing the reality before them. We can say the former ( = sophists ) destroyed the dignity of human being's pursuit to the truth,
    – user13955
    May 3, 2015 at 17:10
  • while the latter ( = modern ideologues ) is destroying the dignity of men who try to act in the reality and the history he or she had seen. I am happy if this phrase could help someway or another.
    – user13955
    May 3, 2015 at 17:14
  • I think you just described politicians.
    – commando
    May 4, 2015 at 0:20
  • Someone once said (unfortunately I no longer remember who) That true genius consisted of being able to understand and agree to both sides of an argument. May 4, 2015 at 5:22

4 Answers 4


You could count postmodernists as sophists (sort of).

Plato vs. Protagoras becomes Popper vs. Deleuze

Some postmodernists explicitly align themselves with sophism -- for example, Foucault in Logique de sens (1969). Derrida[1] and Lyotard[2] both align themselves with sophists to a degree. As proponents of postmodernism, some features of sophism were naturally attractive to these thinkers. Derrida, Foucault, and most of their intellectual forebears thought Plato set philosophy on the wrong path[3]. Plato's anti-sophism comes through fairly clearly in the dialogues where Socrates talks with sophists[4]. Postmodernists seem to have seen sophism as a form of anti-Platonism, and therefore "on their side" of things.

Postmodernism vs. Sophism

Postmodernists generally oppose the notion that human mental faculties grant us access to any objective truth, and usually deny that objective truth is even "out there". They are extremely sensitive to and typically critical of the role of economic power, political ideology, and various social/cultural influences on the formation of viewpoints, concepts, etc. There's quite a bit of theoretical and ideological variation among postmodernists, but pretty much any postmodernist would be aptly described by the aforementioned principles and foci.

Sophists, on the other hand, didn't share a particular set of doctrines or views to the same degree. Still, there was a general tendency toward relativism and/or subjectivism (think of Protagoras's famous line, "A human is the measure of all things"), a focus on the role of convention and social/cultural construction (see Theaetetus 167c), and a general opposition to the sort of reverence that Plato gave to human faculties of reason. Given these tendencies, it's easy to see why postmodernists have an affinity with ancient sophism. They're not the same -- these were definitely distinct intellectual movements -- but they have quite a lot in common.

For that reason, a claim that someone like Derrida was a kind of sophist would not be totally unreasonable. Some people make exactly this claim: http://www.society-for-philosophy-in-practice.org/journal/pdf/1-1%2006%20Scruton%20-%20Sophist.pdf. But it would be more accurate to say that many of his ideas (and those of his peers) have an affinity with intellectual trends common among ancient sophists.

Where are they now?

Postmodernists are probably the closest you'll come to modern sophists among professional philosophers. There are very few professional postmodernist academic philosophers in the English-speaking world, because postmodernism is generally seen as a steaming pile of obscurantism by analytic philosophers. However, there are plenty working at universities, especially in continental Europe.

[1] Lyotard, J.F. and Thébaud, J-L. 1985. Just Gaming, trans. W. Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] Derrida, J. 1981. Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Lawlor, Leonard, "Jacques Derrida", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/derrida/.

[4] See Apology, Sophist, Statesman, Theaetetus, inter alia

  • The article you quote by Scruton, points out that Socrates was a sophist, but because of his adoption by Plato he is known as a philosopher; what was true of Socrates was probably true of other sophists, but by no means all, and if Plato is to be believed - the majority. Jul 1, 2015 at 18:48
  • Scruton also fingers psychoanalysis as a form of sophism, and no doubt with some validity; but he associated their growth with the collapse of the old religions; in which case I'd suggest the essay by Foucault on the pastorship is apposite. Jul 1, 2015 at 18:54

This could be opinionated but sophists come in all forms, they simply persuade without fact or truth or just use truth to persuade. I would like to believe this is the opposite of what a professor does but I suspect it is also the same. Teachers are probably unwilling sophists in many senses.


Gives a definition of Greek sophists which sounds a lot like salesman and those who debate, and any public official who skirts the truth for winning.

Actors are sophists, the worst kind, they persuade without a conscions. Or at least are ignorant to what they do. They use their talents to plant the seeds in minds from media and movies and television shows. Of course the writers too can be sophist. But hopefully this is the defining line of morals and integrity we should seek in our leaders or heros.

Commercials are sophists, which means companies who put them out. They are persuading by bending a truth. What is persuaded is not required and is not necessary or true or the best.

I guess in reality philosophy should be the opposite of a sophist because it tries to define logic above emotions or persuasions. But from what I u derstand Socrates to mean by a sophist really is a hierarchy of understanding. Or the use of understanding to persuade the ignorant. I’m not really sure how many directions this can go.

Perhaps this is a paradox, in the Socrates sense, that just by thinking I know what a sophist is I might be one.


I agree that the postmodernists are to some extent the new sophists, the new philosophical rhetoricians. My understanding of both sophism and postmodernism is that they arise from form of epistemological skepticism, some form of relativism, vis claims to knowledge in general, or about [one or another aspect of] the world. Skepticism might of course simply lead to quietism -- to simply shutting up. Why, in the absence of a quest for power, money and/or/influence, claim to know what believes cannot be known?

While postmodernists can claim an actual or "theoretical" basis/justification for their position (relativism: i.e. the 20th Centuries dismantling of empiricism, positive science, and universal rationality, leading to the radical reflexivity of late sociology of science, etc.), both sophists and postmodernists came to the realization that in the absence of reliable or "real" knowledge, in the absence of [access to] a world capable of significantly constraining what can be asserted (the friction provided by [now “naïve”] metaphysical realism), we are left only with the epistemic constraint (regulatory concept) of warranted assertability, of justified assertion, which to a large extent enables us to [relatively] freely "manipulate" (or “massage” as lawyers like to say) language in order to advance whatever position/idea/interest one wishes to advance and can justify (a perfect example is the American postmodernist, Richard Rorty's practice of "redescription"). Aside from the skepticism they share, this realization, and the freedom it enables, might be characterized as the most salient similarity between sophists and postmodernists.

An important difference between them might be said to be that [particularly the critical theorist] postmodernists further claim that knowledge is a function of power, that those with power have [cynically or otherwise] created/fabricated the "truths" that we (the power-less) live by, the "rationality" and "reality" that we live/believe in, so they are not necessarily being disingenuous by foisting alternate fabricated realities/truths upon a society/culture in a purported effort to create a “better”, more "moral" world, often for their favorite, sometimes "oppressed" interest group. Whereas I am not aware of any such brand of "activist" sophism.

(Simplistically, I like to conceptualize the postmodern ethos/bathos as that of a world of third rate lawyers spewing dubious and tendencious closing arguments at one another, whereas the modern (pre late 20th C) ethos was that of amateur scientists (empiricists) conducting their lives on the basis of faith in "reason," purported "common sense" and the conclusions of their our over simplified experiments.)


There is no such thing as professional philosopher. Professors of Philosophy are professional professors, not professional philosophers, right? I mean, the school makes it's money in tuition (and learning subsidies) and the Professors are paid with that money. They are paid to teach, not to philosophize. Maybe there are a few authors that in fact are professional philosophers, but that's a small number of people.

As for professional sophists, they are typically lawyers. They make their money when people hit low points in their lives, get in trouble with laws/statutes which were created by lawyers/politicians pandering to their constituency, and they charge as much as they can (or are paid by the government). In this case, the power of argument produced is typically directly proportional to the amount of money spent on the lawyer.

  • 1
    I disagree. I think lawyers where more like the apologist of old. Though the apologist may defend his view in the free market place of ideas the lawyer defends your views from those who accuse you of wrong doing.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 1, 2015 at 11:19
  • Let us simply call them public philosophers or public intellectuals, if you like. Such Postmodernist/sophists as Rorty, Fish, Butler (and a whole slew of other "radical" feminists), Adorno, Horkenheimer Marcuse, Derrida, Foucault, etc. etc.
    – gonzo
    Nov 30, 2018 at 20:46

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