In her paper Modern Moral Philosophy, G. E. M. Anscombe used the phrase "sophistical methods" and "his procedures are certainly sophistical" (page 3 of the linked file).

I assume this meant something specific to her listeners in the 1950's. I assume they knew which procedures and methods she was referring to. I don't think it would have meant any form of deception or any fallacious argument. But perhaps not. Perhaps sophistical methods are synonymous with fallacies.

I am interested in what those procedures or methods are specifically. Preferably I would like to be able to link any methods to sources in Plato so I could cite those sources later should I have the opportunity to say that something is sophistical because it uses this or that method or procedure. Without that I would just continue to use the word fallacious.

George Duke writes

The philosophical problem of the nature of sophistry is arguably even more formidable. Due in large part to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, the term sophistry has come to signify the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and moral unscrupulousness. It is, as the article explains, an oversimplification to think of the historical sophists in these terms because they made genuine and original contributions to Western thought.

I am not interested in defending or attacking sophists themselves, but only in identifying the main methods and procedures that Plato (to make this specific) would have considered, rightly or wrongly, sophistical.


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

George Duke, "Sophpists" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/sophists/

  • Sophists were moral relatavists. And moral relativism... Personally I'd go further.. most forms of relatavism.. are conducive to decay. Sophism.. whether it is teaching people how to use fallacy as a public debating tool.. or simply suggesting that there is no universal truth.. is as bad today as it was then... But at least back then people recognised it at first glance. There is universal truth.. there is universal knowledge. – Richard Dec 3 '18 at 20:58
  • It seems to me she explained what she means on p.2:"Hume defines "truth" in such a way as to exclude ethical judgments from it, and professes that he has proved that they are so excluded. He also implicitly defines "passion" in such a way that aiming at anything is having a passion." In other words, she is charging him with question begging definitions, and false pretenses. And yet, "although he reaches his conclusions... by sophistical methods... the obvious stands in need of investigations as a result of the points that Hume pretends to have made". – Conifold Dec 3 '18 at 23:56
  • @Conifold Yes, she is doing that and that may be all she means by his being a sophist: using question begging methods. However, if that is all, I think she could have just pointed out the question begging rather than calling him a sophist. She also likes this is-ought result Hume comes up with. She uses it to criticize moral philosophers for not taking him seriously. Basically she wants them to abandon any justifications for moral obligation and use Aristotelian ethical methods instead. – Frank Hubeny Dec 4 '18 at 2:13

See The Sophists : Protagoras :

Plato [in Meno, 91e] says that he [Protagoras] practised as a sophist for over forty years till his death at about seventy (probably about 420 BC). In the Protagoras he also says (316d–317b) that while the activity of sophistry has been practised by poets and other experts from ancient times, he is the first person to have openly proclaimed himself a “sophist” and claimed to teach people (sc. how to achieve success in life); he thus claims for himself recognition of his professional status in a role, that of teacher of human excellence as a means to success in life, which was traditionally claimed by the poets.

Specifically, in the Protagoras he claims to teach ‘the proper management of one's own affairs, how best to run one's household, and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city by word and action’, and he accepts Socrates' account of that subject as ‘the art of running a city’, which he promises will ‘make men into good citizens’ (319a).

In any event, we do have some evidence for Protagoras' teaching of techniques of argument. Diogenes Laertius' list of titles includes one, ‘The Technique of Eristics’ (Technē Eristikōn) which certainly designates a handbook of argumentative techniques, and another which probably does. The literal title is ‘On Wrestling’, but it is more likely that the wrestling in question is intellectual than physical; there is nothing in our other evidence to suggest that Protagoras set himself up as an athletic coach. (It is relevant that Protagoras' celebrated work ‘Truth’, which began with the famous ‘Man the Measure’ sentence apparently had the alternative title ‘Overthrowing’ (sc. Arguments) (Kataballontes).) So Protagoras taught argumentative strategies, but we have comparatively little evidence of what these actually were.

And see Protagoras :

Protagoras was probably the first Greek to earn money in higher education and he was notorious for the extremely high fees he charged. His teaching included such general areas as public speaking, criticism of poetry, citizenship, and grammar. His teaching methods seemed to consist primarily of lectures, including model orations, analyses of poems, discussions of the meanings and correct uses of words, and general rules of oratory. His audience consisted mainly of wealthy men, from Athens' social and commercial elites. The reason for his popularity among this class had to do with specific characteristics of the Athenian legal system.

In conclusion, it is necessary to make a clear distinction with the current use of "sophistry" as meaning "fallacious" and the original Sophist school or movement, whose main "tools" were rethoric and teaching.

For Plato's critique, see Protagoras (dialogue).

See also Theaetetus, 152a for reference to Protagoras' well-known Man-Measure dictum :

he has said the same thing in a different way. For he says somewhere that man is “the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.”

Protagoras' relativism and subjectivism is clearly unacceptable for Plato and his search for definitions :

When Socrates asks a question such as “What is reverence?” he has in mind a question that can be answered only in certain ways. To begin with, he will not be satisfied with an answer that points only to a certain kind of reverence, or only to an example of reverence. The answer must identify a feature that (1) belongs to every kind of reverence (generality requirement), and (2) to nothing that is not reverent (exclusion requirement), and (3) has explanatory power.

And see : Marina McCoy, Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists (2007), page 3 :

In this book, I examine the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist in six of Plato’s dialogues, with particular attention to the differences between philosophical and sophistical rhetoric. My argument focuses on three interrelated theses. First, I argue that Plato’s treatment of Socrates in conversation with sophists and rhetoricians indicates that he thought that the distinction between philosopher and sophist was difficult to make. There is no single method or mode of discourse that separates the philosopher from the sophist [emphasis added]. One cannot simply say that the philosopher is logical while the sophist is illogical, that the philosopher uses pure reason with no attention to rhetoric while the sophist persuades apart from reason, or that the philosopher has a successful method of speaking while the sophist lacks one. Nor are the sophists consistently presented as disinterested in knowledge or as morally corrupt. The meanings of the terms philosopher and sophist are disputed at the time that Plato is writing; for Plato, the claim that Socrates is a philosopher rather than a sophist is a normative rather than merely a descriptive claim.

  • I agree that Plato and Aristotle were likely too hard on sophists whom I see as "teachers" and perhaps competitors for Plato and Aristotle. It seems the main sophistical methods were to charge a fee and to make definitions based on examples. Neither of which appear particularly fallacious to me. – Frank Hubeny Dec 4 '18 at 2:22

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