Sophist’s Choice

by Daniel Neumann

Then say what you believe the sophist is.

I believe that as the name implies, he has knowledge of wise things, he replied.

Well, I replied, it’s also possible to say of painters and builders that they have knowledge of wise things. But if someone asked us what wise things painters know, we’d surely reply that they know about the production of likenesses, and so in other cases. But if someone were to ask what wise things the sophist knows, what would we answer? Of what sort of work is he master?

What would we say he is, Socrates, except a master at making people speak cleverly?

Perhaps we’d be telling the truth, said I, but it’s hardly enough, for our answer still requires a question: About what does the sophist make people speak cleverly? The musician surely makes people speak cleverly about what he also makes them know, namely, music. Not so?


Very well. Then about what does the sophist make people speak cleverly? Clearly, about that which he also makes them know?

Yes, very likely.

But what is it about which the sophist has knowledge himself, and makes his pupil know?

Good lord, Socrates, I no longer can tell you.

[Plato, Protagoras 312c – 312e]

There we have it. The specialists’ dilemma. The sophist, as the apotheosis of self-professed expertise, the one who is wise about being wise – what is he actually wise about? Isn’t it preposterous, that claim of knowledge for the sake of knowledge? Plato and his scripted double Socrates have made sure that this claim does not go unchallenged. The Post-Presocratic history of the quest for wisdom starts with the merciless (i.e. dialectic) hunting down of wisdom’s false contenders. But pretending to be knowledgeable is not the main problem. Pretending to be able to teach it is.

In other words, in the Platonic scenario we have two kinds of specialists. On the one hand, there is the master of a craft. The musician, the painter, the architect etc. People who have a specialized knowledge in a certain field which is clearly delimited (the painter is an expert in the production of likeness and so on). On the other hand, there are those who reverse the approach. They specialize in the appearance of knowledge and make money teaching others to appear thus as well. What a comforting sight this stark contrast is! But while the Platonic teaching still reigns supreme among the erudite, most of the original writings of its enemies, the sophists, have been lost for posterity.

It seems to me that today we are in an altogether different situation. In the more than 2000 years that have passed, the division between pretender and expert – while still being as alive as ever – has been interiorized to become two aspects of one and the same instance. Specialists may be dubious because they know so much about a certain field, but few people can tell if what they claim is true or even makes sense to anybody else. So what kind of knowledge is thus produced? Can it be taught? Is anyone interested even, except for the specialists?

A likely answer to that question would be: I’m not an expert, how would I know? And so, instead of trying to evaluate the fact that there are a myriad of specialized fields of knowledge, one could simply ask what it could mean to specialize oneself. I’ve tried it myself. But when I started to do so, as in getting familiar with a certain artist, theory etc., at some point I failed because other things started grabbing my attention. Other potential fields of expertise, for instance. So I continue to have to make a decision of how and why I want to specialize in something.

Every academic process of specialization seems to have, in my experience, this moment of crisis. That moment when things start to become circular, when what I experience doesn’t seem new anymore and everything starts aligning itself somehow. The research on a certain philosopher, for instance, implies getting familiar with the people, the other researchers, who have written about her/him. And they write about what others have written about the philosopher. And no matter the disagreements, differences in perception or place in time, the whole of this specialized complex develops an interpretative framework that starts going in circles. In other words, it starts to become very familiar. But the better the pieces fit together, the harder it becomes to break them up and put them in a different context. When all questions are centered around and grounded in that gravitational field (of, let’s say, a few written fragments of unclear origin) a sort of entropic reaction takes place. While the whole field is enclosed, the uncertainties are leveled. When you’ve reached that point where everything begins to fall into place and differences become a matter of acquired taste, I guess you are a specialist (or a connoisseur).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. This hermetic and authoritative Bildungsroman, in which everybody is looking for their niche and becomes their own little authority, can be overturned by a different kind of specialization, one that more closely resembles – from the perspective of the preserving experts – a kind of universal dilettantism. Instead of going ever so gently in circles, one jumps from one place to the next and what is lost on the way is made up where one lands. I’m not going into any detail as to what this journey might be or where it could take place. I don’t think there is any expertise that could encapture or outline what everybody has to explore on their own under the guidance of chance, repetition and some apophenic vision, if one is so inclined.

Daniel Neumann (1988) currently lives in Berlin.