The Sophist Tradition

December 4th, 2009

This we do affirm — that if truth is to be sought in every division of philosophy we must, before all else, possess trustworthy principles an methods for the discernment of truth. The logical branch is that which includes the theory of criteria and of proofs; so it is with this that we ought to make our beginnings.

-Sextus Empiricus

The study of logic, and critical thinking date back to the Greek philosophers. Socrates discovered, by means of probing questions, that in the exchange of competing ideas, people make confident claims based on unreliable assumptions or failed logic. Such arguments, he discovered, were either erroneous in fact, absent sufficient foundation, or failing in logic. Instead, most arguments were based on confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or contradictory beliefs.

Socrates contributions to critical thinking were many — for he established new ways to think about contentious issues in terms of the quality of assumptions, facts and logic. Thus Socrates demonstrated that persons may have passion, or power or high position but yet be deeply confused and irrational.

Compelling debate is based on a clear understanding of facts and the logical construction of one’s argument. That is what the Socratic Method and The Sophist Tradition is all about.

The Socratic Method is the preferred way to examine issues. In the Socratic mode of questioning, postulations, ideas or arguments are examined for their clarity and logical consistency by systematic analysis of facts, assumptions and logical methodology to support a conclusion. Socratic analysis is accomplished by means of a series of probing questions that systematically examine the quality of an argument or conclusion. Understanding the quality of information, argument or one’s conclusions, is fundamental to critical thinking — and the goal of critical editing.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates’ practice was followed by the critical thinking of Plato (who recorded Socrates’ thought), Aristotle, and the Greek skeptics, all of whom emphasized that things are often very different from what they appear to be, and that only the trained mind is prepared to see through the way things look to us on the surface (delusive appearances) to the way they really are beneath the surface (the deeper realities of life.) From this ancient Greek tradition emerged the need, for anyone who aspired to understand the deeper realities, to think systematically, to trace implications broadly and deeply; for only thinking that is comprehensive, well-reasoned, and responsive to objections can take us beyond the surface.

The common denominators of Critical Thinking requires, for example, the systematic monitoring of thought; that thinking, to be critical, must not be accepted at face value, but must be analyzed and assessed for its clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logical validity. All reasoning occurs within points of view and frames of reference. All reasoning proceeds from some goals, objectives, and has an informational base. All data, when used in reasoning, must be interpreted. That interpretation involves concepts, that concepts entail assumptions, and that all basic inferences in thought have implications, and each of these dimensions of thinking need to be monitored where problems of thinking can occur.

Questioning that focuses on these fundamentals of thought and reasoning are now baseline in critical thinking. It is beyond question that intellectual errors or mistakes can occur in any of these dimensions.

This should all sound very familiar to anyone who has studied any of the basic forms of science. The discipline set forth by Socrates became the foundation, of what today; we term “The Scientific Method“.

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