The Rise of Idealism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Rise of Idealism

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The term "dialectics" comes from the Greek "dialektike," derived from "dialegomai," to converse, or discuss. Originally, it signified the art of discussion, which may be seen in its highest form in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. This was no accident, but flowed from the very nature of Athenian democracy, with its ample scope for oratory and debate in public assemblies. This gave rise to a new breed of public figures, professional teachers and speakers of all kinds, from courageous freethinkers and profound philosophers to unscrupulous demagogues.

The words "sophist" and "sophistry" to modern ears have a thoroughly disreputable ring about them, suggesting intellectual dishonesty, trickery and lies, masked by clever turns of phrase. That, indeed, was how sophism ended up. But it was not always so. In a way, they can be compared to the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in the 18th century. They were rationalists and freethinkers, who stood opposed to all existing dogmas and orthodoxy. Their maxim was "Doubt Everything." All existing things and ideas had to be subjected to the most far-reaching criticism. This undoubtedly contained a revolutionary and dialectical kernel. "On this new-found field now the Sophists disported, enjoying with boyish exuberance the exercise of the power of subjectivity, and destroying, by means of a subjective dialectic, all that had been ever objectively established." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 30.)

The activities of the sophists reflected life in Athens during the period of the Peloponesian war between Athens and Sparta. They were both scholars and practical men, the first ones to charge a fee for teaching. Plato remarks in the Republic that the doctrines of the Sophists express only the same principles which guided the practice of the multitude in their civil and social relations. The hate with which they were persecuted by the statesmen proves the jealousy with which the latter saw them. The sophists were attacked for saying that morality and truth were subjective concepts, which could be determined by anyone, according to his personal preferences and interests. But they were only saying what was already the established norm in practice. We see the same thing today. Professional politicians do not like to be reminded of the moral code which really operates in the corridors of power!

"Public life was becoming an arena of passion and self-seeking," writes Schwegler, "the party-strifes, which agitated Athens during the Peloponesian war, had blunted and stifled the moral sentiment; every one accustomed himself to set his own private interest above that of the state and of the common good, and to seek in his own self-will and his own advantage the standard of his action and the principle of his guidance. The axiom of Protagoras, man is the measure of all things, was in practice only all too truly followed, while the influence of rhetoric in public assemblies and decisions, the corruption of the masses and their leaders, the weak points which cupidity, vanity, and party-spirit betrayed to the crafty, offered only all too much occasion for its exercise.

"What was established, and had come down so, had lost its authority, political regulation appeared as arbitrary restriction, moral principle as a result of calculated political training, faith in the gods as human invention for the intimidation of free activity, piety as a statute of human origin which every man had a right to alter by the art of persuasion. This reduction of the necessity and universality of nature and reason to the contingency of mere human appointment, is mainly the point where the Sophists are in contact with the general consciousness of the cultivated classes of the time; and it is impossible to decide what share theory had here, and what practice; whether the Sophists only found practical life in a theoretical formula, or whether the social corruption was rather a consequence of the destructive influence which the Sophists exercised over the entire circle of the opinions of their contemporaries." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 31.)

The turbulence of the times, with constant changes, wars, destruction and unrest, found a reflection in the restless spirit of dialectical contradiction. The unsettling movement of thought, upsetting existing ideas mirrored the actual conditions of Greece at the time of the Peloponesian wars. Likewise, the need to win over the assembly or law-court by clever argument provided a material base for the rise of a generation of professional orators and dialecticians. But that is not to say that the initial content of sophism was determined by considerations of personal advantage or pecuniary gain, any more than was, say, Calvinism. But, given the prevailing social conditions, the later development of sophism was determined in advance.

The first generation of sophists were genuine philosophers, often identified with democratic politics and with a materialist understanding of nature. They were rationalists and encyclopaedists, just as their French equivalents in the decades before 1789. And in the same way, they were clever and witty, with an ability to deal with all sides of a problem. Protagoras was celebrated as a teacher of morals, Gorgias as a rhetorician and politician, Prodicus as a grammarian and etymologist, and Hippias as a polymath. They were to be found in all the professions and spheres of knowledge. But gradually the movement, which really never constituted a real school, began to degenerate. The wandering "wise man" going from town to town in search of good pay and a rich patron became a figure of contempt and ridicule.

The common feature of all the previous schools of thought examined here is their objectivity, the assumption that the validity of our ideas depends on the degree to which they correspond to objective reality, to the world outside us. The sophists broke entirely from this, advancing instead the position of philosophical subjectivity. This is well summed up in the celebrated phrase of Protagoras (481-411 B.C.), "Man is the measure of all things; of those which are, that they are; of those which are not, that they are not."

There is some dispute about the exact meaning of this phrase, which may also be put in a way which implies that Protagoras was a materialist, a view which fits in with a remark of Sextus Empiricus, to the effect that Protagoras said that "the main causes (‘logoses’) of all things are in matter." But there can be no doubt that the general trend of sophism was in the direction of extreme subjectivism. As a result of their withering attacks on existing beliefs and prejudices, they were regarded as subversives in conservative circles. Protagoras himself was expelled from Athens for atheism, and his book On the Gods was burnt.

Religious conviction and its philosophical counterpart, dogmatism, is not culture. Even Heraclitus, despite his great wisdom, was not free from a dogmatic and narrow cast of mind, as shown by the tone of his utterances. But no real progress is possible along this path. Sophism, therefore, at least in its first period, played a positive role in breaking down the old universal dogmas into their component parts and counterposing each of the parts to the others. There was a negative side, in that the isolated elements were open to be twisted and turned out of context, in a typically "sophist" way. Yet, as Hegel says, "A man of culture…knows how to say something of everything, to find points of view in all." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 356.) In fact, Hegel thought that the arguments of Protagoras in Plato’s dialogue of that name were superior to those of Socrates.

This kind of esprit (wit) is entirely foreign to the Anglo-Saxon tradition and mentality, which generally regards it with ill-concealed suspicion, and distaste. Yet, as Hegel, penetratingly observes, sophism marks the beginning of culture in the modern sense of the word. For culture presupposes a rational consideration of things and a choice.

"In fact, what is most striking in a man or people of culture is the art of speaking well, or of turning subjects round and considering them in many aspects. The uncultivated man finds it unpleasant to associate with people who know how to grasp and express every point of view with ease. The French are good speakers in this sense, and the Germans call their talking prattle; but it is not mere talk that brings about this result, for culture is also wanted. We may have mastered a speech quite completely, but if we have not culture, it is not good speaking. Men thus learn French, not only to be able to speak French well, but to acquire French culture. What is to be obtained from the Sophists is thus the power of keeping the manifold points of view present to the mind, so that the wealth of categories by which an object may be considered, immediately occurs to it." (Ibid., p. 359.)

Despite the disrepute in which sophism is supposed to be held nowadays, it is the true father of modern professional politics, law and diplomacy. We observe with tedious regularity how bourgeois politicians are prepared to defend with apparently total conviction, now one position, now precisely the opposite, adducing in either case the most impressive moral and practical arguments. The same procedure may be observed in the law courts any day of the week. And why bother the reader with a list of examples of the consummate lying, manoeuvring deceit practised by the diplomatic corps of every government in the world? These people have all the faults of the sophists and none of their virtues!

It is true that the sophists made a living out of their nimble wits and ability to argue for or against almost anything, as a lawyer argues for the defence or the prosecution, irrespective of the intrinsic rights and wrongs of the case (the verb "sophizesthai" meant "making a career by being clever"). They were the prototype of the smart lawyer and the professional politician. But they were much more than that. Even in the more morally questionable activities of the sophists, there was a real philosophical principle involved. As Hegel wittily observes:

"In the worst action there exists a point of view which is essentially real; if this is brought to the front, men excuse and vindicate the action…A man does not require to make great progress in his education to have good reasons ready for his worst actions; all that has happened in the world since the time of Adam has been justified by some good reason." (Ibid., p. 369.)

The basic idea which underlies the dialectic of sophism is that truth is many-sided. This is an extremely important truth, and fundamental to the dialectical method in general. The difference lies in the use to which it is put. Scientific, objective dialectics strives to grasp every phenomenon in an all-round manner. Subjective dialectics, the dialectic of sophism, takes one or another aspect of the whole, and counterposes it to the rest. In this way, it is possible to deny the whole by insisting on the part, which, in itself, is perfectly sound. This is the method of the legal charlatan, the eclectic, and also, in a cruder way, of "common sense," which makes arbitrary assumptions based upon particulars.

They tried to use the arguments of Zeno and Heraclitus to justify their views, but did so in a negative and one-sided way. For example, Heraclitus had said that it is impossible to step in the same stream twice. One of his disciples went further, saying that you could not even step into it once! This, however, is false. The idea of Heraclitus was that everything is and is not, because everything is in flux, constantly changing. The second view merely takes one half of the equation—that everything is not. This is not at all what Heraclitus meant. The objective world certainly exists, but it is in a permanent process of motion, development and change, in which nothing remains as it was before.

The sophists were sceptics. "As to the gods," wrote Protagoras, "I am unable to say whether they are or are not; for there is much which prevents this knowledge, both in the obscurity of the matter, and in the life of man which is so short." That sentence got him banished from Athens. The fundamental difference with the earlier philosophy is the subjective character of the sophist outlook. "Man is the measure of all things." This statement may be taken in two ways, practical and theoretical. In the first sense, it can be taken as a defence of egotism, self-interest, and the like. In the second sense, it represents a theory of knowledge (epistemology) which is subjective. Man counterposes himself to the objective world, and, at least in his imagination, subjects it to himself. His own reason decides what is what. The essential thing is not what is, but how I see it. This is the basis of all forms of subjective idealism, from Protagoras to Bishop Berkeley, from Kant to Werner Heisenberg.

Basically, the subjective idealist claims that the world is unknowable. We can have no real grasp of the truth, but only opinions, based on subjective criteria. "The truth?" asked Pontius Pilate ironically, "What is the truth?" That is the language of the cynical politician and bureaucrat, who hides his self-interest behind a thin veneer of "cultured" sophistry. Philosophically speaking, however, it is an expression of subjective idealism, which denies the possibility of really knowing the world outside us. This outlook was most clearly expressed by one of the most famous sophists, Gorgias of Leontini (483-375 B.C.), who wrote a provocatively-titled book—On Nature, or On That Which Is Not. The title already says it all. Gorgias based himself on three propositions: a) nothing is real, b) if anything were real, it could not be known, and c) if it could be known, it could not be expressed.

Such opinions seem absurd. Yet they have repeatedly surfaced in the history of philosophy in different forms, including in our own times, when even respected scientists can permit themselves to assert that humans cannot comprehend the quantum world of sub-atomic particles, and that photons and electrons only materialise in a given spot when they are observed by someone; that is, the observer creates his result through the subjective act of observation. Here we once again depart from the world of objectivity, and return, through the tradesman’s entrance of subjective idealism, to the realms of religious mysticism.

The present-day scientists who advocate such views have far less excuse than the sophists, who were the children of their time. The early attempts to find a rational explanation for the processes of nature had reached a point where they could not be taken any further by thought alone. The thinkers of that period arrived at a series of brilliant generalisations about the nature of the universe. But in order to test them and develop them further, it was necessary to examine them in detail, to break them down into their component parts, to analyse them one by one. This work was started by the sophists, and later put on a more rigorous basis by Aristotle. The heroic period of great generalisations gradually gave way to the slow and painstaking accumulation of facts, experiment and observation. Only in this way could the truth or falsehood of the different hypotheses be finally demonstrated. Before we reach this stage, however, we come to the high point of classical philosophical idealism.

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