We’ll imagine a swaggering new Sophist lurches onto the philosophical scene. I mean by ‘sophist’ here, not literally a sophist in the traditional sense, someone who privileges rhetoric over reason, but rather, simply as a figure in the history of philosophy, does something basically similar to philosophy but stands in an important way outside of it, is defined against philosophy and is, possibly, something for philosophy to define itself against.
This Sophist declares, that hitherto all philosophical discourse has been, in some important sense, flawed. It doesn’t particularly matter how, and in fact none of us philosophers can anyway figure it out. He expresses it in terminology that sounds like nonsense to us, arcane circular sentences that seem to express nothing in particular; a new jargon he never properly explains; odd semantics; non-traditional use of ordinary language, etc. The only thing we can understand, is that he tells us that the reason we cannot understand him, is because we are philosophers. Because we exist within the discourse of philosophy, and what he is doing is importantly outside it, we can never understand him.
But neither, he continues, can we dismiss what he says as nonsense. There is a point to what he is saying: but we can only understand it if we abandon philosophy – which is what he wants us to do – and start doing the sort of inquiry he is doing, which he calls ‘anti-philosophy’. Some people go over to him, and profess to understand him, but they cannot tell us why, because we are still philosophers.
Is there any point to engaging with this Sophist? We can imagine circumstances under which there might be. Although he cannot articulate to us what is wrong with our discipline, we might be aware of some problems ourselves. If it is truly a new mode of inquiry he is establishing, then maybe he can do things that we can’t, with it, and maybe we will be able to see the effects.
But what if we can’t figure out what is right about this new mode of inquiry, unless we do go over to it wholesale like the Sophist is demanding? Wouldn’t we be justified in just ignoring him, at least if we’re getting along fine without his critique, which he is refusing to really address to us? His followers aggressively say we aren’t. They say we’re just scared, that we are only concerned to maintain the integrity of a basically bunk or self-regarding discipline. But if this level of personal attack is all they have going for them, and if they really can’t tell us what their critique is (because we remain in totally different worlds of discourse), then no we shouldn’t listen.
Imagine a baseball team, who tells a cricket team that baseball is a better sport than cricket, and they should all switch to playing baseball, and everyone who watches cricket should switch to watching baseball, also. Of course, the cricket team object to this. So the baseball team say, the only way you can challenge our assertion, is if you beat us at a game of baseball.
There are several things wrong with this. First, obviously, the odds are stacked against the cricket team from the start. The baseball team (we can assume) has a lot more experience playing baseball, their skill-set is almost certainly anyway more suited to baseball, it’s a game they know and are successful at, thus they will probably win. But secondly, even if the cricket team did win (and actually I seem to remember one of the earliest documented baseball games involved a baseball club being thrashed by a cricket team who’d just been told the rules), this doesn’t prove anything anyway.
The only way it could, I mean the only way there could be any sort of direct comparison, in terms of the ranking despite mutual incompatibility of these two sports, is if there was, perhaps, some ideal form of Absolute Sport that they might aspire to approximate to. The superior sports are those that do so more closely. Every sport is, in some sense, trying to be like the Absolute Sport. The players of superior sports would beat the players of inferior sports because its athletes exhibited more of the qualities of the Absolute. So it would be legitimate to say that if the cricket players beat the baseball players at baseball, cricket is better, because the cricket players were better at the sort of things All Sport aspires, or should aspire, to exemplify.
Likewise, if there was some Absolute Truth that all inquiry was or ought to be directed towards, it would be totally legitimate for the Sophist to tell us that we ought to engage with his discipline, in order to work out whether or not his critique of philosophy works. That is: it is a possibility that there is a particular sort of Truth that philosophy is unable to access in a way that the new anti-philosophy can. But if this Absolute doesn’t exist, then there is no point in engaging with the Sophist (unless he can demonstrate the practical virtues of his new mode of inquiry). Because, how could we ever know if his system of discourse was any better than our own? There is no way we can rank it against ours, ours has a significant history, many more people understand our way of talking… if there are no Absolute benefits, we must talk practically.