Sophisticated Analysis

Some of you may remember Robin Phillips’ article last issue about Gorgias and the sophists. If you don’t, here’s a refresher:

The ancient Greeks had a school of philosophers known as the Sophists, who took pride in their ability to prove impossible things. Some sophists even hired themselves out at public events, where audiences could watch spellbound as they proceeded to prove propositions that were obviously false.

The sophist philosopher Gorgias (4th century b.c.) invented an ingenuous argument to prove that: nothing exists; and even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something exists and something can be known about it, such knowledge cannot be communicated to others; and even if something exists, can be known about, and can be communicated about, no incentive exists to communicate anything about it to others.

Well, thinking about this article got me to wondering about the word “sophisticated”–a word that, in modern usage, seems to have little resemblance to anything about the nature of sophistry. However, I was able to find one article that describes the transformation of the word. It turns out that it has an interesting history. From World Wide Words:

Sophisticated is closely connected with sophistry. Though that word in turn came from the Greek sophos meaning wise, sophists in classical Greece — around the fourth century BC — were itinerant teachers of philosophy and rhetoric who didn’t enjoy a good reputation. They were sceptical about the possibility of achieving genuine knowledge and were thought by many to be more concerned with winning arguments than arriving at the truth. Plato considered them to be a dishonest bunch of lecturers, and sophistry came to mean fallacious reasoning.

In medieval times, the Latin verb sophisticare was invented with a related sense of dishonest tampering with something. It was applied particularly to traders who added foreign substances to expensive goods to bulk them out and so increase their profits. The earliest example we know of refers to merchants meddling with pepper, then a rare and valuable spice. So the verb from its first appearance in English meant adulterate. Later writers applied it to those who added cheap wines to bulk out expensive ones, and to those who adulterated tobacco with the sweepings of the floor. In the early nineteenth century, it was hard to find a basic foodstuff on sale in London markets that hadn’t been sophisticated in some way: alum in bread, roasted acorns in coffee, dried hedgerow leaves in tea, and so on.

Curiously, while all this was going on, sophisticated itself was shifting sense. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, it could refer to a thing that had been deprived of its primitive or natural state, and so rendered artificial. But the real shift was going on with unsophisticated. Early on this meant something that was genuine, but then moved to refer to somebody who was in a natural and unspoiled state, and so was ingenuous or inexperienced. It was only around the end of the nineteenth century that it began to be possible to use sophisticated as the opposite of unsophisticated in this sense, for somebody worldly-wise, well versed in life’s ways and who had a subtle and discriminating nature. And it was applied to theories, techniques and equipment even more recently — only from the middle of last century on.

Sophistication in this sense is a truly modern phenomenon.

I think the sophists would be pleased.

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