No Intermediates

After a 15 or so page running battle about words with the Sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, Socrates concludes that the problem with the Sophists is that “they cannot be made to understand intermediates.” For the Sophists, words could only mean one thing, and they used this “digital” assumption about meaning to constantly tie their hearers’ minds into intellectual pretzels. Here’s one example that they tried on Socrates:

Then tell me, [Euthydemus] said, do you know anything?

Yes, [Socrates] said, I know many things, but not anything of much importance.

That will do, he said: And would you admit that anything is what it is, and at the same time is not what it is?

Certainly not.

And did you not say that you knew something?

I did.

If you know, you are knowing.

Certainly, of the knowledge which I have.

That makes no difference; – and must you not, if you are knowing, know all things?

Certainly not, I said, for there are many other things which I do not know.

And if you do not know, you are not knowing.

Yes, friend, of that which I do not know.

Still you are not knowing, and you said just now that you were knowing; and therefore you are and are not at the same time, and in reference to the same things. (Euthydemus 293)

Or take this one:

And is Patrocles, [Dionysodorus] said, your brother?

Yes, [Socrates] said, he is my half-brother, the son of my mother, but not of my father.

Then he is and is not your brother.

Not by the same father, my good man, I said, for Chaeredemus was his father, and mine was Sophronicus.

And was Sophronicus a father, and Chaeredemus also?

Yes, I said; the former was my father, and the latter his.

Then, he said, Charedemus is not a father.

He is not my father, I said.

But can a father be other than a father? or are you the same as a stone?

I certainly do not think that I am a stone, I said, though I am afraid that you may prove me to be one.

Are you not other than a stone?

I am.

And being other than a stone, you are not a stone; and being other than gold, you are not gold?

Very true.

And so Charedemus, he said, being other than a father, is not a father?

I suppose that he is not a father, I replied.

For if, said Euthydemus, taking up the argument, Chaeredemus is a father, then Sophronicus, being other than a father, is not a father; and you, Socrates, are without a father. (Euthydemus 298)

Notice that these verbal pretzel can be unwound by simply understanding that the words in question have different meanings when applied to different, but similar objects. The Sophists repeatedly refuse to allow Socrates to inject qualifiers on his use of terms, because Sophistic “wisdom” consisted in precisely the wooden assumption that a word can only mean the same thing all the time, and that people can be shown to be fools and the Sophist to be wise simply by catching them in clever word traps based on the “digital” assumption about meaning.

I wonder if this sort of thing is what Paul, well educated in classical matters, was talking about when he admonished Timothy to “avoid useless disputes about words” which only ruin the hearers and lead to increasing ungodliness (2 Tim. 2:14-17)? I also wonder if it doesn’t have great relevance to the way lots of Reformed people carry on theological disputes about such matters as regeneration, election, who is a Christian, and so forth. Not understanding intermediates, much of contemporary Reformed theology might be classified as an exercise in Sophistic refusal to understand intermediates.

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