Archive for the definitions Category

A “Sophistic” Refutation

Posted in definitions, Detienne, MM, Plato, reply, sophists, Sprague on January 14, 2008 by untimelymediations

In reply to Lacey’s post below, a counter-post: I’ll follow up with the post on week 2 readings later in the week.

Interdisciplinary is indeed a tidy way of describing the sophists, but I not completely convinced this definition is ultimately fitting.

I want to stress that I’m also not confident that interdisciplinary is the best word for describing sophistic practice; in fact, what might be an interesting point of discussion is the very concept of disciplinarity as it relates to sophistic work.  To the extent that the sophists’ primary legacy (per Detienne) was the desacralization and commodification of speech/rhetoric, we might look to the sophists as the first practitioners of disciplinarity (and we might note further, in Jaeger 316, the sophistic influence on the Trivium and Quadrivium, later to be called the Seven Liberal Arts).  This would, in part, help illuminate the later objections to the sophists as seen in Plato and others (in Sprague). If Platonic philosophy was the next step in disciplinarity, i..e. the next move in distinguishing one body of discursive practice from another, the objections voiced by Socrates begin to make more sense; the sophists would then represent a far less defined sense of disciplinary work, an evolutionary throwback, so to speak, that lingered as a distinct rebuke to Socrates’s and Plato’s further refinement of philosophic practice.

Sophists are, then, people who have moderately advanced knowledge about many topics because they know where /how to find and apply it.sophists are, then, people who have moderately advanced knowledge about many topics because they know where /how to find and apply it.

Or, as Socrates might have it in the Gorgias, know-nothing gadflies who use puffed-up prose who appear to know it all.

If we are dazzling someone with our rhetoric, are we not ‘tricking’ him or her into something they did not previously believe?

I think this too is something Socrates is on about in the Gorgias.  (I have read the two assigned dialogues, but my 1020 just did Gorgias so it’s fresh in my mind.)  I don’t think Socrates would disallow the idea of persuasion, but when aligned with truth, knowledge, wisdom, justice–all the stuff Socrates is always harping about–is it “persuasion” or “learning?”  Socrates at one point argues that

the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know

So we might make the distinction btw just and unjust persuasion, where, if we agree with Socrates, “just persuasion” is better understood as learning.

Food for thought. See all tomorrow.

On-timely Mediation

Posted in definitions, Detienne, KL, sophists, Sprague on January 14, 2008 by untimelymediations

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(Ha! I made it on time this week!)

Ah, there is one advantage of this untimely post—I get to reflect on what McGinnis said before we get into discussion! After reading his post (admittedly, it happened just before sitting down to write this response), I’ve realized that there are some important aspects to these readings that I had neither thought about and/or approached differently. So Mike, I am going to ‘steal’ your questions. Take that.

• What is a sophist?

Interdisciplinary is indeed a tidy way of describing the sophists, but I not completely convinced this definition is ultimately fitting. Certainly, we can describe their knowledge as widespread, and some might even say scattered, but I do not believe that our pedagogical approaches/education as a whole are much different. We do not need skilled memory in order to know the “body, geometry, and epistemology.” Biological memory is no longer necessary for interdisciplinary studies, since I have a computer and a collection of books to assist me. Detienne clarifies this distinction (albeit in a round-about way) when he states, “Memory is essential in an oral civilization, and specific mnemonic techniques must be perfected” (42). However, contrary to Detienne, memory is non-essential for today’s digital orality, and only fluency in and knowledge of specific computer applications will allow one to study interdisciplinary-ly. I guess, then, we can see a resurfacing of ‘sophists’ in today’s culture—sophists are, then, people who have moderately advanced knowledge about many topics because they know where /how to find and apply it.

• What is sophistic rhetoric?

I have always thought “sophistic rhetoric” to be a redundant term. If we are dazzling someone with our rhetoric, are we not ‘tricking’ him or her into something they did not previously believe? In a way, we can look to last week’s New Hampshire primary and Clinton’s tears as a decent example (or her laugh, too, but the ‘teary’ results seem more immediate). By crying, Clinton convinced voters of her humanness, her elect-ability. By crying, Clinton displayed not Presidential qualities (presumably what one should vote on), but rather that she cries for America, too. Sophistic rhetoric is like campaigning—we are (likely) voting for part of the candidate’s beliefs not simply because they align with ours, but because we are tricked into believing that the other issues are either great or don’t matter.

• How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions?

Detienne insists on choice—“Man no longer lived in an ambivalent world in which ‘contraries’ were complementary and oppositions were ambiguous. He was now cast into a dualist world with clear-cut oppositions. Choice became an urgent matter” (125-6). To me, I see the sophists characterized by “distinction”—one is not x, but z. Not a, not b, but rather c. One is distinct from something else, although not necessarily opposite from them. All is related, but one needs to choose what something is not in order to determine its being.

Sophists in the Midst

Posted in definitions, Detienne, MM, sophists, Sprague on January 8, 2008 by untimelymediations

Between Detienne’s book and Sprague’s collection, this week’s reading seems poised around questions of definition, to whit: What is a sophist? What is sophistic rhetoric? How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions? (Next week’s reading picks up these questions and starts pointing to the sophistic legacy in Greece–but that’s for next week’s post.)

  • What is a sophist?

On the basis of Sprague’s collection, the label sophist hardly seems justifiable, at least to the extent that a label implies categorization. The work of the sophists in Sprague’s collection defies categorization on two counts. First, several of the sophists collected here produced work that, in today’s terms, might kindly be described as interdisciplinary. Antiphon is a typical example. While the majority of his extant work is legal discourse and court speeches, he also produced a treatise On Truth, encompasses concerns about the body, geometry, and epistemology. As Sprague notes (226), Antiphon’s Concord encompasses concerns of pedagogy, psychology, and sociology in what seems (from the available fragments and references from ancient commentators) to have been both political treatise and ethical manual (although as we see from next week, Jaeger reveals politics and ethics were indissociable for the Greek mind). Finally, Antiphon preceded Freud himself in producing a guide to the Interpretation of Dreams.

But even if an individual sophist’s work (here using Antiphon as an examplar) was itself difficult to categorize, the question is even more complicated when we seek some pattern across Sprague’s collection. While themes and topics do repeat across the work of this collection–rhetoric and pedagogy, yes, but also a repeated emphasis on the contingent nature of epistemology–it is important to note that the sophists (at least from these samples) were never dogmatic or programmatic about their approach; there was never a “Sophistic Manifesto.” The sophists are marked most significantly, perhaps, by our own scholarship’s inability to heap them together within a Platonic or Aristotelian (or any other established) tradition. The sophists are marked, as Detienne notes, by ambiguity: “Both sophistry and rhetoric … were forms of thought founded on ambiguity. … [T]hey defined themselves as instruments that formulated the theory and logic of ambiguity and made effective action on that same level of ambiguity possible” (116). In cultivating ambiguity, sophists produced work that resented categorical modes of epistemology, working to refute an aboslutism that limited the generative power of rhetoric.

  • What is sophistic rhetoric?

In a word, inconsistent. As above, the label “sophistic rhetoric” might be a trope contemporary scholarship has used to group together the disparate work of those ancients who don’t easily fit into another tradition. Not that there aren’t some things we point to as indicative of sophistic rhetoric, but these points seem to be more meta-level points than based in any one sophist’s claims about the way rhetoric works. For example, it seems clear that one thing the sophists had in common was that, for them, rhetoric and oratory could be taught, could be learned; their mercenary approach to these practices (as clearly attested by Xenophon at Sprague 2), suggests a realization of rhetoric as above all a practical art (or techne). Although Detienne doesn’t make the point explicit, this mercenary approach can perhaps be understood as a consequence of the secularization of speech and oratory that he attributes to the sophists; de-sanctified, removed from the divine speech of poets, prophets, and kings, oratorical speech was reabsorbed into the realm of commerce and commodity. Perhaps then, what most marks sophistic rhetoric is not a style or epistemology, but rather the assertion that speech itself (and the promise of efficacy held by persuasive speech in particular) can be taught and sold.

  • How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions?

Detienne argues that, by desacralizing the categories of efficacious speech, the sophists introduced the notion of contradictory argument (as opposed to complementary qualities). Likewise, sophistic practice made speech an instrument of political action, rather than a mode of efficaciousness as it had been under the earlier masters of Alethia/alethia. This question is somewhat harder to answer for, honestly, given my own ignorance of pre-socratic Greek work (perhaps this could be a topic for discussion when we next meet?).

MLM