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Reviewed by:
  • Reason's Dark Champions: Constructive Strategies of Sophistic Argument
  • Jakob Leth Fink
Christopher W. Tindale . Reason's Dark Champions: Constructive Strategies of Sophistic Argument. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xiv + 178. Cloth, $49.95.

The book under review contributes to the vindication of the sophists. It investigates sophistic arguments from a historical angle and with an emphasis on rhetoric rather than logic. Its main claim is that 'sophistic argument' should not be construed as equivalent to 'fallacious argument.' There were constructive argument strategies in the arsenal of the sophists, and these are lucidly described in the second part of the book.

Tindale divides his exposition into two parts. In the first part we are invited to consider how the equation of sophistic with fallacious argumentation came about and whether it is a fair representation of the sophists, historically speaking. The second part consists of analyses of constructive sophistic argumentation strategies that were not fallacious. For the historian of philosophy, the first part seems most problematic and so will be given most consideration here. Let us look at the historical aspect first. Tindale's position is that "there is more to sophistic argument than eristics, and not all sophistic argumentation can be equated with fallacy even if we permit ourselves to view it only through Aristotelian lenses" (11). That all sophistic argumentation can be equated with fallacy is obviously problematic, but from a historical perspective the pertinent question is whether Aristotle ever makes this claim. Obviously, the term 'sophistic' is used as a brand for 'bad argument' by Aristotle. But I do not think he ever claims that all sophistic arguments are fallacious. To Aristotle, 'sophist' is at bottom an ethical designation independent of argument strategies. The sophist chooses a "way of life" and this is what distinguishes him from the philosopher (Met. 4.2, 1004b22-25). There can be no question that Plato and Aristotle promoted the negative view of the sophists, but they are not responsible for the equation Tindale wants to question.

Let us take up a more philosophical issue next. Here the problem is that philosophers and sophists disagree about almost everything but primarily about "how best to reason about the world and the place of humans in it" (30). Tindale is quite right to point out that the philosophers' way of thinking about fallacies is embedded in a series of metaphysical assumptions that the sophists did not necessarily share (47). The principle of non-contradiction is one basic assumption of the philosophers. However, Tindale points out that Antiphon, for example, thought that there is no permanent reality behind statements (26), or that sophists did not believe in persistent things "so that a Cleinias who is not what he is now is dead" (56). Such claims obviously challenge philosophy. It is not that they are futile. The [End Page 448] statement 'nothing grows' (nihil crescit) was important in theorizing about identity claims among medievals, for example, and exercised a considerable influence on semantics and metaphysics. The problem is that they open an abyss of problems going straight to the root of rationality, reality, and morality. If someone says, for example, "I did not have a sexual relationship with that woman," or that weapons of mass destruction are known to be kept by a foreign state, this person could, on sophistic assumptions, never be shown to misinform or lie ('I' or 'weapons of mass destruction' do not persist over time). The effect on everyday communication would seem to be disastrous.

Be this as it may, Tindale's point about the different metaphysical assumptions of sophists and philosophers raises at least two relevant questions: can we assume that sophists had a group of common assumptions on which they based their arguments, which is questionable, and further, did sophists actually base their constructive argumentation strategies (described in part two of the book) on the alleged sophistic assumptions? Tindale does not directly address these questions, but at the end of the day his interpretations suggest that the sophists reasoned on the basis of the principle of non-contradiction no less than the philosophers. By a reversal argument, for example, Antiphon shows an inconsistency in the...


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