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Hypatia 15.4 (2000) 102-120

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Who's Afraid of the Sophists? Against Ethical Correctness 1

Barbara Cassin
Translated by Charles T. Wolfe, revised by the author and by the editor

SOPHISTIQUE, subst. A. Ensemble des doctrines, ou plus exactement attitude intellectuelle commune des principaux sophistes grecs (Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, etc.). B. (Nom commun.) Se dit d'une philosophie de raisonnement verbal, sans solidité et sans sérieux.

SOPHISTICS, substantive noun. A. The set of doctrines, or more precisely, the shared intellectual attitude of the main Greek sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, etc.). B. (Common noun.) Used to refer to a philosophy of verbal reasoning, lacking solidity or seriousness.

André Lalande, ed.,
Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie

I. The Occasion

The set of doctrines or teachings associated with the individuals known as the sophists is termed sophistike, in French, sophistique. The expression is lacking in English, which puts one in the position of either using the adjectives "sophistic," "sophistical," or of using the dismissive expression "sophistry." As I shall be arguing for a systematic role of these doctrines, I will ask your indulgence and introduce the neologism "sophistics" for now. The question is, why should one be interested in sophistics today?

As occasional causes are by far the most significant and the most efficacious, 2 I would like to explain first of all where my own interest in sophistics stems [End Page 102] from. It arose from the encounter of two trajectories which were rivals in all senses of the word. The first phase of study, both jubilant and confused, took place under the sign of Martin Heidegger. Because everything possessed a renewed intelligibility, everything also fit neatly into the palm of one's hand. The history of philosophy was philosophy itself, which the question of Being enabled one to scan and rework into epochs and turnings, with a hitherto unequaled skill which knew when to be self-effacing. It is very difficult to rid oneself of the idea that philosophers today do anything else besides rework Heidegger's gesture, even the anti-Heideggerians who sought their training in Immanuel Kant, with a different point of entry than the Kantbuch (Heidegger 1997). In order to move out from this circumscribed territory, no less is required, doubtless, than (a) a redefinition of philosophy throughout its history, in such a way that this widening of the scope does not produce a mere analytic restriction or moral rigidity which can immediately be traced back historically 3 to the technical and technological nature of our epoch, and (b) probably some new conceptual personae 4 in the Deleuzian sense. But the most frequent approach, which Deleuze himself initiated or at least made use of contemporaneously (using the Stoics, Spinoza, and Bergson), is to draw attention to the readings Heidegger failed to perform, or did not perform, inasmuch as they are held to be strategically impossible.

My own growing rigid, in this context, has to do with the determination of the origin and the dawn. The Greek morning which Heidegger arranged for us is monomaniacal and kleptomaniacal. It robs an entire array of texts and possibilities so that they may fit under the aegis of Parmenides' poem. Heidegger's Parmenides of 1942-43 reads polis merely as pelein, the old Greek verb for einai: if the polis in itself is only the "pole of pelein," then "it is only because the Greeks are an absolutely non-political people" that they could found the polis, and did (Heidegger 1982, 142). The first reading that I found impossible to perform using Heidegger alone, in the truly grandiose perspective of Parmenides' unveiling, was Gorgias' Treatise of Non-Being. Approximately a half-century after the dawn, this treatise provides a full-fledged demonstration of the mechanisms or strategies thanks to which Parmenides' "Poem" conforms to Heidegger's dream. It is a text which critically exceeds ontology in its nascent state. Thus there was a different way of being pre-Socratic.

In order to confirm this diagnosis, it proved necessary for me to undertake the study...


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