- Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism by Barbara Cassin
"When you find yourself neck deep in shit, start making bricks," or so I was advised by Luanne T. Frank, a faculty member during my graduate days, who was deftly "translating" Heidegger for us during one class session. And now, decades later, I look around and think, "I'd better get busy, really busy."
With that prelude, and apologies to those weak of stomach or imagination—but this is not the time to be queasy—I approach Barbara Cassin's Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism. Indeed, the paperback cover image is of a man knee deep in water, at the least, and he looks down reflectively, somberly, as if to ask: "Really? What to do?"
When I first read Cassin's volume—a collection of (mostly) previously published essays on the sophists, on philosophy's systematic repression of their thought, and on the pragmatic and political value of sophistic "relativism," I was struck by the volume's lack of engagement with similar scholarship that has been undertaken in the United States. Except for two references, one to the work of John Poulakos and the other to that of Ed Schiappa, the collection of essays does not otherwise engage with rhetoric studies that "we," and I use this collective pronoun with increasing discomfort as I write this, have published in English. My first impulse, thus, after reading, was to react: but why recuperate the sophists now? Didn't "we" vociferously and variously praise, resurrect, refigure, and bury them several decades ago?
My subsequent impulse was to acknowledge the very antisophistic drive at work in my own reception of a foreign scholarship (Oh, how easy it is to feel "at home" in one's disciplinary comfort zone, to circle the wagons [End Page 202] around a constitutive "we"). I recognized, clearly, that now, right now is precisely the right time to readdress the sophists. Irrepressible, the sophists haunt us, no matter how hard we try to bury them (see the work of Victor J. Vitanza and Jane Sutton, for example), and in times of rampant bigotry, xenophobia, and fundamentalism, the sophists return to remind us that now will always already be the right time to rethink, revisit, and retheorize the sophists. As scholars in rhetoric and as Cassin, here, argue, the sophists represent the power to challenge totalizing beliefs and their oppressive effects.
I acknowledge the argument that it is a totalizing move itself to group all the various rhetors and philosophers under one homogenizing category of "the sophists" (see the work of Schiappa, for example). By doing so, we risk dehistoricizing them, anachronistically reviving them, and compelling them to speak from their ancient graves according to a contemporary script. Yet as John Poulakos, Victor J. Vitanza, and others have previously argued—and as Cassin does here—"the sophist" serves as a productive, as Vitanza would say, representative anecdote/antidote, a way both to explore "neglected and repressed traditions, of alternative paths" (1) and to counteract the philosophical demand for homology. Cassin writes: "Sophistic texts are the paradigm of what was not only left to one side but transformed and made unintelligible by their enemies" (2). These neglected, repressed, and alternative texts—these "others," she further argues, "have in common another way of speaking, even another conception of logos" (2).
Contrary to the ontologists, the philosophers, who worship at the altar of the law of noncontradiction, of homogenization and the "one," the sophists, as "logologists," inhabit the unholy space of the many, "outside of the regime of meaning as univocity" (4). The philosophical tradition has embraced this law, Aristotle's "principle of all principles," and its attendant communicational presumption and demand and thus, by structural necessity (just as structurally necessary as the prohibition of incest, she notes), excluded sophists and their language games (4-5). Cassin's methodological interest—and the interest for our future methodological muscle, then—is to query how and why the philosopher demands such prohibitions and, further, needs or feels the "right to say...