13
Nov
08

McComiskey’s Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric

Bruce McComiskey
Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric
Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies

•    Who were the sophists?
o    More difficult to answer than imagined
o    Plato’s influence on the negative usage of the term forced Aristotle to use it in reference to unethical speakers
•    Aristotle, in Sophistical Refutations: The art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without reality, and the sophist is the one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom”
•    Sophist = wise man before Plato changed the meaning
•    New interpretations of sophistic dialogues accepted the Plato/sophist divide, but favored the sophists over Plato
o    Revalued the sophists through Plato’s texts, not sophistic texts
•    Social turn in rhetorical studies (Trimbur): turn toward social constructionism and (social) epistemic rhetoric
•    Poulakis: sophistic definition of rhetoric: “rhetoric is the are which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible.”
•    The sophists used logos – not rhetoric – to refer to their art of discourse
•    deCerteau: impossible to construct the past as it actually was
•    Although all neosophists engage in the critical act of appropriation, not all neosophists appropriate ancient doctrines in the same way
o    Three critical approaches:
•    First, there are a few neosophists who appropriate Plato’s characterization of these traveling teachers, either valuing Plato’s misrepresentations or disparaging them
•    Second, there are a few more neosophists who put aside Plato’s misrepresentations of sophistic doctrines, appropriating doctrines instead from actual sophistic texts and historical interpretations of them in order to find common threads among the ‘older sophists’ and contemporary composition and rhetorical theorists (Jarratt; Poulakis)
•    Third, the lion’s share of neosophists put aside Plato’s misrepresentations of sophistic doctrines, appropriating doctrines instead from actual sophistic texts and historical interpretations of them in order to understand the unique contributions of individual sophists, usually Protagoras and Gorgias, to contemporary rhetorical theory and composition studies (Crowley; Neel; Scott; Vitanza) (11).
•    New sophistic rhetoric relies on three assumptions: knowleges/epistemologies can be understood within defining context of particular cultures; rhetorical methods rely on probability, affect, and kairos; relativistic rhetoric of the right moment supports democratic power formations that depend on the invention of ethical arguments.
5: “First, some scholars take Plato at his word, disparaging the sophist as greedy cheaters.  Second, some scholars accept what Plato says about the sophists, but they value, rather than disparage, these traveling teachers based on Palto’s characterization.  Third, some scholars put aside Plato’s misrepresentations of the sophists, examining the sophistic texts themselves in order to discover common threads among the most prominent ‘older’ sophists.  Fourth, some scholars put aside Plato’s misrepresentations of the sophists, examining the sophistic texts themselves in order to understand the unique contributions of each individual sophist in the context of pre-Socratic thought.”
5: “In ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes, ‘For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’  This is, of course, what was happening in the revival of sophistry. In what had come to be known as ‘the sophists’ –those ancient antifoundationalists, champions of democracy, teachers of rhetoric- many scholars found a friend in the fray,  ancient validation for the arguments they wanted to make about contemporary rhetoric, arguments that were almost as marginalized, it seemed, as those criticized by Plato over 2,000 years hence.”
8: “As the human mind evolves in response to new technologies and social institutions, its ability to capture the ‘truth’ of the past erodes irretrievably.”

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