Scott Consigny on Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric.

Scott Consigny on Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric.

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Scott Consigny on Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric


Edward Schiappa's cogent and eloquent book fully deserves the praise it has received. As Donovan Ochs observes in his 1991 review of the book (RSQ 21: 3942), Schiappa, presents a clear account of Protagoras' philosophy and supports his reading with a detailed analysis of each of Protagoras' five extant fragments. But even though Schiappa's reading is compelling, we need not necessarily be persuaded by it; for as Protagoras himself remarks, it is always possible to articulate two opposed accounts about everything, and to make the ostensibly weaker account stronger. In this review I will undertake a "Protagorean" project, articulating and defending an account of Protagoras' philosophy that is opposed to Schiappa's account. To this end I will briefly sketch Schiappa's account, which I label an "enlightenment" reading of Protagoras, and I will then sketch an opposed, "rhetoricist" reading of the Sophist.

Schiappa begins his study by acknowledging his debt to George Grote and Eric Havelock. Schiappa concurs with Grote's assessment of the Sophists as "a positive force" in the fifth-century Greek enlightenment (12); and he accepts Havelock's notion that the transition from orality to literacy in Greek society led to a progression "from a mythic-poetic to a more literate, humanistic-rationalistic culture" (21). Drawing on these two scholars, Schiappa depicts Protagoras as a pivotal figure of the fifth century enlightenment helping to transform Greece from an irrational, mythical and theocentric culture into a rational and humanistic culture. Schiappa then proceeds to examine Protagoras' contribution to this intellectual progress, namely his advocacy and analysis of logos, or "rationality" as the proper means of inquiry. In a detailed analysis of Protagoras' five extant fragments, Schiappa argues that Protagoras provides the groundwork for the subsequent development of rational inquiry by delineating the assumptions or principles, the proper procedure or method, and the kind of results or explanations that may be attained through rational inquiry.

Concerning Protagoras' conception of the starting points or principles of inquiry, Schiappa argues that in his remark that "humanity is the measure of all things," Protagoras sharply differentiates his anthropocentric logos from the theocentric mythos of the poets who claim to be inspired by the gods. Schiappa also construes Protagoras' remark that he is unable to know whether or not the gods exist as further underscoring the Sophist's rejection of theocentricity. These remarks are fundamental to Protagoras' project, for in them he suggests that valid inquiry must be initiated by humans themselves, without information supplied by the gods.

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Further, Schiappa interprets Protagoras' assertion that it is "impossible to contradict" a given logos as a fundamental principle of rational inquiry, one that anticipates Aristotle's subsequent formulation of the "law" of noncontradiction (138). Concerning the procedures of inquiry, Schiappa reads Protagoras' attempt to make the weaker argument stronger" as delineating a rational procedure for arriving at the truth. For Protagoras advocates "the substitution of a preferred (but weaker) logos for a less preferable (but temporarily dominant) logos of the same experience" (113). Finally, Schiappa sees Protagoras as delineating the proper results of inquiry, the kinds of explanations or "rational accounts" that may be offered about the nature of things. Drawing on a thesis advanced by Julius Moravscik, Schiappa distinguishes three stages in presocratic philosophical thought concerning rational explanation: explanations in terms of origin, constituency and attributes (95). Citing as evidence Protagoras' remark that there are two opposed logoi about everything, Schiappa credits the Sophist with progressing beyond explanations in terms of "origins" and "constituency," toward the "attributional" explanations about qualities developed more fully by Plato and Aristotle (97). In this respect, Schiappa sees Protagoras as "a pivotal figure in the transition between two stages of metaphysical explanation" (194), advancing toward more adequate and abstract modes of rational explanation, and thereby "directly contributing to the development of Plato's and Aristotle's thinking concerning qualities and attributes" (114).

If Schiappa portrays Protagoras as advocating logos as the preferred instrument for inquiring into and understanding the world, he also depicts the Sophist as advocating logos as a means to improve and govern human behavior. In this respect, Schiappa portrays Protagoras as a transitional figure in the sphere of ethics and politics as well as in epistemology, helping to elevate Greece from the "competitive" aristocratic virtues extolled by Homer and other poets to the "cooperative" and more democratic virtues required in the polis. Schiappa construes Protagoras' claim to teach virtue as an indication that he sees people as receptive to its moral as well as intellectual improvement and he reads Protagoras' effort to make the "weaker argument stronger" as an attempt to strengthen a temporarily weaker but morally superior logos, and thereby to "change people for the better" (199). In the sphere of political thought, Schiappa sees Protagoras' association with Pericles and his authorship of the Thurii Constitution as evidence of the Sophist's commitment to democracy and opposition to aristocracy (199). And Schiappa sees Protagoras' teaching of rhetoric as a project of imparting the verbal skills and procedures of rational deliberation needed by citizens in a democratic society. As such, Schiappa construes Protagoras' remarks on logos as "formalizing procedures of public discourse," and thereby ordering democratic discussion in the Assembly and the law courts (186).

Whereas Schiappa's account of Protagoras is coherent and detailed, it may be countered by an opposed account, one initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche and recently developed by John Poulakos, David Roochnik and other scholars. In this reading, Protagoras is not seen as guiding Greece from a mythical to rational culture, a precursor to and ally of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Rather, Protagoras emerges as a powerful adversary of these philosophers, opposed to their logocentric project of establishing a privileged vocabulary and universally valid method that promise access to "reality" in itself. For Protagoras is a combatant in a "quarrel" between philosophy and rhetoric, advocating a "rhetorical" model of logos and rejecting a "philosophical" model. In this quarrel, Protagoras repudiates the philosophers' contention that language can "re-present" or mirror an independently existing reality, and instead exposes logos as an apparatus of power, a repertoire of verbal weapons with which persuasive rhetors may impose their own views upon their audiences. Using contemporary terminology, Protagoras propounds an "antifoundational" model of language, wherein no assertion is ever "grounded" in an ultimate "reality," whether it be populated by gods, forms, categories or facts; and wherein nobody, whether a poet or philosopher, is warranted in claiming access to any such domain. Rather, every argument is inherently "rhetorical" in that it is inescapably interested or biased, anchored in the limited perspective of rhetors and the contingencies of unique rhetorical situations. For this reason, Protagoras would not be opposed to the poets per se, but would see them as rhetors much like himself, laboring under what Harold Bloom calls an "anxiety of influence" and attempting to supplant earlier accounts with their own. Indeed, as he demonstrates in his "Great Speech" in Plato's eponymous dialogue, Protagoras is quite willing to use both poetic myths and logical arguments insofar as they serve his own rhetorical ends.

Each of Protagoras' fragments supports this "rhetoricist" interpretation of his remarks. He suggests that in any situation one logos will tend to be dominant or "stronger" than any opposed logos, and for this reason will be accepted by a community as "true." He further suggests that the persuasiveness and tenacity of the dominant logos derives in part from its ability to conceal its own "rhetorical" bias and to present itself as mirroring or representing the nature of things themselves. For since each logos delineates what constitutes the "facts," it is "impossible to contradict" a dominant logos by appealing to the facts. But whereas one logos may be dominant in a given situation, Protagoras insists that it is a mistake to think that it offers access to reality in itself, for he insists that "humanity is the measure of all things," affirming that individuals themselves, and not any external criteria, are the ultimate judges of a given logos. As a critic of the dominant logoi of his culture, Protagoras undertakes the task of exposing these logoi as accounts which skilled rhetors impose on their audiences. Protagoras' strategy for achieving this critical educational objective is to articulate a logos that is "opposed" to the dominant logos, and to make it appear stronger than the dominant logos. He is thereby able to expose the concealed rhetoricity of every dominant logos, and to demonstrate that the "truth" is itself a fabrication of a persuasive discourse.

Protagoras' rhetorical model of logos has important consequences for his ethical and political thought. Unlike ethical dogmatists who claim that their own theocentric or ethnocentric moral doctrines are universally valid, Protagoras would dismiss all such claims as "interested" attempts to dominate others. Rather than presuming to improve his students' morals through adherence to universal principles, Protagoras encourages them to increase their excellence or power, and he offers to instruct them in ways that may facilitate their efforts. The "education" he offers is a project of edification, enabling people to empower themselves, to acquire control of their own lives and to increase their influence over others. The "virtues" or excellences he teaches are not moral "doctrines," but rather are rhetorical skills that enable people to compete successfully in their personal and public life. Concerning the political implications of these teachings, one need not conclude that Protagoras is an advocate of democracy and a critic of aristocracy. Whereas the rhetorical skills he a teaches are indeed useful in a democratic city, they would also be useful in the non-democratic cities in which Protagoras taught. And while his association with Pericles and his authorship of the Thurii Constitution may suggest that he approved of a democracy run by free males, Protagoras' activities may also be seen as indicating his approval of the authoritarian Athenian empire. Indeed Protagoras characterizes the polis itself as an opportune instrument for securing one's safety and advancing one's power, and not as a higher-order entity upon which "moral" behavior is grounded.

If this "rhetoricist" account of Protagoras is as internally coherent and historically defensible as Schiappa's "enlightenment" account, then we face a dilemma in deciding which account is preferable. Following Protagoras' own dictum, I suggest that we can neither "contradict" nor "prove" either account by reference to the putative historical "facts" about Protagoras, simply because there are no such objective and uninterpreted facts to which we can appeal. For this reason, we should resist Schiappa's claim that his account more adequately "recapture[s] the past insofar as possible on its own terms," and that the "rhetoricist" reading is a hopelessly biased "rational reconstruction" (66). Rather, we should recognize that each account is inescapably "rhetorical," in that each involves us in a hermeneutic circle wherein our understanding of Protagoras' thought and activity is fashioned by our own assumptions and procedures. Stated in Protagorean terms, we must recognize that we, and not any "independent data," are the ultimate measure and judge of the persuasiveness of either account. We will not be persuaded by either account because it is true; rather, we will accept one as true because we have been persuaded.

Protagoras and the Language Game of History: A Response to Consigny by Edward Schiappa
I thank Scott Consigny (hereafter SC) for his praise and for providing such a thoughtful commentary. I have great respect for SC's scholarship and I am delighted by the opportunity to engage him in dialogue. I hope that RSQ readers find our exchange edifying and entertaining. In this short reply I must limit my remarks to the argument that SC's account of Protagoras (hereafter P) is not historically defensible.

SC tries to make my account of P less appealing by tarring me with a sort of Naive Modernist-traditionalist brush. But that dog won't hunt. I've read Nietzsche and Derrida, despite what some folks might assume. I never deny the rhetoricity of my own prose, I never call other folks' accounts "hopelessly biased," and I know that "factual" claims are rhetorically constructed and always subject to revision. Also, I have no objection to Nietzschean, "neo-sophistic" scholarly efforts; I merely ask that we draw a distinction between contemporary appropriation and historical reconstruction. I thoroughly enjoyed SC's account of what can be called neo-Protagoreanism; I just believe his account makes for an inadequate history of fifth-century Greek thought.

To argue that SC's description of P is not, as he puts it, "historically defensible," I need to persuade readers that one can maintain anti-foundationalist beliefs and still argue about historical "facts." There are no "brute" or "uninterpreted" facts, only social or "institutional" facts. It is a socially constructed fact that "Edward Schiappa was born in 1954," but that does not make that "fact" less reliable or useful for a wide variety of purposes. We have been persuaded to share a set of in beliefs - about the social practice of naming, personal identity, what counts as Id "birth," and a specific calendar system -- such that we call this claim a fact. to However, unless we are unwilling to share these beliefs, we are rhetorically is compelled - by other people, not "the world" -- to acknowledge the factual status id of the claim. "Facts," for my purposes, can be taken as rhetorically constructed A beliefs that are treated as reliable interpretations by a given discourse community. .

To claim that "an account is not historically defensible" means that I find it d difficult or impossible to reconcile that account with interpretations I have been persuaded to count as "facts." The claim that "Protagoras taught calculus to Sextus d Empiricus," for example, runs counter to my beliefs about who P was, when he and Sextus lived, and when calculus was developed. Unless I revise those beliefs, I s will reject the claim as factually wrong. Doing so does not make me a r traditionalist, rationalist, positivist, objectivist, Modernist, or one who labors I under the delusion that I have access to "objective and uninterpreted facts." it means f that I can acknowledge the contingency, rhetoricity, and constructedness of those claims I treat as "facts" yet still believe them as useful until persuaded to do otherwise.

As soon as SC suggests that his account may be "historically defensible," he invites the opportunity to assess his account according to the shared beliefs of the language game we call "history." Anachronism is irrelevant to certain forms of fiction, but considered a bad move in history writing. That is how we have agreed to play the game. Just as the concept of "dribbling" helps to define the social practice of basketball, avoidance of anachronism is a definitive move that helps us to recognize history as a genre of writing.

If one compares my account of P with SC's As History, then I believe that my account is preferable. If, on the other hand, one wants a description of P in postmodern terminology, then I commend SC's account. Let's get to examples: SC says P was "opposed to [such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle's) logocentric project" that promised "access to 'reality' in itself." As history, this strikes me as akin to saying "Benjamin Franklin opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union." P died when Plato was a toddler and before Aristotle was born. Furthermore, as argued in the book, the "quarrel" between Philosophy and Rhetoric did not erupt until the fourth century BCE, again decades after P's death. The word rhetoric was not in use until decades after P. No one in Ps day differentiated between a "rhetorical" and "philosophical" model of logos. Moreover, as I argue in the book and in a subsequent essay QJS 78 [1992]: 1-15), what I find most interesting about fifth-century texts is that most do not show the tension between philosophical and rhetorical concerns that one finds after Plato.

One will not appreciate P's contributions to fifth-century thought by describing P in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, but by understanding his textual fragments as they interact with other fifth-century texts, such as by the Eleatic intellectuals, Importing contemporary terminology often forces P's contributions into out categories and in the process neglects evidence that does not "fit" our expectations such as P's interest in orthos logos - "correct accounts." I think P was interested in "the ways things really are," but his account defies our typical categories. as, I believe, both a precursor to Plato and Aristotle (I devote a chapter to how Plato and Aristotle assimilated many Protagorean insights) yet he also would not have approved of many of their doctrines.

SC says that the success of a dominant logos derives from "its ability to conceal his own 'rhetorical' bias and to present itself as mirroring or representing the nature of things themselves." I would love to see the evidence for this claim. Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was still 2500 years away, and the Greek expression for "the nature of things themselves" had not yet been coined. Again SC is providing useful contemporary description but bad history.

SC says that P did not think logos gave access to reality, since he said that "humanity is the measure of all things," but this, again, is a based on contemporary assumptions. P's understanding of logos and "reality" was influence by Heraclitus' worldview, which implies that there are dissoi logoi because the world "really is" contradictory. I argue in the book that, if we must label him, P was an "objective relativist" because he felt each person is "really" in touch with reality. He would not agree with SC that truth is a "fabrication"; the metaphor misses the way P and other writers used logos to refer to discourse and to "real" states-of-affairs. Let's face it: P does not fit our contemporary categories well. And whether we like it or not, P was more logocentric and representationalist than not.

The movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" ends with famous historical figures visiting the present. They become like us: Beethoven plays a synthesizer, Joan of Arc teaches aerobics, Napoleon loves to bowl, etc. The hubris of the movie is that it is more important for these figures to learn what we value -- for them to be like us -- than for us to learn from them. Similarly, in "Scott's Excellent Adventure," P mouths postmodern pieties so that he can be just like us. It is much harder to understand what P was doing in terms he and his interlocutors used. The P we'd get to know would not be as much fun. He would not be as much like us. But we don't really need him for that, do we? Aren't there plenty of postmodern theorists for us to engage without having to make dead Greeks sound like us? I think a more ethical and educational move is to respect P and other historical writers' differences; to listen to them, to learn to speak like them, to understand their values and doctrines on their own terms, to envision what it meant to be an intellectual in fifth-century Athens struggling with a fledgling theoretical vocabulary and a host of cultural constraints we now find alien. The hermeneutic circle is not closed; we engage different texts with the hope that they will teach us something we did not already know. (Otherwise why bother reading texts?) We engage historical texts to become other than who we are, however temporarily. To do any less is to silence and marginalize the most exciting aspects of historical texts - the parts that do not fit into our contemporary ways of thinking.
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