Postmodern Interdeterminacy and Rhetorical History Redefined for the Sophists

Jarratt’s piece is particularly interesting to me. I have always interested in the sophists both in ancient China and in ancient Greece and Rome. She tries to find the legitimacy of the first sophists in contrast to Plato by interpreting both sides’ texts and ideas. In my humble opinion, she redefines rhetorical history with the mainstream Western logic and philosophy, that of Plato’s and finds a way to draw attention on the sophists. However, she is not refusing Plato completely, she is saying that the part of history that Plato and his followers made is probably only part of the rhetorical history and we should not cling on what is whole and forget the rest of the segmented history that the first sophists composed.

Then, what are the major difference between Plato and the first sophists? How should we weigh and balance them, what should we learn from the first sophists’ rhetoric? Jarratt unfolds the histories of the sophists and interprets the rhetoric history in their rhetoric(1). First, she laments how the first sophists were casted in the shadow of Plato and Aristotle because the two group did not fit well. Sophists were considered as “self-important, materialistic, even violent” in contrast to “self-effacing, virtuous Socrates”(1-2). Aristotle’s rhetoric even openly accuses the sophists as manipulators of human emotions and condemn them for rely too much on “emotional appeals” rather than the study of different arguments(2). It seems that Plato/Aristotle’s rhetoric of seeking for eternal and capital Truth is in sharp contrast with sophists’ practical/earthly “interest in social exigencies”(2).  All the condemnation on the err of rhetoric and the deceptive nature of rhetoric is related with the sophists. This great tradition of Plato/Aristotle’s rhetoric is all owing to Plato’s ideal that rhetoric is philosophy and that rhetoric should search for an ultimate truth rather than stick to “relativistic” nihilism that “would lead to social decay,” “anarchy,” and so on(2). Jarratt is kind of using Neel’s idea to ridicule the everlasting “self-righteous virtue” in the West(3).

Jarratt thinks that even in the departments of English, the founders of our discipline rhetoric and composition is pragmatic and sophistic as opposed to literary studies(4). I really love how she relates Hegel’s effort in emphasizing sophists’ contribution to the history of philosophy and I totally agree with her contrast between Plato and the sophists as that between German idealism and English intellectual establishment(5). Therefore, to give the sophists the legitimacy they should have enjoyed will require an investigation on how researchers evaluated them.

Jarratt uses a lot of time and energy analyzing Derrida’s views on the sophists and Plato. Derrida contrasts them as one focusing on writing, “monument” and rhetoric while the other focusing on speech, memory, and philosophy(7). Moreover, Derrida sees Plato as “truth-seeking and communication, authorial presence and the orphaned text, philosophical speech and deceitful writing.”(8) This is all true according to what I read in Plato’s Rhetoric. Recent appliances of the sophists include legitimators, deconstructive revisionists, and the anthropological perspective(10).

Then, Jarratt starts to claim the features of sophistic rhetoric and what benefits we can get from the sophistic rhetoric(10-29). Compared to Plato/Aristotle’s “eternal” and “universal” rhetoric, the sophists’ rhetoric is one that is “temporal” and “contingent”(11). Referring Hayden White, Jarratt’s summary of the newly defined rhetorical history as “rhetorical histories” perfectly fits the postmodern air of  inter determinacy and open-endedness brought by anti-authority, anti-mainstream, and so on(12).

Antithesis and parataxis literally represents the dialectical and inter determinate elements because the former emphasizes binary opposites but the latter focuses on multiple possibilities, i.e., the open-endedness and inter determinacy of postmodernism. Therefore, I think Plato and Aristotle’s syllogism is limited compared to sophists’ broad explanations. However, provided that sophists and Plato both have antithesis in their rhetoric.The first time that I read Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen was when I took Dr. Pullman’s historical foundation course. The antithesis Gorgias uses is just fatalistic and so similar to what the Chinese sophists use in their works. I was thinking that unfortunately we did not have a logic system that Plato and Aristotle, but we did have this and have always been using this antithesis logic in our culture. I was so happy that I found something similar here, for in Chinese literature and rhetorical practices, antithesis is a must for all literary people and it forms our way of thinking in a profound way. To say that syllogism does not exist in ancient Chinese logic and philosophy is probably too extreme, but the train of thoughts in Chinese texts were more close to the antithesis and parataxis pattern. Therefore, the interdeterminacy of sophists’ rhetoric can also be found in Chinese rhetoric. Maybe this is why Heidgger once wanted to translate Laozi’s works into German. They are both struggling in how to get rid of humanism that is solely based metaphysics. I think can do a comparative study on Chinese and Western antithesis and parataxis for fun.

Everything is about subversion now, really. Just what a huge influence the postmodern turn brings to us?! Do people in the academia still write without mentioning postmodern concepts or postmodern ideology? Yameng Liu’s piece embraces postmodern deconstruction, too. I will write another post on Liu tomorrow after our discussion.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ajholmes
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 17:09:20

    Belle, I’m glad you found Jarratt’s piece interesting. Your blog post here demonstrates your understanding of Jarratt’s main arguments and contributions. I think you are exactly right when you say that “she redefines rhetorical history . . . draw[ing] attention to the sophists,” without “refusing Plato completely.” I also appreciated the perspective you articulate from Chinese literature and rhetorical practices. To answer your last question, I think it is difficult to write without bringing in postmodern theory these days. There’s lots of folks who don’t deal explicitly with postmodernism, perhaps in the ways Liu does, but as readers I think we can often see postmodern tendencies in the majority of our scholarship. Great response – thanks for your thoughtful contributions!

    Reply

  2. Belle Wang's multi-modal writing studio
    Feb 10, 2013 @ 22:35:43

    Thank you dear Dr. Holmes! You are so right saying that we often see postmodernism in our scholarship. This is our context and our condition.

    Reply

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