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If ontology, then politics

To speak is to do something – something other than to express what one thinks, to translate what one knows, and something other than to play with the structure of language.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of KnowledgeFor a critical history of philosophy, the relationship between philosophy and politics has been foreclosed by a strategy apparent since Marxʼs remark in the Theses on Feuerbach that philosophers have only interpreted the world: the interminable search for a ʻtranscendental signifiedʼ which would supply a response to all our questions. This is a hopeless task which has as its result the occlusion of contingent points in history when the otherwise becomes possible. Recent reflections draw further attention to the problematic links between philosophy and the political, evident since Platoʼs advocacy of tyranny (to mention nothing of that of Heidegger). But they do so, perhaps, within the framework of too orthodox a history (and historiography). [1] The merit of the erudite and provocative work of Barbara Cassin is to have problematized the relationship between philosophy and the political in an entirely new fashion. The following article offers an introductory analysis of what she calls a ʻsophist history of philosophyʼ in terms of her interest in thinking the political ʻas suchʼ.

It is through the deceptive simplicity of the idea of ʻthinking the political as suchʼ that the problematic nature of philosophical discourse becomes evident. For Cassin, this requires that the political not be subordinated to any more determining instance, and it is this negative condition which draws attention to the limits of philosophical reflection. Of course, an investigation of the conditions and limits of philosophical discourse is not, in itself, anything new: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, to mention but a few, all found themselves faced with the problem. However, the originality of Cassinʼs work is to suggest that thinking the political, and questioning the limits and conditions of philosophy, involve a return to those inimical but wholly necessary enemies of philosophy, the original non-philosophers: the sophists.

Cassinʼs ʻsophist history of philosophyʼ is a detailed philosophical and philological examination of the relationship between philosophy and sophistry, primarily based on the first and second sophistries, those of Ancient Greece and Imperial Rome, but extending to the present day, through a consideration of the resonances of sophistry with the work of certain contemporary writers. [2] It suggests that the major obstacle to thinking the political is, in fact, philosophy; more specifically, ontology. For Cassin this implies the need to confront the Heideggerian interpretation of the Presocratics, on the assumption that it is the predominance of Heideggerian motifs in much continental – particularly French – philosophy which accounts for the absence of any serious consideration of sophistry.

Whilst it is certainly the case, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest in What is Philosophy? that it is difficult to be Heideggerian these days, it is also the case that the German masterʼs philosophy forms, as Badiou has put it, a ʻcommonplaceʼ of contemporary thought and a pervasive interpretation of philosophyʼs distant past. A persistent emphasis on ʻauthenticityʼ and on poetry qua Dichtung as privileged vector of experience, for example, provides a convenient and easily mobilized framework for deterring attempts to think the history of philosophy otherwise. One cannot shift responsibility for a contemporary reluctance or inability to rethink the history of philosophy entirely onto Heidegger, and Cassinʼs work gives us little reason so to do. But it remains the case that it is difficult to mention the word ʻontologyʼ without recalling Heideggerʼs strictures about the meaning of Being. [3]

An alternative reading of the Presocratics and of metaphysics testifies to the existence of what Cassin If ontology, then politics The sophist effect

Andrew goffey

calls a ʻsophist effectʼ and yields a discursive practice, with a very distinctive discursive action, she calls (after Novalis) ʻlogologyʼ. The constitution of logology suggests that sophistry is a discursive practice forming the transcendental condition of politics.

The term ʻsophist effectʼ [4] primarily designates the manner in which sophistry puts philosophy ʻoutside of itselfʼ by virtue of a practice of language that philosophical categories cannot assimilate, making sophistry philosophyʼs ʻunsublatableʼ other. Sophistry is simultaneously a historical fact (there have been, there are, there will be sophists, and verifiably so – Plato talks about them; Socrates was one, for a bit, debatably; some of their writings remain), and a structural effect of philosophical discourse (not only does Plato talk about them, some of his dialogues are structured around them; Aristotle endeavours to exclude them; and the invective ʻsophismʼ is baldly evident in other philosophers – think, for example about Kantʼs analysis of the antinomies of pure reason).

In this second sense, Cassin is suggesting not only that philosophy is constituted around the exclusion of the sophist, but that philosophical discourse – or better, that specific practice of language use which is philosophy – can only define itself in relation to sophistry, an other whose use of language is hence mistaken or unethical. The relationship of philosophy and sophistry is agonistic and immanent, and the philosopher includes a small dose of the play of language (= rhetoric) so as to inoculate against the destructive viruses of the sophist. But in so doing, a play of perpetual reversal becomes possible: the lost writings of Protagoras were not called ʻcatastrophic discoursesʼ for nothing. Finally, sophistry is a philosophical artefact: historically constructed for the comforting of a particular use of language, most of our documentation concerning sophistry derives from philosophy itself. [5]

But why does sophistry put philosophy outside of itself, and what is the nature of the threat that it constitutes? To understand this, it is necessary to examine the nub of Cassinʼs argument, which is an account of the sophist critique of Parmenidean ontology developed in the Treatise on Non-Being or Nature. But why should Cassinʼs philological disputatiousness have contemporary relevance?

If Parmenides…

Parmenides is of strategic interest not only because his writing institutes the ontological problematic into which Plato and the subsequent history of philosophy fall, but more specifically because of the important role that his Poem plays for Heideggerian philosophy. To put it crudely, Parmenides represents, for Heidegger, a ʻprelapsarianʼ experience of Being – with Plato constituting the point at which Being becomes merely a topic for investigation – and thence a means of authenticating specific philosophies. [6] In the words of Jean Beaufret, the interest of Parmenides lies not simply in the idea that Being is transcendent but the idea that Being forms a ʻfounding transcendenceʼ, the ground for the Heideggerian concept of ontological difference. Here is Beaufret:

if every great poem is an event, and perhaps even an adventure, the question of knowing what occurs, exactly, in the poem of Parmenides poses itself. We may formulate the response as follows. It is transcendence itself which occurs; not, of course in the metaphysical sense of a transcendent being which dominates from Platonism to the present day, but in the sense of a going beyond or of the radical transgression of every possible being towards the very illuminating of the Being of being. [7]

Parmenides is thus a source of the epochal sending of Being at the root of Daseinʼs historiality, and grounds the view that the Presocratics held themselves in the pure light of the unveiling of Being, in its presencing, thus defining the very horizon of philosophical discourse.

How, then, does Cassinʼs contestation of the famously ʻmore Greek than the Greeksʼ perception of Presocratic philosophy offer the grounds for thinking the political?

Early Greek philosophy develops a number of philosophical positions critical of ontology: the scepticism of Sextus Empiricus offers one particularly acute critique of the theory of being, and it is a criticism which has retained its force. However, within a post-Heideggerian framework, scepticism remains problematic, for, despite its capacity to place ontology in a state of indeterminacy (by neutralizing the ontological opposition of being and non-being), it presupposes a conception of truth of the ʻS is Pʼ kind. When applied to sophistry, via the doxographic work of Sextus Empiricus, scepticism results in a critique of ontology which derives from the impossibility of finding a subject for the verb ʻto beʼ in Parmenidesʼ Poem.

That on the one hand nothing is, he [Gorgias] deduces in the following manner: if ʻisʼ then either being or non-being is, or both being and non-being are. Now neither being, as he will establish, nor non-being, as he will maintain, nor being and non-being, as he will teach, are. Therefore, there is nothing that can be. [8]

Cassin, however, does not say that the sceptical version of sophistry is wrong exactly: it is a part of the history of philosophy and so is implicated in the process of the domestication of sophistry, a regulating and ordering of language as performance. [9] One must therefore look at Gorgias again.

Cassinʼs interpretation of the sophist Gorgias stresses that ontology is a discursive performance. This view is based partly on a close analysis of the writings of Gorgias, but also derives from a perception of the parallels between Homerʼs Odyssey as discursive performance and Parmenidesʼ Poem. The latter, she suggests, is a palimpsest of the former, and both chart the adventure of language, in the sense that they thematize the linguistic mechanisms by which the hero/being is constituted (being in its participle form, lʼétant, deriving from being in its infinitive form, être). In itself the claim for a parallel between the two texts is not new (one can find it in Guthrie, for example), but the idea that the Poem would be something like a philosophical allegory of Ulyssesʼ journey is new and is supported (pace Adorno and Horkheimer) by the view that there is a parallel between Ulysses having to escape from the seductive sounds of the sirens (= art, for Adorno and Horkheimer), and the necessity of avoiding, in the Poem, the path of non-being (becoming, change, movement, and so on). Poetry is far less Dichtung and far more discursive construct and the Odyssey makes perceptible the machinations of language in philosophy.

…then Gorgias

a position which is so strong in relation to ontology and metaphysics in general that it could turn out to be philosophically unsurpassable. [10]

The critique of ontology mounted by Gorgias is a response to the formulation of the ontological problematic by Parmenides in his Poem. Through the revelation of a goddess the young Parmenides is enjoined to distinguish the path of Being (or ʻIsʼ or ʻTruthʼ) from that of Non-being (or ʻIsnʼtʼ or ʻOpinionʼ), paths that will become, in the time-honoured tradition of Platonism, those of Being as essence, and appearance. For the Heideggerian, on the other hand, the distinction refers to the path of Being and that of beings (i.e. to the ontological difference as such). [11] The path of Being is eternal, immutable, immobile and so on – the sphere of the One – whilst the path of non-being, the route of the mortals, is that of time, change and corruptibility. The difference between the two clearly conditions the intelligible/sensible distinction. Furthermore, because the path of Being is One, Being and Thinking are one and the same. The imperative enveloped by ontology is to follow the path of Being.

The response of Gorgias to Parmenides is as brusque as it is paradoxical: he formulates three (hypo)theses ex concessi, as it were: (1) ʻIsnʼtʼ, (2) ʻIf Is, Isnʼt Knowableʼ, and (3) ʻIf Is and Is Knowable, Isnʼt Communicable to Othersʼ. Cassin compares the paradoxical logic of these defensive positions to the tale of the kettle related by Freud: someone complains that the kettle lent to a friend has been returned with a hole in it. The friend replies: I didnʼt borrow a kettle; it already had a hole in when I borrowed it; I returned it intact. [12] The key to Cassinʼs view of sophistry lies in her showing how these negations derive from the discursive logic of the Poem itself, as inevitable consequences. [13] This leads to the unavoidable conclusion that unless Parmenidesʼ Poem is an exception to the discursive rule which it institutes, then it must be a logological text. If Parmenides, then Gorgias. (1) The first thesis, ʻIsnʼtʼ, results from the very attempt Parmenides undertakes to distinguish between being and non-being. ʻThe only roads of enquiry there are to be thought of: one, that it is and cannot not be [nʼest pas ne pas être], is the path of persuasion (for truth accompanies it); another, that it is not and must not be [nʼest pas et est besoin de ne pas être] – this I say to you is a trail devoid of all knowledge.ʼ [14] The critique of Gorgias focuses on the use of the verbal infinitive: ʻhe says that neither to be is [or can be] nor not to be. For if not to be is not to be, non-being would be no less than being, for non-being is non-being and being being, such that things are no less than they are not.ʼ [15] In other words, by distinguishing the path of the Is from that of the Isnʼt, by means of the infinitive, one ends up producing entities one pretends donʼt exist. As soon as one says ʻnot to be is not to beʼ one produces two entities: one which exists and one which doesnʼt, because to say that ʻnot to beʼ is not to be implies that ʻnot to beʼ is (the argument is more obvious in French, which translates the Greek as le non-être est non-être). What is good for non-being is good for being: no longer one entity but two. What is more, the production of non-being makes evident the equivocation concealed in the ontological phrase between the ʻcopulativeʼ and ʻexistentialʼ values of the verb ʻto beʼ.(2) Accepting that Parmenides successfully distinguishes Is and Isnʼt – that is, that he can legitimately state that ʻIs isʼ and ʻIsnʼt isnʼtʼ, however, produces similarly disastrous consequences – whence the second thesis. By virtue of the distinction of being and nonbeing, and by virtue of the identity of being and thinking, it follows that one need only say something in order for it to be, such that whether what I say is true or false, it exists, it is, such that true and false become indiscernible: ʻdemonstrations say everything without exceptionʼ. [16] In these conditions, how can one know whether the path one is engaged upon is the right one? Being is unknowable not because it is not an object for thought (sceptical position), but because ontology makes things be in such a manner as to render it unknowable.(3) The poetic revelation to Parmenides of the One route of being could be construed as evidence for the resoluteness of an experience of Being as such. It could also be interpreted as the occlusion of a subject, and hence of a speculative form of negation, necessary to preserve the consistency of the spherical plenitude of Being. For Gorgias it is neither of these things. Accepting that the ontologist has successfully distinguished being and non-being, and then shown that being is knowable, it remains that it cannot be communicated to others, by virtue of the categorical distinction between logos and the ʻnoisy habits of mortalsʼ. Parmenides is a mortal; mortals lie on the path of the ʻIsnʼtʼ and hear only ʻthe noisy habits of mortalsʼ – utter ʻa logosʼ and the addressee will hear only sounds. The very distinction of the divine logos and the doxa of the mortals (the ear hears sounds, the eye sees colours, and whoever speaks says only words) itself produces incommunicability: poetic revelation is a get-out clause attempting to preserve the consistency of ontology.

It is difficult, then, to maintain a view of Parmenides as holding fast in an experience of transcendence: Being as such is the effect of an exceptional use of language, an exception which the sophist aims at unveiling as pure machination, as a discursive violence. But does a negative critique of the ontological problematic which Parmenides inaugurates offer sufficient grounds for construing an entity such as that of logology? Cassin is well aware of the problem and deals with it through a detailed analysis of other remaining sophist texts, an analysis we will look at shortly. However, the critique of ontology serves Cassin as a guiding thread in examining a number of key texts in the ulterior philosophical tradition, thus obviating a further objection to her problematic: that removing ontology as obstacle to thinking the political as such doesnʼt preclude the possibility of having recourse to other categories of thought, such as that of ethics.

Aristotle’s refutation of talking plants

Despite our prejudices to the contrary, sophistry is actually axiologically neutral, and it is the philosophical gesture of constituting rhetoric, for example, which occludes the political with the ethical. In other words, it is precisely the absence of reference to (the) good and evil17 which enables us to grasp the political. The predominant perception we have of sophistry – one in which the sophist is perceived to be acting in bad faith, manipulating our words, producing specious arguments, an ʻironic imitatorʼ as Plato would have it, or (for Heidegger) having an inauthentic relation to language – is a philosophical artefact. Cassin devotes a large section of Lʼeffet sophistique to analysing Platoʼs attempts to distinguish between philosophy and sophistry in terms of good rhetoric and bad rhetoric, and the problems with it. [18] However, rather than discuss this aspect of Cassinʼs work, I would like to look at a more efficacious endeavour to constitute an ethical containment of sophistry, Aristotleʼs demonstration by refutation of the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC) in Book Gamma of his Metaphysics. That Cassin herself has devoted a whole book to this subject is evidence of the importance it has in her attempts to rethink the history of philosophy starting from sophistry. It is also evidence of the philosophical difficulties there are in trying to grasp the discursive action constitutive of sophistry. Cassinʼs account of the role of the principle for Aristotle shows that it successfully, but antagonistically, succeeds in doing what Plato was unable to do in his attempts at developing philosophical discourse: it tames the sophist. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Cassinʼs reading of Greek philosophy is to see, in the rather puzzling attempt by Aristotle to demonstrate the PNC, a battle with sophistry. [19]

The necessity for Aristotle of his demonstration by refutation can be clarified by referring back to the second of the three theses of Gorgias: ʻIf it Is, it is Unknowable.ʼ As was seen earlier, it is unknowable by virtue of its integral knowability, the identity of being and thinking. Gorgias concludes from this identity that simply by the fact of saying something, it commences, for that very reason, to be. Cassin notes that this problematic conclusion animates Platoʼs The Sophist, wherein the Stranger accepts the view that in order to distinguish the true from the false, one must accept, in some measure, that non-being is. The question of course is, in what sense non-being is to be. Cassin argues that only Aristotle succeeds in avoiding the sophist consequences of Parmenidean ontology, and this by introducing a distinction between saying something (about something) and signifying something (for both oneself and another), a distinction which anticipates that made between sense and reference. By specifying that in speaking one signifies something, it becomes possible for an utterance to have a sense, without necessarily having a referent, and it is in this sense, and this sense only, that non-being can ʻbeʼ. Non-being is a possibility de dicto and not de re. It is, of course, the idea that by speaking one signifies something for oneself and another which serves to prove, by refutation of the sophist, the all-important principle of non-contradiction:

Certain people claim a demonstration even for this principle, but through ignorance.… It is absolutely impossible to demonstrate everything: one would regress to infinity, in such a way that there could be no demonstration.… However, it is possible to establish [the principle of non-contradiction] by refutation, provided that the adversary simply say something. If he says nothing, it is ridiculous to seek to have a discussion with someone who says nothing: such a man, would, as such, be like a plant. (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Gamma, 1006a)Zoon logon echon: Aristotleʼs definition of the human, as rational animal or an animal that speaks (little matter the difference here), ensures that if one does not speak in accordance with the principle that one can signify only one thing at a time, for oneself and another, then one is not a human. Both Habermas and Apel see in this the basis for an ethics of dialogue or communication: the logical quality of signification characteristic of language ensures that one is always making a truth claim in what one says, whether one is aware of it or not. More importantly, the defensive reaction to sophistry yields what Cassin calls the ʻ2 positions of sophistryʼ. In fact, it produces three positions: discourse in which there is both sense and reference (philosophy); discourse in which there is sense but no reference (fiction: I have seen a unicorn); sounds or signifiers without any sense: the homonymic nonsense which only talking plants can produce. Much of Lʼeffet sophistique is given over to an analysis of how Aristotle, and subsequent philosophy, will endeavour to police the boundaries resulting from the latterʼs concept of signification. The important point, however, lies in the generation of an illicit or impossible remainder of language in the very attempt at taming the sophist and warding off the catastrophic effects of its treatment of ontology. [20] Aristotle, Apel, Habermas: sense, consensus, exclusion.

There are a number of points to note about Aristotleʼs ʻtranscendental refutationʼ. First, the fact that the other whom Aristotle has in mind is the sophist offers clear evidence for the view that sophistry is a structural effect of philosophy and that what forms the latterʼs principle of principles can only be grounded through an attack on sophistry. (It is worth noting in passing that the Aristotelian procedure of refutation borrows a sophist gesture, that of the critical repetition). Second, one must note the, as it were, normative guarantee of what Aristotle says: it is his definition of humanity which takes charge of the universality of the principle, in the sense that if you do not speak like a human (i.e. in an implicitly or explicitly non-contradictory fashion) you are not a human. Third, the fact that the adversary neednʼt actually be aware of the validity of the principle in order for it to be demonstrated suggests that it has a transcendental value. Finally, and this is one of the key implications which one may draw from Cassinʼs discussion, established in this way, the PNC enacts a form of transcendental exclusion – form a conception of politics on this basis and the resulting consensus you seek will of necessity be exclusive: your city will contain outsiders, marginals, deviants, and other recalcitrants, and although you may feel reassured that your politics is ethically grounded in reason, sooner or later your consensus will form the basis of a tyranny.

The Aristotelian decision of sense renders sophistry treatable by philosophy, because it forces a particular perception of language onto the sophist, implying that s/he illicitly exploits the homonymical qualities of language. Philosophy will henceforth deal with sophistry in terms of a strategy of disambiguation, [21] and Aristotleʼs categories will regulate the different senses in which being can be said. For Cassin it is this ʻdecisionʼ, and the associated development of an autonomous plane of signification, which renders inaudible what she sees as being the really crucial aspect of sophistry: its relation to the political.

the infinitive of the political: to citizen

The appearance of politics as such, as a specific instance not subordinated to any more determining instance whatsoever, is quite simply the major effect of the [sophistʼs] critical position in relation to ontology.… The matrix of sophist politics is the Treatise on Non-Being. [22]

For Cassin it is not a question of trying to grasp whether the sophists were radical or conservative, and thus of where to situate them in terms of the contours of our own political landscape, but more a question, once ontology has been dispossessed of its sovereign pretensions, of grasping the political as such. Her analysis suggests that determinate forms of politics, determinate political regimes or political movements, all imply ʻpriorʼ to their prosecution of particular programmes, manifestos, ideals, and so on, a radically performative element, a moment of persuasion, the event of a consensus or agreement on what is to be done. Cassin opposes to Aristotleʼs decision, with its attendant imposition of a transcendental condition on speaking, an equally transcendental position, which she sees as having been invented by the sophist Antiphon (read via Gorgias): one citizens. There is politics because one citizens. To citizen, with the aim of achieving justice, is not a function of telling the truth, but of the discursive machinations of a logos achieving a consensus. It is well known that for the Ancient Greeks politics was intimately related to consensus: Cassinʼs analysis tends to suggest that such a consensus has little to do with a meeting of minds (homonoia) and far more with resonance in language (homologia). In revisiting the Greek conception of consensus, Cassin gives us a very different answer to the question, ʻwhat unity for the city?ʼ [23]

The performative conception of the political which Cassin finds through her analysis of Antiphon is, to an extent, already anticipated in the critique of ontology outlined above. Once one has demonstrated that the ʻreferentʼ of ontology, being or nature (phusis: what presences, according to Heidegger), results from a play of language forgetful of the discursive rules it institutes, then the claim to distinguish truth (the One) from the doxa, or opinion (of the many), becomes difficult to sustain. Plato saw in this what one might call the conservatism of sophistry: its appeal to established opinion. Matters are not quite as simple as this, though, for whilst the Treatise sanctions the indiscernibility of truth and opinion, the other texts Cassin analyses adopt a more complex position: one of the writings attributed to Antiphon is, for example, called On Truth. Very crudely, one might say that non-being is to being in the Treatise as law or culture is to truth or nature in On Truth, and as likelihood or plausibility is to truth in the Tetralogies. The latter results from the former as a consequence of its play, but, in a peculiar twisting, the former presupposes the latter, even if only as impossible. A brief analysis is required.

How does one citizen? Cassin analyses two neologisms: to citizen, and to barbarize, both of which appear in Antiphonʼs On Truth, and which enable us to determine the complex relations of law and nature defining justice – and hence politics – for the sophist. A commonplace about Greek political culture is that it is understood in terms of a respect for the laws of the city. This idea also conditions the common view that a Greek citizen was free in public but a slave in private, by virtue of the binding nature of the laws of the city and the absence of any code protecting individual liberty. Modern ʻliberalʼ democracy would derive its superiority from its legalized ability to protect the individual from tyranny (whether rule of the polis or a volonté generale). [24] Another, related, commonplace, is that of Greek ethnocentricity: their respect for laws was contrasted with the barbarians, who lived in a state of nature. Cassinʼs analysis of Antiphon considerably complicates this well-known picture, for a number of reasons. In the first place, On Truth offers two definitions of justice: justice is ʻto not transgress the prescriptions of the city in which it happens that one citizensʼ, [25] but ʻit is just to not be unjust towards someone when one hasnʼt oneself suffered an injusticeʼ. [26] The conflict between these two definitions is made evident by the problem of witnessing: what happens if the city calls on you to act as a witness? Clearly a tricky situation.

Cassin reconciles the two definitions by means of what she calls a political calculus in the use of justice: in public (that is to say, where there are witnesses) one observes the law. In private, one is free. Evidently this implies that hypocrisy becomes a political virtue, but more importantly Cassin argues that the two definitions place nature or the truth (aletheia, once again) in the secondary position: that one follows nature in private signifies that the truth is the secondary effect of citizening, or publicly professing to justice. In any case one can measure the distance which separates this view of Greek politics from the commonplace perception if we look at ʻto barbarizeʼ. For Antiphon, in place of the common idea about the difference between the Greek and the foreigner ʻwe find that we are naturally made to be both barbarian and Greekʼ. [27] The difference lies in the relationship to law: the Greek follows the law of law, regardless of content, whereas to follow the law of nature (taking the law into oneʼs own hands, seeking private justice) is the manner of the barbarian. In fact, the matter is even more complicated, because for Antiphon, consonant with the earlier political calculus, seeking public justice to stop the violent to and fro of the private vendetta can actually perpetuate the bad infinity of the chain of injustice. A tribunal for war crimes provides no justice, because the law itself offers no guarantee.

So far, ʻto citizenʼ would seem to imply taking up a critical, if not a hypocritical, position in relation to the law: justice would seem to be that of singularities which cannot be presented. [28] But it is the ʻunpresentableʼ nature of these singularities which actually requires judgement in the first place: if the truth were evident, then logos would not be required and judgement would be unnecessary. Antiphonʼs Tetralogies clarify the situation. A four-headed series of accusation, defence, accusation, defence, the Tetralogies institute the law as the result of a discursive performance ruled by the immanent reversibility of arguments submitted to the logic of the ʻlikelyʼ or ʻprobableʼ (eikos). If (accusation) it is likely that you murdered the victim in cold blood because you bore a long-standing and wellknown grudge against him, then (defence) it is more likely that knowing how the suspicion would fall on me, not only would I have taken every precaution not to commit the crime, but others would have profited from the situation to commit the crime themselves … but (accusation) knowing how likely it is that you could argue that others would have profited from the situation to commit the crime, it is still more likely that you would use this as an excuse to commit the crime in the first place. And so on.

The truth is that of facts, actions, and things, but facts, actions, and things, are precisely what it is a matter of establishing.… The last defence of the second of the Tetralogies makes it plain: ʻIt is on the basis of what is said that the truth of the facts must be examined.ʼ [29]

To clarify this understanding of the sophist conception of the political, and to explain the peculiar nature of the transcendental status of ʻto citizenʼ, Cassin suggests an analogy with Kantian typification. The peculiarly secondary position of ʻtruthʼ or ʻnatureʼ in Antiphonʼs writings is a little like that of nature in the use of pure practical reason: it serves as a model for oneʼs maxims of action, whilst not actually providing any content, a purely formal ʻas ifʼ: a law of nature serves as the ʻtypeʼ for a law of freedom. Without nature as this ʻtypeʼ, Kant suggests, the maxim of oneʼs action is ʻmorally impossibleʼ. Without the incipit of ʻtruthʼ the sophist machination of consensus is impossible. However, with it, sophistry undoes any hope of stabilizing discourse around some extradiscursive referent (phusis, for Heidegger). Perhaps the Lacanian ʻimpossibleʼ could also be invoked, as it is where the to-ing and fro-ing of logos comes unstuck: ʻnatureʼ ʻtruthʼ is invoked only to prove impossibly refractory to discourse. It isnʼt the law ʻas suchʼ which is always already there but the performative, transcendental pretension to justice.

So, what unity for the city? [30] Cassinʼs account of ʻto citizenʼ suggests that the unity aimed at is one with no substantial basis but is, rather, a continual, agonistic process. After all, if justice, as the object of law, is the result of a continual negotiation of law, the impossible secondary presupposition of oneʼs pretensions to it, political virtue can only consist in a constant if paradoxical forcing of the consensus to enunciate singularities outside of the law. Unity will not consist of a substantial agreement over the nature of the good to be aimed at, of the justice of what is just, but of a persuasion that what is said to be just is so. Our consensus over the just remains a tense one: our words agree or resonate, but in the bracketing off of the PNC, the sense differs. In other words, sophist consensus seeks unity in form only. The words one uses sound the same but work in every possible sense. But the consensus is real. Dissensus would presuppose contradiction. Diodorus Chronos:

No word is ambiguous, no-one says or thinks anything that is ambiguous, and it must not be considered that whoever speaks says anything other than what he thinks he is saying. If when I think one thing you think another, it may be said that my statement is obscure, but one cannot say it is ambiguous. If ambiguity was naturally inherent to a word, whoever uttered it would say two or more things. But no-one can say two or more things if he thinks he is saying one. [31]

Sophistry exploits the linear unfolding of discourse in order to exploit the signifying plurality of language.

Cassinʼs account of the sophist perception of the political cannot, of course, be prescriptive: it doesnʼt tell us if or why we should pursue justice, and so does not advocate a particular politics. Although her reading of ʻto citizenʼ implies a certain democratic element to the political, in the sense that all of those who find themselves in the city can citizen, [32] sophistry is compatible with more or less oligarchic or aristocratic regimes as much as with democratic ones. However, her account of logology as the transcendental condition of politics still leaves one or two questions hanging over its ethical implications. Is there a good use of language, and what is ʻgoodʼ from a sophist point of view?

A better use of language?

The continual emphasis which Cassin places on the manner in which sophistry manipulates the logos, through the equivocations characteristic of homonymy in language, leads us towards a performative/aesthetic conception of a ʻbetterʼ use of language. The problem of homonymy, for Aristotle and the ulterior metaphysical tradition, results from a signifying excess, therefore a conceptual insufficiency: if there were one signified per signifier, there would be no problem. But this isnʼt the case, and so one is led to an aesthetic perception of language. The consensus which logology produces is an aesthetic one. The preceding section implies that sophistry removes any of the traditional means we would have to disagree, in favour of a procedure effectuated in language, on language. However, the Presocratic status of sophistry means that the ʻaestheticʼ one has in mind here is one which evades the traditional sensible/intelligible signifier/signified dualism. The latter is a result of our Platonic/Aristotelian heritage.

But why is this ʻbetterʼ, and in what sense? Logology is ʻameliorativeʼ, for, as Gorgias states in his Encomium of Helen, ʻSpeech is a powerful lord that with the smallest and most invisible body accomplishes most godlike works. It can banish fear and remove grief and instil pleasure and enhance pity.ʼ [33] Logology thus has parallels with the psychoanalytic account of language as ʻtalking cureʼ. And Cassin points out that it isnʼt only the sophists who were aware of this aspect of their practice of language: Socrates states in a defence of Protagoras, the sophist makes one pass from a less good state to a better one;34 a better which will have been the case not only because it will have been stated, but also because it is in the nature of the consensus it instills to function as a sort of open series without a real point of convergence – a gathering of the multiple without transcendent unity.

Following the thread of these remarks, one might say that for Cassin the ʻbetterʼ to which sophistry leads is an ʻotherwiseʼ and an ʻopenʼ; an ʻotherwise than beingʼ without transcendence, an opening or an outside (of what the doxa will admit) equally without transcendence – and thus radically different from the apolitical invocation of the open which one can find in Heidegger. [35] An ʻex-cendenceʼ perhaps. The sophistʼs discursive action is linked to the contingency of the kairos, the opportune moment: indeed, it is this predicate of contingency implicit in the way that sophistry undoes language which makes its practice political. [36] Such action cannot be purely spontaneous or voluntaristic, since the sophist, coming second, must accept the purely existential constraints of the language s/he is given – indeed, so doing is a condition of its successful exploitation. But it can be directed to any manner of nefarious ends. Cassinʼs work implies that the redirection of consensus to a determinate end presupposes a pure opening, an enunciative event refractory to the identities of signification. In this, she comes close to Laclau and Mouffe: not only a similar attempt to think the political in its (antagonistically) open nature, but also an emphasis on the non-literal, equivocal nature of discourse. The status of ontology in Laclau and Mouffeʼs work is not clear. [37]

There is a danger in drawing such parallels that Cassinʼs conception of logology, her understanding of the sophist effect, will become increasingly indeterminate. However, it is suggestive of the insistence of the logological in contemporary discourse, and of the importance of thinking more carefully about the relationship of ontology and the political. Besides, Cassin is aware of the problem:

To make logos the necessary condition of politics is, because of the amplitude itself of the sense of logos, to make it such a loose and long thread that it can tie up in the same bunch a good part of Antiquity (for example, a bit of Plato, much of Aristotle, all of sophistry), and a good part of recent modernity (for example, Perelman, Rorty, Apel,

Habermas, Arendt, doubtless Heidegger)…38However, to be aware of the problem does not necessarily mean to address it effectively, and one might ask at what cost this attempt at grasping the political as such is made. There are two main points to be made here. The first is methodological. Whilst the historical/historiographical framework Cassin adopts allows her to problematize the relationship of philosophy and sophistry in a hitherto unforeseen and radically novel fashion, her insistence on sticking to the limits of her corpus obviates the need for her to be drawn into discussions which fall outside of its focus, whilst not precluding her from making statements which have a far broader ambit. Thus, it is only in the translation of her arguments beyond a philological debate that questions start to impose themselves. It is her de facto adherence to a hermeneutic problem of origins (nevertheless radically questioned from within) which permits her to argue for the radical negativity of the political vis-à-vis philosophy. As readers of these pages know only too well, much work has been done in recent years on rethinking the political in a manner which questions the equation philosophy = ontology = metaphysics. It is true that Cassin differentiates ontology and politics in a way that philosophers of a Heideggerian bent do not, and introduces an alternative manner of looking at the formerʼs implication in politics. Yet one might wonder about the degree to which her arguments differ in their ultimate implications from those of, say, Agamben or Lacoue-Labarthe. Less of the pathos about the end of this, the retreating of that, perhaps, but the conservatism of the hermeneutic problematic still makes itself felt.

A second point concerns the ʻsignifyingʼ autonomy accorded to logos in her conception of logology. By making logos the condition of the political one is precluded from addressing what Balibar has called the heteronomy of the conditions of the political. [39] To be sure, the logos which Cassin has in mind is more like Foucauldian discourse than anything else: it has no interiority, and must be grasped in terms of its pure existence, the factum of language. But the sufficiency of language would require us to think the non-discursive through language. And there is perhaps something conservative about thinking that the possible must be always already discerned by language. Foucault began to insist on the non-discursive as a corrective to the theoretical sufficiency of discourse. In a sense, the direction is there in Cassinʼs work already. Logology gives us both more and less than a language. By abolishing any unequivocal distinction between signifier and signified, sophistry institutes a physics of discourse – speech as a series of sonic events in the physical universe. [40]

However, Cassinʼs problematic precludes the development of this notion. One might perhaps look towards the Foucauldian concept of the dispositif or Deleuze and Guattariʼs conception of the ʻassemblage of enunciationʼ, which grasps speech events in a more radically inclusive framework, as a way of looking at the machinations of discourse (partially) constitutive of the political. However, this would undercut the historian of philosophyʼs ability to make broad interpretative statements and would require a kind of philosophical empiricism which has the courage to forget about ontology. Nothing precludes Cassinʼs work from developing differently in the future. As it stands, it makes an excellent case for thinking both the past and the political otherwise.


1. ^ Agamben, Badiou, Balibar, Derrida, Laclau, Mouffe, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Negri, Rancière, Schurmann, to name but a few, See, for example, the ʻThinking the Politicalʼ series edited by Simon Critchley and Keith Ansell-Pearson for Routledge.

2. ^ The following article concentrates largely on Lʼeffet sophistique, Gallimard, Paris, 1995, which builds on Cassinʼs doctoral thesis, itself published as Si Parmenide, Presse Universitaire de Lille, Lille, 1980. Besides these two texts, Cassin has also published a new translation of Parmenidesʼ famous poem, essays on Hannah Arendt, as well as a translation of, and critical essay (with Michel Narcy) on, Book Gamma of Aristotleʼs Metaphysics. She is currently a director of research at the CNRS and edits a series with Alain Badiou for Seuil.

3. ^ As she suggests, in Lʼeffet sophistique ʻsophistry forces us to have it out with the Heideggerian conception of logos and perhaps of languageʼ. Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 12.

4. ^ Bear in mind here the quasi-homonymy between ʻfactʼ and ʻeffectʼ (fait and effet) in French.

5. ^ Thus Cassin is careful to pick out the philosophical decisions which animate the doxography on the sophists.

6. ^ It will be recalled that part of Heideggerʼs interest in Kant, at least if his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is anything to go by, lies in the latterʼs renewal of the Parmenidean problematic: the ʻat the same timeʼ in ʻthe conditions of the possibility of experience in general are, at the same time, the conditions of the possibility of objects of experienceʼ offer, for Heidegger, evidence for ʻthe essential unity of the complete structure of transcendenceʼ – that is, the unity of thinking and being.

7. ^ Jean Beaufret, Parmenide Le poème PUF, Paris, 1955, p. 43.

8. ^ Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, VII

66. ^

Cassin points out that Heidegger draws on this version of Gorgias for his understanding of sophistry. (See Martin Heidegger, GA 21, Logik, Klosterman, Frankfurt am Main, 1995.) It enables him to paint them as ʻinauthenticʼ because they would have occluded Being.

9. ^ The elision of the difference between sophistry and scepticism is evident also in Husserlʼs Formal and Transcendental Logic.

10. ^ Cassin Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 26.

11. ^ This is explicit in Beaufret. It is Jonathan Barnes who translates the two ways as those of Truth and Opinion, but curiously, Barnes, like Heidegger, sees a link with Kant: Parmenides inaugurates a revolution in critical rationality.

12. ^ The writings of Freud and Lacan on the unconscious bear, for Cassin, distinct traces of the sophist effect. See Lʼeffet sophistique, pp. 386–408.

13. ^ That it does so by applying the logic of non-contradiction is not an objection to what follows. In this instance the application of the logic follows the movement designated by Deleuze as that of humour. See Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, Athlone, London, 1990.

14. ^ Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus, I 345 11–27; cited in J. Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin, London, 1997, p. 132.

15. ^ This translation is a bastardization of J. Mansfield and Cassin, both in Lʼeffet sophistique, pp. 124–5.

16. ^ Pseudo-Aristotle, On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias, 980a 9; in Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 131.

17. ^ A point Nietzsche made: ʻthe frontier between good and evil disappears – that is sophistryʼ. Cited in Cassin, Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 17.

18. ^ A complex situation. Sophistry is not simply rhetoric because Phaedrus praises rhetoric (= philosophy). Gorgias dismisses rhetoric as a whole (= sophistry), but also distinguishes a good rhetoric and a bad one, perhaps suggesting its axiological neutrality. But what would an axiological neutral rhetoric (i.e. not sophistry, not philosophy) be? As Cassin says ʻWith Plato one witnesses both the invention and the vanishing of rhetoric.ʼ Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 414.

19. ^ Aristotleʼs demonstration by refutation of the PNC is puzzling because, in so far as the latter forms the principle of principles for Aristotle, it should be possessed of a self-evidence rendering its demonstration nugatory, not to mention inconsistent. From a Heideggerian perspective, the endeavour testifies to a shift in the nature of truth (apohansis rather than unveiling), and thus to a forgetting of Being. For a logician, on the other hand, it simply shows the incoherence of a logic of terms. See B. Cassin and M. Narcy, La decision du sens, Vrin, Paris, 1989. See also Terence Irwin, Aristotleʼs First Principles, Oxford University Press,

Oxford, 1988, and the exchange between Cassin and Irwin in B. Cassin, ed., Nos grecs et leurs modernes, Seuil, Paris, 1992.

20. ^ Cf. J.-J. Lecercle, The Violence of Language, Routledge,

London, 1990. By a curious coincidence, Deleuze and Guattariʼs conception of rhizome ʻcounterʼ confirms Aristotle.

21. ^ Cassin suggests that the Sophist Refutations can be understood entirely in terms of the problem of homonymy. Also key aspects of Kantʼs approach to the illusions of reason in his first Critique can be grasped in these terms. On homonymy, see J.C. Milner, Les noms indistincts, Seuil, Paris, 1983, an account of homonymy marred only by its excessively Lacanian aspect.

22. ^ Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 152.

23. ^ Different from Plato (strictly hierarchical unity), Aristotle (moderate pluralism, itself, she argues, influenced by sophistry), Arendt (her conception of the primacy of the political equally influenced by sophistry), Heidegger (ultimately Platonic – that is, non-political).

24. ^ Berlinʼs ʻnegative libertyʼ. See Q. Skinner ʻThe Idea of Negative Libertyʼ, in Richard Rorty et al., eds, Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

25. ^ Cited in Cassin, Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 275.

26. ^ Cited in ibid., p. 276.

27. ^ Cited in ibid., p. 275.

28. ^ In some respects, Cassinʼs inspiration here is Lyotardʼs The Differend.

29. ^ Cited in Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 174.

30. ^ Better still: What unity for what city? Cassinʼs analysis of chrematistics also suggests that sophistry is a factor in deterritorializing politics beyond the autarkic walls of the city. See ʻLogos, Khremata, Temporalitéʼ, in Lʼeffet sophistique, and ʻThe Accident of Timeʼ, in Eric Alliez, Capital Times, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1996.

31. ^ Cassin, Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 372.

32. ^ Ibid.

33. ^ Gorgias, ʻEncomium of Helenʼ, in Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. G.A. Kennedy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.

34. ^ Theaetetus, 116d, 167d; Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 111. In this sense sophist logology is not unlike the psychoanalytic talking cure and Deleuze and Guattariʼs Rhizome, one principle of which is that everything can and must be connected to everything else.

35. ^ For more on this, see Michel Haar, The Song of the Earth, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1983.

36. ^ Political science would perhaps abolish such contingency by circumscribing it in a previously defined field of possibilities. The sophist kairos with its opportune moment offers some interesting analogies with Machiavelliʼs Prince, seeking continuously to reinforce his power. Suggestive in this regard is Clement Rosset, Lʼanti-nature, PUF, Paris, 1970.

37. ^ Mouffe: ʻthe political cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our very ontological condition.ʼ Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, Verso, London, 1993, p. 3, my stress.

38. ^ Cassin, Lʼeffet sophistique, p. 236.

39. ^ Étienne Balibar, ʻTrois concepts de la politiqueʼ, in La crainte des masses, Galilée, Paris, 1995.

40. ^ See the discussion ʻPhysique du discours/discours de la physiqueʼ in her Si Parmenide.

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