John Poulakos – “Rhetoric, The Sophists, and the Possible”

Summary:  This essay argues that the rhetoric of the Sophists exhibits a distinct preference for the world of possibility. As such, it is different from Aristotle’s rhetoric, which privileges the world of actuality. After showing how this is so, the essay compares the sophistical and the Aristotelian versions of rhetoric by discussing their respective implications for language and persuasion. The conclusion reached is that the  Aristotelian version, although textually and topically more complete, is not superior to but merely different from the sophistical.

P. begins by noting that under the direction of Aristotle, rhetoric turned from a practical art to a theoretical matter (216).  Working from insights of philosophy and postmodernism, P. notes that the desire to separate the practice of philosophy from language is a flawed endeavor; therefore, philosophy is rhetorical and the relationship between Aristotelian and sophistical rhetoric is up for further review (216).  P. next moves to demonstrate how Aristotelian rhetoric values the actual over the possible and how – vis a vis Heidegger – the sophistics value the opposite.

Aristotle’s position on the possible:  potentiality is actually preceded by actuality as all potentialities are actually created by the agency of something actual.  Because potentiality is always pointing toward actuality, actuality is actually superior and a priori.

The Sophists operated on three common assumptions: 1) being is not a fixed entity but a continuously unfolding experience whose most notable trait is its capacity for self-manifestation or self-concealment; 2) Man accesses being through his senses, language, and thought; and 3) Being has no intrinsic meaning or value, man is the creator and the criterion for all being (think Protagoras’ doctrine) (219).  The sophists took up the linguistic strand of the Man-Being relation.  Further, they considered the power of naming, but also the power of non-naming (or the suppression in silence).

Heidegger’s metaphysics of being posits that man is always engaged in the act of transcending his actual givenness – seeking to occupy not only the present, but also the past from wince he came and the future toward which he is constantly moving.  As such, human existence must be conceived in light of two fundamental absences: “no longer” and “not yet.”  Doing so recognizes the primacy of possibility (222).

The rhetoric of actuality has numerous characteristics: 1) rational universe where rhetoric adapts to address people as they are, adapting to their views, beliefs, and values. As such, it recognizes the customs and habits as foundations of human behavior.  The language is representative of an objective world; as such, logos tends toward the logical, rational.

The rhetoric of possibility has numerous characteristics: 1) incomplete universe that man brings closer to completion; persuasion moves man toward that completion and is executed by exploiting man’s suceptability to speech; asks listeners to imagine counterrealities; the past and present are obstacles to the future – a break with past and present is required for new futures; metaphors are common and rhetoric is projective.


1.       P. notes that “While, then, it would be erroneous to “systematize” sophistical throught, clarifying one of its aspects by modern insight is quote consistent with the aims of interpretation” (217).  I wonder to what degree P. will remain consistent with this claim and to what ends “interpretation” are operating for P.

2.       P. notes that sophistic rhetoric “venture[s] into the sphere of possibility searching for that which is not yet but which can be; therefore, we can say that their rhetoric aims at creating possiblities, opening what is closed” (221).  Is this articulation – and P.s larger point about sophistic rhetoric – why we often find resonance between the Sophistics and other ways of being (more just, more equitable, more humane)?  Does this usually take a democratic shape/form?

3.       P. notes that if we accept the Hiedeggarian explanation of being as a legitimate ontological orientation, then we must also recognize that “the Sophists’ preference for the possible is legitmate and defensible” (222).  But why?  Why must P. use a proto-postmodern European philosopher to legitimate a 2500 year old worldview?  Is this spinning a theoretical trajectory that lacks any real life/being?

4.       Is the rhetoric of democracy a rhetoric of possibility or actuality?  Does it challenge us to envision a new trajectory independent from previous histories and the present or as a revision on the present? Are revolutionary movements based on a rhetoric of actuality or possibility?  How do these rhetorics sync up with Nietzsche’s own Dionysian and Apollonian impulses?

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