Laufer, Romain. “New Rhetoric’s Empire : Pragmatism, Dogmatism, and Sophism.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 42.4 (2009): 326-48. Print.


The author discusses the concepts of pragmatism, dogmatism and sophism. He presents a comparison between the concepts of pragmatism and rationalism, and the relationship between pragmatism and sophism. He cites interpretation from various French sociologists which includes Emile Durkheim regarding the concepts of sophism. The author further suggests to describe a situation in which democratic systems are confronted with the uncertainties of globalization.

Keywords: sophism, pragmatism, dogmatism, Platonism, rationalism, sociology, democracy, durkheim, rorty, dewey, tocqueville, mary douglas


  • L. locates this study in discussions of sophism in “Franco-American” intellectual exchanges of the 20th century.  He claims it is important to pay attention to this tradition for two reasons:  first, sophism exists at the very origin of classical philosophy in the writings of Plato and Aristotle; second, the way that Durkheim differentiated between pragmatism and sociology relied on sophism [1. I think?  This is a very challenging introductory paragraph. . . ]
  • Pragmatism – according to Durkheim – was a real threat to the rationalism that underwrote French culture of the era.  I’m assuming this is because pragmatism was intensely relativistic and localized whereas rationalism attempted to account for larger systems of administration, abstractions, and ideals.  Laufer finds another iteration of this in the differences between the French and American legal systems:  American common law is a system that evolved gradually over time through court decisions; European civil law proceeds from a codified set of coherent normative rules.  Again, pragmatism vs. rationalism. Interestingly, the definition of the word “jurisprudence” in France and the U.S. is the opposite of the system.  In French: the set of all the jurisdictional decisions that have been taken on a given matter or in a given country, considered as a source of modern law” (sounds a lot like common law huh?), and in the English: “theory of law, philosophy of law” (sounds a lot like civil code) (332).
  • The pragmatists found allies in the ancient sophists because of the relativism of truth-claims in both philosophical paradigms.  (327)
  • Laufer returns to the pragmatism vs. rationalism debate of the early 20th century as another iteration of the sophism vs. Platonism debate from ancient Greek philosophy.  Because pragmatism – with it’s attendant attention to action – was becoming the dominant philosophical paradigm of the early 1900s, Durkheim made an argument to distinguish the differences between Dewey and James’ philosophical school and the goals of sociology as rationalist endeavor.
  • Laufer turns to the “commonplaces” as a space wherein the power of opinion holds sway over the democratic process.  The opposition between Platonic philosophy and sophism finds it’s terrain here in the realm of public deliberation (328).
  • Ultimately, Durkheim lost. . . which would seem to imply that sophism (pragmatism) won; however, this isn’t necessarily all that apparent.
  • Rorty distances himself from the radical relativism of the sophists by claiming to be “ethnocentric” which he defines as “to divide the human race into people to whome one must justify one’s beliefs and the others” (30) for “we Western liberal intellectuals should accept the fact that we have to start from where we are, and that this means that there are lots of views we simply cannot take seriously’” (330).[2. Fascinating description of how pragmatism differentiates itself from sophism.]
  • L. notes that jurisprudence is a nationalist enterprise: individual nation-states define their legal systems and legal systems differ from country to country.    The U.S. and French systems of jurisprudence are common law and civil law respectively; however, their definitions (as mentioned earlier) are paradoxical in this regard.  L. interprets this paradox through Tocqueville, Perelman, and Mary Douglas.  As all three of these thinkers noted, you need dogmatism in order for a society to survive (332).  This often comes in the form of authority – the singular dogmatism necessary for a society with government.  Mary Douglas’s argument looks like this:
    • There is an intimate relationship between the notions of certainty and the notion of institution.
    • In a democracy, certainty relies on some dogmatic proposition backed by some authority.
    • The authority that is allowed to “control dissent” in a democracy can be described as relying on law and science. One is able to recognize in it a form of Max Weber’s legal-rational type of legitimate authority (as opposed to the charismatic or the traditional types of
    • legitimate authority).
    • There is a dynamic mechanism that allows the historical process of institutional transformations to be explained, and that mechanism leads to a situation in which uncertainty has to be recognized explicitly.
    • The fact that certainty is “passionately defended by law and taboo ”may explain the ambivalent attitudes developed toward sophism in times of uncertainty.
    • It is possible to study these processes by following the history of the “institutional underpinning of our beliefs.” (334)
  • The problems of developing an argument about “rhetoric” in international contexts:  It is unlikely that anyone can develop an argument about international context without recoursing to some form of ethnocentrism; therefore, the imperialist point-of-view/argument is inescapable; or, you have to speak from somewhere (336).
  • What’s the difference between sophistic and nonsophistic rhetoric?  “The status given to the foundations of the presuppositions of the rhetoric considered.  Nonsophistic rhetoric corresponds to the case in which legitimacy of the presuppositions of rhetoric relies on some ‘dogmatic’ foundation.  Sophistic rhetoric corresponds to the case in which the legitimacy of the presuppositions of rhetoric relies entirely on its success” (338).  So, in other words, the sophistic rhetoric is contextual (presuppositions include the genre and place of rhetoric) whereas nonsophistic rhetoric relies on a universal rhetorical situation (337).
  • L. looks to the work of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca to answer the question: in an international context, how do we make an argument where two different sets of dogmatic ideas are at work?  Three options: logical man (develop arguments from the shared dual system of rules), practical man (address problems only as they arise from both contexts), and diplomatic man (address only the problems that conflict from each set of dogmatic systems).  The logical are the French rationalists, the practical are the American pragmatists, and the diplomatic with the sophists (341).

Key Quotes:

Thus the debate between rationalism and pragmatism—between, according to Durkheim, a French philosophical tradition characterized by its link with a Cartesian dogmatic form of rationalism and an American philosophy characterized by its link with pragmatism—can be seen as the continuation of the debate between Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and the Sophists, on the other, at the origin of Western philosophy. (327)

An explanation for these paradoxes [of jurisprudence] may be found in the writings of Tocqueville, Chaïm Perelman, and Mary Douglas. Each of these authors in his or her own way delivers the same message: no society can survive without some element of the dogmatic. The reluctance of American philosophy to devote too much attention to sophism may result from the reluctance of pragmatically oriented thinkers to acknowledge this fact. (332)

We know that the sovereign may legitimize hierarchical institutions when they prove necessary. Whereas in attempting to understand this legitimization process in France, one would be led to examine the history of the legitimacy of public administration, in America one would be led to study the legitimacy of private corporations. We may note that John Dewey found it useful at some point to devote an article to such entities (“Th e Historic Background of Corporate Legal Personality” [1926]). I would suggest it is possible to show that this history is analogous to the one we have described in the case of France (Laufer 2004). But for now we can do no more than point to what is probably one of the ultimate legal manifestations of the confl ict between the democratic principles required by the sovereign and the hierarchical power imposed by necessity, namely, the extending of the constitutional right of free speech to corporate organizations (Northwestern Law 1978, 544–51). What the discussions regarding the application of the principle of free speech to corporations are concerned with is that rhetoric can no longer be clearly subordinated to a principle that would distinguish between the public and the private, the “market of goods” and the “market of ideas” (Coase 1974, 1977). Hence, jurisprudence itself is dominated by rhetoric. It seems that America too has entered rhetoric’s empire. (Laufer and Paradeise 1990). (346)

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