Gorgias Redivivus: Sophistic Rhetoric and Propaganda

[This is the text of a paper presented at the 15th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Acadia University, 26-26 October 1984. It is reproduced here without alterations, and has not previously been published. This paper contains material that was subsequently integrated into my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” published in 1985—but also other material that was not, and that might still be of some fleeting interest. It shares with that essay a somewhat partial—which is to say incomplete, as well as polemical—understanding of Derrida.]



For at least part of the next twenty minutes I shall be talking about nothing—or rather, about arguments on the subject of nothing. In moments of darkest scepticism, I am myself inclined to share the memorably expressed doubt of H. L. Mencken that “There may not be no nothing.”1 However, one purpose of this paper is to suggest that, whatever we make of the lexical, linguistic, logical, or ontological status of nothing, the idea has at certain moments, both in the distant and the very recent past, exercised a fascination that makes it a powerful lever, or should I say pivot-point, in the hands of those who have known how to make rhetorical use of it. Since this notion of nothing as a pivot-point or lever is obviously a paradoxical metaphor, let me explain what I mean by it.

At the beginning of his Second Meditation, Descartes wrote that “Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demanded only that one point should be fixed and immoveable....”2 Refusing to attend to the obvious message of this boast, which is precisely that there are, and can be, no topoi external to our own world and yet accessible to our manipulations, Descartes chose to believe that, in metaphysical terms, the indubitable certainty of his cogito provided him with just such a point. But if there can be no place outside the world, if by definition we cannot occupy a position outside our own conceptual universe in order to dislodge it from its orbit—and this I take to be the essential meaning of Wittgenstein's “The world is all that is the case”—then the idea of nothing will serve just as well.

Perhaps I should offer an example or two of the pivotal or levering power of nothing. That the universe was finite was a commonplace of ancient cosmological thought. But Lucretius proved it to be infinite by arguing that if a man went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, that spear would either be blocked, or else would speed unobstructed on its way: either case showing that the universe continues without end or limit, since the thought-experiment can be endlessly repeated.3

This argument, though forceful and persuasive, is undeniably eerie. For in order to stand at the outer limit of the cosmos, one would have to have reached a place beyond which nothing was perceptible or apprehensible. The notion of throwing a spear into such a vacancy is odd enough: what its unobstructed flight would reveal would be empty geometrical extension, which even if unapprehended is not the same as nothing—and with a spear moving through it, is no longer empty either. Odder still is the notion of the spear being blocked, within what had seemed vacancy, by some hitherto unapprehended object—as though nothingness could condense itself into an obstacle.

Something of the same eeriness is evident in the definition of “nothing” given by The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “No thing; not anything; not something; something that is not anything. The conception of nothing is reached by reflecting that a noun, or name, in form, may fail to have any corresponding object; and nothing is the noun which by its very definition is of that sort.”4 Without stopping to dwell upon the fact that one interpretation of this definition would make nothing the basis of our entire philosophical vocabulary, we can remark that what Lucretius's spear moved unobstructed through—or hit—must have been not just unapprehensible, but also (to borrow from one of Samuel Beckett's titles) unnameable as well.5

Another example of the conceptual and linguistic strain imposed by the idea of nothing will bring us closer to my main subject. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, from which I have already quoted the famous opening epigram, Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6.1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself a performative enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6

In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida persistently attempts to defy any such limits, both by attempting to place himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least to expose the “logocentric repression” which, by his analysis, has characterized the whole of Western metaphysics. Throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Derrida has revealed receding infinitudes—or perhaps one should say absences—on both hands. One spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics is said to put an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.8 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida writes, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “Il reste alors à parler, à faire resonner la voix dans les couloirs pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence.”9

As these examples suggest, the idea of nothing, or asymptotic variations on the theme, can provide a powerful tool, if not for levering the world out of the way, then at the very east for imposing strain upon ideas about the world and upon the language in which we habitually express them. It might even be said that the idea of nothing, in one sense or another, appears to be essential if one wants to think about any sort of change at all. To take a gross example, Descartes' theory of physics failed in part because, envisaging the world as an absolute plenum, he was unable to account for the rather basic fact of motion. Nothing might thus be said to provide the necessary lubricant for conceptual change (in other terms, for dialectical negation)—a notion that may provide ambiguous comfort to philosophers who see their solid, carefully constructed plenitudes of thought shot full of holes and ventilated with the winds of absence by their colleagues.



At this point I would like to pause. My own presence here, as a literary specialist among philosophers—as, to reverse the proverb, a pigeon among the cats—is evidence of an attempt to lever myself out of the familiar world of literary texts, and to breathe, if only briefly, a thinner and more bracing air. But this is a situation that inevitably prompts certain anxieties. I have been talking about nothing for several minutes now. Is it possible that I have also been talking abut nothing in another sense—that is, about nothing of very pressing interest to an audience of philosophers?

I am reassured, to some degree, by two considerations. The first is that the air that I breathe in the company of philosophers seems very much like what I am used to in the other—I nearly said “the real”—world of literary studies. Which is to say that the pleasures to be derived from philosophical texts, if more austere, appear similar to those which are offered by confessedly fictive writings. Heidegger's claim that “The metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical” suggests, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, “that the trans-gression of meta-phor and that of meta-physics are but one and the same transfer”; and as Ricoeur himself admits, there is a very considerable “interanimation of philosophical and poetic discourse....”10 The remarks of someone educated on a steady diet of metaphor may thus have at least a scattered metaphysical bearing.

Secondly, I may be able to profit from the generic indeterminacy of the mode of writing, literary criticism, that I have been brought up to practise. One might say that this indeterminacy constitutes a refutation of Wittgenstein's views on the radical heterogeneity of language-games—for contemporary critics or rhetoricians often seem to be playing several language-games at once. Insofar as their writings are descriptive, evaluative analyses of other (usually poetic or fictional) texts, they are literary-critical as such; but they also commonly have philosophical pretensions, and often complete their conflation of speculative and poetic modes of discourse by insisting on their own proper status as literary texts, as metafictions. It is thus possible that some of my remarks may be mistaken for philosophical arguments.

I am not, for all this, quite convinced that under our different plumage we are birds of the same species. Jacques Derrida's inversion of Heidegger's claim that the metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical has been eagerly taken up by many literary theorists, who have a clear professional interest in arguments that reduce philosophy to rhetoric—and in this they have been joined by some philosophers, notably Richard Rorty. Rorty, it seems to me, is right to argue that we should think of philosophy as “a kind of writing.” In his words, to think this

is to stop trying to have a philosophy of language which is “first philosophy,” a view of all possible views, an epistémé epistémés, a bootstrap self-elevation to a point from which all past and future writing can be seen as contained within a permanent framework. Only one who had levitated to such a point would have the right to look down on writing, to view it as a second-best (like Plato) or as an abnormal activity to which sin has condemned him (like Rousseau), or as something which a discipline can dispense with on reaching the secure path of a science.11

But not only does Rorty seem oblivious to the wholly disabling consequences of Derrida's scepticism (which follow, one should remark, from unexamined axioms that are themselves open to challenge);12 he also never bothers to consider whether, and in what sense, there might be different kinds of writing. The argument of Paul Ricoeur that there are fundamental discontinuities between the analogical methods of speculative discourse and the metaphors of poetic discourse is at least worthy of consideration.

But what does it mean to give primacy to metaphor over metaphysics in Derrida's wholesale manner? Ricoeur has suggested that “the 'place' of metaphor, its most intimate and ultimate abode, is neither the name, nor the sentence, nor even discourse, but the copula of the verb to be. The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'”13 Clearly, Derrida's position is that there can be no such thing as a non-metaphorical 'is'. His use of terms like différance, supplément, trace and so on is consistently designed to show that any use of language initiates a semiological regression of endless indeterminate and supplementary signifiers—an infinite regress of metaphorical substitution. This is especially the case with statements of identity, and in particular with that tautological “I am that I am” which, taken literally, would institute the “transcendental signified,” the end-point of signification, and with it the reign of “logocentric repression” that Derrida is urgently concerned to deconstruct.

We have circled back to the subject with which I began this paper: that of nothing. In Derrida's view of things, metaphor is—the ground, I would like to say, but foundational metaphors are disallowed—metaphor is the ever-present banana-peel beneath the feet of signification; and it cannot be avoided by a detour, for the streets of Derrida's cinquième arrondissement of the mind are paved with banana-peels. The necessary lubricant in these slippery objects is provided, once again, by the idea of nothing. The plenitude, the presence, the ousia evoked by a non-metaphorical 'is' becomes, through Derrida's insistence on metaphor, an ambiguous absence, a trace: for, to repeat Ricoeur's words, “The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'” We are projected back into the old problem of being and not being, of on kai mé on. And since, within metaphor, 'is like' registers a simultaneous perception both of similitude and of difference—which is to say that 'is like' includes the perception 'is not'—the opposition of two significations within metaphor becomes an anomalous one, in that one of its terms is pervaded by the other. The emphasis of Derrida's arguments this falls heavily on the meontic side, the side of not being, of absence.



The words on kai mé on are not, as might be thought, an Aristotelian phrase: their earliest occurrence seems rather to be in the writings of the sophist Gorgias, as cited by Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus mathematicos (vii, 66). In the concluding section of this paper I would like to consider the possibility that there may be some grain of truth in Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return—the possibility that some of what we encounter in the pages of Derrida is not altogether a new thing under the sun, but rather a renovation of the meontic arguments of Gorgias. Gorgias redivivus, one might say. The text to which I will be referring is the long and brilliant essay “La pharmacie de Platon,” which is reprinted in Derrida's book La dissémination.

Although Derrida protects himself by remarking that “cette lecture de Platon n'est à aucun moment animée par quelque slogan ou mot d'ordre du genre 'retour-au-sophistes',”14 his argument is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian.

In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (for which Gorgias' term is Logos) between the relation of pharmakon (medicine, or poison) to the body, and that of persuasive logos to the soul is an anomalous analogy, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of he analogy—from which it follows that “Le pharmakon est compris dans la structure du logos.”15 This argument, one notes, is identical in its structure to Derrida's argument on metaphor alluded to above. It forms part of his attempt to show that Plato's dialectic operates in the same manner as the rhetoric of Gorgias, that its claim to be something different is specious. The distribution of pharmakon and its cognates across the semantic field of Plato's dialogues and of Gorgias' Encomium—always in contexts of bewitching, magical, drug- or poison-like effects both of sophistic persuasion and of Socratic dialectic—is used to deconstruct Plato's division of that semantic field between the predatory sophist, that trader in virtue, eristic athlete, and sorcerer, and the true philosopher, the doctor of souls.16 The Platonic logos is undercut by the fact that it is repeatedly supplemented by the pharmakon—so that the Platonic position, as unravelled by Derrida, effectively appears to deconstruct itself.

But this, as I have said, is not the main issue. In describing Derrida's procedures as Gorgian, I am pointing rather to a well-known passage earlier in this essay—a passage which contains no mention of Gorgias—on “the dangerous supplément.” Derrida writes that the supplement is not dangerous,

si l'on peut dire, en soi, dans ce qui en lui pourrait se présenter comme une chose, comme un étant-présent. Il serait alors rassurant. Le supplément, ici, n'est pas, n'est pas un étant (on). Mais il n'est pas non plus un simple non-étant (mé on). Son glissement le dérobe à l'alternative simple de la présence et de l'absence. Tel est le danger.17

I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' argument in his text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for it] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).18 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of the Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called “kettle-logic”: “1. Le chaudron que je vous rends est neuf; 2. Les trous y étaient déjà quand vous me l'avez preté; 3. Vous ne m'avez d'ailleurs jamais preté de chaudron.”19 Is this not also a displaced reminiscence of the argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos (which is, precisely, kettle-logic): “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”20 Derrida's argument is thus itself anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous. The same form of inquiry that reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

But what, it may be asked at this point, has all this to do with propaganda? The reduction of Derrida's very complex and wide-ranging writings to a remote echo of the surviving texts of Gorgias (who for all his rhetorical and eristic brilliance seems to have been regarded finally by his younger contemporaries as a slightly silly old man)21 might itself be taken to illustrate two of the basic tactics of the propagandist: namely, relentless oversimplification and deliberate distortion. However, leaving my own rhetoric aside, I would like to suggest that there may exist a different and more subtle link between propaganda and the kind of meontic kettle-logic or sophistic rhetoric that I have been considering.

One familiar way of talking about propaganda is to distinguish between “integrational” and “agitational” propaganda. The former, in the words of Jacques Ellul, is “self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behaviour in terms of the permanent social setting....”22 One might rather say that it is concerned to represent that social setting as permanent, and thus to ensure its permanence by eliminating even the conceptual possibility of radical change. Although it aims to mobilize support for the existing order, its minimal function is to ensure passivity. On the other hand, agitational propaganda, while it may be deployed by governments in time of war, can for present purposes most usefully be understood as oppositional, as a call to subversive action.

There is obviously a structural parallel between these terms and the kind of polemical vocabulary, laden with political metaphors, that commonly surfaces in academic debates over issues of conceptual, as well as social, change. Derrida's treatment of the whole tradition of Western metaphysics as a reign of “logocentric repression,” and his concern (also in De la grammatologie)23 with a liberation of “the semiological project” from the rule of linguistics, is a case in point, as is Umberto Eco's notion of “semiotic guerilla warfare,” which involves “a tactic of decoding where the message as expression form does not change but the addressee recovers his freedom of decoding.”24 Though these political metaphors, like other forms of academic bravado, are vulnerable to a process of rapid trivialization, I believe them to be serious and valid: attacks upon entrenched practices of signification and interpretation are inevitably also ideological.

At this point, however, the analogy with propaganda breaks down—but with paradoxical results. Derrida is not a writer of agitprop. What his subtle and tortuous demystifications of philosophical and literary texts lead to is rather a kind of immobilization, an aporetic recognition of the radical indeterminacy of any text, and of the corresponding instability of any interpretation. But if, as Gerald Graff suggests, this is “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” it can hardly be said to strike any very effective blow against the hegemony of consumer capitalism. For, as Graff adds, “the very procedure by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily becomes a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”25 I wonder whether students of Derridean eristic do not also rather easily become political speechwriters.26

I began by talking about nothing, and by hoping that you might see some difference in my words between this and having nothing to say. In the latter part of this paper, I have been suggesting that there may be another current meaning to 'having nothing to say'—a meaning which, in literary-critical circles at least, has in recent years become distinctly trendy.

But to have nothing to say, in the sense of believing that anything that might possibly be said could lead one only to a paralyzing aporia, is to abandon the field of public discourse to other people who have a great deal to say (not all of it entirely stupid)—but who are wholly untroubled by such irritating scruples as concern for rules of evidence, for canons of intellectual probity, and for the perpetuation of traditions of independent critical thought.




1  My source for this, perhaps appropriately, is an anonymous, unpaginated text: The Quotable Nothing Book (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980).

2  The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (2 vols., 1911; rpt. Cambridge University Press, 1973), vol. 1, p. 149.

3  Lucretius, De rerum natura libri sex, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed, 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i. 968-83. I owe this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978), p. 123.

4  Cited from The Quotable Nothing Book.

5  See Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (Paris: Olympia Press, 1959). We are perhaps entering a discursive space alluded to later in this essay—one marked out by the sophist Gorgias's claim, in his Peri tou mé ontos, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”

6  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 56, 74, 3.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Cf. Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967), chapters 1 and 2.

9  Derrida, La voix et la phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomenologie de Husserl (1967; rpt. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983), p. 117. Newton Garver, in his preface to the English translation (Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973], pp. xxviii-xxix), anticipates me in drawing a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

10  Paul Ricoeur, “Metaphor and philosophical discourse,” in Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, trans. Robert Czerny et al. (1977; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 280, 259.

11  Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” New Literary History 10 (1978), 159.

12  See, for example, the arguments of A. D. Nuttall in the first chapter of A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the representation of reality (London: Methuen, 1983).

13  Ricoeur, p. 7.

14  Derrida, La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 123.

15  Ibid., p. 133.

16  See Plato's Sophist 223b, 224c, 231d-e, 235a, 230b-c for his arguments justifying these epithets.

17  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 124.

18  I am quoting from the work (often attributed to Aristotle) as cited by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 6-7. As Kerferd observes, there are several possible different English renderings of this passage.

19  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 126.

20  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, i. 65 (=Adversus mathematicos, vii. 65). The translation given here conflates the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus (4 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, with that provided in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42.

21  Cf. the comments of Athanasius on that “kind of rhetoric ... which is concerned with something ridiculous, awakening the guffaws of the young and being basically a shameless flattery. The circle of Thrasymachus and Gorgias practiced this in style and in their invalid arguments....” (Sprague, The Older Sophists, p. 48).

22  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trans. K. Kellen and J. Lerner (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 75; quoted from A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 11.

23  De la grammatologie, p. 74.

24  Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1977), p. 150; quoted from Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda, p. 31.

25  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

26  This question received an answer, for me at least, a decade after this paper was written and delivered, when one of the students I had guided through some of Derrida's texts in the University of Guelph's MA theory course became a speechwriter for Ontario's neoconservative Premier, Mike Harris. (Perhaps, if anyone was to blame for this outcome, it was the teacher rather than the texts.)