I still find myself relatively often surprised by how much of the spectrum of philosophic thought was already covered at the times of ancient Greece or ancient China (think Axial Age or think footnotes to Plato).

Has any recent philosopher (or historian) made a book-length claim that today's postmodernists may perhaps serve a similar role as the sophists served in ancient Greece?

  • 1
    Good question! Personally most of the works by so-called "philosophers" have been arguing about, especially since around early-mid 20th century are in the essence talking same things as the most of the predecessors had argued. To me, they are saying something like philosophies for the philosophies using different word for its own products' sake. I and my friend has agreed on this point. I am sorry to say I can not quote anybody ( but one can come to my mind )
    – user13955
    Apr 28 '15 at 8:34
  • I did read in Kant, I forget now where, that certain thoughts occur and te-occur in history and geography; but careful reflection shows that they usually differ in important ways ie the devils in the details. Apr 28 '15 at 8:37
  • Someone, who I can not recall who it was, said, only thing left for us to talk about so far is the "empty hole". Then he said until we can say enough about the "empty hole", we should keep quiet. But I can not recall who said that.
    – user13955
    Apr 28 '15 at 8:55
  • @KentaroTomono Sounds very Zen :)
    – Drux
    Apr 28 '15 at 9:20
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    They are equally strong claims to ignorance so have much in common and seem in some ways to serve similar roles. Both offer us a respectable way of giving up on philosophy . . . . . . .
    – user20253
    Dec 3 '18 at 13:38

In his book Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, David Loy writes:

If philosophy in the nineteenth century became historically conscious, philosophy in the twentieth century has become self-conscious. Attention has shifted from the construction of metaphysical systems to the act of philosophizing, that is, thinking itself. This has taken a different directions in Anglo-American and continental European philosophy. The former grasps the nature of thinking more objectively, by identifying it with language, and has become sensitive to the ways in which philosophical problems arise due to the misuse of words; many problems are "dissolved" by uncovering the linguistic confusions at their root. On the continent, some phenomenology has continued the traditional pursuit of a scientific "presuppositionless" philosophy, but the influential writings of Heidegger, Jaspers, and more recently Gadamer and Derrida, have shifted attention to the "subjective" act of thinking itself. Their continually evolving work may best be understood as "process philosophies" of philosophizing rather than the construction of systems that offer something objectively fixed; their most important insights concern the nature of philosophical reflection as such.

Much later in the book, Loy says "The purpose of this section has been to show that, although Derrida's differance constitutes a major philosophical insight, his employment of it does not develop its most radical implications."

Now, based on the above, if your question is interpreted as "Do modern continental philosophies act as a counter-weight or counter-argument to modern Anglo-American philosophies in the same way that the ancient sophists may have made counter-arguments to Plato?" then I would say yes. If you are, on the other hand, saying that post-modernism consists of specious arguments, as sophism has come to mean, then I would say no.

  • I think the questioner is asking about the comparison between postmodernists in general and sophists.
    – user13955
    Apr 28 '15 at 12:48
  • IMO this goes into the right direction but if you imagine a Venn diagram, "postmodernism" cannot cover the entire area of "modern continental philosophies" nor is it the exact inverse of "Anglo-American philosophies". (Did not Sokol publish in a journal that was based at Duke University? :-) So IMO those terms should not be used interchangeably.
    – Drux
    Apr 28 '15 at 13:31
  • I quite like the characterisation of 19th C philosophy as historically conscious, and 20th C as self-conscious; it seems like a useful aphorism. Apr 28 '15 at 20:17

Chomsky, criticizing so harshly the postmodernism here, ( he is even calling their theories or whatever as pseudo-science. ) is describing in the above message? in a discussion? that the postmodernists are self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy,". If sophists are the "merchants of wisdom", then the criticism by Chomsky is not directly linking postmodernists with sophists, but I think it is very close in the sense they ( postmodernists ) are aloof like sophists. In addition to it or even more close to it, in the link he is using the word "propounding their own theories" ( against postmodernists ) so, here I think we can see the affinity between postmodernists and sophists by Chomsky, I think.

PS : I was not able to find out who mentioned "empty hole" as I commented in your comment line with sorry.

Good day.

  • 2
    It's very peculiar to see Chomsky paid no attention to his usage of his words in his letter ( the link ). He even is calling post modernists as a cult, hew, and he is almost totally indifferent to what post modernists' ideas by saying "It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers." His criticism is so straightforward. lol.
    – user13955
    Apr 29 '15 at 4:19
  • Why do you think he's not paying attention to his usage of words by calling postmodernism a cult? Isn't it?
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 9 '17 at 8:05

Alain Badiou repeats in several places that Plato has written at length about some major and minorsophists, so

Just as Plato wrote the Gorgias and Protagoras for the great sophists we should write the Nietzsche and the Wittgenstein. And for the minor sophists the Vattimo and the Rorty. Conditions (Continuum 2008) p.21

He has not written any book length treatment of the idea and his Wittgenstein's antiphilosophy (Verso 2011) develops around the idea that some philosophers (Pascal, Rousseau, Wittgenstein) have argued philosophically against philosophy which could be seen as a modern form sophistry.

Wittgenstein is our Gorgias and we respect him as such (Conditions p.7)

'Sophistry' is discussed in Conditions p6-11 and 18-25; (it is also mentioned in the 1st and the 2nd Manifestos). Barbara Cassin has written a book on sophistry which connects the ancient practice with contemorary rhetorics (L'effet sophistique Gallimard 1995; Sophistical Practice. Toward a Consistent Relativism, Fordham UP, 2014) but I have not read it (yet).

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    Can you please include a relevant quote from Alan Badiou and identify his Anti-Wittgenstein book, if possible? And welcome to the site.
    – Drux
    Nov 26 '15 at 5:04
  • Nietzsche's writings were completely "positivist" (i.e. rational, logic, objective), before he was totally ignored by most people in his time (for decades) and ended up crazy. His "Will to Power" is much more unclear than most of his earlier works, which to me is a sign of mental suffering. Postmodernists calling Nietzsche "one of them" is just part of their marketing. The point is that Nietzsche attacked monotheism vigorously, while postmodernists defends monotheism, only indirectly.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 9 '17 at 8:09

Maybe comparing ancient sophism with postmodernism relies in part on their alleged openness to relativism in ethics and in measuring the real world around us. Despite such risk, I consider postmodernism to offer a set of philosophical observations, some of which may serve as a corrective to the modern analytical and empirical approach dominating anglo-american philosophy. This approach has supported applying a reductive approach, that's fruitful in the natural sciences, but not so useful to other domains of inquiry such as the humanities and social sciences. Aspects of postmodern criticism may offer useful challenges to reductionism, though some of the extreme postmodern claims will likely not survive scrutiny.

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    IMO you are not answering the question, but defending postmodernism instead. (But then it's perhaps a bit relevant that a Sophist may try the same to pretend specific knowledge where there may be none.)
    – Drux
    May 18 '15 at 6:25
  • @Drux, you're right. I didn't give an answer to the question about comparing the role of ancient Greek sophism to postmodernism's role in our time. I don't know the role sophism played historically, other than serving as a foil in Plato's dialogues. I think the rise of postmodernism as a movement is not trivial. What role it plays in contention with opposing schools of thought depends on the usefulness of it's critique, but I lack a good grasp of the debates to make confident claims about the role it plays. Jun 2 '15 at 13:53
  • Fair enough, but why post it as an answer then?
    – Drux
    Jun 4 '15 at 6:14

My general understanding of both sophism and postmodernism is that they arise from skepticism vis claims to knowledge about [aspects of?] the world. Epistemological and/or ontological skepticism might alternatively simply lead to quietism -- to just shutting up: Why, in the absence of a quest for power/influence, claim to know what [one believes] cannot be known? While postmodernists (of the various stripes) claim a more fleshed out "theoretical" basis/justification for their position, both sophists and postmodernists came to realize that in the absence of "real" knowledge, in the absence of [access to] a world capable of significantly constraining what can be asserted [the friction provided by realism], we are left with the constraint of warranted assertability, which to a large extent enables us to [relatively] freely "manipulate" language in order to advance whatever position/idea/interest we wish to advance and can justify (cf: Rorty's practice of "redescription"). Herein lies the primary similarity between sophists and postmodernists. The main difference, so far as I can tell, is that critical theory postmodernists further claim that those in power [cynically or otherwise] created/fabricated the "truths" we (the power-less) live with, the "reality" we (the power-less) live in, so they are not being disingenuous by foisting alternate fabricated realities/truths upon a society/culture in a purported effort to create a “better” world, for their favorite interest group. Whereas I am not aware of any such brand of sophism.

  • A very promising 1st answer. Thx & welcome to the site.
    – Drux
    Nov 25 '15 at 20:39

Both the Sophists and the Postmodernists tend to be relativistic, anti- foundational, nominalist, and suspicious of metaphysics or any totalizing metanarratives... especially those concerning some invariable "human nature" or trascendental values.

The Sophists were sensitive to cultural relativism, "sophisticated," as a result of their itinerate urbane professions; and the Postmoderns were similarly skeptical about the universality of "human progress" and "science" following the catastrophes of WWI and WWII.

These are generally healthy instincts. Both terms, however, cover such a diverse range of original thinkers it makes little sense to collapse them into sweeping judgments. It is typically the epigones applying hollow jargon that draw the aspersions.


After using my supreme internet knowledge i found some information about that.

More recent work by French theorists such as Jacques Derrida (1981) and Jean Francois-Lyotard (1985) suggests affinities between the sophists and postmodernism.


Socrates, on the other hand, showed his young followers that by dropping their unfounded assumptions about what is true, they arrived at the beginning of their quest for knowledge. Postmodernists, like the sophists, are already finished.


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    I read the two links you give in your answer. The first one makes a passing reference to sophists and postmodernists but gives no arguments to it. It instead focuses exclusively on the ancients. The second link to andrew cort - a simplistic and wrong view of postmodernism. Andrew Cort obviously has an agenda. Apr 28 '15 at 11:23

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