Monday, May 16, 2011


Christopher W. Tindale, Reason's Dark Champions: Constructive Strategies of Sophistic Argument. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 178. ISBN 9781570038785. $49.95.

Reviewed by Lee Trepanier, Saginaw Valley State University (

Version at BMCR home site


Christopher W. Tindale's book traces the reputation, theory, and practice of the Sophists as a group who were linked by shared strategies about argumentation rather than by common epistemological beliefs. He challenges Plato and Aristotle's charge that the Sophists make the weaker argument appear to be the stronger by obscuring a knowable, absolute truth. Instead, Tindale argues, the Sophists develop argumentative methods to weigh probabilities and likelihoods in a world where probability and not absolute truth is the best one can hope for. By examining their actual modes of argumentation in their own words, in those they have influenced, and in the reports of others about their argumentation, Tindale contends that the Sophists play a critical role in the development of rhetoric by acknowledging the importance of the audience as equal partners in the constructive process of improving reason.

The book is divided into two parts: Sophistic Argument and the Early Tradition, with four chapters and an introduction; and Sophistic Strategies of Argumentation, with six chapters and an introduction. Part one focuses on sophistic arguments generally and their particular associations with eristics and false refutations. It explores depictions of the Sophists in Plato's dialogues and how the strategies attributed to them posed a threat to Platonic philosophy's quest for truth. Part two builds a contrasting picture of sophistic arguments by looking at strategies that can be recovered from their works, from reports concerning them, and from the work of their contemporaries and students. In examining each specific strategy, Tindale not only provides a specific textual context for analysis but also reorients criticism of the Sophists' argumentation to its contribution to classical rhetoric.

Chapter one, "Sophistic Argument: Contrasting Views," provides two conflicting views on sophistic arguments. The first is a negative portrayal and reflects the views of people such as Aristophanes and Richard Whatley through contemporary argumentation theorists. The second portrayal is more positive and drawn from the perspectives of Euripides, Thucydides, Hegel, and modern thinkers like Eduard Zeller.

In chapter two, "Making the Weak Argument the Stronger," Tindale examines how this charge ast it is articulated by Plato in Apology and Aristotle in Rhetoric. Tindale argues that the charge arises from a disagreement over the nature of reality, its relation to human experience, and the capacity of language to articulate this relationship. Although Plato and Aristotle have a reasonable position of assuming an absolute truth undergirds reality, the Sophists also have a justifiable view that experience with reality can be understood in a different way.

The Platonic position and its charges against the Sophists are explored further in chapter three, "Plato's Sophists." Contrary to most commentators, Tindale argues that Plato's depiction of the Sophists is accurate, because they posed a serious threat to his philosophical project; consequently, it was in Plato's interest to present them as accurately as he could in order to dismiss their positions entirely. Hence Plato's portrayal of the sophists and their arguments provides a great source of material and insight into their practices, the role of rhetoric, and the importance of the repeated contrast made between speech-making and its public value and dialectic and its private value.

After Plato, Tindale turns his attention to Aristotle's engagement with the Sophists in chapter four, "The Sophists and Fallacious Argument: Aristotle's Legacy." Tindale traces the contrast between a sophistical and an acceptable refutation in the tradition of fallacy in western logic, with specific attention to Plato's Euthydemus and Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations. What emerges is the claim that fallacies are ultimately theory-bound, arising in relation to a set of beliefs about what constitutes the standard for truth. Although both sorts of refutation are considered by Tindale to be valid, the traditional discussions of fallacy has privileged one (that of Aristotle) and marginalized the other (that of the Sophists).

While part one looked at the surviving works of specific Sophists, part two explores the strategies of argumentation used by different Sophists in a variety of texts. In each chapter, specific attention is given to the structure of the text, evaluation of the text, and its context, with particular emphasis on how audiences experience these arguments. Tindale also makes connections between classical and contemporary rhetorical argumentation, showing how many of these strategies are still effective today.

In chapter five, "What is Eikos? The Argument from Likelihood?" Tindale reviews how eikos was understood in the classical world, especially by Gorgias and Antiphon. Given that juries were not present when events transpired, jurors had to form pictures of what happened depending on what is likely according to human experience. Although direct evidence is preferable, sometimes eikos is the only resource available. What makes eikos so persuasive in court settings is its appeal to what was customary in the experience of people generally. This in turn requires that the speaker know the cognitive environment of his or her audience and construct an argument accordingly.

Tindale explores reversal arguments in chapter six, "Turning the Tables: Roots and Varieties of the Peritrope." The peritrope is turning the tables against one's own opponent, where the strategy is to show inconsistency or contradiction in the argument. Drawing from Myles F. Burnyeat, Tindale identifies its two varieties of the peritrope – the self-contradiction charge and the general gambit – and illustrates contemporary examples of it. What he concludes is that attention must be directed first at whether a person has made statements or performed actions that are relevant to the reversal and then on the credibility of the person. In either case, the relevance of the circumstance and context matters when someone is attempting to be persuasive.

Chapter seven, "Contrasting Arguments: Antilogoi or Antithesis," looks at opposing arguments (antilogi) and their relation to the antithesis. This strategy was attributed to Protagoras and is explored thoroughly in the examination of such texts like Dissoi Logoi. Tindale also looks at the relationship between opposing arguments and early examples of counterfactual reasoning as well as the contemporary value of such an approach in social debates.

In Chapter eight, "Signs, Commonplaces, and Allusions," Tindale considers the strategy of arguing from example or fixed cases and broadens this to look at arguments from signs and rhetorical figures of allusion. Given the contextual nature of signs and allusion, these strategies have lost their appeal in argumentation. However, there are some contemporary thinkers, like Walton, Perelman, and Olbrechts-Tyteca, who are exploring whether arguments from signs and allusion can be understood more systematically.

The Sophist use of ethotic (character-based) argumentation, especially in cases where testimony was the primary source of evidence, is the subject of chapter nine, "Ethotic Arguments: Witness Testimony and Appeal to Character." Tindale examines the various ethotic arguments employed by Sophists – witness, funeral speeches, the promotion and attacking of character – and their relationship to the modern ad hominem argumentation. Of all these arguments, testimony has become the most importance as a central source of information today in both the legal system and respect to information about the world itself.

The last chapter, "Justice and the Value of Sophistic Argument," concludes with a study of the principal goals of sophistic argument and their relationship to justice. Contrary to Plato and Aristotle, the Sophists understood justice in humanist terms: they rejected transcendental and absolute truths, but this did not make them immoralists. Tindale concludes that there may be two types of Sophists – one that makes man the measure of all things and the other who are purely destructive – and shows the connection between classical sophistic arguments and contemporary rhetorical argumentation, especially the work of Chaim Perelman.

Reason's Dark Champions does a great service by providing a full appraisal of the Sophists' strategies of argumentation and by situating them in the contemporary literature of rhetoric, logic, and argumentation. Tindale also makes a significant contribution in clarifying the fundamental nature of the disagreement between critics of the Sophists, like Plato and Aristotle, and the Sophists themselves. The disagreement between the two parties is not rhetorical but ultimately metaphysical and epistemological in nature. It would be worthwhile to see a sequel to this book that addresses these issues. Nevertheless, Tindale's book presents a fair and thorough account of the Sophists which meaningful advances the literature in classical philosophy and contemporary logic and rhetoric.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a rewarding book review! (Trepanier's review of Tindale: "Reasons Dark Champions")

    This review has helped me realize a fundamental truth about sophism. According to Trepanier, the sophist argumentative methods "weigh probabilities and likelihoods in a world where probability and not absolute truth is the best one can hope for".

    In this tumultuous political season leading up to the 2016 election, I now understand that the liklihood of reason and morality to prevail in our political process is very low. It is the intention to deceive others for the sake of political power, aided by sophist argumentation, which has led to this sorry state of affairs.

    Again, thanks for a succinct review which educates and informs.

    John Fornaro

    UVA, Architecture 1976, 1979

    Post date 10-02-15, ARSH