Dangerous Voices: On Written and Spoken Discourse in Plato’s Protagoras

In Olof Pettersson & Vigdis Vigdis Songe-Møller (eds.), Plato’s Protagoras: Essays on the Confrontation of Philosophy and Sophistry. Springer. pp. 177-198 (2017)
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Plato’s Protagoras contains, among other things, three short but puzzling remarks on the media of philosophy. First, at 328e5–329b1, Plato makes Socrates worry that long speeches, just like books, are deceptive, because they operate in a discursive mode void of questions and answers. Second, at 347c3–348a2, Socrates argues that discussion of poetry is a presumptuous affair, because, the poems’ message, just like the message of any written text, cannot be properly examined if the author is not present. Third, at 360e6–361d6, it becomes clear that even if the conversation between Socrates and Protagoras was conducted by means of short questions and answers, this spoken mode of discourse is problematic too, because it ended up distracting the inquiry from its proper course. As this paper 2 sets out to argue, Plato does not only make Socrates articulate these worries to exhibit the hazards of discursive commodifi cation. In line with Socrates’ warning to the young Hippocrates of the dangers of sophistic rhetoric, and the sophists’ practice of trading in teachings, they are also meant to problematize the thin line between philosophical and sophistical practice. By examining these worries in the light of how the three relevant modes of discourse are exemplifi ed in the dialogue, this paper aims to isolate and clarify the reasons behind them in terms of deceit, presumptuousness and distraction; and to argue that these reasons cast doubts on the common assumption that the dialogue’s primary aim is to show how sophistical rhetoric must succumb to Socratic dialectic.
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