The Sophists on Correct Speech

Michael Gagarin -- University of Texas

The issue of “correctness,” in language, (or put differently, the status of established norms of usage) has been a concern of all who think about language down to the present day. The first people to raise this issue were the sophists. This is well known, and several studies have surveyed the sophists’ writings on this topic (e.g. Classen, Kerferd), but there is much more to say on the topic. My specific concern is to try to understand how thinkers like Protagoras, Prodicus and Antiphon used concepts of “correctness” (orthos, orthotês) to mediate between an absolute standard corresponding to some sort of natural essence of things (physis) -- which is sometimes opposed to established practice (nomos) -- and a more relativistic approach which acknowledges that the correctness of any logos can only be determined by human beings and is thus negotiable.

I plan to begin by setting the background with a very brief survey of the range of writings by different sophists that are relevant to this issue and also by looking very briefly at uses of orthos in other fifth-century texts. I will then focus on a few particularly illustrative examples -- Protagoras’ attempts to determine orthos logos in light of his specific criticisms of Homer, Antiphon’s reflections on judging between opposed logoi in the Second Tetralogy, and the discussion of the natural basis of language in Plato’s Cratylus (and elsewhere), that clearly echoes work of the sophists.

I hope to bring out the complexity of the sophists’ views on these issues, and if I have time, I will very briefly suggest how their views set the groundwork for later work of Plato, Aristotle and beyond.

Classen, C. J. 1959. “The Study of Language Amongst Socrates’ Contemporaries,” Proceedings of the African Classical Association 2: 33-49. Reprinted in Classen, C.J. ed. 1976. Die Sophistik, pp. 215-47. Darmstadt.

Kerferd, George B. 1981. The Sophistic Movement.. Cambridge.

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