“On every issue there are two arguments opposed to each other” —Protagoras
The above declaration from the sophist Protagoras that occurred over 2500 years ago may seem obvious to a person living in today‟s world of endless difference of opinion and deliberation ad nauseum, but at the time was revolutionary in Athens. As the city moved from oligarchy to democracy, the necessity for deliberation arose as differences of opinion cropped up in the process of collective decision making. Seizing the opportunity to influence this process, the sophistic movement emerged. Itinerant teachers and wordsmiths, the sophists left their mark upon history via their innovative pedagogy and the seemingly unending controversies they created. After a brief period of flourishing, the sophists‟ rhetorical insights were undermined by sustained attacks from Plato and students of Plato, eventually being condemned to historical obscurity as a footnote to the progress of Western thought.
After centuries of marginalization, scholars have only recently begun to revisit the sophists. Instead of attempting to understand this movement via the highly critical lens of Plato and the translations of philosophers and classicists, rhetoricians have begun to rethink the age-old assumptions about sophistic thought to see what insights can be gained from sophistic thought’s unique perspective on knowledge production and pedagogy. Despite their historical position as foils for Plato, many of the principles that we take for granted as foundational to communication and education have been traced to members of the sophistic movement, and their accomplishments need to be given their proper due.
Although some of the insights provided by the sophists are easily understood and readily traceable, others are still conceptually fuzzy. One of the primary problems is grappling with how pedagogy works in a sophistic world where truth can be relative and its only measure is man.
Both Susan Jarratt, in her book Rereading the Sophists, and Mi-Kyoung Lee in the book Epistemology After Protagoras attempt to sketch out details of what a modern sophistic pedagogy could look like, but I propose that a tangible model of such pedagogy exists on hundreds of college campuses and in thousands of middle and high schools throughout America. That model is contemporary policy debate, which requires participants to argue for either side of a topic. Edward Schiappa argues that modern academic debate is part of the sophistic lineage, writing, “Protagoras‟ contest of dissoi logoi was dubbed antilogike by Plato and survives to this day in the form of two-sided debate” (Protagoras and Logos 198).
The controversies that plagued the sophists have also plagued debating societies. Critics from both within and outside of academic debate have accused the activity as showing too little concern for the truth of argument and too much concern for winning the argument. What started in Athens over 2500 years ago with the Platonic backlash to logon agon is played out to this day in America by critics of switch side debate. Mitchell writes: In the contemporary milieu, dissoi logoi receives concrete expression in the tradition of intercollegiate “switch side debating”, a form of structured argumentation categorized by some as a “cultural technology” with weighty ideological baggage (“Switch Side” 1). This, coupled with the rise of critics of the academy who see debate as merely another means to inculcate liberal multicultural values, has left academic debate in a precarious position (Stannard).
This paper will try to unpack switch side debate‟s baggage and serve a mutually beneficial or symbiotic role for scholars of rhetoric and defenders of contemporary debate. Those interested in sophistic pedagogy should study academic debate for clues as to how sophistic training operated (or could operate). On the other hand, for those interested in defending contemporary policy debate from its critics cannot stop at a mere acknowledgement of its sophistic roots, but must also look to its sophistic justifications. This is of vital importance to anyone interested in either debate or emerging rhetorical scholarship. As Erik Doxtader argued, “the current theoretical debate over how the public sphere can be reconstructed in the face of dominant technical institutions is informed by debate practice and that the educational value of debate could be enhanced if it were to take more careful stock of the assumptions developed in theories of public and technical argumentation” (452).
My arguments will be laid out in three main parts: A discussion of the sophistic movement, then a description of debate as an endeavor that is sophist in nature, and finally an analysis that explains the productive capacity of sophistic techniques embodied by contemporary policy debate. Specific focus will be given to the insights and improvements that understanding debate through the lens of sophism can provide to our collective understanding of both rhetorical pedagogy and the way rhetoric interacts with deliberation and democracy.
From the sophists to the sophistic
Before engaging any discussion of what we know about the sophists three caveats must be mentioned. The first is that the original sophistic texts are few and far between, having been lost with the passage of time. What little text we do have is further complicated by the fact that it is sometimes based on dubious translations and in some cases, a complete inability to attribute authorship to some influential sophistic texts such as the Dissoi Logoi. Secondly, these problems are in addition to Plato‟s hostile treatment of the sophists which has set the table for a millennia-old marginalization of sophistic thought. Finally, there is still considerable debate over the meaning of the term sophist and who gets the privilege or dishonor of being one. Scholars have used the term sophist to refer to a variety of positions, such as the educational ideal of rhetoric, the rejection of physical sciences, the view of man as the center of the universe, and many other divergent positions. After all, one of the charges against Socrates was that he was a sophist, even though he is the protagonist in many of Plato‟s anti-sophist writings. Given these issues, it will be impossible for any complete list of individual members of the sophistic movement to be given.
What we do know is that the term sophist comes from the Greek word sophia, which means “wisdom”. Literally translated, the sophist is a lover of wisdom. Unfortunately for the sophists, we do not live in a world of literal translations, and the term quickly became associated with relativism, specious argument, and deceit (Merriam Webster). Traditional accounts of the emergence of the sophists attribute their rise to two factors: the necessity for rhetorical training as Athens transitioned to a democracy in the 5th century BCE and the need for an alternative to the highly formalized, technical form of rhetorical training that was prevalent immediately prior to the emergence of a sophistic movement (Schiappa, “The Beginnings” 6). The sophists were generally not citizens of Athens. Of all the commonly accepted sophists, only two (Antiphon and Critias) were native Athenians (De Romilly 2). This fact probably helped to fuel the fire of their critics, who accused them of being carpetbaggers who came to Athens to make their fortune via the corruption of the youth (Kerferd 5).
We also know the names of 26 sophistic thinkers who were considered to be active during the height of sophistic influence in Greece from 460 until 380 BCE (Kerferd 42). Exploring the details of all of these intellectuals is not the goal of this paper, especially since the lives and teachings of these men are well documented by other rhetoricians and historians. For instance, both Kerferd and De Romilly give chapter-long treatments to discussing the details of each major sophist. As such, the only sophist to receive even a brief biography here will be Protagoras, who was the most influential early sophist and the father of debate.
Protagoras is the most important of the sophists for my analysis because he is responsible for the invention of several of the techniques and theories that this analysis will rely upon. Becoming active around the year 450 BCE in Athens, Protagoras is credited with being the first person to call himself a sophist and was a favorite of the great Athenian general Pericles. Protagorean influence can be found everywhere throughout the Hellenistic world; from the elaborate dialogue that Plato wrote to refute his teachings to the fact that statues of him were uncovered in the ruins of ancient Memphis (Kerferd 44). Schiappa‟s book on Protagoras explains that we must start a discussion of the sophists with Protagoras because of the practical and philosophical significance of his work, the lack of attention paid to him by rhetorical scholars, and the significant role he played in the Greek transition from a mytho-poetic to a more humanist-rationalistic culture (Schiappa, “Protagoras and Logos” 13). It is not only the centrality of Protagorean thought to rhetoric‟s engagement with argumentation that demands that we pay attention to his legacy, but also that he was the first to theorize many of the important elements of sophistic thought.
The common elements of sophistic thought
Like the controversy over who counts as a “sophist”, what counts as sophistic thought is subject to similar ambiguity. What I am seeking to establish here is a limited exploration that takes a few elements considered common to sophistic thought and compares them to modern day debate practices. There are ultimately three elements common to all sophistic thought which I believe have significant importance and will use later on in this essay as a foundation for defending contemporary debate: A focus on pedagogy, the idea that language can shape politics, and the reliance upon an epistemology with foundational ideas of antilogic, argument from probability, and a focus on the kairotic moment.
The first unifying characteristic of sophistic thought is the reliance on pedagogy and the assumption that excellence (arête) can be taught (Scenters-Zapico 338). This is in contrast to Platonic hesitance to declare virtue as something that can be taught, as is best exemplified by the Platonic dialogue Protagoras. The Sophists became Greece‟s first professional class of teachers—most likely because they embraced the idea that excellence is attainable via teaching. Many of the techniques that form the bedrock of teaching from ancient Greece forward can be attributed to the influence of the sophists. In addition to being the first professional class of teachers, the so-called “Socratic Method” of question and answer pedagogy that has persisted to this day was invented by the sophist Protagoras (Jarratt 83). It would be hard to enter a classroom anywhere in the Western world and not find some element of pedagogy that was shaped by the sophists. In fact, the rhetorical techniques pioneered by the sophists can be seen as the art which integrates the other disciplines to form a solid liberal arts education (Grimaldi 31).
The second common element of sophistic importance relies upon the idea that rhetoric can intervene with and shape the polis. Despite the fact that sophistic practices were often conducted in classroom settings, they were not apolitical in nature. Students were prepared to compose and deliver speeches that had an impact upon the day-to-day functioning of the city. Jarratt explained that one common element of sophism was in the way that the sophists “together theorize(d) the way a politically oriented or outer-directed pedagogy relates to individual mental activity associated with language use and reception” (103). Students who were trained in sophistic practices were better prepared to debate legislation, defend themselves in court, and wield political power in a society that was becoming more and more egalitarian. Not only were the students of sophists active in the affairs of the polis, but the sophists themselves often took an active role. For example, Protagoras wrote the constitution for Thurri, Gorgias and Hippias served as official ambassadors, and Thrasymachus was actively involved as a “deliberative speaker.” Protagoras stressed that the goal of his education included not just good judgment in one‟s own affairs, but also those of the city (Grimaldi 30-31). Despite criticisms of a lack of concern for the politics their practices created, it is clear that the sophists had an essential role in stabilizing and strengthening the democratic bodies of Greece.
The third group of features of importance is sophistic epistemology, namely the use of antilogic, argument from probability, and a keen awareness of the kairos of the situation. Kerferd argues that antilogic is the “most characteristic feature of the thought of the whole sophistic period” (85). The term itself means opposing (anti) arguments (logoi). Antilogic is the opposition of one proposition to another which contradicts it (Kerferd 227). Protagoras is once again credited with originating the concept. According to Oiogenes Laertius, Protagoras was the first to say that “on every issue there are two arguments opposed to each other” (Lee 10). Antilogic and its closely related kin dissoi logoi were the bedrock of sophistic practices. The curriculum that students of the sophists undertook heavily relied upon mastery of the subtleties of antilogic. Classroom exercises frequently took the form of practice debates that were designed to teach antilogic techniques. A crucial outcome of this sophistic epistemology is: argument no longer comes deductively from proof or appeal to nature, but rather from probability. The “truth” of an argument depends upon perspective, and man is the measure. The usefulness of a given truth is determined by its applicability to the moment itself otherwise known as kairos, or as Crick puts it, “a radical principle of occasionality” (133).
The sophists: ancient debaters
Before discussing the sophistic connection to debate it is necessary to discuss the meaning of the term “debate” itself. The most basic dictionary definition of the term endorses a range of meanings, from “contention by words or argument” to “a formal discussion of a motion in front of deliberative body” to a more specialized “a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides” (Merriam Webster). Other definers situate debate in more interesting terms.
Ehninger and Brockreide defined debate as a “mode of critical thinking in which parties to a disagreement appeal their views to an outside adjudicating agency and agree to abide by the decision it hands down” (7). Regardless of which definition of debate one decides to settle upon, sophistic fingerprints are present. The influence of the sophists upon debate can be roughly divided into two spheres: their practical impact on the debates held in Athens and the theoretical contributions that they made towards a systematic understanding of debate.
As discussed briefly in the introduction, when discussing the sophist influence upon debate it is important to examine the context of 5th century BCE Athens, where the sophists emerged.
After Solon‟s Reforms in 594 BCE there was a move away from rule by nobility. Shortly thereafter, the constitutional reforms of 461 BCE allowed for citizen representation and a formalization of public institutions (Kerferd 16). These shifts enabled both the space for public deliberation and a necessity for the persuasive effects of rhetoric (Johnstone 7). Legislative and judicial matters were settled by the vote of deliberative bodies who were often persuaded after a set of speeches set in opposition to each other. The basic format of Athenian government necessitated not only debate but a way to train participants in debate. The sophists filled this demand with their teachings. They also contributed to deliberation and debate in other ways, such as when some of them played the role of logographer, writing speeches to be delivered by others in front of the great democratic bodies of Athens.
The role that sophists played in this system was oftentimes less direct. Public debates involving sophists occurred from time to time, but were not a major part of sophistic activity.
Much like modern academic debate, the bulk of sophistic debate practices took place in an insular environment that focused on pedagogy and practice rather than directly addressing the assembly or a jury (Kerferd 30). The development of sophistic argumentation tactics was done via exercises and classroom simulation. As an example, perhaps the best analog to modern debate that was not lost to the passage of time is the sophist Antiphon‟s Tetralogies, which consisted of scripted groups of four speeches on legal topics. Much like in contemporary debate, the Tetralogies were two sided arguments involving both opening constructive speeches and rebuttals that utilized the antilogic technique to teach a dizzying style of argumentation that involved rapid-fire reversals between thesis and antithesis. These scripted judicial debates were controversial in Athens because they suggested “a disconcerting unconcern for the truth” (De Romilly 81).
These criticisms of The Tetralogies can be considered another clue in the search to establish just how important debate and debate training must have been in Athens, since controversies do not often occur over irrelevant things. More support for this line of thinking can be found with Plato‟s claim that the sophists had taken antilogic and perverted it for eristic purposes. In order for this critique to make sense, there must have been a competitive atmosphere of debate, since the eristic is a type of dialogue aimed at winning the argument at the expense of reason or truth (Kerferd 62). Furthermore, debate was so engrained in Athenian institution that it became part of popular culture. When debates were held, the public flocked to them regardless of the absurdity of the arguments. De Romilly writes: “Meanwhile, people were developing a taste for this game. They flocked to hear these argumentative confrontations as eagerly as we might to see a boxing match” (81). The great tragedians of the day seized upon debate themes. Euripides, a famous playwright and friend of many sophists included debates in his tragedies (Collard 1). Even the great Herodotus wrote an allegory of a political debate conducted in Persia over the most advantageous political system. Kerferd notes that this particular debate had elements of two-opposed logoi and definitely was inspired by sophistic thinking (150).
Debate and deliberation has probably occurred in some form since humans developed social systems, so it would be inaccurate to say (as some have) that the sophists invented debate itself. What they did contribute, however, was the idea of antilogic. This innovation lent itself well to the development of formalized theories about argumentation and debate. After all, in order for a debate to occur there must be a controversy, which means that the idea that there are two (or more) arguments opposed to each other on an issue is essential. Therefore, it is not surprising that the origins of how we think about debate (not just contemporary policy debate) have been profoundly shaped by the influence of the sophists. Michael Mendelson argues that Protagoras crafted the first set of instructions on the art of debate and initiated a process by which contrary positions (anti-logoi) are purposefully juxtaposed (xvii). These logon agons, or contests-in-argument, are described by Kerferd as being found in all instances of antilogic, written or otherwise, that remain as known parts of sophistic texts (29). Furthermore, according to Grimaldi, one of the principle elements of sophistic pedagogy was “disputatious argument” using the methods of dissoi logoi (28). Perhaps most resoundingly, De Romilly conclusively links the idea of debate as a pedagogy to Protagoras, writing “…by developing this technique (antilogic), Protagoras converted it into as it were a method of argument in itself, from which the rest of his teaching paved the way” (76). As the controversy over The Tetralogies showed, these methods of debate as pedagogy were highly controversial and quickly came under fire for privileging form and technique at the expense of ethics.
These charges of a lack of concern for ethics are actually the most famous “debate” involving the sophists—primarily because the debate is still occurring in modern times. This debate has been conceived upon many axes; from Plato versus the sophists to rhetoric versus philosophy to contingency versus universality and even (on a way less celebrated scale) switch-side debate versus alternative methods of advocacy. Plato‟s antipathy for the sophists is well documented. For instance, in the dialogue Sophist there are seven different definitions of “sophist”, six of which are decidedly derogatory. To Plato, the sophist represents a trickster, flatterer, and counterfeit philosopher (Kerferd 4). Sophistic thought and pedagogy has been most famously criticized for “making the weaker argument the stronger” (Protagoras). The argument is as follows: A person trained in sophistic commonplaces and tactics of dissoi logoi can manipulate opinion and persuade others to act in a way that is inconsistent with truth and what is truly virtuous. The sophistic reliance upon the kairotic moment instead of speech based on timeless, natural principles encourages irresponsibility of advocacy and the idea that truth is a relative matter. Professing to teach virtue, the sophists instead taught the art of fallacious discourse while propagating immoral practical doctrines (Kerferd 6).
For much of the time in between the 5th century BCE and the present, the Platonic criticism of sophistic practices has gained traction. It has been less than 150 years since the process of rehabilitating the sophists began with Hegel in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Kerferd 6). Slowly but surely the legacy of the sophists is being rethought and debated. The rise of postmodern thought and the turn in critical thought away from universals and towards language has only accelerated this process. As part of this new wave of interest in the practices and possibilities provided by sophists, it makes sense to look at the issues facing sophistic pedagogy‟s closest modern kin which, as mentioned above, is modern two-side debate.
What is contemporary policy debate?
Academic debate occurs in many different versions across the globe; one could go to every populated continent and find it in some form. In the United States formal debate societies exist at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. In addition to differentiation by grade level, the type of debate practiced varies from one-on-one debate over values propositions (Lincoln-Douglas debate) to forms relying on parliamentary procedure and common topics to two person team debate that focuses on resolutions of policy. All forms of debate have their own advantages and disadvantages, but for the purpose of this paper I have chosen to focus on one type of debate: contemporary policy debate.
Contemporary policy debate is participated in by numerous leagues throughout the United States. In high school the two biggest leagues are the National Forensics League (NFL) and the Catholic Forensics League (CFL). Contemporary policy debate is sanctioned in colleges around the U.S. by two leagues: The Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) and the National Debate Tournament (NDT). At the collegiate level, almost 7000 students per year from over one hundred institutions of higher learning ranging from Johnson County Community College to Harvard University. The most recent estimate by CEDA of the number of debates engaged in per year was roughly 13,000 (Stables).
Contemporary policy debate has several important defining characteristics. Unlike many other debate styles, the topic of debate does not change from round to round or from tournament to tournament. Debaters debate the same topic from August through April: the focus is typically on questions of United States Federal government policy. Topics can range from the merit of overturning Supreme Court decisions (2006-07) to finding ways to reduce the U.S. military‟s nuclear arsenal (2009-10). Partly because of the year-long nature of the topic, contemporary policy debate is a highly research-intensive activity that causes many students to do the equivalent of a Master‟s thesis worth of research per year on the given topic (Morello).
A typical debate round involves two teams of two people each and either a single judge or panel of judges. The teams are each given four speeches, two of which are called “constructive” where arguments are introduced and two more called “rebuttals” where arguments are carefully responded to and weighed out. In between each constructive is a period of cross-examination where questions are asked of the prior speaker. Questions in cross-examination can range from ones that are merely asking for clarification to attempts resembling rounds of Platonic dialectic that are designed to trap the other team into embarrassing concessions. The debate is conducted and at the end of all the speeches judgment is rendered by a third party.
Neosophistry and the “debate about debate”
As much as it is necessary to gain a sense of context, describing the minutia of contemporary policy debate is not the goal of this paper. Mentioned in the introduction, perhaps the most important controversy or challenge to contemporary policy debate is over the issue of the role of “switch side debate”. Switch side debate is an argumentative model that requires students to debate both the affirmative and negative sides of the debate topic over the course of a multiple-round tournament (Harrigan 4). This is the type of debate mentioned by Schiappa when he references two-side debate and also the debate practice that is most strongly related to and justified by the sophistic practice of antilogic, since it requires that a debater argue both sides of an oppositional question.
Much like criticism of the sophists has persisted throughout time; criticism of switch side debate has been a constant feature since the advent of tournament-style debating. Harrigan documents how numerous these criticisms have been in the last century, explaining that complaints about the mode of debate are as old as the activity itself (9). The most famous controversy over modern switch side debate occurred in 1954, when the U.S. military academies and the Nebraska teachers‟ colleges decided to boycott the resolution: “Resolved: That the United States should extend diplomatic relations to the communist government of China.” The schools that boycotted the topic argued that it was ethically and educationally indefensible to defend a recognition of communists, and even went so far as to argue that “a pro-recognition stand by men wearing the country‟s uniforms would lead to misunderstanding on the part of our friends and to distortion by our enemies” (English et al. 221). Switch side debate was on the defensive, and debate coaches of the time were engaged in virulent debate over the how to debate. The controversy made the national news when the journalist Edward Murrow became involved and opined on the issue in front of millions of TV viewers. English et al. even go so far as to credit the “debate about debate” with helping accelerate the implosion of the famous red- baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy (222).
The debate about debate fell back out of the national spotlight after the high-profile incident over the China resolution, but it never ended in the debate community itself. The tenor of the debate reached a fever pitch when outright accusations of modern sophistry (the bad kind) were published in the Spring 1983 edition of the National Forensic Journal, when Bernard K. Duffy wrote, “The Ethics of Argumentation in Intercollegiate Debate: A Conservative Appraisal.”
Echoing the old Platonic argument against sophistic practice, Duffy argued that switch side debate has ignored ethical considerations in the pursuit of teaching cheap techniques for victory (66). The 1990‟s saw a divergence of criticisms into two different camps. The first camp was comprised of traditional critics who argued that debate instruction and practice promoted form over substance. For example, a coach from Boston College lamented that absent a change,
“Debate instructors and their students will become the sophists of our age, susceptible to the traditional indictments elucidated by Isocrates and others” (Herbeck). Dale Bertelstein published a response to the previously cited article by Muir about switch side debate that launched into an extended discussion of debate and sophistry. This article continued the practice of coaches and communications scholars developing and applying the Platonic critique of the sophists to contemporary debate practices.
Alongside this traditional criticism a newer set of critiques of switch side debate emerged. Armed with the language of Foucauldian criticism, Critical Legal Studies, and critiques of normativity and statism, many people who were uncomfortable with the debate tradition of arguing in favor of government action began to question the reason why one should ever be obliged to advocate government action. They began to argue that switch side debate was a mode of debate that unnecessarily constrained people to the hegemony of debating the given topic. These newer criticisms of switch side debate gained even more traction after the year 2000, with several skilled teams using these arguments to avoid having to debate one side of the topic. William Spanos, a professor of English at SUNY Binghamton decided to link the ethos of switch side debate to that of neo-conservatism after observing a debate tournament, saying that “the arrogant neocons who now saturate the government of the Bush…learned their „disinterested‟ argumentative skills in the high school and college debate societies and that, accordingly, they have become masters at disarming the just causes of the oppressed.” (Spanos 467) Contemporary policy debate is now under attack from all sides, caught in its own dissoi logoi.
Given the variety of assaults upon switch side debate by both sides of the political spectrum, how can switch side debate be justified? Supporters of switch side debate have made many arguments justifying the value of the practice that are not related to any defense of sophist techniques. I will only briefly describe them so as to not muddle the issue, but they are worthy of at least a cursory mention. The first defense is the most pragmatic reason of all: Mandating people debate both sides of a topic is most fair to participants because it helps mitigate the potential for a topic that is biased towards one side. More theoretical justifications are given, however. Supporters of switch side debate have argued that encouraging students to play the devil‟s advocate creates a sense of self-reflexivity that is crucial to promoting tolerance and preventing dogmatism (Muir 287). Others have attempted to justify switch side debate in educational terms and advocacy terms, explaining that it is a path to diversifying a student‟s knowledge by encouraging them to seek out paths they may have avoided otherwise, which in turn creates better public advocates (Dybvig and Iversen). In fact, contemporary policy debate and its reliance upon switching sides creates an oasis of argumentation free from the demands of advocacy, allowing students to test out ideas and become more well-rounded advocates as they leave the classroom and enter the polis (Coverstone). Finally, debate empowers individuals to become critical thinkers capable of making sound decisions (Mitchell, “Pedagogical Possibilities”, 41). Despite the power of these claims, the reality is that these justifications can only do so much to help defend switch side debate. It is necessary for defenders of the practice to utilize the insights of the sophists to help articulate new reasons why the practice has pedagogical and practical value.
Rereading the sophists into switch side debate
Calling attention to the three common elements of sophistic thought outlined earlier in this essay should be the new task at hand for defenders of contemporary policy debate. Justifying these practices in terms of their similarity to the pedagogy, language‟s role in politics, and epistemology of the sophists could be the critical angle necessary to defend debate against its detractors who come armed with Platonic concern for the eristic qualities of debate and postmodern theories that decry the hegemony of “forcing” students to grapple with both sides of an issue. The works of Susan Jarratt, John Poulakos, and others to line up sophistic thought with the modern turn back to language opens up the possibility for answering and reconciling these complaints.
Meanwhile, this exercise has utility for scholars of rhetoric because an explicit linkage to debate can help bridge the divide between theory and praxis and rejuvenate an activity that has traditionally been funded and supported by communications departments at the university level.
It‟s not just a matter of the rhetoric person in a department having an office next door to the debate coach, but an issue of vital importance to the discipline itself. As Doxtader put it: Not only does debate address concerns which are of interest to scholars of public and technical argument but that debate itself is a means by which to resolve some of these issues. Academic debate is not necessarily a way of enacting the public sphere, but rather, it is an activity that mediates between the public and technical spheres in such a way that elucidates how the two spheres are related and what conditions are necessary to both define and reinstantiate public discourse (455).
Debate serves as a form of broad social critique and moreover, that debate can inform theories of argumentation in terms of argument fields, analysis of social structure, political implications of policy choices, questions of value and special knowledge (455).
Contemporary policy debate fundamentally justifies itself as a pedagogical activity. Although it is competitive in nature, it brings in zero revenue to academic institutions that sponsor it. The major benefit of the activity is that it claims to produce critical thinkers who are capable of responding to the problems of the world around them. In this way, it is very similar to sophistic training because it claims to produce no specialized techne, but rather a capstone that helps to synthesize training in the liberal arts itself into a useful product. In the face of charges of modern-day sophistry, it would be wise for defenders of debate to emphasize the 2500 year legacy of training that this sophistic activity has provided and the tangible benefits of seeing education through a polyvocal lens. This is especially true in an environment where the academy is under attack from outsiders because of its commitment to open communication of ideas. The presence of debate is the mark of mature and healthy institutions, and will continue to be an essential component of teaching for as long as teaching will exist (Stannard).
The rhetorical pedagogy of debate cannot exist in a vacuum, however. It presumably should be directed at some end and, much like the sophists‟, that end should be in a broad concept of the political. Not just in the halls of Congress and other mega-institutions, but in the day-to-day deliberations that shape collective human action. Darrin Hicks sums it up best when he wrote that: “Rhetorical theory was responsible for disclosing the ideals, values, methods and procedures animating the public use of reason within democratic debate and discussion” (222).
The lesson of the sophists is that language can shape reality and as much as we would like to assume a universal truth or system of value that is out there somewhere, we would likely not be able to ever know it or communicate it. We are stuck with the messiness of different opinions, and need a way to negotiate them. Far too often both the sophists and academic debaters have been portrayed as hopeless relativists because of their attention to these details, but this stance towards understanding and negotiating the inevitability of disagreement is the main political insight that both groups can claim. The sophistic practices of antilogic teach us that dissoi logoi is the unavoidable outcome of any group discussion. There will always be difference of opinion, but the sophistic understanding of democratic politics is that it is more useful to discover how we come to settle upon a truth rather than forcing the world to fit into one neat framework via some nonnegotiable single truth within phenomena. Embodied by switch side debate, this view of how truths are negotiated is critical to overcoming one of the foremost barriers to effective deliberation, which is the stigmatization of disagreement and confrontation. Effective deliberative democracy relies upon removing the stigma from disagreement and confrontation, brining these issues into the open where they can be negotiated instead of abolished by force (Stannard).
All theories of communication attempt to produce some benefit for humanity. The increasing complexity of the world‟s problems only proves that the sophists were correct in establishing that existence is governed not by unity and perfection, but rather the inescapability of dissoi logoi. As such, it is essential to cling to pedagogical practices that not only recognize the inevitability of disagreement but teach us how to negotiate and live in a world full of difference. Despite attempts to marginalize the relevance of switch side debate, it is the most effective mechanism for resisting simplifications that cover over subtleties and exploit the complexity of the world in the pursuit of greater explanatory power. It may have its faults, but without switch side debate, rhetorical scholarship would not only lose an important connection to the world at large, but also sacrifice a useful tool in making it a better place.
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