Dr Keith Crome is a lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of Lyotard and Greek Thought: Sophistry and co-author (with RSB interviewee James Williams) of The Lyotard Reader and Guide.
Mark Thwaite: Your first book, Lyotard and Greek Thought: Sophistry argues for the importance of Lyotard's view of sophistry. Before we look too closely at your argument, I want to ask you about the Sophists themselves and what first interested you in their worldview.
Keith Crome: Like most people I first came to know the term ‘sophistry’ as a term of abuse, and I imagine like most people who have studied philosophy, I first became aware of the sophists through the dialogues of Plato, which do nothing to dispel the poor reputation of sophistry. The sophistic movement flourished in Athens in the second half of the fifth century BC. The sophists were professional educators who, among other things, taught the art of rhetoric, of speaking well. For the most part what they meant by speaking well was being able to obtain a victory in argument, irrespective of the truth. They charged large fees for their tuition, in return promising their clients that they would acquire influence and power by way of their schooling. Although Plato’s Socrates treats the two major sophists, Protagoras and Gorgias, with some respect, he is unsparing in his criticism of the pretensions of sophistry itself. In general, Socrates views the sophists as mercenaries who, unconcerned with truth, taught mere expediencies.
My initial interest in sophistry stemmed from Plato’s picture of the movement. I wouldn’t say that that interest was particularly philosophical: I wasn’t so much interested in the sophistic worldview, more intrigued by sophistry because of the degree of Plato’s hostility towards it. It took a long time before I made anything more of that initial interest or intrigue. In fact, it was only after I began to study Lyotard’s The Differend, where he analyses some of the arguments attributed to the sophists, that my interest was rekindled. Lyotard was the first philosopher of whom I was aware who saw something more than mere fallacies and linguistic trickery in the arguments of the sophists.
MT: Some might think it odd that a "Continental" philosopher like yourself should be bothered about the Sophists. Shouldn't you be getting worked up about Derrida or Kristeva?
KC: One of the things that distinguishes Continental philosophy from Anglo-American or Analytic philosophy is its concern with its own history or tradition. Since Hegel, what is called Continental philosophy has recognized that thinking is intrinsically historical: for Continental philosophers, philosophy does not derive from an unworldly and timeless rationality, but from a particular place and time – Ancient Greece. The concern with the history or tradition of philosophy derives from that recognition. My interest in sophistry is part of that concern. In particular, I am interested in the way in which the philosophical tradition from the time of Plato onwards has defined itself through its opposition to sophistry, and I believe that examining the various strategies that the tradition has employed to distinguish itself from sophistry and constitute its own identity can tell us something about the limitations of the tradition.
MT: You examine in your book the accounts of sophistry, and the similarities between them, in the works of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger. You then go on to show how radical Lyotard's own analysis is. Why should we trust Lyotard's view here? What is it that persuades you about it and what is it about it that makes it unique?
KC: For me, it is not a matter of trusting Lyotard’s account of sophistry. In the first instance, Lyotard’s account, which, as you say, differs radically from the accounts of sophistry given by other philosophers, cannot be assessed in terms of its factual accuracy. The problem is that we possess very little of the original work of the sophists. There are a few fragments that are supposed by scholars to be the work of the sophists, in particular two speeches by Gorgias, Antiphon’s Tetralogies and a fragment of his treatise on Truth, and the Dissoi Logoi (Double Arguments). Even so, there are problems concerning these fragments: for example, the work attributed to Antiphon is thought by some to the product of two authors rather than one. For the most part, however, we are reliant on the testimony of other writers for what we know about the sophistic movement. Inevitably, those testimonies are used in interpreting the fragments of the sophists themselves. The chief source of information about the sophists is Plato, and since Plato was hostile to the sophists, the reliability of the information we have from him is questionable. In engaging with sophistry, then, there are no ‘facts’ that to which appeal can be made and against which a particular account of sophistry can be adjudged more or less trustworthy. Rather, in giving an account of sophistry it is a matter of interpretation – or better, it is a matter of interpreting interpretations and evaluating evaluations. As I see it, the question, then, is why is Lyotard’s interpretation of sophistry so compelling?
One of the problems with the prevalent philosophical view of sophistry is that it is marked by the Platonic hostility towards the sophists. For the most part, philosophers are happy to accede to the Platonic judgment that sophistry amounts to empty chatter and rhetorical vanity. What I find compelling about Lyotard’s account is that the does not go along with this view. Not only does he show, time and again, that the arguments attributed to the sophists are worthy of serious consideration, but also that the central concerns of philosophy can themselves be critically illuminated through their relation to sophistry.
In short, then, one of the things that Lyotard’s analyses of sophistry shows is that the philosophical tradition is limited by and suffers from its overwhelming concern to distinguish itself absolutely from sophistry. Philosophy, and in particular Platonic philosophy, understands itself to marking a shift from revelatory discourse to rational forms of proof and demonstration. Such a step is often taken as a separation of power and knowledge, of power and truth. What Lyotard wants to show is that such is not the case, that such a view is itself part of Platonic ideology and that this ideology is itself founded on a different way of tying together the relations between power, knowledge and truth.
In particular, Lyotard is interested in the institution in the Platonic dialogues of the ideal of consensus as the goal of all argument concerned with truth (Socrates commonly demands that the only thing he and his interlocutor should want is to come to an agreement between themselves over the nature of the thing that they are discussing). In their orientation towards this ideal, the dialogues are opposed to the argumentative strategies of the sophists, which are agonistic or dissensual rather than consensual. As I have already said, it is widely accepted that sophistic arguments are concerned with power – at the expense of truth. That is, the sophists seek to manipulate an argument for advantage over another. By showing that Plato’s dialogues respond to and oppose sophistical practice, Lyotard exposes the dialogues own particular violence. The search for consensus is a suppression or exclusion of a whole variety of different linguistic practices. The vehemence of Plato’s hostility towards the agonistic modes of argumentation practiced by the sophists is the mark of this violence.
MT: Where does Lyotard's engagement with the Sophists take us? Badiou famously criticised Lyotard's work as a 'new sophistry'. Is your book a rejoinder to that remark. And, whilst we're about it, do you rate Badiou!?
KC: A proper answer to your first question would require a much fuller answer than I could give here. Briefly, since one of the traditional attributes of reason is its supposed universality, Lyotard’s interest in the non-consensual or agonistic and differential argumentative ideal of the sophists, is a displacement and delimitation of the principle of reason itself. Lyotard’s rehabilitation of a sophistical argument leads to a recognition of a different order of truth.
I have heard that Badiou has criticized Lyotard’s work as a ‘new sophistry’ but I’ve not read the remark, so I could not comment on it. My book was not meant as a rejoinder to Badiou. If it were to be read in that way I would not mind, although I should say that I would hesitate to assimilate Lyotard’s work to sophistry. The interest Lyotard has in sophistry is but one aspect of his work.
I’m afraid I’m not in a position to answer your question about the status of Badiou’s work. I know that currently there is a great deal of interest in his work but I’ve not read nearly enough of it to form a judgment about it.
MT: You have just edited the "The Lyotard Reader and Guide" with RSB interviewee James Williams. Lyotard is, obviously, a thinker of key importance for you. What are his strengths? What makes him such an important writer for you? Is there really much more to him than The Postmodern Condition?
KC: There is a good deal more to Lyotard’s work than The Postmodern Condition. It was once a very popular book, and as your remark implies, it is the work with which Lyotard’s name is still most closely associated. Personally I regard The Postmodern Condition as important, not only for the analysis it gives of the dislocation of reason in scientific discourse in the course of the 20th century and its interrogation of technology as a formative power, but also for the emphasis it places on language as a framework for its analysis. However, to be properly appreciated I think that it needs to be read against Lyotard’s other work. Although The Postmodern Condition has sometimes be seen as a precursor to Lyotard’s later work (such as The Differend), I think it is equally important to situate it in relation to the earlier work (Rudiments païens and Instructions païennes, for example).
There are two things in particular that make Lyotard an important writer for me. The first is the lucidity of the account he gives of the predicament of thought in relation to the nihilism of contemporary Europe. What I mean is that his work is deeply affected by the catastrophic breakdown of the political projects of the West. Clear-sighted about the horrors of the twentieth century, Lyotard wrestled with – and sought to find ways to resist – the decline of politics into mere bureaucratic administration and economic management. The second thing that I particularly admire about Lyotard’s writings is that they never lapse or relax into complacent self-regard. His work is marked by a restless search for new modes of writing and always puts its own claims back into question. This is nowhere more apparent than in his first two major works, Libidinal Economy, which is written an uncompromising and combative style, and Discours, figure, (as yet untranslated in full) which puts into question its own argument as it progresses. As a result, Lyotard’s work is not easy to read or write about, but ultimately it is just this that makes it rewarding.
MT: Tell us a little about the The Lyotard Reader and Guide. What new work will we find in it? Will it change our views of Lyotard? How was it working with James?
KC: The Lyotard Reader and Guide includes a range of important earlier work that has not been translated before (in particular the introduction to Discours, figure, Lyotard’s first major work, and a very important essay ‘A Short Libidinal Economy of a Narrative Set-up: The Renault Corporation Relates the Death of Pierre Overney’). Just as importantly, the collection makes available a comprehensive selection of Lyotard’s work – both early and late – and makes it possible to develop an overall idea of the vitality and range of Lyotard’s writings. I hope that it will contribute to the deepening appreciation of Lyotard as a philosopher. A lot of the most important work on Lyotard has been concerned with his interpretation of Kant. Lyotard published two works on Kant, L’enthousiasme: La critique kantienne de l’histoire and Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, and such works as The Postmodern Condition, Just Gaming and The Differend all show the importance of Kant to him. However, as James remarks in his book Lyotard and the Political, there is much more to Lyotard than his interest in Kant. The Lyotard Reader and Guide makes apparent some of these other aspects of his work. If I were to stress just one aspect, I would point to the analyses of art and literature included in the Reader and Guide that exceed the Kantian problematic of the sublime which, in the Anglophone world, has come to dominate the engagement with Lyotard’s aesthetic writings.
Collaborating with James on the Reader and Guide was a very rewarding experience. I was delighted when he invited me to work with him on the project and not only was it a great pleasure to do so, but I learned a lot from him both about Lyotard and about friendship. He was generous, helpful and supportive. Although we met on the odd occasion, we did most of the work on the book via email and it was the first time that I had seen how it was possible to sustain a friendship through this medium.
MT: What do you think the state of Continental philosophy is in the UK. At one point, I thought it might take over: it looked very trendy! Now, Analytical philosophy seems to have reasserted its grip and the divide between the two camps seems as strong as ever. Is that how you see it?
KC: At present, analytic philosophy seems to dominate UK philosophy departments. There are, however, a number of departments where the teaching of so-called Continental philosophy is of central importance (Dundee, Middlesex, Manchester Metropolitan and Staffordshire). Moreover, Continental philosophy has made an impact on even the more traditional Analytic departments, which now offer students the opportunity to study philosophers who are conventionally regarded as ‘continental’.
Despite this, it still seems to me that a great many English academics and writers take undue pride in their own parochialism and make a virtue of their own ignorance. For example, a great deal of nonsense was written at the time of Derrida’s death about the obscurity and lack of rigour of his work by people who smugly declared that they had read very little of it. However, I do think that those people who can genuinely lay claim to being serious about philosophy realize the importance of the work done by continental philosophers.
MT: How do you write? Longhand? Straight on to a computer?
KC: When I was at university computers were not plentiful. I did not own one as an undergraduate – I don’t recall anyone who did! – and I didn’t even use a university computer for preparing my work. At that time I wrote everything out by hand. As an undergraduate, the only piece of work that I submitted in type was my final year dissertation. As I recall, I wrote it in longhand and then typed it on an electronic typewriter. It was only when I studied for my MA that I finally began to use a computer. I taught myself to touch-type while I was doing my PhD and since then I have used a computer to compose my work. I suppose using a computer has become second nature to me now: certainly I have no investment in hand-writing work. That said, if I am writing a long essay then I do make hand-written notes and plans before I start composing the piece on the computer and I find it impossible to critically read and correct work on a computer screen so I always print my work up to check and amend it.
MT: Any tips for the would-be philosopher?
KC: I’m not really in a position to give tips, at least if that would imply that I had mastered the discipline of philosophy myself and could tell someone else how to do it. I’m not sure that anyone really masters philosophy; rather, the exercise of thinking or doing philosophy is one in which thought is dispossessed of any mastery over itself.
MT: What are you currently working on?
KC: I am currently working on Lyotard’s readings of Aristotle. One of the things that I am interested in is Lyotard’s reading of Aristotle’s determination of time and this will connect to my work on Lyotard and the sophists. I hope to publish some essays on this and perhaps a book. I would also like to write a study of the relation between Lyotard’s aesthetic writings and the work of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
MT: What other philosophers/writers/critics writing now do you rate most highly?
KC: For a good many reasons, that’s a difficult question to answer. First, it seems to imply a ranking and I don’t think it is possible to rank the work of philosophers or writers. Second, given my current work, I’m studying work by authors who, for the most part, are no longer alive. One living writer whose work I am reading at the moment and who I do admire is the poet Geoffrey Hill. His poetry is difficult, demanding, but demanding because of its intellectual and emotional honesty.
MT: What is the best thing you have read recently?
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
MT: Thank you for your questions and for interviewing me on ReadySteadyBook - an invaluable resource for anyone interested in books and writing of all types.
MT: Thank you, Keith, that's very kind. All the very best.