Book review: Protean Protagoras

by Elf S. Raymond

The new book here reviewed is "WISDOM'S ODYSSEY: from Philosophy to Transcendental Sophistry", by Peter Redpath, Value Inquiry Book Series, RODOPI, Amsterdam - Atlanta, GA, 1997; 266 pages, with notes, bibliography, index.

"WISDOM'S ODYSSEY" is Peter Redpath's sequel to "CARTESIAN NIGHTMARE", reviewed in the last issue of CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY. Yet this new work is appreciably more than a sequel. In the first book Redpath presents Descartes, the father of modernity, as champion of a creationist rhetoric and consummate transcendental sophist without a legitimate claim to the title of philosopher. In "WISDOM'S ODYSSEY" he extends his arguments to call the quantitatively better part of the entire philosophic tradition into question. In all seriousness Redpath contends that neither Cartesianism in particular, nor Modern Philosophy in general, descend from the ancient discipline of PHILOSOPHIA, but are the progeny of Sophistry.

At the origin of Wisdom's Odyssey there lies the founding thinkers' disinterested love of wisdom and an unflinching commitment to liberate the human mind from the soothing vapors and stupors of ignorance. In single-mindedness, the early philosophers observed reality, relied on the mind's rational powers, and drew increasingly adequate inferences about the principles that undergird the order of nature, human nature included. By doing this they subverted and partially displaced conventional wisdom's dominant position in politics and education based, as it is now and was then, on myth, technique, and poetry. This, in a nutshell, is Redpath's bi-polar version of the perennial quarrel between Poetry as Fabrication, i.e. the apocryphal tradition, and Philosophy as Truth-seeking or Science, with Protagoras the exponent of classical sophistry representing one side and Socrates and Plato the other. The Protagorean outlook panders to the people's weaknesses with the deceptive blandishments of myth and is kept in force, not without cynicism, by the rulers. Philosophy, by contrast, impartially pursues true knowledge and suffers today the shame modern philosophy's treacherous siding with power and mystification has been adding to her once revered name.

In order to give this thunderbolt of a contention the force to effectively challenge today's entrenched neo-Protagorean conventions in the academy and society, Redpath marshals the main stations of philosophy's long history selectively into his service. His attacks are waged in the name of the one and only true philosophical tradition which he sharply, perhaps too sharply, separates from the apocryphal one of myth, poetry and political oratory, sophistry's three pillars. The distinguishing mark, presumed to be sufficient, by which to recognize this canonical tradition reaching across the near millennium separating the Pre-Socratics and Plotinus, is put forward as the steadfast reliance on sensory experience collaborating with the abstractive/deliberative faculty of intellection as the core of all philosophic knowledge. Neither inspiration, nor revelation, nor intellectual intuition, nor empathy are admitted by the author of "WISDOM'S ODYSSEY" as valid sources of philosophic knowledge in his bold, and problematic, construal of a purified canon.

One may wonder at this point whether Redpath per chance engages simply in a spirited form of intra-mural verbal jousting, an up-to-date version of the wrestling matches in the Athenian palaestra, or whether his two-pronged case against the apocryphal tradition and, by implication, modernity will resonate in the republic of letters and the wider public. Now resonance includes dissonance and it is quite likely that the sweeping accusation of the philosophic thought of the modern period will trigger indignation. And, just in case that the fierce accusation of philosophers betraying the logos by adopting the devious ways of neo-Protagorean sophistry does not prove irritating enough, Redpath adds a blunt description of what passes for philosophy in the 20th century. In his judgment, to reflect on our century's philosophical output in its lack of moral gravity ought to induce contrition and the recognition that modern philosophers are sophists who skillfully deploy the rapidly proliferating copies of the self-serving dissimulations of Cain's fratricidal gambit. (Cain is, according to Philo, the scriptural tradition's equivalent to the Hellenic figure of Protagoras.) By developing various strands of argumentation that draw on the history of philosophy, of science, of ideas and on history as such, Redpath buttresses the conclusion that today's Protean and nihilistic neo-Protagoreanism consists of nothing but "variations of the extremes of nominalism, humanism, and the prefiguration theology which dominated the later Renaissance" (p 143).

The wide sweep of the attack may militate against its effectiveness. Though the precariousness of the position philosophy finds itself in is hard to deny, whether such a general across-the-board polemic can elicit fruitful debate remains to be seen. To portray nominalism the way Redpath does ignores all of the more nuanced scholarship into nominalism's Catholicity and its significance for the Council of Trent. To claim that the Great Condemnation's anathema against necessitarianism in 1277 is epochal is indeed fair enough, but how this event effected philosophy in particular is left unexplored. This review aims to be instrumental in raising critical interest in"WISDOM'S ODYSSEY." Not so much for the polemic it courts, but for the substantial issues it raises. Among them is the question of how to enhance philosophy's role in the intensifying inter- and intra-cultural conflicts, an issue that requires new thought on how philosophers bring to bear the discipline's liberating accomplishments. Redpath, by giving Cicero's amalgamation of Greek thought and Roman law keen attention opens a neglected field of inquiry into the nexus of philosophy and jurisprudence. Such an inquiry, though it ought to take place within the confines of the academy, is far from academic' but of utmost relevance for the ongoing human rights struggle around the globe. After all Wisdom's Odyssey is not over, and Ithaca has proven elusive more than once. Meanwhile, Redpath's travelogue and far from optimistic retrospective may contribute to a more integral pedagogy in the humanities and to a jurisprudence along universalist lines of human equity.