The Return of the Sophists? – Post-Truth, Democracy, and Rhetoric in the Populist Moment

philosophers discussing

Project duration: 2021-2024

Principal funder: Swedish Research Council.

Abstract

The aim is to develop an understanding of the state of contemporary democracy focusing on the threat that the eloquent speaker poses to the people as sovereign. Today, both the political left and right claim that democracy is under constant pressure from populist demagogues and sophistic ideologues misleading the people to further their own agenda. However, rather than constituting a novelty, the history of this threatening figure is riveted to that of democracy itself. The latest iteration of this theme can be traced back to the late 60s, where these issues were once again formulated in academia under two different headings: populism and sophistry. While populism appears as a problem in the practical political world, thus offering itself up to be studied by the empirical sciences, the sophist as a figure in democracy asks slightly different questions. Already in Antiquity, the political threat embodied in the sophist seems to provoke democracy on a fundamental level, forcing us to question what is in politics, what we can know, and what we can say about it. Rather than offering another attempt to uncover the nature of populism and its threat to democracy, the aim is to trace the other side of this history, focusing on the sophist in contemporary political thought. By tracing how political thought has approached this figure since the 60s, the project will develop an understanding of our populist moment and what it can tell us of the state of democracy in the post-truth era.

Publications

Stagnell, Alexander. “Något-intet-den? [Something-nothing-den?]”, Res Cogitans, vol. 15, nr. 1, (2021), ss.28-42.