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Studies in ancient dialectic : Method, arguments and strategies


Mathieu Marion (Université du Qébec à Montréal) and Benoît Castelnérac (Sherbrooke) put together their expertise in, respectively, philosophy of logic and Ancient philosophy, with a view to develop a new interpretation of dialectic in Ancient philosophy, to study strategies of argumentation that derive from it and its role in the origin of logic. The word 'dialectic' was introduced at the time of Plato to refer to a form of regimented public discussion between two participants, whom Aristotle called Questioner and Answerer, taking turns asking and answering short yes/no questions. A bout would begin with Answerer committing to a thesis, e.g., 'There exists a plurality of things' and the task of other participant asking questions would be to elicit from the answerer further commitments that imply a contradiction - in our example, deriving from it that motion is impossible (this being an example taken from Zeno of Elea). It would thus become clear that the thesis (here, pluralism) could not, on pains of contradiction, be held concurrently with certain number of other beliefs (here, in the existence of motion), and that one or many of them need to be abandoned. This is how some of the most celebrated arguments of the history were first devised, from Zeno's arguments about motion, self-refutation arguments, the Sorites, etc.

In previous papers we offered a set of rules for these dialectical bouts, and a set of characteristics for their use, in order to devise arguments 'on both sides' of a given thesis. We plan to plot the history, from its inception in Eleatic philosophy (including Zeno), up to the later stages of Ancient philosophy with the New Academy and Scepticism, by a careful selection of texts, given the size of the corpus, and will argue that these rules were adhered to throughout the period, albeit with additions. We will thus deal successively with the Eleatics and the Sophists, interpreting their arguments in light of this new characterization, and Plato, whose attempts at using dialectic to his own benefits and to distinguish his uses from that of the Sophists will be carefully scrutinized. We will also study the dialectical roots of syllogistic, the first set of explicit rules of inference in history, in Aristotle's Organon, and Hellenistic philosophy, in particular the Megarians, the Stoics, the New Academy and the Sceptics. Noticing that dialectic often resulted in equal sets of contradictions being derived from both sides - from a given thesis and from its negation - we noticed that this may be the source (in particular Gorgias' stance in On Nonbeing) of the sceptical stance of suspension of judgment in face of equality of contrary reasonings, i.e., contradictions resulting on both sides, we decided to explore the idea that some philosophical theses resulted from argumentation strategies. We plan a further series of papers, and a synthesis of our work in an introductory book. We also plan to organize colloquia, and to animate the field with a website devised to gather information on dialectic, and to serve as an entry on the topic for worldwide audiences. It will be conceived as a site where anyone wishing to find information will find advertisements for forthcoming colloquia, a regularly updated and fully searchable bibliography, and further documents and papers. A blog fed by number of scholars could also serve as a news outlet, with reports of past colloquia, brief reviews of new books on the topic, appointments, obituaries, etc. The website should also contain a section on and for Canadian scholars in Greek philosophy.




2019-04 - 2024-03

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Benoit Castelnérac