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The Metaphysics of Sophistry: Protagoras, Nāgārjuna, Antilogos

Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60607, USA
Humanities 2022, 11(5), 105;
Submission received: 10 June 2022 / Revised: 18 July 2022 / Accepted: 2 August 2022 / Published: 26 August 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Ancient Greek Sophistry and Its Legacy)


There is no category of thought more deliberately or explicitly relegated to a subordinate role in Plato’s dialogues than Sophists and sophistry. It is due to Plato’s influence that terms “sophist” and “sophistry” handed down to us have unilaterally negative associations—synonymous with lies and deception, obscurantism and false reasoning. There are several reasons to be dubious of this standard view of the Sophists and their practices. The primary reason addressed in this essay is that the surviving fragments of the Sophists do not accord with this standard view, a discrepancy that is particularly acute in the case of the 5th-century sophist Protagoras. This essay attends to Protagoras’s doctrines concerning antilogos, the sophistic practice of contradiction and negation. I contend that sophistic antilogos was a paradoxical practice that embodied metaphysical stakes for language and discourse. I challenge the standard view of Sophists and their antilogos by reconstructing a speculative counter-definition: a method for instantiating through language an ontology of flux and becoming over and against what would come to be a Platonist metaphysics of enduring, pure Being. I do this through a comparative analysis of Protagoras and the second century C.E. South Asian Buddhist thinker, Nāgārjuna.

1. Introduction

Gilles Deleuze once ambitiously defined the underlying aim of modern thought as “to overturn Platonism” (Deleuze 1995, p. 59)—not Plato, but Platonism. Why would this be? For the simple reason that, as Alfred North Whitehead famously put it, the entire history of the Western philosophical tradition “consists of a series of footnotes on Plato” (Whitehead 1929, p. 39). And as we know all too well, that tradition itself is a long historical sequence of suppressions and various forms of subjugation—numerous and varied ways that the simulacrum was subordinated to the model, the second to the first, the many to the One, and so on. When Deleuze declared that the task of contemporary thought was “to overturn Platonism”, it was a rallying cry for overturning those forms of subjugation and subordination.
There is no category more deliberately or explicitly relegated to a subordinate role in Plato’s dialogues than Sophists and sophistry. It is because of Plato’s influence that the terms “sophist” and “sophistry” handed down to us have unilaterally negative associations—synonymous with lies and deception, obscurantism and false reasoning. This much is well known. It is from Plato’s depictions of the Sophists and their practices that we inherit the view that the Sophists were crafty and insidious pseudo-statesmen who used clever verbal tricks of rhetoric to persuade and cajole hearers, often to those hearers’ demise.
There are several reasons to be dubious of this standard view of the Sophists and their practices, some of which have been explored elsewhere.1 The primary reason addressed in this essay is the fact that the surviving fragments of the Sophists do not fully accord with this standard view. The books the Sophists wrote are now lost, so we are left with testimony only—quotes, references, summaries, and synopses preserved in ancient and late-ancient works. Despite the fact that collateral testimony largely conforms to Plato’s original poor estimation of the Sophists, the fragments themselves that are actually preserved and handed down to us in those works do not fit the description offered in the contextualizing testimony, namely, that their works comprised nothing more than crafty deceit and falsehood. The sheer range reflected in the fragments, which include speculations about being and nonbeing, theories of language and discourse, debates about the relationship between nature and law (or phusis and nomos), education and whether virtue can be taught or is inherent, religion and the gods, and so on, do not read as a list of idle tricks in the service of rhetorical deception. They read as metaphysics.
This discrepancy is particularly acute in the case of the 5th-century Sophist Protagoras. Protagoras was certainly a formidable thinker for Plato and for Aristotle, who treat his ideas seriously in the Theaetetus (Plato 1990) and Protagoras (Plato 2005) dialogues and in the Metaphysics (Aristotle 1933).2 Some have even gone so far to suggest that, in numerous portrayals of Protagoras and his thought, Plato might even have thought of Protagoras as a more profound and capacious thinker than Socrates.3 Nevertheless, it is from Plato and his derogatory treatment of the Sophists that we inherit the unilaterally pejorative sense that to be a Sophist is to be an obscurantist and a deceiver. And yet, at the same time, while what Socrates says might endorse the view that the Sophists are obscurantists and deceivers and are not to be taken seriously, Plato nevertheless portrays Socrates as being unable ever to fully come to grips with or overcome either the paradoxes that Protagoras confronts him with or his dazzling powers of logos. Frequently it is in dialectical opposition to these powers that Plato affords Socrates the opportunity to philosophize about the good beyond being, intelligence beyond sensibility, the one beyond the many, being beyond becoming, and so on. But the interpretative tendency since Platonism to take Plato at Socrates’s word, as it were—to assume that Socrates the character is the mouthpiece for Plato’s so-called “doctrines” (Platonism, in other words)—is no longer a viable hermeneutic for reading Plato. And yet the view of the Sophists that this hermeneutic gave rise to in the first place has yet to be overturned (despite being questioned from time to time). It continues to escape our notice that Socrates was never able to defeat Protagoras, despite several aporetic attempts at doing so.
In light of this problem, there is the question of how we are to spend our un-asked-for inheritance, which Plato bequeathed to us. When Deleuze called for the overturning of Platonism, he simultaneously insisted that “this overturning should conserve many Platonic characteristics” since, in the very texts themselves, there is a submerged world of thought that, as Deleuze describes, “is like an animal in the process of being tamed, whose final resistant movements bear witness better than they would in a state of freedom to a nature soon to be lost” (Deleuze 1995, p. 59). If Platonist thought arose in the first place through the submerging of that world, then we are compelled to listen to what growls beneath the surface. It is not only the “Heraclitean world [that] still growls in Plato”—it is the sophistic world as well.
This essay attends to one broken, muffled interval of sophistic thought from that growling underworld: antilogos, a term that refers to the Sophists’ practice of contradiction and negation. The technique of sophistic negation and contradiction, which Plato called antilogos, is referred to and portrayed throughout Plato’s dramatic dialogues. These portrayals vary from scene to scene. In some cases antilogos is portrayed as a trivial or satirical method used to showcase a speaker’s virtuosity with wit and wordplay; in other cases it is a dubious tactic to win a verbal dispute by whatever means necessary; in still other cases, it is a serious dialectical challenge that interlocutors cannot argue their way out of. Ultimately, sophistic antilogos is reduced to nothing more than a form of false reasoning that aims to score a point against an opponent. The problem, as I see it, is that this reductive, pejorative view of sophistic antilogos does not entirely accord with the Sophist Protagoras’s verbatim accounts of antilogos preserved in the ancient testimony. By those accounts, sophistic antilogos was a paradoxical practice that created new avenues for thought even as it embodied, I hope to show, metaphysical stakes for language and discourse. I aim to challenge this standard view by reconstructing a speculative counter-definition of sophistic antilogos as a method for instantiating an ontology of flux and becoming over and against what would come to be a Platonist metaphysics of enduring, pure Being.
I do this through a comparative analysis of Protagoras and the second century C.E. South Asian Buddhist thinker, Nāgārjuna, and his work on rhetoric and dialectic, the Vigrahavyavartani or “The Dispeller of Disputes” (Nāgārjuna 2010). I offer a speculative account of how becoming and negation are linked in Protagoras—speculative because only so much can be deduced from the extant fragments and testimony. I contextualize that speculative account within the more coherent picture offered by Nāgārjuna—more coherent because, unlike Protagoras, a complete account of the structure of thought that links becoming or flux and negation is carefully preserved in the works attributed to Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism for which Nāgārjuna was a major progenitor. While I draw no specific conclusions regarding an intellectual bridge that might have linked India with Greece, the uncanny similarities between these two thinkers and the greater coherence of the Buddhist tradition nevertheless offer conceptual and hypothetical possibilities for reconstructing the larger architecture of the world of Sophistic thought that is now lost to us. While the ancient testimony that delivers what remains of this thought-world treats their practice of verbal negation or antilogos as an underhanded and trivial technique, a reconstruction through South Asian as opposed to Greek thought indicates a counter-possibility: that the Sophists’ art of verbal negation both instantiated and embodied a linguistic ontology of becoming that has long been suppressed by the West’s metaphysics of pure Being.
There are in fact good historiographical reasons for seeking lines of continuity between these two traditions. The preponderance of the ancient literature attests to a high degree of contact between Greece and India from the earliest historical period. From the earliest recorded times, at least three great trade routes linked South Asia and the West, and cuneiform inscriptions that date to the 15th and 14th c. b.c.e. indicate that Vedic gods were worshipped in Kappodokia (Rawlinson 1916, pp. 1–2). In the 6th century, Darius I of Persia sent Skylax of Karyanda to explore India, and the latter wrote a memoir of his journey that is now lost.4 Indian place names appear in Hekataeus of Miletus, a contemporary of Skylax (Arora 1996, p. 113). Numerous references in Herodotus depict a picture of Persia thoroughly populated by both South Asians and Greeks.5 Herodotus even describes a sect in India that might be Buddhist or Jainist—vegetarians who refuse to take any form of life and eat only vegetables, grains, and herbs (Hdt. 3.100).
Moreover, the basic understanding of the incipient aim of philosophy in the early Western tradition—the apprehension of being or what is—accords with Buddhist philosophy’s aim to eliminate suffering. In the same way that the tradition that flows from the Pre-Socratics to Plato and beyond concerns what it means for something to be, so too for Buddhism the prime purpose is to comprehend the rise and fall of life, dependent arising, and the emptiness of all forms (in other words, being itself) in service of the larger goal of extinguishing dukkha, or suffering (Takakuso 1956, p. 22). The fundamental problems addressed in Buddhist thought in pursuit of this aim—problems concerning the role and function of language in relation to meaning, belief, and true knowledge, and the epistemological, logical, ethical, and metaphysical effects of such problems (Ghose 1987, p. 21)—read as a litany of Plato’s own problems, which he pursued largely through his depiction of Socrates’s many clashes with the Sophists at the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition.
The question has never been whether there was intellectual commerce between India and Greece. The question has only been, what was the direction of influence? What was its content? What were its effects? While various hypotheses have been posited in response to these questions, scholarly consensus has never been reached.6 Despite the debate, today, many scholars still contend that Indian thought may have reached the Greek world via Persia in the Pre-Socratic period, while Greek influence flowed to India via Alexander’s conquests in the Hellenistic period.7 For example, Timothy J. Lomperis notes that the direction of the cultural permeation, at least in its early phase, was most likely to have been from East to West, given the fact that long before the historical Buddha (ca. 566–486 b.c.e.) “the essentials of Hindu philosophy contained in the Upanishads were set down even before the birth of Greek philosophy with Thales” (Lomperis 1984, p. 46). It was only later, in the fourth century BCE when Pyrrho of Elis traveled with Alexander to India, that Greek thought in the form of Pyrrhonism is believed to have been reintroduced to Indian dialectic and philosophy.8 While no direct line of influence can be established in the contact between Greece and India, to be sure, “commodities more abstract than spices or gold were to be carried along the caravan and sea routes” (Clarke 1997, p. 37), and Indian philosophy, certainly Vedic and possibly also Buddhist, likely had some interface with Greek philosophy prior to the rise of the sophistic movement, See (Guthrie 1965, p. 53; West 1971, pp. 201–2; Vitsaxis 1977; Lomperis 1984; Arora 1996, p. 2; Clarke 1997, p. 37; McEvilley 2002, pp. 415–31) despite the fact that there is no documentary evidence suggesting precisely what shape that intercourse might have taken or what its outcome might have been.
And yet, as I explore in this essay, there are significant similarities between sophistic and Buddhist rhetorical forms yet to be explored, especially the practice of antilogos or contradiction. I begin by defining the sophistic practice of negation and contradiction or “antilogos” and its standard interpretation as an underhanded argumentative ploy. I then summarize the same practice as it is treated by Nāgārjuna, where it is defined not as an underhanded debate tactic but as an indispensable component of Nāgārjuna’s overall ontology of flux, dependent arising, and becoming. This ontology is what is captured in the Buddhist principles of the rise and fall of life (samsara), dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda), and the emptiness of all things (śūnyatā). I then return to Protagoras, and particularly to some of the surviving fragments of his lost works, to show how this larger structure of thought from Nāgārjuna offers a coherent way of interpreting the relation of the surviving maxims to those troubling depictions of Protagoras in Plato.

2. What Is Sophistic Antilogos?

In The Sophistic Movement, G. B. Kerferd provides an unparalleled account of Plato’s depictions of sophistic antilogos. Kerferd shows in great detail how the technique was used within dialectical reasoning, where an interlocutor causes “the same thing to be seen by the same people now as possessing one predicate and now as possessing the opposite or contradictory predicate” (Kerferd 1981, p. 61). This can happen in a number of ways. It can happen through dialectical debates over the correctness of words, called orthopoieia, where one assigns different meanings to single words or the same meaning to different words. More often, it happens by pointing out a contradiction that is inherent in an interlocutor’s position, or by causing an interlocutor to embrace two contradictory positions. As Kerferd describes, in every case, antilogos proceeds by
opposing one logos to another logos, or in discovering or drawing attention to the presence of such an opposition in an argument or in a thing or state of affairs. The essential feature is the opposition of one logos to another either by contrariety or contradiction … proceeding from a given logos, say the position adopted by an opponent, to the establishment of a contrary or contradictory logos in such a way that the opponent must either accept both logoi [and thus be self-contradicting], or at least abandon [the] first position.
It is this version of dialectic—the forerunner of Socratic dialectic, peopled with antilogos—that Deleuze rightly describes as “a capricious, incoherent procedure which jumps from one singularity to another” (Deleuze 1995, p. 59). Antilogos is the very form of this caprice and singularity.
Here is an example from Plato’s depictions of Socrates interacting with Protagoras in the Protagoras. There, Protagoras sets the terms of an eristic debate when he introduces a poem by Simonides and asks Socrates whether it is a good poem or a bad poem: “Do you think it’s well put together and makes sense, or not?” (339b). Protagoras frames the debate as a question of antilogos (good or bad). When Socrates claims it is a good poem—“I think it’s very well put together and makes perfect sense” (339b)—Protagoras asks him whether it would still be a good poem if it contradicted or negated itself. He asks, “Do you think it can count as being well put together if the poet contradicts himself?” (339b)—that is, if the poem contained antilogos in one of its modes. Socrates claims that, no, it would not be a good poem if it contained a contradiction. Protagoras then points out a contradiction within the poem:
How could you possibly think someone who made both these claims was being consistent? Look, first of all, giving his own view, he claimed that it’s hard to become a really good man, and then, just a little bit further on in the song he forgot about that, and even though Pitttacus is saying the same thing—that “bein’ good is hard”—he criticizes him for it and says he can’t accept his saying, even though it’s just the same as his own!
Here Protagoras is practicing sophistic antilogos in another of its modes by highlighting Simonides’s self-contradiction. And then, finally, Socrates practices yet another form of antilogos when he denies that this is in fact a contradiction, which he does by assigning two contradictory meanings to the verb “to be”, being, and becoming. He counters, “Pittacus didn’t say becoming good was hard, which is what Simonides says; he said that ‘bein’ good’ is hard” (340c). The aporetic Protagoras is brimming with antilogos.
Another example of sophistic antilogos is captured in the Euthydemus. In that dialogue, two Sophists who were followers of Protagoras trap their opponent in a trick of antilogos, ultimately forcing him to embrace the absurd view that it is impossible to tell a lie. From the outset, the Sophists promise that, no matter what way their opponents answer their questions, they will be refuted (Plato 1961, p. 275e). They accomplish this promised refutation through antilogos. They first ask, “do you really think it is possible to tell a lie?” (ibid., p. 283e), anticipating the obvious answer that, yes, of course it is possible: “Yes, by heaven or else I am out of my senses” (ibid., p. 283e). They then get their opponent to agree that someone who lies “is not stating the facts—is not saying the things that are” (284b). Protagoras’s follower Euthydemus then goes on to reason:
Surely the things that are not, are not? … Surely the things that are not can only be nowhere? … Is it possible then that anyone, I don’t care who he is, could do something about these things that are not, so as to make them to be the things that are nowhere? … When the orators speak in public, do they do nothing? … [And] if they do, they also make? … [So] to speak is both to do and to make? … No one ever says the things that are not—or he would at once make them something, and you have admitted that no one can make that which is not—so according to what you say, no one tells lies.
(ibid., p. 284b–c)
In other words, through this trick of antilogos Protagoras’s followers establish that no one can speak what is not, since what is not does not exist, and thus ultimately they get their opponent to agree that lying is speaking what is not. Once they have made their opponent contradict himself in this way, the opponent falls silent: he has lost and the Sophists have won.
Plato relentlessly portrays the Sophists as engaging in this kind of activity, not only in these two dialogues but across the whole of the dialogues. But he also portrays Socrates as doing the same where he is attempting to defeat the Sophists at their own game (for example in Theaetetus and Protagoras). These are by no means the only examples, but in light of them and many others, it is understandable that, when the practice of antilogos is introduced, the dialogue seldom results in a definitive outcome. Where antilogos is portrayed in the dialogues, it usually results “in a state of Aporia, [where the interlocutors are] unable to see any way forward or any escape from the contradictory views in which they are enmeshed” (Kerferd 1981, pp. 65–66). Very little scholarly attention has been paid to this potential link between Plato’s aporetic dialogues and the conversation-ending power of sophistic antilogos, despite some recognition that “contradictions producing the aporias are fully intentional on Plato’s part” (Cohen 1962, p. 163).9
Across Plato’s many representations of the Sophists and their practices, they are depicted as Socrates’s discursive opponents, with whom he is perpetually locked in combat, and whom he is never fully able to overcome. In all these portrayals, antilogos is depicted as a trick an interlocutor uses to gain the upper hand: through forcing a contradiction on an opponent, victory is achieved. As the above examples from Protagoras and Euthydemus indicate, the point is not whether the statements are true in any propositional or referential sense. Rather, the point is for one’s logos to succeed by forcing one’s opponent to contradict themself and to avoid contradiction on one’s own part. Again and again, Plato’s portrayals of antilogos have Socrates engaging with a Sophist in an attempt to dissociate the eristic aim of winning the argument at any cost (as the Sophists do) from the wisdom-loving aim of discovering the truth (as the philosophers do)—of pursuing and possessing and owning the truth. The eristic aims of the Sophist (the aim to win at any cost) are repeatedly portrayed as the illegitimate techniques of counter-truth, and this illegitimacy is ultimately what reduces antilogos to nothing more nor less than a dubious trick. A trick that, nevertheless, perpetually flummoxes Socrates.
And a trick, moreover, that would eventually be excised from thought in the West. In his 1971 series of lectures on the “will to know”, Michel Foucault illuminates how this practice of bringing an opponent to a point of contradiction that, in effect, defeats the opponent had been thoroughly eradicated as a dialectical method by the time of Aristotle. This does not mean it had been eradicated full-stop; it is allowed to live on as a practical skill, in the ability of arguing two sides of a question, for example, but it was eradicated as a philosophically serious linguistic method for the apprehension of being.10 As Foucault describes, after Aristotle, antilogos is no longer a model of truth. It had to be excised from thought to make way for Plato’s regime of truth, the “sovereignty of the signifier” (Foucault 1972, p. 229), and “the great serene and incorporeal knowledge” (Foucault 2013, p. 12), embodied first and foremost in apophantic (or propositional) speech as opposed to contradictory or negatory speech.
All of this had been foreclosed by the time of Aristotle, who defined once and for all the Sophists’ techniques as “not being a real reasoning [while] nevertheless appear[ing] to be so” (Foucault 2013, p. 41).11 As Foucault describes, in Aristotle, the sophistic techniques were only “semblances, which are not concerned with the truth, and which are, momentarily, linked to illusory effects” (Foucault 2013, p. 40). In Aristotle, Foucault says, “It is as if the great Socratic and Platonic debate with the Sophists was closed; as if all that remained of the Sophist was no more than the abstract danger of sophistical arguments” (Foucault 2013, p. 39).
It is the seeming simplicity and inevitability of this outcome for sophistic antilogos that strikes me as strange. The seeming inevitability is strange to me precisely because of the profound difficulty that Socrates had when he attempted to contend with Protagoras’s complex doctrines and practices: he always has to contort the discussion in order to wriggle out of the Protagorean net—even when Socrates seems to be the winner (in the manner of “Correct you are, O Socrates … “), he is not. But above all, it is strange to me because the so-called doctrines themselves are so very perplexing.

Protagoras’s Doctrines

There are two fragments of Protagoras that concern antilogos directly, and they are difficult to reconcile not only with Plato’s depictions of sophistic antilogos but also with one another. These fragments are his “two-logoi doctrine” and his “contradiction is impossible doctrine.” Protagoras’s two-logoi doctrine is: “On every issue there are two arguments opposed to each other” (DK80b6),12 and while there is no surviving verbatim account of the “impossibility of contradiction” doctrine, in the ancient testimony it is commonly paraphrased with the three-word phrase ouk estin antilegein, which translates literally to “to contradict is not” (DK80a1, a19).
These are the two surviving doctrines that come closest to providing a window to what might have been Protagoras’s own view of the practice of antilogos, independent of Plato’s depictions, but they themselves historically have been very difficult to interpret. They are difficult to interpret in part because they are delivered to us as fragments, devoid of their own context, and transmitted by texts that are unfriendly to Protagoras’s project. But even the ancient authors who had access to the context were puzzled and confounded by the meaning of the sayings, indicating that even if we had the full works that contained the maxims we might still be perplexed. The Theaetetus, for example, dramatizes precisely this difficulty. Moreover, the maxims are difficult to interpret because they are phrased in deliberately paradoxical ways that bury their own meaning, as if asking to be puzzled over. Most of all, they are difficult to interpret because they themselves seem to contradict one another. That is, they are each other’s antilogos. The two-logoi doctrine claims that contradiction is ubiquitous because there are two arguments in opposition on all things; the contradiction is impossible doctrine denies the very possibility of any true contradiction. So how are we to interpret one if it is immediately undermined by the other?
This brings me to my comparative analysis. I hope to suggest that the architecture of thought in Nāgārjuna’s ontology and rhetorical theory provides a cohesive template for reconstructing the relationship between these surviving fragments of Protagoras—a relationship that, up to now, has been inscrutable. On this reconstruction, antilogos is not an underhanded rhetorical trick but a crucial aspect of a larger ontology of flux and becoming—the very ontology, the growling world, that was suppressed in the Platonist ontology of pure Being.

3. Flux, Becoming, and Negation in Nāgārjuna

Leaving Protagoras and sophistic antilogos to one side for the moment, I want to consider instead the model of antilogos and negation of the 2nd century C.E. Buddhist thinker Nāgārjuna. When Nāgārjuna was active, sometime between the middle of the second and third centuries c.e., six- or seven-hundred years had elapsed since the time of both the historical Buddha (ca. 566–486 b.c.e.) and the Sophist Protagoras (b. ca. 490). Joseph Walser believes that Nāgārjuna was writing at the end of the second century, during a very heady time in the institutionalization of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Walser speculates that Nāgārjuna lived, at least for a time, in a Mahāsānghika monastery in an urban center or near to one, in the Lower Krishna Valley, which today is Andhra Pradesh, on India’s east coast. He may have been working in what was a minority movement, since his “philosophical works reveal strategies to ensure the material reproduction of Mahāyāna manuscripts … [including] syncretism, hybridity, and purported conformity with the assumed canon” (Walser 2005, p. 15). Nāgārjuna has held the continuous attention of Buddhist scholars since his own day, and continues to be revered as “a giant among giants” (Inada 1970, p. 3).
The coherent critical reception and unbroken influence of Nāgārjuna entails that, unlike Protagoras, Nāgārjuna’s intellectual project is preserved in complete texts, which afford a coherent and thoroughgoing portrait of his thought-world. Christian Lindtner (1982) has found twelve complete works to be correctly attributed to Nāgārjuna. The authorship of his masterwork of philosophy, translated into English as The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MK)), is undisputed, and his work on dialectic, The Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyāvartanī (VV)), is almost entirely undisputed.13 As I discuss below, these texts present a full-fledged ontology of flux and becoming, and a dialectic method of antilogos that is consistent with that ontology. Appraising what survives of Protagoras’s fragments alongside Nāgārjuna’s ontology and dialectic, Protagoras’s surviving fragments are hypothetically recast. They are no longer trivial, nonsensical, and fragmentary, but potentially a coherent account of linguistic practice that both embodies and arises from an ontology of flux and becoming.
For Nāgārjuna, the dialectical practice of negation and contradiction is anything but an eristic technique. On the contrary, it arises from, is necessitated by, and is essential to, a metaphysics: that is, an ontology of flux and becoming. This ontology is what is captured in the Mahāyāna Buddhist principles of samsara, or the rise and fall of life, dependent arising, or pratītyasamutpāda, and śūnyatā, or the emptiness of all things. These foundational principles of Mahāyāna thought, which are themselves constitutive of an ontology of flux, are what necessitate verbal contradiction, negation, and antilogos.
For Nāgārjuna, the importance of negation is highlighted first and foremost in the overall form of his work on rhetoric and dialectic, the Vigrahavyāvartanī (The Dispeller of Disputes). The work proceeds through a series of hypothetical objections to Nāgārjuna’s postulates, and Nāgārjuna negates or refutes each of those objections in turn. The entire discourse is built on this series of negations: an opponent attempts to negate Nāgārjuna’s view, and Nāgārjuna negates his opponent’s negation. What emerges over the course of the text is that the ontology of dependent origination, becoming, and emptiness is apprehended precisely in and through this series of negations and contradictions.
Here is one example: Nāgārjuna supplies his opponent with a contradiction to the principle of śūnyatā or the emptiness of all things. The opponent claims that universal emptiness does not exist (VV 11). Nāgārjuna rejoins that “if negation is of an existent thing and not of a non-existent one, and if you negate the insubstantiality of all things, is it not that the insubstantiality of all things is established? Your speech, which is a negation, establishes emptiness because it is the negation of the insubstantiality of all things” (VV 61).14 In other words, Nāgārjuna shows that when the opponent contradicts Nāgārjuna’s thesis of universal emptiness, the opponent inadvertently confirms that very thesis. The opponent’s statement that universal emptiness does not exist, therefore, can only be incorrect if it is to have any meaning at all.
The principle of the emptiness of all things arises in the first place because of a more fundamental ontology of flux—an ontology that is captured in the Mahāyāna principles of the rise and fall of life (samsara) and dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). The principle of the rise and fall of life, or “indeterminism of the differentiated”, holds that “every being is a stage of dynamic becoming” (Takakuso 1956, p. 42), perpetually subject to “occurrence and dissolution” (sambhavavibhava parīkşa). As Nāgārjuna puts it, “Destruction does not occur without becoming… Becoming does not occur without destruction… For impermanence is never absent from entities.”15
According to dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda), this occurrence and dissolution is never autonomous or in any way self-generating. Dependent arising or “universal causation” dictates that nothing is in and of itself because nothing exists independently. Rather, the being of all that is is dispersed across various causes and origins. As an example from the Vigrahavyāvartanī has it: “The sprout does not exist in the seed which is its cause; it does not exist in each one of earth, fire, wind, and so forth… As substance does not exist anywhere here, the sprout is without substance, and since it is without substance it is empty” (VV 1).16 Nothing is in and of itself, because the existence of everything that might be is deferred to something else that it is not.
Due to the becoming and dependent arising of all things, all things necessarily are “void” or “empty” (śūnyatā). By emptiness, Nāgārjuna does not refer to a form of nihilism or absolute nonbeing; rather, he means that all things are in and of themselves “insubstantial”. Nāgārjuna’s theory of void or śūnyatā does not deny existence as such. As critic Ram Chandra Jha explains, “All the physical and mental elements of existence … do exist, but they do not exist absolutely” in and of themselves as durable states of being. Rather, “they exist as becoming not as being” (Jha 1973, p. 115)—as momentary and illusory rather than permanent. In Nāgārjuna’s own words, “Those things which are dependently arisen are not endowed with substance … Because of the dependence on causes and conditions. If things existed substantially they would exist without causes and conditions; however, they do not exist in this way. Therefore they are said to be without substance [of their own], and because they are without substance, [they are] empty” (VV 22).17
The aim of Buddhist practice for Nāgārjuna is the comprehension of this twinned ontology of becoming and emptiness. This is because, at heart, becoming and flux are themselves the origin of all suffering (dukkha). As Nāgārjuna himself puts it, “dependent origination is the origin of suffering” (VV 54).18
Becoming and suffering are linked because all things change, so that what seems at one moment to be a source of pleasure will eventually cause suffering once it passes out of existence. Pleasure is only hardship momentarily disguised as pleasure. It is only natural that humans will do everything in their power to preserve their own lives, the lives of others, secure their possessions, and so on, but since matter is constantly in a state of flux and change, these things will inevitably decay and pass away, and thus humans will inevitably and necessarily suffer.19 Buddhist practice for Nāgārjuna is the apprehension of this becoming and unbecoming of all things, and that apprehension is equivalent both to understanding reality as it truly is and to the elimination of suffering.20
In apprehending becoming for the elimination of suffering, Nāgārjuna is compelled to address the problem of speech, and this is what leads to Nāgārjuna’s own prioritization of negation, contradiction, and antilogos. It is in the nature of speech to supply a kind of stability to being that works against the comprehension of becoming and dependent arising. Words, through their apparent referentiality, seem to function differently from how they are in reality. That is, they seem to denominate the world in a way that implies a stability of being. Speech therefore presents a special problem for Buddhist practice.
Language provokes a problematic means of attachment to the world, keeping us tethered to the illusory idea of a durable world and thus to the root of all suffering. Through their apparent referentiality, words implicitly prompt the language user to confer a stability to being by conceiving of the things that language refers to as existing in some stable or enduring way. Naturally, this leads the language user to grasp and be attached to the things that must exist durably at the other end of language.21 What is needed is a means of evading the illusion of durability and stasis that is conferred by the apparent referentiality of language, so that language can be used without grasping or attachment, and therefore without suffering. It is verbal negation that—quite brilliantly—provides this possibility for Nāgārjuna. Verbal negation is what keeps the language user from settling down in the stasis of language and in so doing assigning a stability to being that leads to attachment and thus to suffering. As the entire form and content of the Vigrahavyāvartanī demonstrates, each postulate is only momentarily averred; its ground is maintained only long enough to be negated by an antilogos.
For Nāgārjuna, this negation is precisely what makes what is known or knowable: its very form provides access to the dependent arising, becoming, and thus the emptiness of all things. The purpose of verbal negation, then, is to use language to make it known that there is no enduring substance in the universe, all the while avoiding any inadvertent attribution of stability to the flux of matter. Perpetual, ceaseless negation is indispensable because it is the very means by which language overcomes its own tendency to confer stability and durability on being: reality can be discovered only by negative views of being, by denying or negating the illusory, seeming stability of existence.22 The dialectical practice of negation makes it possible to logically and momentarily comprehend the possibility of the between of being and nonbeing. By systematically and ubiquitously negating the being of all postulates, the ontology of pure becoming is linguistically accessible.23 Thus for Nāgārjuna “refutation—and refutation only—can lead to ultimate truth” (Takakuso 1956, p. 101).24

4. Flux, Becoming, and Antilogos in Protagoras

Where have we wandered? Perhaps I have only unearthed a superficial similarity between Protagoras’s antilogos and Nāgārjuna’s negation. Nāgārjuna’s antilogos may be tethered to a coherent and exquisite ontology of flux, but surely the same cannot be said for the obscurantist and deceiver Protagoras, who apparently only used antilogos to pursue his own eristic aims and defeat his opponents. Surely it is too wide of a detour to suggest that the same or a similar architecture of thought that informs Nāgārjuna’s negation could be applied to Protagoras’s antilogos.
However, this is precisely what I hope to suggest in returning to Protagoras’s two doctrines concerning antilogos. An ontology of flux and becoming explains how these doctrines might be understood as not only not incompatible, but also, at the same time, logically and paradoxically coextensive. If all matter is in a state of flux perpetuated by the ceaseless rise and fall of life and dependent arising, and if logos is part of that matter as Nāgārjuna describes, then it necessarily follows that logos too is characterized by the same material flux and displacement. Like matter, each logos is perpetually open to displacement when it is opposed by another logos. And yet, whatever is said in contradiction to displace a given logos can itself likewise be contradicted such that no contradiction can ever be fully refuting. This structure of negation that undergirds Nāgārjuna’s dialogue on rhetoric is consistent with Protagoras’s antilogos doctrines, the two-logoi (that “there are two logoi in opposition on every ‘thing’”) and impossibility of contradiction doctrines. Within an ontology of flux, the seeming contradiction of the two doctrines might be apprehended. It would entail that Protagoras’s understanding of logos both affirms and denies contradiction in equal measure, precisely so that it might make apprehensible a universe that is given to ceaseless change and transformation, never reaching a point of stasis, over and against the natural tendency of logos to make it so.
But more potential depth to Protagoras’s thought is unearthed when we consider the second of these maxims more carefully against the framework provided by Nāgārjuna. As we have seen, for Nāgārjuna, speech is implicated in the flux and becoming of nature, and this necessitates a dialectical practice of negation. The same might be said to hold for Protagoras, as becomes apparent when we examine more carefully the enigmatic phrase used to sum up Protagoras’s “contradiction is impossible” doctrine.
As I discuss above, the phrase ouk estin antilegein is enigmatic and nearly impossible to interpret. It is commonly rendered as “contradiction [antilegein] is not possible [ouk estin].” But there are many ways this enigmatic phrase might be rendered in English—its inscrutability is precisely what lends it such interpretative breadth (Table 1).
A more pared-down and literal rendering is, “contradiction (antilegein) is not (ouk estin)”. Another possibility is “one cannot speak (antilegein) of that which is not (ouk estin)”, or perhaps “contradiction has no being” or “contradiction is nonbeing” or “falsehood is not”, “non-being [ouk estin] is contradicted [antilegein]”, “speak not non-being”, or, most puzzling of all, “speaking not is not”. I offer this plethora of examples in an attempt to mimic how enigmatic the phrasing would have been for the Greek ear. There is no question that it was intentionally difficult to interpret.
A reconstruction through Nāgārjuna might help to explain what this enigmatic phrase could have conjured, and why first Plato and then Aristotle would have wanted to reduce it to a defeasible simplicity. This three-word phrase encompasses both what is captured in Nāgārjuna’s opponent who contradicts the emptiness or non-being of all things and Nāgārjuna’s response that there is a contradiction embedded within the negation of universal emptiness. To claim that “universal emptiness is not” is only, through negation and antilogos, to affirm universal emptiness. In the same way, Protagoras’s impossibility of contradiction doctrine embodies both the idea that contradiction is not and the idea that one cannot speak what is not. But in its very articulation, the doctrine undermines itself in both of these modes: it substantiates both non-being and contradiction by contradicting both. To claim that “to contradict is not” is only to affirm antilogos precisely by contradicting it, and to claim that “non-being is contradicted” is only to substantiate nonbeing precisely by treating it as something that is capable of being contradicted. Interpreted alongside Nāgārjuna’s use of negation to endorse universal emptiness, the contradiction—antilogos—embodied in Protagoras’s phrase, the unresolvable limitlessness of that contradiction, defines the nature of contradiction as ceaseless rather than absolute, never reaching a point of stasis.
Even on his death bed, Socrates does not give up his struggle with Protagoras’s doctrine or the antilogos of the Sophists. In the Phaedo, Socrates’s final act, Plato depicts Socrates’s problem with sophistic antilogos as being precisely that it leads to an ontology of flux, and that an ontology of flux leads to non-being (Phaed. 90b). It is the same anxiety he expresses in the Republic, where Socrates’s bemoans the way that antilogos can make a single subject be both beautiful and its opposite, moral and its opposite, just and its opposite, thus revealing that there is no stability to being (Rep. 479b). Consequently, can anything be truly known about reality itself? In both the Phaedo and the Republic, flux and antilogos entail for Plato a dangerous flirtation with non-being, since a thing no more is what it seems to be at a given time than it is what it seems not to be. Out of this anxiety, Socrates seeks knowledge of something beyond the antilogies, and thus for a reality that surpasses the flux of becoming. Socrates grasps for some stable being that exists beyond the plane of manifestations, vagary, contingency, and deficiencies of an ever-changing plenitude.
In the dying words of the Phaedo, Socrates accuses Sophists of using antilogos to contend “an argument is true… and then a little later decide rightly or wrongly that it is false… [so] that there is nothing stable or dependable either in facts or in arguments, and that everything fluctuates just like the water in a tidal channel and never stays at any point for any time” (Phaed. 90b).25 In this way, Socrates flattens the enigma of Protagoras’s antilogos so that he can set it aside. As Mary Margaret McCabe has shown in her incisive reading of the Euthydemus, the contradictions of Protagoras are not so easily disproven when one takes them on their own terms as a repudiation of any stable reality: “the argument… turns on whether you admit, or refuse to admit, that there are continuants underneath change. On such an interpretation it is not a fallacy at all, but a valid argument from the extraordinary premiss that nothing persists” (McCabe 1994, p. 83). It is fundamentally “a deep difference in metaphysical principle” (ibid., p. 76). Even though Plato portrays precisely this aspect of Protagoras’s thought as inscrutable and paradoxical, he ultimately assigns it a meaning that makes it easy to defeat, but without addressing the difficulty of the underlying metaphysical principle—and Aristotle follows suit. The straw man version of this intentionally paradoxical saying is rendered, loosely, as “no statements are false” and “all statements are true”. What once was inscrutable, paradoxical, and deliberately thought-provoking is reduced to an absurd claim that, as Aristotle summarizes it, “it is equally possible to affirm and to deny anything of anything” (Aristotle, Meta. 1007b18–23).
Like Nāgārjuna, Protagoras makes the verbal activity of negation both the manifestation and affirmation of the inexorable flux of the material universe. It is not just that speech is implicated in the ontology of flux and becoming; it is that the speech act of negation, contradiction, and antilogos is precisely what keeps that ontology of becoming accessible to thought, over and against the natural tendency of speech and therefore thought to confer a kind of stability and durability onto being. Socrates’s quest for “absolute realities” (Phaed. 76e) first necessitates a suppression of sophistic antilogos, because that antilogos makes the quest unviable from the outset in its ability to make apprehensible, through negation and contradiction, an ontology of becoming. Antilogos was banished from thought so that becoming could be banished from being.

5. Conclusions

Why does all of this matter? It matters for three main reasons.
First, a reconstruction of Protagoras’s antilogos helps us understand the Sophists in a new way. It allows us to question whether it was ever even reasonable to believe that sophistic antilogos could have been so unilaterally manipulative and duplicitous as Plato portrayed. As Foucault described and as is demonstrated above, sophistic ontology confronts the possibility of being with the danger of non-being and becoming, and it displaces the cosmic paradoxes of Presocratic thought to the level of speech, logos, and discourse itself—a displacement that everywhere plagues the beleaguered Socrates. Given this, is it not all the more likely that, rather than an easily dismissible eristic tactic or victory-oriented verbal trickery that has come since Plato to be more or less synonymous with the term “sophistry”, the Sophists were sincere innovators and contributors to the global philosophical questions of their time? Lurking behind the existing fragments of the Sophists might just be an ontology of becoming, a rhetoric of negation, and an elaborate metaphysics more fully worked out in the ancient tradition of South Asian philosophy. This also raises important questions about Protagoras, “the great man” himself, as Plato called him, and the way in which he may have anticipated the philosophical depth of the dialectical practice of verbal negation, theorized more fully 700 years later by Nāgārjuna.
Second, it contributes to the overturning of Platonism—the tyranny of Platonism in the West—precisely by attending to the forms of thought that it subordinated, and by creating new lines of dialogue in comparative rhetoric. It excavates and resuscitates antilogos as a formidable form of knowledge that had to be defeated by whatever means necessary for the form of knowledge endemic to Platonism and the structure of thought in the West to arise in the first place. If the opposition of one logos to another is an inevitable outcome of the fact that the phenomenal world is perpetually in a state of change and flux, and antilogos delivers the momentariness of nature to thought, then, naturally, antilogos had to be eradicated by Platonist metaphysics; the easiest way to eradicate it is to belittle it as an underhanded trick and deprive it of its philosophical heft. This reveals that we have struggled to devise a coherent account of sophistic thought to the same degree that we have struggled to take it seriously. But a comparative analysis offers historiographical possibilities for partially reconstructing a lost world of thought by illuminating this shared comprehension of the link between becoming and negation in Greek and South Asian thought. The coherence of Nāgārjuna’s thought in particular, and Buddhist philosophy and rhetoric as a whole, provides us with a framework according to which the lost art of antilogos might be reconsidered, reevaluated, and understood differently, outside of its defeat by Western metaphysics. While the influence of South Asian thought on the rise of Greek thought (and vice versa) has been debated extensively, scholars have yet to explore the way in which the Sophists, too, were engaging seriously in the questions of being, becoming, and non-being that were known to have the deepest and most intact historical roots in South Asian thought.
It is also worth noting that this preoccupation with becoming—Plato’s determined avoidance of it and Protagoras’s embrace of it—lacks a thoroughgoing explanation in the absence of the problematic of suffering. In other words, without the problem of suffering, both the avoidance of becoming and its momentary embrace are inadequately explained in Greek philosophy and rhetoric. The problem of suffering—treated at length by the Eastern thinkers but largely (though not exclusively) avoided in the West—offers a rich potential framework for interpreting some of the most fundamental problems of the sophistic tradition.
Finally, it offers practical effects—strategic techniques for operationally unthinking Platonism, unthinking stasis, unthinking the model, the One—the various iterations of Platonist thought. Contradiction, negation, and antilogos become for us a new method of engagement and a new zone for theorization in rhetorical scholarship. How might a more expansive understanding of contradiction and negation, mined from the history of rhetoric, be retooled as a form of agonistic discourse, including forms of agonistic speech and political engagement? How might a rhetorical practice of antilogos, rooted in a metaphysics of becoming, reorient our discursive forms of political engagement and political praxis? Such questions are only the beginning of what might be pursued through a more expansive understanding of the metaphysics of sophistry.


This research received no external funding.

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Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


There have been several attempts at revising the dominant view of the Sophists, reaching as far back as Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and even earlier to Philostratus. Schiappa provides a useful summary of these attempts (2003, pp. 3–10). See for example (Grote 1851–1856; Untersteiner 1954; Segal 1962; Guthrie 1971; Kerferd 1981; Jarratt 1991; De Romilly 1975; Poulakos 1995; Brisson 1997; Marbeck 1999; Tell 2011; and Enos 2012). The general impulse toward revision has yet to provoke dramatically new analyses of the sort Schiappa and Hoffman (1994) have called for, where sophistic thought would be viewed as a serious engagement with Presocratic ontology (Schiappa and Hoffman 1994, pp. 156–59).
On this point, see (Sinclair 1951, p. 53; Classen 1981, pp. 7–24; Moore 1988; Schiappa 2003, p. 14; Zilioli 2007). Of Plato’s references, see Phaedr. (267c), Euthyd. (286c), Meno (91d), Crat. (386a–391c), and Soph. (232e); of Aristotle’s see Rhet. (1402a22, 1407b5), Poet. (1456b15), Nic. Eth. (1164a22), Soph. Ref. (173b17), and Meta. (1007b18, 1009a6–1011b22, 1047a6, 1062b13–1063b33).
On the importance of Protagoras as a thinker, see (Gagarin 1968; Schiappa 2003).
For the ancient testimony see Herodotus (1987) 4.44; Athenaeus (1941) 2.82; Aristotle (1932) Pol. 7.13.1.
For the ancient testimony see Herodotus (1987) 3.38; 3.94; 3.97–106; 5.3; 7.65; 7.86; 8.113.
Even as early as the fourth century, Aristotle’s pupil Aristoxenus is reputed (in dubious late-ancient testimonia) to have posited that Socrates borrowed his doctrines from an Indian traveler who had visited Athens. More recently, in the nineteenth century August Gladisch in Die Religion und Philosophie (Gladisch 1852) and Eduard Röth in Geschichte unserer abendländische Philosophie (Röth 1858) credited the rise of pre-Socratic philosophy—Pythagorean, Eleatic, Heraclitean, and Anaxagorean—to Eastern influences. This view was simultaneously countered by Eduard Zeller in Die Philosophie der Griechen (Zeller 1856), who proposed that nothing regarding influence can be definitively determined, since similarity does not imply causality: similarities between the traditions may simply be a coincidental, spontaneous co-arising. John Burnet in Early Greek Philosophy (Burnet 1920) expressed a similar skepticism regarding the Indian influence on the emergence of Greek philosophy.
On the introduction of Greek thought to India in the Hellenistic period, see (Kuzminski 2008; Beckwith 2015).
One notable exception is Vasilis Politis (2015) who has argued that the aporetic dialogues as a whole are motivated by a “two-sided, whether-or-not question” (3), and those two-sided questions are, more often than not, “adversarial as opposed to cooperative” (128).
Where Protagoras’s two sides, sophistic antilogos, and contradiction are treated seriously in contemporary scholarship, it is as a practical technique of argumentation rather than an instrument of metaphysics. See for example (Mendelson 2002; Kraus 2007).
Aristotle Soph. Ref. 146b30.
Καὶ πρῶτος ἔφη δὺο λόγους εἶναι περὶ παντὸς πράγματος ἀντικειμένους ἀλλήλοις. Schiappa suggests that these are Protagoras’s exact words (Schiappa 2003, p. 89). Unless otherwise noted, translations of Protagoras’s fragments are from (O’Brien 1972).
The other works attributed to Nāgārjuna are as follows: Śūnyatāsaptati, Vaidalyaprakaraṇa, Vyavahārasiddhi, Yuktiṣaṣṭika, Catuḥstava, Ratnāvalī, Pratītyasamutpādahṛdayakārikā, Sūtrasamuccaya, Bodhicittavivaraṇa, Suhṛllekha, and Bodhisaṃbhāra[ka].
yadi sata eva pratiṣedho bhavati nāsato bhavāṃś ca sarvabhāvānāṃ niḥsvabhāvatvaṃ pratiṣedhayati, nanu pratisiddhaṃ sarvabhāvānāṃ niḥsvabhāvatvaṃ | tvadvacanena pratiṣedhasadbhāvān niḥsvabhāvatvasya ca sarvabhāvānāṃ pratiṣiddhatvāt prasiddhā śūnyatā.
MK 21.1, 21.4: vinā vā saha vā nāsti vibhavah sambhavena vai | vinā vā saha vā nāsti sambhavo vibhavena vai || bhavişyati katham nāma sambhavo vibhavam vinā/ anityatābi bhāveşu na kadācinna vidyate. Translations of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā are from (Garfield 1995).
na hi bīje hetubhūte ’ṅkuro ’sti, na pṛthivyaptejovāyvādīnām ekaikasmin pratyayasaṃjñite, na pratyayeṣu samagreṣu, na hetuprayayasāmagryām, na hetupratyayavinirmuktaḥ pṛthag eva ca | yasmād atra sarvatra svabhāvo nāsti tasmān niḥsvabhāvo ’ṅkuraḥ | yasmān niḥsvabhāvas tasmāc chūnya. Translations of the Vigrahavyāvartanī are from Westerhoff, 2010.
iha hi yaḥ pratītyabhāvo bhāvānāṃ sā śūnyatā|kasmāt|niḥsvabhāvatvāt|ye hi pratītyasamutpannā bhāvās te na sasvabhāvā bhavanti svabhāvābhāvāt|kasmāt|hetupratyayasāpekṣatvāt|yadi hi svabhāvato bhāvā bhaveyuḥ, pratyākhyāpi hetupratyayaṃ ca bhaveyuḥ | na caivaṃ bhavanti|tasmān niḥsvabhāvā niḥsvabhāvatvāc chūnyā ity abhidhīyante.
VV 54: athavā pratītyasamutpādapratyākhyānād duḥkhasamudayapratyākhyānaṃ bhavati | pratītyasamutpādo hi duḥkhasya samudaya.
On this point, see (Takakuso 1956, pp. 22–24).
The doctrine of becoming can only be understood as a Buddhist response to—or correction of—Vedānta teaching, which lacked a comprehensive answer to the problem of becoming in relation to suffering. The tradition is silent in response to the problem of suffering precisely because, even though it recognizes that suffering is inherent in existence, existence is not real but illusory (māya). Thus the aim is to escape the cycle of existence rather than to address head-on the problem of suffering. The ātma-doctrine of the Upanişads roots reality in the inner core or soul; accepting the ātman as an inner core in things, and identifying the true self with that inner core, is therefore the aim of Vedic practice. The inner core of the ātman is surrounded by an outer world of impermanence, becoming, change, and flux—not reality but appearance—and it is to this world that suffering belongs.
In direct opposition to this, the anātma-doctrine of Buddha embraces ubiquitous flux and does not deny that flux its status as reality. Thus “the Brāhmanical systems took the real as Being, Buddhism as Becoming; the former espoused the universal, existential and static view of Reality, the latter the particular, sequential, and dynamic” (Fatone 1981, p. 12). In its focus on becoming and dependent origination, Buddhism did not sidestep suffering or treat it as an inevitable but ultimately illusory aspect of existence, which can only be averted through accessing nirvana—the stable monism of Brahman. Rather, Buddhism offered instead a science for the elimination of suffering. This science involved rejecting a stable monism and comprehending instead becoming and dependent arising.
For a discussion of this point, see (McCagney 1997, pp. 29–30).
See the discussion in (Takakuso 1956, p. 46).
On this point, see (Ghose 1987, p. 58).
Nāgārjuna’s refutation is not original to him, and has an important antecedent in Buddhist thought. There is a precursor for Nāgārjuna’s concept of negation in the discourses of the Buddha, which T. R. V. Murti credits with nothing less than the birth of dialectic. The antecedent of Nāgārjuna’s negation is exemplified in the Buddha’s silence in response to the famous “Fourteen Indeterminate Questions” (the discourses of the Buddha vary in their presentation of the questions—the Pali texts present them as 10, Sanskrit as 14). The Buddha’s silence is meant to be demonstrative of an avoidance of “seizing,” grasping, or attachment that is naturally compelled by the language of both “is” and “is not”. The fourteen questions are “(1) Whether the world is eternal, or not, or both, or neither; (2) Whether the world is finite (in space), or not, or both, or neither; (3) Whether the Tathāgata exists after death, or does not, or both, or neither; (4) Is the soul identical with the body or different from it?” (Murti 1955, p. 38). The Buddha is silent in response to all these questions because to answer either positively or negatively would lead to a form of eternalism (everything truly exists) or nihilism (nothing exists), and thus abandon the middle way. The Buddha’s strategic silence is a dialectical refusal of both extremes (on this point, see Ramanan 1971, p. 49). It is this silence on the part of the Buddha that Murti marks as the birth of dialectic. Murti contends that the Buddha resolves the dichotomy of eternalism and nihilism by remaining silent; thus he rises “to the higher standpoint of criticism”. It is in this moment, Murti claims, that “dialectic was born…. To Buddha, then, belongs the honour of having discovered dialectic long before anything approximating it was formulated in the West” (Murti 1955, pp. 40–41). We must acknowledge, however, that the Buddha’s dialectic is intractably non-verbal. For Nāgārjuna and, as we shall see, for Protagoras before him, it is negation—as opposed to both yes, no, and silence—that offers avoidance of this seizing and comprehension of becoming. Where the Buddha’s dialectic was silent in response to the fundamental questions of being, Nāgārjuna uses the dialectical negation of “neither this nor that”. Or, put another way, “where the Buddha denies to be positive about the nature of the things, Nāgārjuna affirms the emptiness or the śūnyatā of the things” (Jha 1973, p. 103). Where the Buddha sought a kind of physical or mental restraint, Nāgārjuna sought a way of apprehending being through discourse and rhetorical forms. Nāgārjuna sees quite insightfully that the heart of the Buddha’s non-response, and the proper response to the flux of becoming, is neither silence nor a firm “nay”, but perpetual and unceasing negation. As one commentator puts it, Nāgārjuna “uses thought in order to transcend it” (Bhattacharya 1978, p. 1), and it is precisely negation that makes this act of transcendence possible. The fundamental emptiness of all things and the emptiness of that emptiness, which are the necessary corollaries of dependent arising, are the central tenets of Nāgārjuna’s ontology. For Nāgārjuna this doctrine of emptiness is the middle path between two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. It is negation that makes it possible for Nāgārjuna to walk this line and to both embody and embrace the inexorable becoming of all things.
On the relationship between sophistic and Presocratic thought, see (Irwin 1977, p. 5; Cherubin 1993; Allred 2009, p. 14; Crotty 2009, p. xiv; van Eck 2009; and Reames 2018, chp. 3).


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Table 1. Interpretations of the “contradiction is impossible” doctrine.
Table 1. Interpretations of the “contradiction is impossible” doctrine.
ouk estinantilegein
is not [possible]contradiction
is notcontradiction
[has] no beingcontradiction
nothing iscontradicted
non-beingspeak not
is notspeaking not
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