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Summer 2021, 51.4, pages: 325-335

Disproof without Silence: How Plato Invented the Post-Truth Problem


This essay shows how Plato uses methods of fourth-century rhetorical theory to build a theory of language-as-signification, which he constructed to overcome the problem of lies and “false speech” in sophistic culture. By deconstructing Plato’s theorization of signification, I question the historical process by which the “sovereignty of the signifier” (in Michel Foucault’s terms) came to be established, and I reposition Plato as a theorist in the rhetorical tradition who, by redefining the key terms of onoma, rhêma, and logos, created a theory of language that made lies all the more potent by reducing them to “mere signification.” It is this understanding of language as merely signifying and referencing the world that, I argue, lies at the root of the post-truth problem in 21st-century politics. While Plato’s truth problem is characterized by “silence without disproof,” our own post-truth problem is characterized as “disproof without silence.”

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