What Does "Dissoi Logoi" Mean?

Lawyer Presenting Evidence During Trial
In our own time, we see dissoi logoi at work "in the courtroom, where litigation is not about truth but rather the preponderance of evidence" (James Dale Williams, An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric, 2009). Heide Benser / Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, dissoi logoi is the concept of opposing arguments, a cornerstone of Sophistic ideology and method. Also known as antilogike.

In ancient Greece, the dissoi logoi were rhetorical exercises intended for imitation by students. In our own time, we see dissoi logoi at work "in the courtroom, where litigation is not about truth but rather the preponderance of evidence" (James Dale Williams, An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric, 2009).

The words dissoi logoi are from the Greek for "double arguments." Dissoi Logoi is the title of an anonymous sophistic treatise that's generally thought to have been written about 400 BC.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "'The essential feature [of dissoi logoi],' [G.B.] Kerferd writes, 'was not simply the occurrence of opposing arguments but the fact that both opposing arguments could be expressed by a single speaker, as it were within a single complex argument' (The Sophistic Movement [1981], p. 84). Such an argumentative procedure could force any question into an Aporia by pointing out that each side was true within the terms that it had chosen to develop the argument. Both sides depended, ultimately, on language and its imperfect correspondence to the 'outside world,' whatever one might think that world to be. A form of this analytical technique has recently been revived under the name of 'Deconstruction.' Or, the parties could agree to accept one position as superior, even though it manifestly depended on human argument and not Divine Truth. It is from this accommodation to antithetical structure that Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence descends: we arrange social issues into diametrically opposed questions, arrange a dramatic display of their conflict, and (since the law cannot afford aporia as a conclusion to social disputes) accept the jury-audience's verdict as a defining truth, a precedent for future disputation."
    (Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1991)
  • "In essence, dissoi logoi posits that one side (logos) of an argument defines the existence of the other, creating a rhetorical situation in which at least two logoi struggle for dominance. In contrast, Western culture's implicit assumption that argument is about truth or falsity urges one to assume that one side of the argument is true or more accurate and that other accounts are false or less accurate. Quite differently, Sophists acknowledge that one side of the argument might in a particular context represent the 'stronger' logos and others the 'weaker,' but this does not preclude a weaker logos from becoming the stronger in a different or future context. Sophism assumes that the stronger logos, no matter how strong, will never completely overcome competing logoi and earn the title of absolute truth. Rather--and this is the heart of dissoi logoi--at least one other perspective is always available to serve as an other to the stronger argument."
    (Richard D. Johnson-Sheehan, "Sophistic Rhetoric." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory And Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. Greenwood, 1998)

    Dissoi Logoi--The Original Treatise

    • "Dissoi Logoi (twofold arguments) is the name, taken from its first two words, that has been given to a tract which is attached to the end of the manuscript of Sextus Empiricus. . . . It contains arguments which are capable of bearing opposed meanings, and it has sections dealing with Good and Bad, Decent and Disgraceful, Just and Unjust, True and False, together with a number of untitled sections. It has the look of a student's lecture notes, but this appearance may be deceptive. The contents are what we might expect in Protagoras' Antilogiai, but it is safer simply to designate them as sophistic.

      "For example, to prove that Decent and Disgraceful are really the same, the following double argument is brought forward: for women to wash themselves in the home is decent, but women washing in the palaestra would be disgraceful [it would be all right for men]. Therefore, the same thing is both disgraceful and decent."
      (H. D. Rankin, Sophists, Socratics and Cynics. Barnes & Noble Books, 1983)

    Dissoi Logoi on Memory

    • "The greatest and fairest discovery has been found to be memory; it is useful for everything, for wisdom as well as for the conduct of life. This is the first step: if you focus your attention, your mind, making progress by this means, will perceive more. The second step is to practice whatever you hear. If you hear the same things many times and repeat them, what you have learned presents itself to your memory as a connected whole. The third step is: whenever you hear something, connect it with what you know already. For instance, suppose you need to remember the name 'Chrysippos,' you must connect it with chrusos (gold) and hippos (horse)."
      (Dissoi Logoi, trans. by Rosamund Kent Sprague. Mind, April 1968)