Toward a theory of discourse based on the socio-discursive nature of knowledge: a synthesis of sophistic Nomos and Gricean cooperation (Paul Grice)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Catherine F. Smith


Rhetoric, Composition, Communication, Philosophy

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


This dissertation argues that a coherent theory of discourse can be synthesized from sophistic Nomos and "The Cooperative Principle" developed by Paul Grice. Chapter One traces contemporary receptions of sophistic Nomos and defines the term as the system by which members of a community create knowledge for that community; Chapter Two outlines receptions of Grice's "Cooperative Principle" and describes cooperation as the ways in which members of communities interact with Nomoses to communicate; and Chapter Three use graphic illustrations to explicate the synthesized theory. The Conclusion provides writing assignments that exemplify the theory's application to instruction.

Mid-twentieth century historians of rhetoric (e.g., Guthrie, Kerferd, and Untersteiner) have interpreted Nomos within the limited context of the Nomos-Physis controversy. To open the interpretation, Chapter One summarizes thirteen other definitions uncovered in philologist Martin Ostwald's study of primary writings from the sixth to fourth centuries BCE. Most useful in examining discourse is Susan Jarratt's definition of Nomos as a mediating term between Mythos and Logos, which she makes in the context of an emerging field, neo-sophism. An overview of neo-sophism is provided in which Susan Jarratt's, Sharon Crowley's, and Michael Leff's works are detailed. The final section adds neo-sophistic readings of Nomos from primary fragments of Heracleitus, Democritus, and Prodicus to established readings of Gorgias and Protagoras.

Chapter Two explains Grice's "Cooperative Principle" and traces its reception across many fields, including linguistic philosophy, politeness theory, rhetoric and composition, classroom discourse analysis, literary theory, question processing, and gender studies. A new meta-perspective on how discourse is studied interdisciplinarily (as utterance, social interaction, and social context) is also provided.

Distinct processes of ordinary discourse are theorized in Chapter Three: co-operation with Nomos, willful noncooperation, willful miscooperation, co/operation of Nomoses, and personal constructions of systems of Nomos. Grice's maxims of cooperative discourse and Peter Elbow's "Believing and Doubting Games" are used to further theorize utterance production and reception. Samples of crafted ordinary discourse are analyzed using the synthesized theory: Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First," a scene from Othello, and Syracuse University's policy on sexual harassment.


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