On Plato’s ‘Sophist’​- The Image Makers

‘Pythagoras, [c. 570 — c. 495 BC], is said to have been the first to call himself a philosopher, a word which heretofore had not been an appellation, but a description. He likened the entrance of men into the present life to the progression of a crowd to some public spectacle. There assemble men of all descriptions and views. One hastens to sell his wares for money and gain; another exhibits his bodily strength for renown; but the most liberal assemble to observe the landscape, the beautiful works of art, the specimens of valour, and the customary literary productions. So also in the present life men of manifold pursuits are assembled. Some are incensed by the desire of riches and luxury; others by the love of power and dominion, or by insane ambition for glory. But the purest and most genuine character is that of the man who devotes himself to the contemplation of the most beautiful things; and he may properly be called a philosopher’.

- Iamblichus, (ca. 242–ca. 325), ‘Life of Pythagoras’.

What is a philosopher? Perhaps Socrates, (c. 470–399 BC), is the quintessential philosopher. (A term the origins of which can be traced back to Plato, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), as it happens. The Greeks supposed the Universe to be comprised of four elements, Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, and Plato went along with that, but in the ‘Timaeus’ (see my article On Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ — The World Soul), he wrote, speaking about air, that: ‘there is the most translucent kind which is called by the name of aether’, and later the number of elements were extended to five with aether being the fifth, the Latinate name for which is quintessence, quinta essentia). For Socrates not only devoted his life to the contemplation of beautiful things but to the Form of Beauty itself. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Apology’ — The Structure of Desire on how from a love of the beauty of physical objects one can pass to the apprehension of the nature of Beauty itself, the Form or Idea), and thereby share in the divinity of Love).

However, let us compare these passages from two philosophers worlds and times apart:

‘Here, surely, is just the sort of situation where people will say ‘almost anything’, because they are so flurried, or so anxious to get off. ‘It was a mistake,’ ‘It was an accident’ — how readily these can appear indifferent, and even be used together. Yet, a story or two, and everybody will not merely agree that they are completely different, but even discover for himself what the difference is and what each means. You have a donkey, so have I, and they graze in the same field. The day comes when I conceive a dislike for mine. I go to shoot it, draw a bead on it, fire: the brute falls in its tracks. I inspect the victim, and find to my horror that it is your donkey. I appear on your doorstep with the remains and say — what? ‘I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry, &c., I’ve shot your donkey by accident’? Or ‘by mistake’? Then again, I go to shoot my donkey as before, draw a bead on it, fire — but as I do so the beasts move, and to my horror yours falls. Again the scene on the doorstep — what do I say? ‘By mistake’? Or ‘by accident’?’

- J. L. Austin, (1911–1960), ‘A Plea for Excuses’.

Austin was a practitioner of the so-called ‘ordinary language’ approach to philosophy, whereby traditional philosophical problems are regarded as being rooted in misunderstandings that philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting how words are ordinarily used to convey meaning in non-philosophical contexts. Such philosophical uses of language create the very philosophical problems it is supposed to solve, whereby with ordinary language philosophy the meanings of words come from the context of their use, which is to say, first, there is no final, proper, or true meaning to a word, its meanings are always a product of its use, which use evolves, and second, philosophical best practices require one to begin philosophical inquiry with what people actually say when they attempt to communicate with others.

In the example of deciding if something was done by mistake or by accident the objective is not to evade responsibility but to make a plea for leniency based upon an understanding of why the responsibility has fallen in the way it has, for while culpable for the consequences of one’s actions, I should not be held morally accountable for the action because in a crucial way I never intended to do what it is that I actually did, in both cases I meant to shoot a donkey but not your donkey. Has anything of great moment been decided upon reaching a solution to such a conundrum? Well the point is that the ordinary language philosopher spurns the philosopher’s cherished definitional game, (Socrates prioritized the search for definitions, although not always it must be said), in which one defines a term specifically with the purpose of evading the disorderly shambles and confusion that is the human condition, for having settled upon a watertight definition the philosopher can feel shielded from all possible objections that arise from the world that we in fact inhabit.

‘It is an eternal phenomenon: the avidious will can always, by means of an illusion spread over things, detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on. One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the vain hope of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; still another by the metaphysical comfort that eternal life flows on indestructibly beneath the whirl of phenomena: to say nothing of the more ordinary and almost more powerful illusions which the will has always at hand. These three specimens of illusion are on the whole designed only for the more nobly endowed natures, who in general feel profoundly the weight and burden of existence, and must be deluded into forgetfulness of their displeasure by exquisite stimulants. All that we call culture is made up of these stimulants; and, according to the proportion of the ingredients, we have either a specially Socratic or artistic or tragic culture … ‘

- Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’.

Shackled by the Socratic love of knowledge with its concomitant bootless aspiration of healing the eternal wound of existence, (whatever that albeit evocative phrase means), or playing definitional games precisely to evade life’s messiness, the accusations from radically different quarters that are being levelled against our quintessential philosopher are sounding similar. For Nietzsche, (although remember that the relationships great philosophers have with one another are complicated), considered Socrates and Plato to be philosophers of decadence, he was contemptuous of Socratic rationalism and Platonic Idealism, he considered Christianity to be a vulgarized and distorted Platonism of and for the masses, (there may be some truth in that actually, for all of its elitism, although I see is as condemnatory of Christianity and not of Plato). Socrates was ultimately responsible for the untimely death of Greek Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, that is to say, the best aesthetic product of Athenian dramatic poetry and of Classical Greek art in general. The Socratic spirit identified with the spirit of science with its faith in reason at the expense of the Dionysiac spirit which Nietzsche identified with the spirit of art and tragedy in particular, hence, Socrates the decadent (it sounds so odd saying it of one of the most important philosophers who ever lived), whose rationalism was responsible for the degradation of the superior (in Nietzsche’s view) experience and artistic expression of the Greek aristocracy of the 6th and early 5th centuries BC. (There is something very odd here, though, how does Nietzsche arrive at such conclusions? Why would he expect his readers to go along with it unless he provides arguments to back it up, as he does? Isn’t it the spirit of dispassionate and disinterested inquiry that is the most wonderful thing?)

The Greek philosophos, from philos, philein (‘friend’, ‘to love’) and sophos, sophia (‘wise’, ‘wisdom’, etc.) and thus meaning lover of wisdom is said to have been coined by Pythagoras, as Iamblichus noted. Apparently it had quite pronounced religious and ethical connotations (which persisted right into Plato’s ‘Phaedo’, see my article On Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ — Forms of Life). Though for Aristotle, (384–322 BC), it was equivalent to episteme, (‘rational knowledge’). In Plato philosophos is contrasted with sophistes, which originally designated anyone of noteworthy scientific attainments, but later referred to professional teachers that Socrates and Plato were so very rude about, and hence sophistry now equates with pseudo-philosophy. Plato’s the ‘Sophist’, which was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, (1770–1831), favourite Platonic dialogue, has as its central objective to identify what a Sophist is and how a Sophist differs from a philosopher (and a Statesman), and in virtue of each seemingly distinguished by a particular form of knowledge the dialogue continues some of the lines of inquiry pursued in the dialogue dealing with epistemological concerns, the ‘Theaetetus’. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Theaetetus’ — Birth Pangs).

O sublime philosophy! Against those philosophers with their fixed conception of philosophy as that of an analytic discipline using the logic and language of science, or those who revel in rhetorical pronouncements and aphoristic pyrotechnics, there is Plato’s intellectually robust the ‘Sophist’ that is dealing with great matters while also being a triumph of the philosophical imagination. Herein you will find out what a philosopher is. Let us dig into it.

‘Abstract Painting’, 1962, Ad Reinhardt

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Sophist’ are as follows:

1. The Sophist claims that in teaching the art of rhetoric they teach all useful knowledge.

2. Parmenides’ claim, that the real is one Being, is false, for the term real must refer to one Idea and the term one to another.

3. Those who claim that only the tangible is real are mistaken, for Ideas are real, and life, soul, and intelligence are also real, yet none of these is tangible.

4. The task of the philosopher in his or her search for wisdom is to seek to discover which Ideas combine and which do not.

5. The Sophist claims that we cannot speak of what is not, but they are mistaken for to speak of what is not is simply to speak of that which exists as not having certain Forms or Ideas.

6. The Sophist is an image-maker who teaches the art of deception through the use of language, they are no true philosopher.

There remains some dispute over the question of whether Plato intended to write a trilogy among his dialogues consisting of the ‘Statesman’, the ‘Sophist’, and the ‘Philosopher’. The latter dialogue was never written, but it appears likely that it was planned, since the first two are concerned with the search for definitions which will not only delimit the Statesman and the Sophist, but will also show wherein, if at all, they differ from the philosopher. It was then supposed that Plato intended to write a concluding dialogue in which the philosopher would be defined and in which the search for the type of knowledge appropriate to him or her would be ended. In the ‘Sophist’ Plato ends at a definition of the Sophist and of the kind of activity that properly belongs to him or her. The dialogue ‘Theaetetus’ is also intimately connected to this series, for in it Plato begins the quest for a proper definition of knowledge and for an answer to many of the problems that plagued him as he worked out his theory of ideas. The ‘Sophist’ follows the ‘Theaetetus’ and carries on the search for an answer.

In setting out define sophist Plato makes use of the technique of classification by which he goes from the most general terms to the more specific in seeking to describe the nature of a Sophist. He makes use of a similar approach in the ‘Statesman’ in order to distinguish the true ruler from apparent ones. In their pursuit of the nature of the Sophist Socrates and a stranger from Elea point out many facets of his or her character, especially with regard to what he or she professes to know, which indicates to them that although a correct definition ought to point to that, and that alone, which is essential to the nature of the Sophist, they find that he or she professes to be master of many arts. The Sophist shows as his or her most pronounced trait the ability to discourse persuasively, he or she claims that through the art of rhetoric he or she can give one knowledge in all fields. It is denied by the stranger that one can have knowledge in all fields, a denial in accord with Plato’s view expressed throughout his works, and emphasised in ‘The Republic’, (see my article On Plato’s ‘Republic’ — Philosopher Kings), that one can know and do only one thing well. Therefore, the Sophist, although he or she proclaims him or herself expert in many areas, must have and present only the appearance or image of a subject rather than the reality. Sophistry, if it is an art, (for how can the practitioners of sham be artists?), is the art of image-making.

Image-making has two parts or kinds. In the first place, one may copy an original, examples are the craftsman who copies a natural object and the painter who makes a likeness of someone’s face. In the second place, there are those who make semblances, what appear to be likenesses, but are in some way out of proportion. The second type of image-making raises certain questions. What is meant by this world of semblances? A semblance is apparently not real, and yet it cannot be said to be unreal or nothing, for it is something. But what kind of a something? Plato is again struggling with the problem raised by Parmenides, (fl. late sixth or early fifth century BC, see my article On Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ — Being and Non-Being), of the existence of a world of appearances, which is neither of the world of Forms or Ideas nor of the world of not-Being or nothing, rather, it seems to hover somewhere in between, to be a world of change, of becoming.

The Eleatic stranger had previously proclaimed himself, or had been proclaimed, a student of Zeno, (c. 490 — c. 430 BC), and of Parmenides, and he shows his indebtedness to them in his pursuit of these questions. The concern over the world of appearances brings up related problems over the judgements made about that world, for in dealing with that which is not real (that is, that which changes), we must use negative judgements, yet these judgements apparently refer to some object. Plato is emphasizing that when we use a locution such as ‘is not’ we seem to be denying the existence of something. But of what? There is nothing that we can be talking about since apparently it, whatever it is, is not, and hence is not anything. This sort of puzzle sets off a discussion in the ‘Sophist’ over certain aspects of epistemology and ontology (Being in general) that had troubled pre-Socratic philosophers and to which Plato addressed himself. The discussion concerns the three realms of not-Being (nothing), becoming, and Being, and what sort of knowledge and judgement is appropriate to each.

‘Painting’, 1959, Ad Reinhardt

In discussing the worlds of reality and appearance, the stranger dismisses rather readily that of not-Being or the totally unreal. Generally speaking, the totally unreal cannot be the subject of discourse because our statements cannot have no reference whatsoever, we cannot talk about nothing. In addition, the very attempt to do so is ambiguous and misleading, we seem to be talking about something the totally unreal, and we use pronouns as if they referred to a thing and yet, as noted, we are not talking about anything. There is a sense in which we contradict ourselves when we talk about nothing, since we must talk about something. There is still a puzzle that must be solved, when we use a statement that either tells us that something is or something is not, then of either alternative we can say that it is true or it is false. In either case we seem to be stating a sentence which conveys meaning, hence we cannot always be talking about the totally unreal or the meaningless when we utter negative or even false judgements, and it remains to be seen if this problem can be treated successfully. The analysis given by Parmenides (who is the stranger’s inspiration) that there is only that which is or is not cannot be adequate, false statements seem to refer to something in between. Thus Plato parts company with Parmenides and holds that the realm of becoming, events in space and time which undergo change, has a status which cannot be ignored by the philosopher. Before this realm is examined, however, some attention must be given to what is meant by the real. The Eleatic stranger begins by reviewing what some of the earlier philosophers have said about it.

The Eleatic stranger treats briefly those who had held that hot and cold are real, or that one is or the other is not, or that the real is a third thing, and when he comes to Parmenides, as we might guess, he treats him in more detail. Parmenides had claimed that the real is one being. A question is raised in that Parmenides used two names, one and real, to designate this entity, how can there be two names to designate one entity? Plato apparently believed that these two names designated two separate and distinct Forms or Ideas, the form of Oneness, and that of Realness, hence Parmenides’ analysis was not about one thing, but two. A more detailed analysis of this view is given. If the real is a whole made up of parts, then it cannot be unity or oneness itself, these imply a lack of parts but obviously a whole made up of parts indicates a plurality of entities. In such a case, of course, we can speak quite properly of such a whole (made up of parts) as having unity, but we cannot say that there is only one Being and no other. The real is not a whole, yet wholeness exists. The real, then, cannot be what is. That realness and wholeness must exist means that there is a plurality existing. Another possibility is, if wholeness does not exist, then the real will be a plurality of many parts with no totality, but if so, it cannot then be that which is, nor can it ever become that which is.

The discovery of the unsatisfactory character of Parmenides’ view of reality leads to a general discussion of idealism versus materialism as philosophical positions, and Plato picturesquely calls this ‘the battle between the Gods and Giants’, between those who dwell in the heavens, the realm of Ideas, versus those who dwell on the earth, the realm of the tangible. The Giants or materialists claim that only the tangible is real, whereas the idealists or Gods point out that moral qualities can be present in some and absent in others, these are qualities that are not tangible, yet must be admitted as real. The question as to what is real leads both camps to search for a mark or sign of the real by which they may know it. The materialists suggest, and the Eleatic stranger considers it tentatively, that only that which has the power to affect or to be affected by an agent is the real. The Eleatic stranger makes out the following objection to the materialists, the materialists demand a quality which they can sense before they proclaim something real, they admit, however, that they can be aware of the presence or absence of justice within themselves or others, but such awareness is not of a sensible quality but of an intellectual one, and its object, Justice, is an Idea.

In discussing the Idealists, the Eleatic stranger first considers the view that proclaims that only that which is changeless can be an object of knowledge and truly real. But can the changeless be an object of knowledge, if to know is to act upon in some sense? For if that which is an object of knowledge is acted upon, then it is changed, but if it is changed, then it cannot be that which is changeless. Hence, either knowledge is not that which acts upon something, or, if it is, then that which is changeless and, by definition, not capable of being acted upon, cannot be known. It is here that the Eleatic stranger questions whether only that which is changeless is real, and he thus again breaks with the Parmenidean school. He argues that life, soul, and intelligence, all of them objects that undergo change, belong to the domain of the real. The school of Heraclitus is next attacked, that school which had maintained that only change, flux, was real. If all is flux there can be no intelligence in real things, for if nothing were the same from moment to moment, nothing could be known. Therefore the stranger from Elea concludes that reality must consist both of that which is changeless and of that which changes, if we are to have intelligence in the world.

Plato seems to desire to bridge the gap created by the Parmenideans and the followers of Heraclitus in their construction of what is real by pointing out that each group errs when it rejects that which the other regards as real. In this dialogue that matter is not pursued further, instead a return to a previous discussion ensues which seems much like the one just concluded, but is different. For the discussion concerns reality rather than the real, and it treats reality as a form among forms, and it is in this sense that Plato holds reality to be changeless, as we shall see, and hence he does not contradict what he has just affirmed, that the real includes that which is changeless as well as that which changes. If reality included both change and changelessness, we would have three Forms rather than one, but that is impossible.

‘Blue Painting’, 1953, Ad Reinhardt

The argument brings out an important point in Platonic metaphysics, that is, each time a combination of Forms is considered, an impasse is reached when it is revealed that there is more than more one Form involved in the discussion. If the One is real (or exists), then Oneness, Unity, Reality, and Existence are all involved, for if Reality were not present, we could not talk of the one as real. The Eleatic stranger then considers the questions raised in the discussion, questions concerning the possibility of the combination of Forms and of negative judgements. The Forms considered in this discussion are Movement, Rest, and Reality (or Existence). Some Forms must be compatible with others in that some kind of combination must be possible between them if they are said to be real. Thus, unless Movement combines with Reality and unless Rest does also, then neither of them is Real. Not all Forms are compatible in this way, however, else we would run into absurdities, for instance, Movement cannot combine with Rest, for if it did then we could say of Movement that it is at Rest, and of Rest that it is Movement. The talk of the philosopher in his search for wisdom and truth is to investigate which Forms combine and which do not, this task is to be accomplished by philosophical discourse, by dialectic. The Eleatic stranger reminds his cohorts in discussion that their task is to seek out the Sophist, who dwells in the realm of seeming or perhaps of not-being, rather than the philosopher. He suggests that after their present task is finished they may come back to the philosopher and his realm (thus giving credence to the view that Plato intended to write a dialogue called the ‘Philosopher’). In the search for what is real the purpose is to clarify the realms that the Sophist inhabits.

The stranger continues this discussion by bringing up two more Forms, Sameness and Difference. He does so because in speaking of two or more Forms we are automatically involved with Sameness and Difference, for Rest is the same with itself (partakes of Sameness), different from Movement. Sameness and Difference must be separate Forms, for if Movement and Rest were equivalent to Sameness then they would be equivalent to each other. That is, they would both partake of Sameness, and thus be the same, yet although they are the same with regard to themselves respectively, they are not with regard to each other. The same holds for difference. Having pointed out that the five Forms are separate and distinct, the Eleatic stranger then considers them with regard to judgements involving the locutions is and is not. He points out an important feature of the verb form is, it has at least two senses, namely, first, exists, and second, is identical to or is the same as. The statements considered are as follows, first, Motion is not (Rest), Motion is (real or exists), second, Motion is not (the Same). Motion is the same (as itself). Third, Motion is not (the Different). Motion is different (from Difference).

The Eleatic stranger then concludes of any Form we may say that it is not (any other Form) and that it is (real or exists). It is here that the break with Parmenides is complete, for it can be shown that his statement ‘That which is’ cannot ‘not be’is incorrect, since ‘That which is’ can ‘not be’ (be other than) all other existents, and thus we can have as a true statement the following: ‘What is’ can ‘not be’. Furthermore, we can also have as a true statement ‘What is not’ can ‘be’. That which is not everything else is still itself (exists). Parmenides has thus been refuted in saying that ‘that which is’ can in no sense ‘not be’ and that ‘that which is not’ can in no sense ‘be’. The argument can also be applied to the Sophist and he or she can be shown to be wrong when he or she states that we cannot speak of what is not, it has been shown that we can and do so speak, when, for example, we say that ‘is not’ means ‘is not the same as’. Can we reconcile the problem, however, when ‘is not’ refers to falsity?

The Eleatic stranger presents an analysis of statements (essentially of descriptive statements) to clarify the problem of false judgements. Of every statement it may be said that it must contain at least a name (an expression applied to the action). Every statement must also be about something. Lastly, every statement has a certain character, that is, we say of it that it is either true or false. The examples that the stranger considers are first, ‘Theaetetus sits’, and second, ‘Theaetetus flies’. The first is true for Theaetetus is in fact sitting. The second is false for it describes the subject Theaetetus as doing what he is not doing. Thus it states that things that are not, are (exist). It appears here that Plato in his analysis has presented us with an application of the views just worked out by the Eleatic stranger regarding the five Forms and the possibilities of combination. Falsity occurs whenever the incorrect forms are used in describing the action of the subject (assuming that the correct subject is used). In this way Plato feels that he has shown that false statements are meaningful.

Plato has so far dealt with the problems of false statements, and he has shown in what sense they are about something and in what sense they are meaningful. His analysis, although incomplete, points towards a fuller discussion which, as noted, was probably to be made in the ‘Philosopher’. He tackled the problem, not as he felt the Sophists had done, with a shallow display of verbal paradoxes, but rather by a provocative analysis and a suggested solution in terms of his theory of Forms or Ideas. Descriptive statements are about something, often tangible, performed by something or someone, thus they denote, but, to an extent, they derive meaning from the relation they express between the action described and the Form(s) partaken of. With this endeavour made, the Eleatic stranger returns to a final consideration of the Sophist. He concludes that as a species of image-maker the Sophist belongs to those who deal in semblances. Their forte is in the construction of contradictions which, they freely admit, are intended to confuse and deceive. The mimicry they advocate is based, not upon knowledge, but upon opinion, since it is an art that deals in a shadow-play of words, it is not a discourse that aims at wisdom. When Sophists encourage the use of their arguments to persuade the people and gain mastery over them. their profession is that of the demagogue.

‘Blue and Green Painting’, 1948, Ad Reinhardt

Thus ends the dialogue. Of course, no one in this present Age of Reason desires to be regarded as a Sophist, largely due to Plato it has to be said, but it is still nonetheless incumbent upon us to distinguish between one who feigns to be wise and the real deal, for recall that the Athenians thought of Socrates as a Sophist and they killed him for it. At the beginning of the ‘Sophist’, Theodorus had introduced the Eleatic stranger to Socrates as a real man, for philosophers are real men to him, as of course they are, and real women too if I may update it, and Socrates goes yet further than Theodorus and likens philosophers to gods, and he wonders whether the stranger is a god for gods frequently travel in the guise of strangers:

‘THEODORUS: … There are people who make it their speciality to win arguments, but he’s more measured than them. Nor does the man seem to me a god at all — which is not to say he is not divine; that’s how I describe all philosophers!’

If he is a god then perhaps he is a god of refutation for refutation appears to be a particularly god-like behaviour, but both gods and philosophers are hard to identify, for gods may wander in the guise of strangers, and philosophers assume all kinds of appearances, albeit the real ones are not dealing in make believe. Apparently however it is easy to discern fake philosophers for they are the ones calling themselves philosophers. Well, that is certainly true, I often think of the likes of William Lane Craig, (1949 — ), Christian apologist, and the number of times he begins by saying: ‘As a philosopher …. ‘. Since reading Plato I avoid starting a sentence with: ‘As a philosopher … ‘. It’s as pointless as starting with: ‘As a human being … ‘. Or the derisory take on philosophy of Alain de Botton (1969 — ) the grand priest of superficial thinking who churns out his shallow thoughts on philosophy as coming from a school of life and he makes his money, like a true Sophist.

Is the fake philosopher always so easy to identify though?. I am tempted to think of postmodern philosophers as Sophists and our present situation as being rather similar to Plato’s day except that we have no Plato to take them on. But are they Sophists though?

‘Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the √ –1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (–1)’.

- Jacques Lacan, (1901–1981).

‘Is E =Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest …’

- Luce Irigaray, (1930 -).

And sometimes they take the guise of Sophists, or of politicians, or of mad men, and so the question arises, are the philosopher, the Sophist, and the Statesman one, or three? And the Eleatic stranger answers readily, they are three, but it is no trivial matter to define what each of them is. He defines the Sophist by means of a long speech with Theaetetus by the method of dividing and collecting the arts that are related to or constitutive of sophistry, and there are six divisions in all. The Eleatic stranger demonstrates his method initially with the insignificant instance of fishing and then presents five divisions or definitions of the Sophist, a hunter of human beings, especially rich young men to whom he holds himself out as a teacher, a travelling salesman of education and virtue, or staying put in his own city and selling his own ideas, or a contestant in verbal battles who fights not just to show off but to make money, or one who purifies the soul through refutation removing the greatest ignorance, the belief that you know what you do not. And who do we know who loved to talk with young men about virtue? Who stayed put in his own city Athens? Who was unbeatable in dialogue? (well, most of the time, see my article On Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ — Being and Non-Being). Who loved refuting and who proclaimed his own ignorance? Who is the man? Socrates is the man. Socrates who is listening in silence as the stranger and Theaetetus proceed apace with their discourse.

Since the Sophist can refute just about anyone then he or she, it would appear, know just about everything and yet such omniscience, as omniscience always is, is but an appearance, an image that will form the basis of the sixth and last division which occupies most of the dialogue, an extended section in which the question of the Sophist leads to the question of the status of images which in turn leads to the question of non-Being which leads in turn to the question of Being. Why plunge so deep, in a discourse upon how to recognise a philosopher from a pretender to knowledge and wisdom? Because the question of Being is at the heart of philosophy. The ultimate task that propelled them on in the the hunt for the Sophist was to define the philosopher and the stranger eventually completes the sixth division whereby the Sophist, he asserts, is an image maker who operates upon the basis of opinion, and not of knowledge. The image maker is afraid of being found out, and so he or she is ironic (like me in fact, I find the ‘Sophist’ rather unsettling in many ways). He or she operates through brief discourse, in private, that cause his interlocutors to contradict themselves, and the resemblances are obvious enough to Socrates, the ironic refuter, the knower of his own ignorance, and so the Sophist and the philosopher seem quite alike.

But what sets them apart is their end, or goal, for the philosopher’s end appears to be knowledge of Being, of what he or she is, philosophers are wholeheartedly devoted to this one particular ends, the Truth, while the Sophist’s goal in contrast seems indeterminate. Is it getting students or fame or money? Albeit if it is money that is a merely a means to something else. It is indeterminate, and the Sophists are always with us and due to their very freedom from attachment to a specific end they take on a variety of shapes and forms. We see this now with postmodern philosophers. What is their objective? When Michel Foucault, (1926–1984), prattles on about ‘power/knowledge’, power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’ (of course always in inverted commas): ‘Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true’.

What is Foucault’s objective here, even if we accept his assertion, but why should we do even that? Foucault is an image maker, it is really quite morally reprehensible what he is doing, and at the risk of sounding irrational I hate this ‘philosophy’ that isn’t philosophy, for what does he offer us in return if we accept his delusional fantasies passing off as insight?Well, at least Foucault indirectly is highlighting what is really special about philosophers, for philosophers take an interest in their young pupils, they discourse upon human excellence or virtue, they may be extremely adept at winning arguments, they may even in rather exalted language purify the soul thereby, but none of these things are essential to their being. That determination belongs solely to the Truth.

‘Red Abstract’, 1952, Ad Reinhardt

Truth, my lady Philosophy, the spirit of Hegel descend upon us now in our hour of need, for of course, as the consummate philosopher, he addresses Being in his ‘Science of Logic’, the subject-matter of which work may not correspond to any single traditional discipline but rather is an endeavour to combine several previously distinct subjects into a single whole, and among the principle antecedents are Aristotle’s ‘Categories’ as he endeavours to list and define the most general types of predicate applicable to an entity, substance, quality, quantity, relation, and so on, a similar task having been attempted by Plato in the ‘Sophist’. And in his ‘De Interpretatione’, another antecedent of Hegel’s Logic, Aristotle had considered the structure and constituents of the proposition or judgement, which again Plato had explored this matter in the ‘Sophist’. And of Plato’s dualism, of Forms and phenomena, since the soul that knows both realms can belong to neither, that is a difficulty raised by Plato the ‘Sophist’. Hegel wrote: ‘To get no further than mere grounds, especially on questions of law and morality, is the position and principle of the Sophists . . . Sophistry lies in the formal circumstance of teaching it by grounds which are as available for attack as for defense. In a time so rich in reflection and so devoted to raisonnement as our own, he must be a poor creature who cannot advance a good ground for everything, even for what is worst and most depraved’.

Judgments of the understanding Hegel termed raisonnement, and in raisonnieren knowledge of the subject matter is not really advanced by the negative insight that something isn’t so, for the positive moment which lies in every negation does not become the new content of the observations being made, indeed, and on the contrary, raisonnieren becomes entrapped in its vain negativity and is reflected into itself. It is content to make judgments about the subject matter and in so doing does not stay with it, but rather has already moved on to something else: ‘Instead of dwelling on it and losing itself in it, such knowing always grasps for something else. Thus it remains by itself rather than being with the subject matter and yielding to it’. More significantly, so-called positive knowledge of something is raisonnement too in the sense that it makes a subject basic and proceeds from one idea to another relating each of these ideas to this subject, and it is characteristic of both the negative and positive forms of raisonnieren that the movement of such apprehension in thought runs its course externally upon the surface of the thing as if the latter were unmoved and inert. In contrast to raisonnement, it is speculative thinking that comprehends.

I must just mention in closing, a return to language such as the ordinary language philosophers insisted upon, Hans-Georg Gadamer, (1900–2002), accused Hegel of mis-reading a crucial passage in the ‘Sophist’. Having read the ‘Parmenides’, says Gadamer, Hegel proceeded to read the ‘Sophist’ assuming that the dialectic there has the same sense as that he detected in the ‘Parmenides’, and upon the basis of this assumption he concluded that in the ‘Sophist’ it is in fact asserted that absolute contradictions have positive content. For decisive here, as Hegel perceved it, is Plato contention that the identical must be recognized in one and the same respect as different. Hegel’s own translation of the passage reads:

‘What is difficult to grasp yet true is that what is another is the same, and specifically in one and the same regard, in reference to the same aspect’

Let us see the relevant passage in context and in modern translation:

ELEATIC STRANGER: ‘… every time someone claims that a thing is the same when it is different or different when it is the same one can challenge him with regard to the way and the respect in which he is claiming it to be one or the other. To claim the same to be different, the different the same, the big small or the like unlike in any old way, and delight in this sort of of thing, forever countering with opposites in one’s arguments — that is no sort of true challenge, and is clearly the first baby steps of someone only just now beginning to get to grips with things as they are.

THEAETEUS: Precisely so.

ELEATIC STRANGER: Yes, my friend, for certainly trying to separate off everything e1 from everything not only strikes the wrong note in other respects, but above all is the mark of a completely uncultivated and unphilosophical person.


ELEATIC STRANGER: If one separates each thing off from everything, that completely and utterly obliterates any discourse, since it is the interweaving of forms that gives us the possibility of talking to each other in the first place.

Well, I do not know Greek. I merely bring this up to show Gadamer’s image making in action, for granted what is actually said is that what is difficult to grasp yet true is that when someone says the same is in some way different one must inquire in which sense and in which respect it is different, and taking the same as different in a vague sense without specification of the respect and producing contradictions, but this is not contrary to Hegel’s interpretation as Gadamer contends, for expressly characterized as purposeless and as a concern of the initiates merely. Gadamer claims that Hegel is deriving a positive dialectic from the ‘Sophist’that is unwarranted. But Hegel defeats this every time, Plato sees the essence of his doctrine of the logos and the fundamental difference from that of Eleatic philosophy in the fact that he progresses beyond the abstract opposition of Being and non-Being to the possibility of their noncontradictory unification in the determinations of reflection, identity, and difference.

This insight provides a positive justification for the business of the dialectician, Gadamer scornfully asserts, namely, definition, in spite of the apparent contradiction in saying· that the same is one and many. There is no mention here of pushing a hypothesis to self-contradiction nor, moreover, is there any mention of the emergence of a higher self in which abstract determinations, which, if thought by themselves, are contradictory and require sublimation, are resolved to the simple unity of a synthesis. The ‘Sophist’ thereby accords very little with Hegel’s intent, namely to establish in the place of so-called formal logic the dialectic of contradiction as the method of the higher, speculative logic, rather one finds in the ‘Sophist’ ‘a first formulation of formal logic’s law of no~contradiction as set up by Aristotle ..’

Well, could one philosopher so much more misunderstand another?

‘Untitled’ (‘Red and Gray’),1950, Ad Reinhardt



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.