You may have noticed that the blogging’s taken a bit of a hit recently: Carleton’s term has just finished so I’ve been pretty busy. But now I’ve got a little break and so hope to catch up with three quick posts on the dialogues I’ve read but not yet blogged about. The first of these is the Sophist. This dialogue picks up right where the Theaetetus leaves off: he and Socrates had agreed to meet again the next morning at the close of one dialogue, and there they are ready to begin their investigations at the opening of the next. In this one, however, Socrates turns over the role of questioner to the unnamed “Eleatic Stranger” and is himself silent through most of the text. That is a little unusual. My handy Loeb introduction (1921) suggests it may partly be because the method of investigation used is “very tedious” and thus Plato didn’t want to associate Socrates with it.
The goal of the discussion is first specified as defining the sophist, the statesman and the philosopher, although the whole of the dialogue is devoted to defining the first. The Stranger’s method is to reach a definition by dividing things into ever smaller categories. Having determined that the sophist is a man “with an art” he then divides the arts first into the productive (e.g. agriculture, or making things, or imitating things) and acquisitive (e.g. trading or “coercing” things that already exist). Interestingly “acquiring knowledge” falls into the latter category: a playwright would practice “productive art” as he makes something that wasn’t there before, but a scientist would practice “acquisitive” because the notion seems to be that knowledge is a static category — you can get more of it, but you can’t make new.
The definition of a sophist starts with the assumption that he practices an acquisitive art, and proceeds from there to an actual definition:
the part of appropriative, coercive, hunting art which hunts animals, land animals, tame animals, man, privately, for pay, is paid in cash, claims to give education, and is a hunt after rich and promising youths 223b
Now in the kind of dialogue I’m used to, Socrates would start picking such a definition apart, would look at what it assumed, would discover perhaps that some of its assumptions contradicted each other, and would thus reject it.
Instead, the Stranger just starts over: “But let us look at it in still another way” (223c). In fact I think they go through the process seven or eight times. This doesn’t give us much confidence in the final definition reached at the end of the dialogue: after all, there’s no reason why we should find that one any more convincing than the many that preceded it. One of these, in fact, is startlingly familiar:
They question a man about the things about which he thinks he is talking sense when he is talking nonsense; then they easily discover that his opinions are like those of men who wander, and in their discussions they collect those opinions and compare them with one another, and by the comparison they show that they contradict one another… (230b)
Once this sort of person, also, has been classified as a sophist (there is some qualification: “Yes, and a wolf is very like a dog, the wildest like the tamest of animals…” 231a) Theaetetus proclaims aporia, and the Stranger starts out in a completely different direction.
It is here that, the Loeb introduction tells me, the important philosophical work of the dialogue really happens, for here the dialogue has a long digression on the possibility of falsehood, which is connected to the possibility of “not-being.” I am perplexed by this, but as it also comes up in the Euthydemus I’ll leave it for later. In the meantime, if anyone can explain to me why I should care about this I’d be grateful. As a thought experiment it seems marginally interesting to ask whether it’s possible to think about or express the concept of “not-being,” but how that implies that falsehood is impossible, when plainly falsehood is possible, I just don’t get!