Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.03

Noburu Notomi, The Unity of Plato's Sophist: Between the Sophist and the Philosopher.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xxi, 346.  ISBN 0-521-63259-5.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Zina Giannopoulou, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (
Word count: 2359 words

In The Unity of Plato's Sophist: Between the Sophist and the Philosopher Noburu Notomi offers a novel reading of one of Plato's most puzzling dialogues. The volume is an extensive re-working of the author's doctoral thesis and offers a comprehensive study of the Sophist aimed at elucidating the interdependence of the definitions of the sophist and the philosopher. This close connection between the two, in turn, provides not only the philosophical justification of the whole Platonic undertaking but, more importantly, the unifying principle of the inquiry itself: the notion of appearing.

The book contains a preface, eight chapters, an index locorum along with a general index and fairly comprehensive bibliography. One of the goals of his work, as the author himself acknowledges in the preface (xiii), is to demonstrate both the "peculiarity and universality" of philosophy -- qualities manifested in its essence viewed as "inner dialogue" -- and thus to contribute to a better understanding between East and West. Although an exploration of the possibility of such a transcendence of temporal and spatial limitations would in itself be an astonishing achievement, unfortunately it is nowhere systematically undertaken, at least as far as the particular topical designations which N. addresses, are concerned.

In Chapter 1, "How to read the Sophist," N. rightly criticizes most commentators' exclusive preoccupation with the ontological and logical issues of the central portion of the dialogue, a scholarly tendency which has undermined study of the work as a whole; he then announces his own unitary approach which, he claims, is both justified and facilitated by the fact that the dialogue aims at a single skopos, the definition of the sophist. This aim is investigated in what N. calls the "Outer Part" (216a1-236d8, 264b9-268d5) of the dialogue, while the so-called "Middle Part" (236d9-264b8) lays the theoretical foundation for the divisions in the Outer Part. This is an ingenious and refreshing conception of the thematic structure of the Sophist and one which, instead of centralizing the importance of the Middle Part, subordinates -- by calling it a "digression" -- its philosophical value to the overall goal of defining the sophist. In order to demonstrate the way in which Plato incorporates digressions in his dialogue, and thus to justify the appellation of the Middle Part as digression, the author provides us with a cursory overview of four Platonic digressions. Even though a thorough examination of the function of Platonic digressions falls outside the scope of his study, N. is not particularly successful, at least in the case of the Theaetetus and Philebus digressions in showing their relevance to the dialogues in which they are found, nor does he argue convincingly for their use as paradigmatic cases for assessing the function of the "Middle Part" as digression.

The next two sections of the book address problems of definition and methodology. In Chapter 2, "The sophist and the philosopher," N. argues that the fluidity of the definitional content of sophist and philosopher, as it is suggested by the ambiguous sixth definition and the frequent overlapping of these two categories of people by Plato's contemporary Athenians, makes imperative the need to consolidate their respective identities as non-philosopher and lover of wisdom. This ties in well with the explanation of negation as difference in the Middle Part and shows the interdependence of the definitions of sophist and philosopher.

Chapter 3, "How the sophist appears," contains the author's most original methodological contribution to the interpretation of the dialogue: the concept of "investigatory use" of appearance. N. contends that since the focal point of the sophist's art of controverting is the notion of appearance and, moreover, since sophistical appearance has been revealed by means of the concept of appearance, which is now used as a philosophical method by the inquirers, the interlocutors need to prove which appearance is false/sophistical (φάντασμα) and which is true/philosophical (εἰκών) in order to be able to draw a definitive distinction between the sophist and the philosopher.

In the next two chapters N. explores further the notion of appearance as it is related to the sophistic art of controverting and to the concept of image. Chapter 4, "Analysis of the structure of appearance," explores the sophist's art of controversy as epideixis and the philosopher's art of dialectic as the tool for discovering the good life. N. successfully demonstrates how the key concept of "audience" promotes a better understanding of the essence of the sophist, since it helps integrate the latter's activity, namely, "appearing to argue rightly" to his nature, namely, "appearing to be wise". His distinction between sophist and expert, however, seems a little contrived, or at least, obscure: I fail to see how the all-encompassing nature of the sophist's epistemic world, i.e., knowledge of all things, becomes transformed into knowledge of the art of controverting in such a way that sole exercise of this art enables its possessor to "give an account of each kind of subject-matter" (p. 109). If the seeming ability to argue well is an indisputable feature of the sophistic apparatus, it cannot by itself adequately explain the sophist's verbal victory over the philosopher in terms of factual knowledge.

In Chapter 5, "Appearance and image," the concept of image serves to illustrate the concept of appearance. The analogy rests upon careful examination of six elements inherent in the notion of image: the imitative artist; the art of making, the maker, and the product; the activity of showing, the viewer, and the viewpoint in seeing an image; the notion of imitation, the relation between an image and its original; the distinction between correct and incorrect images; the definition of image. Most of these parameters are analyzed thoroughly in such a way as to provide a conceptual background against which the sophist's art can be better understood. I would have welcomed, however, a clearer description of the concept of "viewpoint" in light of such Platonic designations as "good/beautiful" and "bad/ugly". This seems all the more necessary given the existing confusion in N.'s application of the adjective "beautiful," as applied to both the notion of "viewpoint" and to the notion of "likeness" being an accurate representation of a beautiful original (p. 149). In addition, even a perfunctory examination of the arguments that have been proposed for or against defining "image" in terms of non-identity (an image is not identical with the original) or predication (it really is an image) or existence (it really exists) would have better justified the author's thesis that the image "not really is F," "not really is-not F," and "is F" (where F stands for the original).

The following two chapters contain a brilliant discussion of the notoriously difficult Middle Part (236d9-264b8). The analysis not only advances a unitary thesis for the seemingly disjointed arguments found therein but also justifies its connection with the rest of the dialogue. N. argues that the Middle Part can effectively be divided into two interdependent sections: the first section (236d9-242b5), whose detailed examination provides the material for the book's sixth chapter, "The sophistic counter-attack on philosophy", examines four obstacles with which the sophist -- previously on the defensive -- challenges the legitimacy of the philosopher's sole claim to true wisdom: the difficulties concerning what is not, falsehood, image and appearance. This is the first scholarly attempt, as far as I know, to present the thematic connection among these concepts and effectively to subordinate the first three, namely the problems of what is not, falsehood, and image, to the fourth, namely the notion of appearance, which has already been seen to constitute the essence of sophistic opposition to the philosopher. Chapter 7 (242b6-264b8) takes up the philosopher's defence in the second section, "The philosophic defence against sophistry," and is divided into three sub-sections: the difficulty concerning "what is," the combination between kinds, and the analysis of falsehood. Even though the author does not enter upon a philosophical explication of highly controversial ontological and semantic issues such as the meaning of the verb "to be," he manages, for the most part successfully, to demonstrate the way in which the interlocutors' arguments in this chapter establish the distinct nature and validity of the philosophical method employed in the dialogue, namely the investigatory use of appearance, and thus to prove the veracity of the statement "the sophist appears to be wise, but is not wise".

The author is, however, reluctant to deal with puzzling problems of interpretation, and so he ultimately leaves the reader dissatisfied. This hesitation is particularly evident in the discussion of the concept of dynamis: N. passes over in silence the apparent incompatibility of two proposals, namely the dynamis thesis that what-is is what is capable of affecting or being affected and the friends of Forms' advocacy of the unchangeability of Forms. This is not just a "detail of interpretation in a difficult passage" (p. 209), but an important philosophical issue whose treatment would have shown whether the materialists' and idealists' imaginary utterances constitute inconsequential "concessions" on their part, or whether and to what extent Plato did attempt to refute them, contrary to N.'s belief (p. 219). Moreover, when N. discusses the subject of philosophical inquiry through appearances, he posits reality as the criterion "which enables inquirers to judge that the sophist's appearance to the young is false" (p. 228). Innocuous though this recognition may at first seem, it becomes rather problematic when placed in context: whereas the author has sufficiently defined the sophist's criterion for denying the possibility of falsehood as the concept of appearance, he leaves the philosopher's standard unexplored. If, however, appearance and reality are not sufficiently entrenched in their relation to each other, secure understanding of the ontological differences between them is forestalled and, instead, conflation of the two may -- against what is advisable at this point in the enquiry -- emerge as permissible. Finally, the concept of phantasia, though thoroughly researched, is still unclear, especially in its relation to the notion of phantasma. N. claims that whereas phantasma is a kind of image which does not represent the true proportions of the original, phantasia means "perceptual (mainly visual) appearance" (p. 252). In order to demonstrate the use of this distinction he resorts to the Platonic text at 260c8-9 (εἰδώλων τε καὶ εἰκόνων ἤδη καὶ φαντασίας) but his reading of it lacks support. He interprets the last phrase καὶ φαντασίας as "additional ... and explanatory," an assumption based mainly on what he considers a "grammatical asymmetry" in the phrase: "φαντασίας is the genitive singular form, in contrast to the genitive plural forms of εἰδώλων τε καὶ εἰκόνων" (p. 252, n. 93). The plural of φαντασία, however, would have conveyed the same notion of perceptual judgement, which N. sees in the use of the singular; this is manifested in the distinction between φαντασίαι and δόξαι in the context of Protagorean relativism in Theaetetus 161e8. Appeal to the "number" of the word is, therefore, insufficient grounds on which to base semantic distinction. Moreover, φαντασία is nowhere explored in its connection with the concept of "viewpoint," despite the fact that it is defined as some sort of appearance.

In the last chapter, "The final definition of the sophist," the author provides a conclusion to the overall argumentation and an exhaustive treatment of the concept of imitation in its four aspects: instrument, model, method and product. Perhaps the most interesting section of the chapter is the suggestive but brief exploration of the notion of irony, particularly in its applicability to both Socrates and the sophist: N. finds in the sophist's concealment of his ignorance the main aspect of his "deceptive irony," which differentiates him from Socrates' sincere avowal of ignorance. My only reservation here has to do with the handling of the problematic sixth definition. There seems to be a certain degree of incompatibility between the author's two statements as to the identity of the educational purifier: N. seems to waver between calling him first "an apparition of the sophist" (p. 277) and secondly someone who "resembles Socrates, as his method of refutation is now properly understood" (p. 295). If we take the former definition as valid, then we must assume, along with the author, that the sophist of the sixth definition is "not a real sophist, though he appeared to be similar" (p. 277). If that were the case, however, one would expect a clarification as to what exactly is sophistically "unauthentic" about the "sophist of noble lineage" that makes him not fit the definitional range of a real sophist. If we take the latter definition as operative, we end up with a solution which contradicts the previous definition. The main problem with this definition is that the notion of "resemblance" is not specified in terms of "likeness" and "apparition," and it thus obscures interpretation of the definition. Nevertheless, if, as the phrasing of the definition suggests, "resemblance" is taken to mean "apparition," and the "sophist of noble lineage" is thus a φάντασμα of Socrates, and, moreover, if the indisputable distinction between the real and the false Socrates depends upon proper employment of the notion of ἐναντίον (p. 295), then this definition, contrary to the previous one, seems to suggest that the sophist of the sixth definition is not an "apparition" but rather a "likeness" of the sophist, namely someone who offers a true appearance of the sophist from the viewpoint of application of the notion of ἐναντίον as "contrary".

Outside of the above mentioned obscurities, my main general discomfort with the book lies in the author's frequent reference to the notion of "sophist within us". Although it sounds intriguing, it is neither sufficiently explored (not even, contrary to the author's promise on p. 204 n. 82, in the final chapter, in the treatment of "irony") nor easily grasped in the context in which it is placed, usually at the end of chapters or various subsections. Despite all these mostly minor problems, N.'s work on the "Unity of Plato's Sophist" succeeds in providing an appreciation of the dialogue as an organic whole and in answering difficult issues of composition and structure. For this reason and for the author's brave effort to deal with aspects of the dialogue which were previously overlooked by critics, the book will repay careful study.

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