BMCR 1994.10.01

1994.10.01, White, Plato: Sophist

, , Sophist. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993. xliv, 65 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872202030. $28.95(hb).

Not unlike recordings of opera music advertised for people who hate opera, the Sophist has been sometimes treated as Platonic philosophy for tough-minded people who don’t like Plato. In the introduction to his new translation Nicholas White notes three reasons why this dialogue has received so much attention in post-war Platonic scholarship. It is open to an anti-metaphysical reading; it concentrates on the elucidation of linguistic expressions; and it appears to investigate the paradoxical concept of ‘non-existence,’ the subject of a landmark work of modern philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s ‘On Denoting,’1 in which an apparent paradox of metaphysics itself dissolves into nothingness by the graces of rigorous logical analysis.

It could be further noted that many interpreters sympathetic to the anti-metaphysical Zeitgeist took the position that Plato abandoned the Theory of Forms in his later works. They found important support in G.E.L. Owen’s still discussed paper on the dating of the Timaeus, 2 for in moving that dialogue from its traditional role as a late Platonic work into his middle period Owen obviated the need to assume transcendent Forms in interpreting the late dialogues. The Sophist is indisputably a late work, and while the word for Form εἶδος, appears numerous times in the dialogue it is far from clear that it should bear the same meaning it has in the middle period works. Coherent readings of the Sophist can be generated that exclude transcendent entities. Reinforcing the attitude that Plato could not but abandon the Forms was a particular conception of the way philosophers were supposed to act. However unreceptive scholars were in general to the idiosyncrasies of Gilbert Ryle’s Plato’s Progress, many agree with his objections to making Plato an unremitting Platonist, that is ‘allow[ing] him no important new thinking and certainly no radical re-thinking,’ a thinker that is who didn’t grow. Ryle proclaims his confidence in ‘the a priori truth that being a philosopher cannot be like this.’3 In this modern understanding of the philosopher’s task, system building gave way to clarification of puzzles and muddles; the Theory of Forms was an instance of the latter and Plato had to seek a way out.

In lucid and succinct prose White situates the dialogue in relation to the Parmenidean equation of false statement with stating that-which-is-not, i.e. a non-existent entity, contradictory in principle. He also explains Plato’s need to provide a rational basis for false statement in order to refute the relativistic claim of the Sophists that false beliefs are not possible. White’s survey of the technical issues raised by Plato in the Sophist will be especially valuable to students coming to the Sophist for the first time. These include the distinction between the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of predication, the distinction between non-being and nonexistence, and the intermingling of the ‘forms’ that lays the groundwork for Plato’s solution to the problem of false statement. White reminds the reader that the Sophist falls short of investigating issues the modern philosopher wishes had been explored. It was not Plato’s purpose to launch a full scale probe into ‘being,’ negation, or truth and falsity. Rather he took aim at the more limited problem of showing the possibility of false statement stripped of any Parmenidean paradoxes. All these complex issues are presented with a masterful concision and clarity which will allow readers of the dialogue to understand the nature of the problems Plato is wrestling with.

As further help for the reader, White offers a five page analytical summary of the dialogue. His ‘select bibliography’ is limited to scholarly work done since 1950, intended as he says ‘to give a rough idea of the range of works on the dialogue in the past few decades.’ There is a decided slant to works in the analytic tradition. Students should at least be made aware of the quite different contributions made by such scholars as Benardete, Bluck, Cobb, Cornford and Klein.

The translation is in fluent, colloquial English. American undergraduates will feel far more at home here than with the other versions that are available. At times the English may appear a bit too relaxed, but that is generally truer for the discursive passages than for the sections with heavy philosophical import. In those, White states, he is ‘trying, to the extent feasible, to leave interpretative questions open to the reader’ (viii). Such locutions as ‘appearance-making’, ‘that which is not,’ ‘be in the case of [Eἶναι ἐπί]’ are hardly colloquial but they are philosophically neutral regarding specific ontological assumptions. The translation permits the reader to make up his or her own mind as to Plato’s continuing faith in the transcendent forms. The Sophist is not lacking in literary flourishes, but most readers will be bringing logical and metaphysical questions to it. For this reason, a translation that closely preserves the original Greek structure and retains any inherent ambiguities will be the most useful. This is the third English translation of the Sophist published in the last decade. William Cobb 4 provided an accurate but at times rather stiff translation along with a topical index and analytical synopsis. Seth Benardete’s translating skills are of the highest order; his edition has a substantially broader focus than the logico-linguistic matters that attract White but it is on an altogether different scale as part of a dialogic trilogy with extensive commentary. 5

White’s Sophist is the latest in the expanding series of Plato translations offered by the Hackett Publishing Company. These editions are inexpensive, attractively and sturdily produced, and freshly translated by leading Plato scholars. Brief but sufficient introductory material and notes are generally provided. In short, White’s translation of the Sophist is a welcome addition, ideally suited for classroom use, which mature scholars and research students will obviously benefit from consulting as well.

  • [1] Bertrand Russell, ‘On Denoting’, Mind 14, 1905, 479-493 [2] G.E.L. Owen, ‘The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Dialogues’, Classical Quarterly 1953, reprinted in R.E. Allen, ed. Studies in Plato’s Metaphysics, New York 1965, pp. 313-338. [3] Gilbert Ryle, Plato’s Progress, 1966, Cambridge, p. 9. Contrast the different assumption of Paul Shorey’s The Unity of Plato’s Thought, Chicago 1903. [4] William Cobb, Plato’s Sophist, Savage MD, 1990. [5] Seth Benardete, The Being of the Beautiful. Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman, Chicago, 1984