BMCR 2007.10.42

Image and Paradigm in Plato’s Sophist

, Image and Paradigm in Plato's Sophist. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2006. 296. $32.00.

This thorough study of the Sophist, one of Plato’s late dialogues, is accompanied by a translation by the author (henceforth A.). A.’s major interpretative axes are stated in clear terms in the introduction. Firstly, he sides with those who view the Sophist as a “metaphysical” dialogue, thereby rejecting the modern fashion of treating it as a purely logical treatise. Subsequently, A. presents the three principal points that he sets out to establish, namely: 1) the Sophist is in reality an aporetic dialogue in which the apparent conclusion is invalidated by the dialogue’s internal argument; 2) the Sophist offers a criticism of Parmenides’ limited insights; 3) with its aporetic conclusion, the Sophist demonstrates the destructive consequences of a strictly Eleatic logic for Plato’s fundamental account of reality and participation, and thus makes “an indirect argument for the necessity of the ontological distinction between paradigm and image” (p. xv).

The commentary is in three parts, corresponding to what seems to be merely a convenient division of the dialogue into main sections: the author’s main thesis is urged throughout the book, and shown to provide a coherent account of each part of the dialogue. Part one (pp. 3-64) gives an account of the argument of the Sophist from the beginning of the dialogue until the first mention of the notion of image (233e), and is thus mostly concerned with preliminary definitions achieved by means of diaeresis. According to A., whereas this method is exposed in theoretically satisfying terms in other dialogues (e.g. in the Phaedrus), it is merely applied in the Sophist, with only minimal methodological background. Moreover, the metaphysical scheme underlying this particular application of diaeresis is inadequate, and is ultimately responsible for the aporetic nature of the dialogue. Thus, from the very beginning the whole process of definition is bound to fail. A. makes an interesting point about the similarity between Speusippus’ and the Visitor’s use of diaeresis in the Sophist. Two shared characteristics are especially important: the use of strict dichotomies (which is not part of the theoretical preconditions of diaeresis found elsewhere in Plato’s dialogues) and the process of dividing according to what the thing is not (“negative definition” as A. puts it). This specific application of the method does not acknowledge the existence of “essences” understood as generic forms under which falls a plurality of individual entities. It is only compatible with a Speusippean account of reality in terms of multiple individual substances, each of which is related to and distinguished from the others, according to various relations of identity, difference, and similarity. Moreover, it does not allow for any sort of distinction between “essences” and “accidents”. The very method used in the Sophist contradicts the essential Platonic view of the ontological superiority of forms. A. then makes some other parallels with the different accounts of diaeresis found in the Phaedrus, the Statesman, the Philebus, and in Aristotle.

More crucially, A. anticipates potential objections from those who believe that Plato’s late dialogues mark a revision, whether a radical or a moderate one, from the standard metaphysics of the Phaedo and the Republic. A. holds that these objections are especially likely to come from critics who are “inclined to view the Parmenides as a crisis and turning point in Platonic thought” (p. 29). Interpreters sometimes think that diaeresis is a conceptual replacement of the theory of forms, or simply a revised version of the standard theory. In either case, A. argues, the Aristotelian logical and ontological divisions based on species-genus and part-whole relations must not be invoked when considering the Platonic premises for diaeresis. If the Sophist is ambiguous (deliberately so, we are encouraged to believe) about the nature of the forms and the telos of diaeresis, the other late dialogues do not give any sign of a major metaphysical veer that would end up in a repudiation of the forms as self-standing and eternal beings.

A. shows that all the rules concerning the proper use of diaeresis are violated in the Sophist. These include the preliminary step of “collection”, or συναγωγή (A. dismisses earlier attempts to detect its presence in the dialogue), and the requirement of dividing reality at its “natural joints”. Furthermore, strict dichotomies are used throughout the dialogue, which results in “unnatural” divisions and thus in inaccurate definitions. The point A. tries to make in this section relies heavily upon e silentio arguments: according to A., the absence of any methodological exposition in the dialogue suggests that such expositions as have been made in other dialogues are here deliberately ignored. More specifically, dichotomous diaeresis in the Sophist is said to underlie “a kind of Eleatic logic based on identity and difference” (p. 41). The dialogue’s point would then be its very neglect of the essential rules of diaeresis.

The second major point made in this part of the book concerns the “original sin” at the root of each and every definition of the sophist: namely, the sophist is invariably granted mastery of a τέχνη, even though it is a standard Platonic view since the earliest dialogues that he is in fact deprived of any kind of art. The dialogue starts with the assumption that the sophist masters an art, and this assumption is never challenged in the subsequent discussion. Yet all the other attributes of the sophist known from other dialogues are present in the Sophist. Therefore, this apparent departure from the traditional view that the sophist’s activity, whatever it may be, is not an art, should be understood as another clue to the dialogue’s intentionally defective approach.

The preliminary definitions rearrange the same attributes in multiple ways. Most of these definitions are based on underlying analogies with various arts. Analogy is the pointing out of a resemblance, but nowhere is the nature and the boundaries of such resemblances pointed out. The “concealed analogies” (p. 56) which show the sophist as a hunter, a merchant, an athlete or an educator deliberately blur the distinctions between truth and appearance, and thus between sophist and philosopher. The last definition, although it is off to a good start with its assumption that the art of the sophist has nothing real about it, still relies on an untenable description of this art as a δοξαστικὴ ἐπιστήμη. A. rightly denounces the formula as an oxymoron. Even in this last definition the fundamental methodological bias remains.

In its second part (pp. 65-124), the commentary runs from the seminal problem of images to the aporiai of being and non-being in the Sophist. A. clarifies several points related to Plato’s use of image-terminology, and succeeds in showing that the distinction between types of likenesses found in the Sophist is a spurious one, since it is incompatible with the assumption (found in the middle dialogues) that images occupy a place between being and non-being. Usual Platonic accounts of the notion of image stress the essential asymmetry that is characteristic of its relation to the paradigm: whereas image “looks like” the paradigm or “aspires” to resemble it, the paradigm does not depend on the existence of the image in order to be what it is. This asymmetrical relation allows the forms to be part of a realm that is radically separate from that of the sensible world; at the same time, it allows this sensible world to partake of (or “participate in”) the reality of the forms. In the Sophist the evocation of the notion of image falls short of keeping this fundamental ontological barrier firmly in place; consequently, the powerful image-paradigm dichotomy is blurred, thus giving way to an artificial and unpractical division which is as useless for the purposes of the dialogue as the kind of nominalistic distinctions that lurk in the Sophist‘s treatment of the five greatest γένη. This ontological reduction of paradigm and image to a single hierarchical level is part of the same Eleatic logic that will presently cause a similar collapse between being and non-being. The perplexity related to both being and non-being is the result of the Visitor’s inability, or unwillingness, to refrain from looking at the problem from a Parmenidean standpoint, and from repeating basic methodological mistakes, such as giving an account of non-being before being or of the image before the thing represented by the image. As a result, the possibility of false opinion is subject to the same apparent refutation it has already met with in the Theaetetus. A. then proceeds to show how the various treatments of being in the Sophist in terms of “ousia”, of “whole and parts”, or of “dunamis”, use the same kind of arguments found in the Parmenides, and how these arguments necessarily end up in sterile nominalism. This type of approach can lead to no resolution, and this is precisely Plato’s point.

Part three (pp. 125-75) begins with an analysis of the Sophist‘s gradual slipping away from strictly ontological questions towards its famous linguistic discussions, introduced with the question “How can a single thing be called by many names?”. Here again, and until the end of this final part of his commentary, A. patiently exposes the theoretical deficiencies inherent in the Visitor’s use of the notion of “communion”, which significantly deprives relations between beings of any hierarchical connotation. In this section the author takes sides in the traditional debate over the meaning of the Sophist‘s discussion of the five “greatest kinds”. Based on evidence from other dialogues, A. refuses to accept that actual Platonic forms can engage in the sort of relations that obtain between these five kinds. The Sophist suggests that some ideas are “over” others, or “extend through” others, or that “forms are nested in other more extensive forms, grouped together as parts of wholes” (p. 138). This vocabulary is not compatible with the standard accounts of participation. Accepting that this applies to Platonic forms would entail not only modifying but plainly and totally rejecting the theory of forms.

A. does not go as far as to reduce this discussion to a purely logical arrangement between concepts (as many have done before him), but rather insists on the voluntary vagueness attaching to the nature of the five kinds and of the so-called “communion” between them. This vagueness, as well as the use of a type of nominalistic argumentation that has been previously denounced as the puerile and sophistic way of “late-learners”, is believed to make up (however indirectly) a significant part of Plato’s strategic irony. Thus the final “solution” provided by the dialogue is no more than the image of an actual one. According to A., Plato did not seriously intend to solve the original problem, because it is obvious from the very beginning (with its use of a “dialectics” that has been distorted by Eleatism) until the very end (with its account of non-being defined as “other”) that the Visitor’s argument will fall short of providing an answer to the initial problem. The point of the dialogue’s deliberate failure is stated once again at the end, as it has been many times throughout the book: “The Sophist makes an indirect argument for participation as a theory of meaning and of reality” (p. 174).

Part four comprises A.’s translation of the Sophist. As well as being precise and accurate, the translation is hermeneutically “neutral”: it deliberately avoids foisting on the reader A.’s own interpretation of the dialogue. Thus, it would make for excellent reading for students, although one sometimes does miss explanatory footnotes on difficult passages.

This book presents an original and interesting thesis about a famously difficult Platonic dialogue.

Its case is abundantly and acutely defended, but one sometimes wonders whether the author is not reading too much into his material. One feels that A. repeats his main point all too often, instead of exploring more deeply the implications of considering the Sophist as an aporetic dialogue within the Platonic corpus. One also misses a proper analysis of Platonic aporia in general, and of the function of aporia in the Sophist in particular. If participation and ontological hierarchy are indeed absent from the Sophist, and if their very absence makes an indirect point in their favour, why should this point be pressed once more after two previous dialogues (the Theaetetus and especially the Parmenides), which focus on similarly “indirect” argumentation?

Moreover, why should Plato raise and abandon the question of the status of image at this point, if proper solutions related to the problem of participation could already be found in earlier dialogues such as the Republic ? Finally, since nobody seems to have got the point until A., it would appear that Plato’s use of aporia is exceedingly subtle — or that A. is simply reading too much into the Sophist.

Of course, one perhaps should not expect the author to elucidate these broader problems, since his foremost intention was to present a close reading of the Sophist and to bring out its internal fallacies in order to support his own theory that there is no positive value in this dialogue, which is generally understood as a crucial step towards the so-called “new metaphysics” of Plato’s late dialogues. Much of A.’s argument relies on comparisons with what “should be” part of a proper Platonic theory of being, according to the canon of the middle dialogues. Even though I sympathize with A.’s irritation at the Sophist’s

many inconsistencies and obvious confusions, and although I too feel the need somehow to account for them, I cannot help but suspect that question-begging may lurk in A.’s reading of the Sophist as a voluntary act of dissidence from a “correct” Platonic metaphysics, and in his consequent dismissal of the Sophist as a positive moment in the development of Plato’s thought.

Apart from the numerous scholars who hold, in the context of the analytical tradition, that Plato in his later dialogues becomes a proto-logician who has abandoned entirely his theory of forms and has adopted a strictly conceptual approach, a majority of scholars (at least since Diès1 and Cornford2) have indeed read the Sophist as evidence for precisely such a positive development in Platonic ontology. Traditionally, his dialogues are believed to show an evolution from an original concern over reconciling a sensible world constantly in flux with the immutable reality of the eternal beings, to a new epistemic concern for the necessary relations between these eternal beings. Thus, the polemical character of A.’s thesis calls for a strong case, and he successfully achieves his goal thanks to a very precise dissection of the dialogue’s fallible logic. However this results in a kind of study that might have trouble finding readers, because of its paradoxical purpose: to help understand the inner argument of a dialogue that has been known to give students headaches, and at the same time to present a non-orthodox interpretation that not all teachers may be ready to endorse or to recommend to their students. However, this does not undermine either the indisputable quality of A.’s argumentation or (more importantly) the inherent probability of his views, which are open for all to appreciate.

Editing standards are generally very high, apart from a few misprints, especially in Greek accents (e.g. acute instead of circumflex on εἶδος, twice on p. 30; ἔιδωλον instead of εἴδωλον, p. 168). There is syntactic confusion in the second sentence of p. 32, and note 168 on p. 139 strangely contains a “Harvard”-style reference, whereas the rest of the book uses the title-length mode of citation. Nonetheless, the overall layout makes for very pleasant reading.


1. Diès A. (1909), La Définition de l’être et la nature des idées dans le Sophiste de Platon, Paris: Alcan.

2. Cornford F.M. (1935), Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, London: Routledge.