The subject matter of the Sophist’s ontology could be roughly divided into the following three sections. The first section deals with Parmenides and the Presocratics. In this section, in interlocutors examine their past. The second section is the GIGANTOMACHY, which deals with idealists and materialists. I am going to propose that this section examines the present. The third section gives us Plato’s emendation of his previous ontology as a result of his examination of what people have said and currently say about being.
Of course, the heart of the first section is Parmenides. Not only does the Eleatic Stranger give us access to Parmenides, he also holds him as his father- for he is the figurehead of the tradition the Eleatic Stranger comes from. The Eleatic Stranger’s close association to Parmenides makes the discussion of Parmenides the spirit of this section. Likewise, Plato’s association to the theory of the forms in the GIGANTOMACHYmakes the critique of the idealists the heart of the GIGANTOMACHY.
In this essay I wish to highlight the cathartic role of these first two sections. A good place to start, then, would perhaps be the sixth appearance of the Sophist: “he who cleanses the soul of beliefs that interfere with learning.” In addition to definition, we are given both the purpose and method of purpose of catharsis.
Let us start with the method. The method of catharsis is for those who hold the “large, difficult type of ignorance marked off from the others and overshadowing all of them.” This ignorance thinks that it knows, but in fact does not know. Plato describes it as the following: “They collect his opinions together during the discussion, put them side by side, and show that they conflict with each other at the same time on the same subjects in relations to the same things and in the same respects.” We see Socrates doing this throughout Plato’s dialogues Even in the aporetic dialogues, Socrates is at least trying to purify (e.g.) Euthyphro’s conflicting beliefs.
As regards to its purpose, we are told the following:
The people who cleanse the soul… likewise thing the soul, too, won’t get any advantage from any learning that’s offered to it until someone shames it by refuting it, removes opinions that interfere with learning, and exhibits it cleansed, believe that it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more.
From these two descriptions we have a notion of what catharsis looks like: it is a refutation of someone which shows their opinions to be contradictory, after which they are capable of learning. Who, then, is the catharsis performed on? I do not think the answer is straight-forward by any means. But certainly there is a kind of catharsis performed on the Eleatic Stranger? The problem with saying this is that the Eleatic Stranger could be “playing the Socrates” here.The bigger problem is that saying such would imply that either Theaetetus or Plato is performing a purification of him. I am sure we hardly think Theaetetus to be capable of such and we could only guess at Plato’s role here. I think, if we are to say that any catharsis is performed upon the Eleatic Stranger, it is by himself on himself.
But what if we said the first section contained a catharsis of Parmenides and the second section contained Plato’s purification of his own doctrines? I think this to be correct, but I am currently going to leave this point as an “assumption” and move on to a different, more important, question.
Rather, I wish to pose the question of why.What is the connection here between catharsis and ontology?
Plato’s Sophist is an ontology- that is a λογος of being- in its purest form. We are taken from the results of past ontologies and ontologies taking place in Plato’s time on forward into a new ontology and its conclusions. The ontology contained within this dialogue has struck numerous thinkers with its complexity, density, and difficulty. Why should philosophy inquire into being? Some of philosophy’s contemporary interlocutors would find ontology trivial, while Thomists, Aristotelians, and Heideggerians see ontology as, in some respect, essential. We of course, are talking about the Sophist. But may we still not ask Plato the same question? Such a question could be turned into the basic question: why would one inquire into being at all?
Of course, asking the Thomases, John Stuart Mills, and Kants about being would involve an ontology completely different from that of Plato. We suffer from a Latinized ontology. We must Hellenize our ontological vocabulary.
We should first be clear upon what we English speakers mean by “being.” In particular, we think of this in terms of existence. Existence is, for us, a finite phenomenon. A Thomist today, for instance, would speak of eternal, infinite existence as a modification of existence (i.e. substantive being). Existence, for us, is also something bestowed upon something from outside of it, which is evident from the prefix “ex” which means “out” or “out of.” It is not a quality of the thing, but a non-qualitative statement about its reality- or at least so Kant says. Existence for us is “being the case,” but in a way that “that which is the case” is subject to change.
Greek ontology is built off of the word ειηαι. Charles H. Kahn points out three connotations of ειηαι implicit in it. It is implicit that “that which is” exists for a infinite duration of time. This is to say, “that which is” is eternal. It is also implicit that “that which is” is true and that “that which is” is locatedsomewhere.
So now, we can see much clearer the importance of ontology for a Greek, since ontology here is an inquiry into eternal truths, while the study of existence studies the reality of things which are coming into and going out of being (which is not quite as exciting as eternal truths, honestly).
Now let us turn our attention to the catharsis in the dialogue itself. For the sake of brevity, I will focus most of my attention of the catharsis of Parmenides, since this is the core catharsis of the dialogue. What I mean by calling it the “core” relates to the fact that the main interlocutor has a close association with Parmenides.
The dialogue begins with Theodorus introducing the Eleatic Stranger, who is part of the group which gathers around Parmendies and Zeno. Socrates at first fears that the Eleatic Stranger may be a “god of refutation;” that is, a proponent of the eristic style of argumentation which aims at refuting an opponent rather than aiming at truth (as dialectic does). This is clear from Theodorus’s use of the word “ερις.” Theodorus assures Socrates that the Eleatic Stranger is not this eristic kind of debtor. Theodorus assures us, in fact, that the Eleatic Stranger is “quite a philosopher.”
Cornford remarks that this “graceful exchange of compliments” serves the purpose of establishing the precise philosophic standpoint of the stranger. “The description of the stranger makes it clear that he does not stand for this [“this” being eristic refutation] negative and destructive element in the Eleatic tradition.”
I agree with Cornford that this point is made; I do not think that Plato isyet making this point. My justification for this point is Socrates’s discussion at 216c-217a, which points out that it is harder to distinguish a genuine philosophers from fake philosophers than it is to distinguish gods among men. Here, Socrates might be implying that Theodorus might have hastily concluded the Eleatic Stranger to be a genuine philosopher.
In addition to this, Socrates asks the Eleatic Stranger to tell us how “the people where he comes from” use the names sophist, statesman, and philosopher. The people the Eleatic stranger comes from are the Eleans and the Eleatic school of thought.
Cornford also makes the point that the role of the Stranger in the dialogue is to stand “for the genuinely philosophic element in the Parmenidean tradition.” Recalling that the Eleatic Stranger is answering Socrates for “the people where he comes from,” it becomes clear that Cornford is correct in saying that the Eleatic Stranger stands for the Parmenidean philosophic tradition. The point that he stands for the “genuinely philosophic element” is proved throughout the dialogue implicitly. This is because the catharsis of Parmenides vis-à-vis the Eleatic Stranger works.
The “conflicting beliefs” are referred to as a “verbal conflict.” This first appears at the beginning of the ontology in the discussion of likeness making versus appearance making.
Likeness making replicates to scale, while appearance making takes into account the perspective of the viewer- making the thing appear to be a perfect representation of the thing when we view it from a limited, imperfect perspective.
If it possible to make something which “appears” to be a perfect and true representation of the thing in question, but is in fact only something which “seems to be” but is not, then this poses a problem for the interlocutors. The reason this is significant for the conversation is because the interlocutors are proposing the sophist’s speech to be false- that is, “seeming” to be a perfect and true representation of reality, but not actually being true. The reason it poses a problem is because it leads to the possibility of “verbal conflict,” because in order to say “that which is not,” one must assume that “that which is not” is, otherwise falsity could not come into being. To say that “that which is not” is seems to be both a logical contradiction and a contraction of Parmenides, who wrote: “Never shall this force itself on us, that that which is not may be; while you search, keep your thought far away from this path.”
To shed light on the role of Parmenidean logic in this dialogue, I also want to acknowledge another passage of Parmenides unquoted in the dialogue: “thinking and being are the same.” This puts a perspective on the problem Parmenides presents the interlocutors will address in 239d-242b; namely, false belief. A certain reading of this passage (presumably the reading that the Eleatic Stranger is giving it) would utilize the statement to make the claim that both false belief and false speech are impossible, for that would require thinking “that which is not,” which is impossible because that which is not is not and cannot not be, and to think “that which is not” is to put it into being.
The resolution of this verbal conflict is the core philosophical task of the dialogue. The first attempt at resolution is made by asking the question “what should the name that which is not be applied to?” The Stranger asks “why” it would be used and “for what purpose.” Also, he asks “in what connection? …And what would he indicate by it?”These are two separate questions.
One could be formulated as “how is that which is not used in our language?” The second could be formulated “and what kind of thing or beingcorresponds to that which is not as what is indicated by it?” Essentially, the first concerns the use, the second concerns the meaning.
The latter is an kind of representationalist theory of language.This “representationalism” is evident if we take Parmenides to be saying that the object of thought and being-an-entity are the same- or to make this more clear- that anything that can be thought has a kind of “entity like being.”
To justify this reading, I wish to turn first to Gorgias’s statement that “whatever is, is somewhere; what is nowhere is nothing.” This Presocratic axiom, Charles H. Kahn points, out can be traced back to Zeno and according to Aristotle can be found as early as Hesiod.
The attempt to answer these two questions about “that which is not” begins with an inquiry into the meaning of “that which is not.” To find the meaning here is to find the corresponding “thing” indicated by “that which is not” so that we may have a kind of “signpost” to guide our usage.
The interlocutors are not looking for a “definition” to guide the usage. Rather they are looking for the being which is named. It is a kind of “form” or “idea,” but I do not me to suggest this in doctrinal Platonic sense. Rather, I wish to point out that this fits into what we characterized as the Greek idea of “doing ontology.”
I wish to highlight the parallel between this move and the classic Socratic move of asking for (e.g.) “piety itself” instead of asking for examples of piety. This also ties into Plato’s doctrine that knowledge of the forms is required for proper knowledge of the particulars. This doctrine, which is contained in Republic VI and famously present in Raphael’s depiction of Plato, further illustrates the locutive tendency of Plato (and of Greek ontology as a whole) that Kahn points out, and also effectively shows the way in which the “form” effectively operates as a “signpost” to each particular participating in it.
The verbal conflict is between the idea of “false speech” and Parmenides thesis. The resolution is patricide: the dismissal of Parmenides thesis that “that which is” and “that which is not” are contraries. Removing this, and providing a possibility for both false speech and false thoughts is the catharsis of Parmenides in the dialogue. Only after this is ontology as a search for truth possible.
My review of the Sophist’s catharsis of Plato’s earlier doctrine will be much more brief. Essentially, Plato’s earlier theory of forms leads to skepticism. This is because “what is known has something done to it.”Since this involves a change in that which is known (in that it “becomes” that which is known, previously unknown), this would mean that that knowledge would be unattainable.
The argument against Plato’s earlier doctrine is that it leads to skepticism, and such a position would be an opinion of the soul that would interfere with learning. Thus, a catharsis of this doctrine is necessary. The conclusion of the catharsis leads the interlocutors to a position which Theaetetus calls truth.
The philosopher- the person who values these things the most [truth, knowledge, etc.]- absolutely has to refuse to accept the claim that everything is at rest, either from defenders of the one or from friends of the many forms. In addition he has to refuse to listen to people who say that that which is changes in every way. He has to be like a child begging for “both,” and say that that which is– everything- is both the unchanging and that which changes.
The point that this represents the conclusion of the catharsis is further backed by the Eleatic Stranger’s statement “Don’t you notice… that we’re now in extreme ignorance about that which is, though it appears to us that we’re saying something?”
In summary, what I have provisionally referred to as the first two sections of the Sophist contain within them a catharsis of the position of Parmenides and Plato’s earlier theory of the forms. The purpose of this catharsis is to pave the way for an ontology. Greek ontology does not seek “existence” but “truth.” When Parmenides and the idealists are “cross examined,” they are shown to be in “verbal conflict.” The verbal conflict of Parmenides is really a verbal conflict of the Eleatic Stranger, who is a Parmenidean in tradition but also sees that false speech and false thinking are possible. The verbal conflict of the idealists is that the idealists make assertions but at the same time do away with knowledge, understanding and intelligence. When these are shown to be in verbal conflict, the catharsis is complete. The interlocutors, being in a state of ignorance, can begin their ontology again form a “pure” perspective.
Anscombe, G.E.M. “The New Theory of Forms.” The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe Vol. 1: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein. Minneapolis: I of Minnesota, P. 1981.
Cornford, Francis. Plato’s Theory of Knowledge. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1957. [print]
Gilson, Etienne. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005.
Kahn, Charles H. “The Greek Verb ‘To Be’ and the Concept of Being.”Essays on Being. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2009.
Plato. Sophist. Trans. White, Nicholas. The Complete Works. Ed. Cooper, John. Indianapolis: Hackett P C, 1997. [print]
I am including in this category the earlier discussions of Parmenides as well as the “dangerous λογος.”
Whether or not Plato is referring to any actual materialists in his time, the main emphasis on “present” here is on Plato’s critique of himself as a critique of his present theory of forms.
Cf. Anscombe, “Plato’s New Theory of the Forms.”
Cornford remarks, “he understands dialectic as the search for truth, and, once the conversation is started, his manner is distinguished by no individual trait from that of the Platonic Socrates” (170). Though I think Cornford may be guilty of hyperbole here, their similarity is duly noted. It does seem that Socrates and the Stranger are different, in their unique character and unique tradition, in a way that significantly effects the way in which each interlocutor respectively proceeds. I wish to maintain that the Eleatic Stranger is a unique (and indeed, excellent) “voice” of Plato.
1. It also seems implicitly obvious that the Eleatic Stranger is a genuine philosopher, both from the context of the juxtaposition of eristic and dialectic with real and fake philosophers, and from the context of Plato’soeuvre as a whole.
In context, I am reading kalos as “appear perfect.”
Sophist 237a. (Parmenides, frg. 7, 11.1-2).
Miller, Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, 13.
I borrow this term from Rorty. See Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1.
 Which should be kept in mind, as this same approach resurfaces in the “dangerous λογος” (242b-246a)
Gorgias B. 3. 70. Trans. Kahn, Charles. “The Greek Verb ‘to be’ and the Concept of Being,” 32.
Fragmente, 29 A 24; Aristotle, Physics 209a4.
Physics, 208a20, 29b ff.
As he does in Euthyphro 6d-e, for example.
 Sophist, 258 a-b
Is this really Plato’s earlier doctrine, however? I do not know enough to say so, however I am lead to believe that at least both Anscombe and Gilson are of the opinion that this is the case.
249b “And we need to use every argument we can to fight against anyone who does away with knowledge, understanding, and intelligence but at the same time asserts anything at all about anything.”
Alethestata (excuse my possibly poor transliteration).