The Sophist: Answering Parmenides

Advanced students wanting to descend the depths of Platonic scepticism and find there the solid foundation of Platonic science need to read The Sophist. Advanced students wanting a demonstration of Plato’s scientific method need to read The Sophist. The Sophist subjects Socratic formalism to Parmenidean scepticism and comes out the other side with the most robust and rounded presentation of Platonic philosophy in all Plato’s works.

Not for beginners: Students are recommended to first take other courses, at least Reading Plato and then Theaetetus and/or Plato’s Republic.


This course will following the Theaetetus course and subject to demand. Make a request, watch this space for details or subscribe to our blog.


Recommended Translations

Quality print editions are not readily available in Australia. Chris Rowe’s recent translation (CUP ISBN 9781107697027) is recommended and available by advanced order (up to 3 weeks) from Readings. The 1935 Cornford translation is also recommended, including its running commentary (PDF here). Find Cornford’s translation also in the Bollingen collected dialogues. H N Fowler’s century-old translation stands up well beside the original Greek in the LOEB edition (PDF here).

Course Outline


The surface narrative follows up from the epistemological discussion of Theaetetus. The group meet gain the next morning, only this time accompanied by an “Eleatic stranger” who proceeds to lead a meandering and playful attempt to define “the sophist.” This exemplification of Plato’s dialectic “method of division” gets stuck on the problem of false statements, which brings up Parmenides’ prohibition on saying what-is-not. Eventually there is a breakthrough, a triumph over Parmenides, which then proceeds to the most advanced presentation of Plato “Theory of Forms.”

Session 1 | Making the right distinctions | page 216 to 221c

Theodorus introduces the gang from Theaetetus to a stranger from Elea. Unlike many of the disciples of Parmenides, this chap proves to be a real philosopher when he agrees to define the sophist and proceeds by the “method of division.” This method is given its first half-comic warm-up demonstration to produce a definition of the angler.
How might this process of repeated dichotomous division relate to the formal unity of same/other? Does it also relate to Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy?

Session 2 | Hunting down the sophist | page 221d to 237a

Six successive goes at defining the sophist show his multidimensional character and yet one most distinguishing characteristic remains elusive. In pretending to expertise on everything, the sophist is a faker who says what is false. He says what is-not.
What can it mean to say what is-not if what is-not does not exist?

Session 3 | Killing his father | page 237b to 245e

The definition of the sophist gets stuck on the problem of saying that the Sophist is one who says what is-not. This brings our follower of Parmenides square up against the great prohibition of his “father.” Parmenides prohibited all reference to what is-not, for that would only be to presume the existence of that which does not exist. This brings the whole dialectic methodology into crisis. If a false discourse (a pseudo logos) cannot be defined, then nor can a true one. If there is no way to determine whether a statement is true, then there can be no philosophy, no science.
How does this problem of false speech bring us to the problem of reference (as discussed in Theaetetus), that is, the problem of determining whether what-is-thought correspond with what-is-real?

Session 4 | The battle of the gods and the giants | page 246 to 250e

The investigation of the problem with statements concerning not-being finds that it is replicated in statements concerning being, thus propelling the inquiry into a profound conundrum over how ontology could possibly be established. Consideration is then given to two schools in diametric opposition on this question, the materialists and the extreme idealists. But neither are found to provide a satisfactory way to mediate between the world of ideas and the world of things, between the insensible and the sensible.
What is the difference between relative and absolute non-being? And how might the absolute and ineffable non-being related to the “Form of the Good” in the Republic?

Session 5 | The Philosopher’s high science of dialectic | page 251 to 259b

Discussion of the idealist’s forms leads incidentally to a definition of the philosopher as practitioner of the art of dialectic qua the method of division, and especially where it is used to find the divisions of form. This current dialectical investigation is led by our Eleatic philosopher to noticed how forms blend with forms – i.e., how they “participate” each other – and at the most elementary level. In particular, the form of being is found to participate the form of same/other, where the other of being is not-being. This leads to a triumph over Parmenides’ great prohibition, where the being of all forms is shown to have this other side, their non-being, which also exists. Indeed, non-being is found distributed in small partitions through all existing things in their relations with each another.
How does this discussion of elementary forms compare with earlier discussion of Socratic form (Justice, Beauty etc) in, for example, the Euthyphro and the Phaedo?

Session 6 | The generation of ideas and things | page 259c to 268d

Now that being and non-being have been defined by formal otherness, the next step is to show how they align with speech (logos), true and false. The deceptively simple solution is that true speech gives an account of things (or forms) as they are, while false speech gives an account of things (or forms) that is other to how they actually are. With this great conundrum resolved, the definitional dividing can proceed by returning to the sophist as a faker. Faking is creative, and so sophistry must be one of the creative arts. Divisions of the creative arts incidentally defines divine creation-from-nothing in contrast to human creation, the construction of things from things. The sophistic art is a type of human creation, not of things but images, like the illusionist, only he creates his images with statements. And so, at last, we have define pseudo logos, the sophistry of the sophist.
The false statement “Theaetetus flies” corresponds to the other of what reality?