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Plato's Sophist - Selections - Comments

Tr. Francis Macdonald Cornford [and tr. Benjamin Jowett (218d-230e)]. In classical times this dialog was also known by the title "On Being" and was classified as a "logical" dialog (Diog. L. iii, 58).


The topic of this dialog is: "How can thought be of what is not?" In answering that question Plato invents the notion of "logical form" (in contrast to grammatical form, like depth versus surface grammar): he says that when we speak of "that which is not" we do not mean something contrary to what exists but only something that is different from what exists.

Many topics are highlighted in this dialog: the influence of Parmenides on Plato's thinking, the vital importance of Socratic refutation; the distinction between "conceited ignorance" and "Socratic ignorance", as well as between materialists and Platonists (There appears to be no other possibility for Plato). Plato explains what he means by 'all things' (or, as we say, 'the world'), suggests a distinction between formal contradictions and "contradictions of sense", and uses the method of definition by division. Thus the Sophist is extremely rich in philosophical invention.

My discussion of Plato's dialog is from the point of view of "logic of language", the distinction between sense and nonsense being the first question of logic-philosophy. Note.--Are the concepts 'Form' and 'essence' equivalent? Is my discussion mistaken in assuming that they are?

Outline of this page ...

The visitor from Elea, Magna Graecia

The opening of the Sophist explains the character name "Stranger" in Plato's dialogs:

216a-b - Homer tells us that gods attend upon the goings of men of mercy and justice, and not least among them the god of strangers comes to mark the orderly or lawless doings of mankind. Your companion may be one of those higher powers, who intends to observe and expose our weaknesses in philosophical discourse, like a very spirit of refutation.

216a - THEODORUS: ... we have brought a guest with us. Our friend here is a native of Elea; he belongs to the school of Parmenides and Zeno and is devoted to philosophy.

If Plato attributed the origin of definition-by-division to the school of Parmenides and Zeno, that may explain why Socrates is not the one doing the questioning -- i.e. presenting the argument -- in this dialog, because Socrates did not define words that way, although being everywhere faithful to Socrates' own ideas was not Plato's standard (Letters ii 314b-c).

The Greek word translated here as 'stranger' is xenos. W.K.C. Guthrie disapproved of that translation, however, and suggested 'visitor' instead (Guthrie, The Later Plato and the Academy (1978), p. 122n2). (Cf. Diog. L. iii, 52)

Contradiction as the test of knowledge

The "refutation" alluded to (216b; cf. 230b-d) is the Socratic elenchus, the point in the discussion where the contradiction in Socrates' companion's thinking is shown to him (Guthrie, Plato: the man and his dialogues: earlier period (1975), p. 108), thus allowing the companion to realize that he does not know what he thought he knew. That is, of course, philosophy's path to Socratic ignorance.

Parmenides effect on Plato

217c - SOCRATES: Which do you commonly prefer -- to discourse at length by yourself on any matter you wish to make clear, or to use the method of asking questions, as Parmenides himself did on one occasion ... when I was young and he quite an elderly man?

Plato shows his deep respect for Parmenides by associating him in this way with Socrates, or maybe vice versa, for Socrates was not Plato's first teacher in philosophy. (The method of question and answer and cross-question was called 'dialectic'.)

Parmenides contrasts with Heraclitus, who held that "all things are in motion and nothing at rest" (Cratylus 402a), a view of which Plato said: "Whether there is [an] eternal nature in things, or whether the truth is what Heraclitus [says] is a question hard to determine" (ibid. 440b-c, tr. Jowett), although Plato favored the view that there are absolute existences such as "absolute beauty or good" (ibid. 439c).

It was Parmenides who opened [in Plato's view] a window on the truth by introducing into philosophy the notion of a changeless, intelligible reality as a prerequisite of knowledge. (Guthrie, The Later Plato p. 123 [Comment: that there is such a reality, Plato believed was demonstrated by the a priori proofs of geometry.])

What is the meaning of the name 'Sophist'?

218c - STRANGER: At present ... all that you and I possess in common is the name.

That name is, so far in the dialog, merely a bare sign; Plato seeks the meaning of that sign, although he has already assumed that he knows some of the meaning of that sign by saying that it is "the name of a thing". The visitor from Elea is trying to "bring to light the nature of the Sophist". I do not know whether that is equivalent to saying that they are trying to define the word 'Sophist'. Logic-of-language does not define "things"; it defines words [signs]. But Plato does not always clearly make that distinction.

218c (continued) - The thing to which each of us gives that name we may perhaps have privately before our minds, but it is always desirable to have reached an agreement about the thing itself by means of explicit statements, rather than be content to use the same word without formulating what it means.

"... what it means." The question is: what gives the name meaning? Will the "thing" we have "privately before our minds" be the word's meaning? And then will there not be true and false meanings of names? Well, if I picture a donkey when I say the word 'cow', is that to give a false meaning to the word 'cow'? What do we use as our standard -- e.g. we might say that a definition is false if it does not accord with our dictionary. But Plato has no dictionary; how will he decide whether he has defined the word 'Sophist' correctly?

Do we use the word 'Sophist' the way we use the word 'cow' -- i.e. do we define (explain the meaning of) that word by pointing to examples (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 43) of Sophists rather than by trying to state what the common nature of Sophists is -- which is something only the biologist would do with cows?

Definition by Division (The method of)

Nonetheless, Plato does not try to define 'Sophist' by giving examples of Sophists: he does not begin by stating the practices of Protagoras, Prodicus, Gorgias, and Hippias, and then looking to see what those views may have in common (which is what Socrates, according to Aristotle, would have done). Instead, Plato tries to evoke a definition out of the ether, to grasp the essence of the Sophist quite apart from particular examples. Is this way of thinking forced on him by the method of definition-by-division? Why would it be?

In Plato's Statesman 285d-286b the method of definition by division is first applied to things which have an outward image (i.e. an image visible to man while his soul is still "in the body") as practice -- in order to use that method to define "the greatest and highest truths", which have no outward image, among which are the good, the beautiful, the holy, "things" like this. The image of the Sophist, although not such an exalted truth, is nonetheless not "an outward image".

218c - It is not easy to comprehend this group we intend to examine or to say what it means to be a Sophist.

218e - What is there which is ... susceptible of definition ...?

223c - Let us take another branch of [the Sophist's] genealogy, for he is a professor of a great and many-sided art.

226a - ... and with a fresh pedigree, for he is the money-making species of the eristic, disputatious, controversial, pugnacious, combative, acquisitive family .... How true was the observation that he was a many-sided animal, and not to be caught with one hand, as they say!

Therefore there are many [different] types of definitions-by-division that may be given, depending on where we start as the highest level to be divided. Socratic definition, on the other hand, if Aristotle's account of Socrates' method of "induction" is correct, starts at the "lowest level" (i.e. with examples) and on the basis of these examples tries to generalize [discover the common nature] -- i.e. go upwards in the "divisions". (Guthrie, Plato ... earlier period, p. 47-48)

225a - STRANGER: Perhaps we had better divide it.

THEAETETUS: What shall be the divisions?

226c - I think that in all of these there is implied a notion of division.... Then if, as I was saying, there is one art which includes all of them, ought not that art to have one name?

227a-b - ... the dialectic art ... Her endeavor to know what is and is not kindred in all arts, with a view to the acquisition of intelligence, and having this in view, she honors them all alike. And when she makes comparisons, she counts one of them not a whit more ridiculous than another ...

The tyrant Critias mocked the Socrates of Xenophon for talking about "cobblers, builders and metal workers" (Memorabilia i, 2, 37); cf. Gorgias 491a. But the rat-catcher's art is just as useful for logic's [dialectic's] comparisons as the field marshal's art is (Sophist 227b).

228a - Perhaps you have never reflected that disease and discord are the same.... Do you not conceive discord to be the dissolution of kindred elements, originating in some disagreement?... And is deformity anything but want of measure [disproportion (cf. Gorgias 508a)], which is always unsightly?

228b - Then we shall be right in calling vice a discord and disease of the soul?

Plato is making comparisons here ("Look at things this way!"), not stating truths about anything. But is the comparison between ill-health (disease) and ignorance useful to philosophical understanding? Not in any way that I can see. There is also the question of human sensibility (which is part of this language-game): must we find all asymmetry unsightly?

228c-d - And when things having motion, and aiming at an appointed mark, continually miss their aim and glance aside, shall we say this is the effect of symmetry among them, or of the want of symmetry?... But surely we know that no soul is voluntarily ignorant of anything?... And what is ignorance but the aberration of a mind which is bent on truth, and which the process of understanding is perverted?... Then we are to regard an unintelligent soul as deformed and devoid of symmetry?... Then there are two kinds of evil of the soul -- the one of which is generally called vice [examples of which are cowardice, intemperance, and injustice (228e)], and is obviously a disease of the soul .... And there is the other, which they call ignorance, and which, because existing only in the soul, they will not allow to be vice.

229a-b - [The art which has to do with vice is chastisement.] Again, of the various kinds of ignorance, may not instruction rightly be said to be the remedy?... And of the art of instruction, shall we say that there is one or many kinds? At any rate there are two principal ones. Think.

"The two divisions of ignorance"

229b - I believe that I can see how we shall soonest arrive at the answer to this question.


STRANGER: If we can discover a line which divides ignorance into two halves. For the division [The Greek word is diairesis] of ignorance into two parts will certainly imply that the art of instruction is also two-fold, answering to the two divisions of ignorance.

Conceited ignorance versus "Socratic ignorance" (Apology 21d)

229c - I do seem to myself to see one very large and bad sort of ignorance ... When a person supposes that he knows, and does not know; this appears to be the great source of all the errors of the intellect. And this, if I am not mistaken, is the kind of ignorance which specially earns the title of stupidity ... What name, then, shall be given to the sort of instruction which gets rid of this?

230a - ... some appear to have arrived at the conclusion that all ignorance is involuntary, and that no one who thinks himself wise is willing to learn any of those things in which he is conscious of his own cleverness ... [Admonition (rough reproof), which is one art of instruction, does little good in this sort of case.] ...

To replace conceited presumption with Socratic self-knowledge

230b-d - Accordingly, they set to work to eradicate this spirit of conceit in another way.... They cross-examine a man's words, when he thinks that he is saying something and is really saying nothing [cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 13-15], and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectic process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect. He, seeing this, is angry with himself, and grows gentle toward others, and thus is entirely delivered from great prejudices and harsh notions .... [For the man] will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty. He must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows, and no more.

THEAETETUS: that is certainly the best and wisest state of mind (cf. Theaetetus 187c).

In other words, the "best and wisest state of mind" would be the state of mind of Socrates, never thinking oneself to know what one doesn't know. For furthermore: no one seeks to know what he fancies that he already knows (Meno 84c). In Christian theology, which was derived from Greek thought, this was called 'humility' and identified with self-knowledge ("Know thyself"). When the author of The Imitation of Christ says "Confess thine ignorance", his thought is Greek. Wittgenstein's "The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know" (The Blue Book p. 45), although not identical, is in the spirit of Socrates' idea.

In Sophist 230d, Jowett has: "we must admit that refutation is the greatest and chiefest of purifications, and he who has not been refuted ... is in an awful state ...; he is uninstructed ... in those things in which he who would be truly blessed ought to be fairest and purest." Rather than the word 'refutation', Guthrie uses the word 'elenchus' [the Greek word for 'refutation'] or more frequently 'the Socratic elenchus' (the point in the discussion where the contradiction inherent in the discussion's proposed definition is made explicit). Maybe the word 'elenchus', given that the first time one comes upon it one will ask for an explanation of its meaning, is better than 'Socratic refutation', an expression which by itself one might pass over without thought, not thinking to ask for an explanation of its meaning.

Aristotle, classification according to genus and differences

Aristotle appears to continue Plato's method of definition by division. Philosophy (Taylor uses the word 'Science') supplies

the definition of the classes it considers, the definition which faithfully reflects the "lines of cleavage" in Nature. This is why the Aristotelian view is that a true definition should always be per genus et differentias. It should "place" a given class by mentioning the wider class next above it in the objective hierarchy and then enumerating the most deep-seated distinctions by which Nature herself marks off this class from others belonging to the same wider class. (A.E. Taylor, Aristotle [Rev. ed. 1919], (1955), ii, p. 26)

I think this says why Aristotle classifies man as a "rational animal" -- or more precisely, as "an animal that is rational". Aristotle's definitions are real (i.e. determined by nature itself) rather than "nominal", i.e. more or less arbitrary conventions for using the words of our language: "The word 'thunder' can be defined as noise in the clouds" (convention) versus "Thunder is the noise of fire being quenched in the clouds" (reality ['Reality' and 'Being' are other words Taylor uses for 'Nature'] (Posterior Analytics 92b-94a). Would Aristotle's "definition of thunder" then be: "Thunder is a noise (genus) caused by fire being extinguished in the clouds (differentias)"?

Resemblances versus Common Natures (Essences)

231a - ... a cautious man should above all be on his guard against resemblances; they are a very slippery sort of thing... the dog [has some resemblance] to the wolf -- the fiercest of animals to the tamest.

Resemblances and similes? For isn't what Socrates does when he makes analogies from "cobblers, builders and metal workers" (Xenophon, "the art of words")? About metaphors and other analogies: that A is like B in some ways, but also that A is not like B in others ('A is like B' does not mean that A is [identical to] B). (Cf. Sophist 259c-d) In what follows, Plato does not want mere resemblances, but instead the shared essence [common nature] or "convergence".

232a - Now does it strike you that when one who is known by the name of a single art appears to be master of many, there is something wrong with this appearance? If one has that impression of any art, plainly it is because one cannot see clearly that feature of it in which all these forms of skill converge, and so one calls their possessor by many names instead of one.

232b-c - Tell me, does [the Sophist's] pupils' competence extend to divine things that are hidden from common eyes?

233a - Whether it is possible for any human being to know everything [and yet the Sophist's "art of controversy" seems to have the capacity for "disputation on any subject whatsoever" (232e)]. [cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 7]

What does Plato mean by 'all things'?

233e-234a - THEAETETUS: What do you mean by 'all things'?

STRANGER: My meaning is beyond your comprehension at the very outset. It seems you do not understand what is meant by 'all things'.... Well, 'all things' is meant to include you and me and, besides ourselves, all other animals and plants.... and besides that, sea and sky and earth and gods and everything else there is.

There are remarks about 233e in relation to the question (if it is a question) "Why is there something rather than nothing?" as well as the distinction alluded to between soul and body in Cratylus 399d.

234b-e - [The stranger (i.e. the visitor from Elea) compares the Sophists to those who substitute drawings for reality, "exhibiting images of all things in a shadow play of discourse"; seen from a distance such representations seem full of reality to the young (234b-c). But when, as they advance in age, these youngsters come "into closer touch with realities" and are "forced by experience to apprehend things clearly as they are" (234d),] is it not inevitable ... that most of them should abandon those former beliefs, so that what seemed important will now appear trifling and what seemed easy, difficult ...?

THEAETETUS: ... but I suppose that I am one of those who are still at a distance.

235b - "such a net as argument provides for hunting of this sort"

235b-c - "we should arrest him on the royal warrant of reason"

235c - "some lurking [hiding] place among the sub-divisions [of the definition-by-division]"

235d-e - [The stranger says of the art of representation (or, imitation) that the] perfect example of this consists in creating a copy that conforms to the proportions of the original in all three dimensions and giving moreover the proper color to every part.

[Aside. The sculptures of the Italian Renaissance were not likenesses of the sculptures of the Greeks as the Greeks themselves had known them, but only of those sculptures as they had been bleached white by the ages. The temples of the Acropolis at Athens were in the days of Plato alive with color. The white marble sculptures of the Renaissance were thus the creation of a sensibility different from that of antiquity: they were an antiquity of the imagination. There was, however, a certain classical canon of proportion that was not affected by age.]

235e-236a - [The stranger contrasts perfectly faithful copies (235d-e) with works that] are of a colossal size. If they were to reproduce the true proportions of a well-made figure ... the upper parts would look too small, and the lower too large, because we see the one at a distance, the other close at hand.

236d - THEAETETUS: So it seems.

STRANGER: You assent, but you do not recognize the class I mean, or has the current of the argument carried you along to agreement so readily from force of habit?

Never say that what-is-not is

236d-e - This "appearing" or "seeming" without really "being", and the saying of something which yet is not true -- all these expressions have always been and still are deeply involved in perplexity.

237a - It is extremely hard, Theaetetus, to find correct terms in which one may say or think that falsehoods have a real existence, without being caught in a contradiction by the mere utterance of such words.... The audacity of the statement lies in the implication that "what is not" has being, for in no other way could a falsehood come to have being.... the great Parmenides from beginning to end testified against this, constantly telling us what he also says in his poem, "Never shall this be proved -- that things that are not are ..."

Thought can be of what is not the case. -- Is this not like saying that human imagination exists (because it might not)? Why was this perplexing to the Greek philosophers? Was it that "the logic of our language is misunderstood"? So we say, but how exactly was it? If a true proposition states how things stand, then a false proposition states how things do not stand. Theaetetus sits, but he does not fly -- but why is 'Theaetetus does not fly' perplexing?

"It is not the case that ..." -- "One moment! How can it be said that what-is-not is?"

Is this a case of our being unable to capture or recapture a philosophical problem? [A variation of this ancient problem is Etienne Gilson's view which seems to imply that in order for me to deny that a round-square exists, I must first declare that a round-square does exist.] But yet, as we read further (257b-c), we find that Plato has a logic-of-language way of answering this question.

238a - When a thing exists, I suppose, something else that exists may be attributed to it.... But can we say it is possible for something that exists to be attributed to what has no existence?

By saying that x is not beautiful, you are attributing what exists (namely, beauty) to what does not exist (namely, a beautiful-x).

238d - ... the nonexistent reduces even one who is refuting its claims to such straits that, as soon as he sets about doing so, he is forced to contradict himself.

"Contradictions in sense"

In Wittgenstein's "logic of language", meaning is a matter of use, not of form. If there is a use in our language for a form of expression (even if that form is a contradiction [p and not-p]), then that form of expression has a meaning. And that is the case with 'This is beautiful and this is not beautiful' (RPP i § 37).

We may want to say that there is a difference between a contradiction in form and a contradiction in sense [meaning]. To use Wittgenstein's example 'This is beautiful and this is not beautiful': that is a contradiction in form (p and not-p), but it may or may not be a contradiction in sense. The latter depends on what we point to when we say 'this': if we point to the same object, it is a contradiction in sense, but if we point to different objects it is not a contradiction in sense. The form of expression of Wittgenstein's example is always a contradiction in form, although it is not always a contradiction in sense. To be clear: It is not the sense of the contradiction that is nonsense (PI § 500), but 'the absence of sense' = 'nonsense'. For example, 'Come' has a sense and 'Don't come' has a sense -- i.e. those expressions have uses in our language as we normally use our language -- but the combination of words 'Come and don't come' does not. (And if someone invented a use for that combination of words, say to be equivalent in meaning to 'Come part way', that would be an assigned, not a normal, use.)

[There is a discussion of "Moore's Paradox", and a paragraph about contradiction in the history of the word 'logic' discussion.]

Plato is perplexed, I think, because he does not distinguish between a contradiction in sense [which is what the Socratic elenchus exposes] and a contradiction in form [which is what is apparent to the ear and eye (p and not-p)]. In Plato's view, form determines sense. (If I know what I am talking about, and I may not know what I am talking about. And let that comment stand for the entirety of this page).

239d-240a - THEAETETUS: ... images in water or in mirrors ...

STRANGER: He will profess to know nothing about mirrors or water [which are particular examples] or even eyesight, and will confine his question to what can be gathered from discourse.


STRANGER: The common character in all these things you mentioned and thought fit to call by a single name when you used the expression 'image' as one term covering them all.

240c - THEAETETUS: Real and unreal do seem to be combined in that perplexing way, and very queer it is.

Can thought be of "what is not"? or must thought always be of "what is"? (237a)

240e - You mean, then, by false thinking, thinking things that are not?... Does that mean thinking things that are not, are not, or that things that are not in any way, in some way are?

THEAETETUS: It must at least mean thinking that things that are not, are in some way ...

It is quite strange that this question should arise in the context of talking about representations, because nothing is commoner for the human "way of life and life form" than making drawings of "things that are not". On the one hand, Plato's question seems absurd in this context; but on the other hand, maybe I do not understand what Plato is talking about -- i.e. cannot grasp his perplexity, cannot look at things his way.

I would like to say that human thought has its origin in imagination, in the capacity of our species to imagine -- that if thought could not be about what is not, then thought could not be at all.

[Dreams are thoughts about what is not. It is said that domestic dogs and cats dream; well, I don't know what to think: a comparison is made (PI § 360), correlations are made. As to these creatures when they are awake ...? Animals are deeply disturbing; because their behavior shows that they think, but they don't talk and therefore their inner lives are a mystery (assuming that if they did talk we would understand them).]

241d - We shall find it necessary in self-defense to put to the question that pronouncement of father Parmenides [237a], and establish by main force that what is not, in some respect has being, and conversely that what is, in a way is not.

243b - ... do you, Theaetetus, understand a single word [anyone from the various schools of philosophy] says [when in his philosophical discourse he uses expressions such as 'there really are' or 'have come to be' or 'are coming to be' 'many things' or 'one thing' or 'two', or someone else speaks of 'hot being mixed with cold', assuming 'combinations' and 'separations']? Speaking for myself, when I was younger I thought I understood quite clearly when someone spoke of this thing that is now puzzling us -- "the unreal". But now you see how completely perplexed we are about that.

243d - THEAETETUS: ... we ought to begin by studying 'reality' and finding out what those who use the word think it stands for.

244a - STRANGER: "We are completely puzzled, then, and you must clear up the question for us, What do you intend to signify when you use the word 'real'? Obviously you must be quite familiar with what you mean, whereas we, who formerly imagined that we knew are now at a loss...."

Whenever anyone argued with him on any point without being able to make himself clear, [Socrates] would lead the whole discussion back to the definition [logos] required ... (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 13)

A definition is an explanation of meaning, but we call many things 'definitions', and would a Platonic-Socratic definition, stating "the essence of reality", make anything clearer here? Was that not the type of "real definition of reality" that was offered by the various schools of philosophy that got Plato into perplexity to begin with? Why isn't the stranger's verbal definition of 'reality' as 'all things' (233e-234a; or, "the sum of things", 249d) sufficient? Does one imagine that "all things" share a common nature? Is there a nature shared by all things that "exist" -- namely, "existence"? (Gilson seems to have thought something like that.)

According to our present notions (i.e. Wittgenstein's "logic of language"), Plato was puzzled because he self-mystified himself, as did Augustine with the word 'time': You know how to use the word 'real' well enough in "the language games that are its original home" (PI § 116), don't you? But now you have taken the word 'real' "on holiday" and it is like "an engine idling" (ibid. §§ 38, 132). Yes, but those are metaphors; what do they mean in prose? We use a word the way we use a tool -- i.e. to do some work (and doing work may be compared to playing a game, a "language game"). But that is also a metaphor -- i.e. what work are you talking about? Wittgenstein gave many examples: e.g. "Giving orders", "Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements", "Reporting an event", "Forming and testing an hypothesis", "Translating from one language to another", "Asking, thanking" (ibid. § 23). [Of course, we don't always use language to do work: e.g. "cursing", "singing" (ibid). But do we really want to do idle things in philosophy?]

Plato asks for a clarification of the meaning of the word 'reality' in the discourse of philosophers who claim to present him with opposing "theories" of reality ["Reality is really this", "Reality is really that"] (246a-b) ... which is what I was asking about the word 'to exist' in the context of "realism". What do philosophers mean when they say that something "exists" or "doesn't exist" (or "really exists" or "really doesn't exist")? As if to say that everything that is real, exists or is real in the very same way: "being real" is just one thing, always the same. But that is not the way we use the word 'real'. For example, 'Elves are real' would mean that we have a use for the word 'elves' in our language; whereas 'Cows are real' might mean that we can still find them in the fields, that they are not extinct, nor the invention of the imaginative scientist [like the electron (a theoretical construct which summarizes a mass of factual data) or the dinosaur (an assembly of bones based on faith in the uniformity of nature)]. -- There are many meanings of 'real'.

Parmenides' "grammar stripping"

245a-b - Surely unity in the true sense and rightly defined must be altogether without parts.

THEAETETUS: Yes, it must.

STRANGER: Whereas a thing such as we described [Parmenides, describing reality as "one thing only", had said that it is in "Every way like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, evenly balanced from the midst, in every direction"; but then the stranger has said that "if the real is like that, then it has a middle and extremities, and consequently it must have parts" (244e)], consisting of several parts, will not answer to that definition.

Plato might, as a metaphysician would, have said that if what Parmenides had described did not fit ["answer to"] their definition of 'unity', then what Parmenides described only appeared to consist of parts whereas in reality it had no parts. But Plato does not do that. In this case he follows a different rule: that an argument is to be fitted to the facts, not the facts to the argument (Myson, Diog. L. i, 108).

[The method of Myson contrasts with the current practice of the doctrine of evolution: that the theory does not exist to fit the facts, but the facts exist to fit that theory -- i.e. whenever a new fact is discovered, it is made to fit into the theory. The doctrine's statement of approval is: "As an explanation, it makes evolutionary sense"; and if it did not make "evolutionary sense" the explanation would be summarily rejected. Experience is allowed to furnish examples, but never counter-examples. And when all evidence counts for, none against, that is a tautology (ideology, dogma), not a scientific theory.]

If Parmenides had said that "the one" is "like a sphere the center of which is everywhere and the circumference of which is nowhere", how might Plato have responded? Plato might have said that by definition a 'sphere' essentially has a center and a circumference, and that if you strip those away, then you are left with a mere sound without meaning: Imagine a cat, but without a head, without legs, without a torso or tail ... like Russell's imperceptible hippopotamus, but even a god who can see what we cannot see, cannot see nonsense -- i.e. an undefined combinations of word (sounds without meaning, like the breath of the wind).

Do we think that we can picture "the one" sphere, despite not being able to draw either it or an imperceptible cat (Such a cat has even less reality than a shadow)? And then what is the word 'picture' to mean? There is no difference between the propositions 'There is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere' and 'There is a circle with no center and no circumference' and 'There is no circle'.

245e - "measureless perplexity arises" ... "each carries us further into a wilderness of doubt"

Materialists (247c) and Platonists (246b) in Plato's day

246a-b - One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen ... strenuously [affirming] that real existence belongs only to what which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as anyone of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they become utterly contemptuous ...

246b - [The opposite party defend] their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they [call the bodies which their opponents allege to be true reality] not real being, but a sort of process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on ...

246d - [As to the first party, it would be "all but impossible" to make them "render an account [Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1] of the reality they assert", but nonetheless the stranger sees "the right way to deal with them". (246c-d)] Best of all ... would be to bring about a real change of heart, but if that is beyond our power [to bring about], to imagine them reformed and assume them willing to moderate their present lawlessness in answering our questions. The better a man's character is, the more force there will be in any agreement you make with him [in this case: an agreement to answer our questions (Callicles in Plato's Gorgias is an example of someone who breaks his agreement to do so)]. However, we are not concerned with them so much as with our search for the truth.

247b-c - Granted, then, that justice or wisdom or any other sort of goodness or badness is real [because they "can come to be present in a thing or absent from it" (247a)], and moreover that a soul in which they come to exist is real, do [the first party] maintain that any one these things is visible and tangible, or are they all invisible?

And do they really assert that something that is not visible has a body?

THEAETETUS: That question they do not answer as a whole without distinction. The soul itself, they think, does possess a sort of body, but when it comes to wisdom or any of the other things you asked about, they have not the face either to accept the inference that they have no place among real things or to persist in maintaining that they are all bodies.

The picture here is that the meaning of a name is the bearer of the name, that since 'justice' and 'wisdom' are names, there must be "some thing" that bears those names (otherwise the words 'justice' and 'wisdom' would be "meaningless", which they are not [if we use the word 'meaning' equivocally here, on the one hand to mean the bearer of the name, on the other to mean the conventions for using the "name" -- i.e. word]). This picture is deeply embedded in our thinking: a noun is the name of something. And if the meaning of a name is the thing the name stands for, then how can that picture not be inescapable? So Wittgenstein must show (1) that the meaning of a name is not the bearer of the name (PI § 40), and (2) that not all nouns are names. "For a large class of cases in which we use the word 'meaning', the meaning of a word is its use in the language; and the meaning of a name is often explained by pointing to its bearer" (PI § 43). That demonstration is the task of his Philosophical Investigations; it belongs to what I have called Wittgenstein's logic of language. The picture of meaning Plato employs, on the other hand, has never lead philosophers to the truth, but only into "measureless perplexity" and "a wilderness of doubt" (245e).

One thinks, But if 'justice' (or 'courage', 'holiness', 'temperance', 'wisdom') is not the name of anything, then is justice not real? One goes round in circles this way. It would be clearer, and un-misleading to say instead that: the use that the word 'justice' has in our language is not that of a name (cf. the word 'mind' or 'soul', which is also not a name). It is not the name of something, but it is also not the name of nothing (PI § 304) -- i.e. that word does not have the "grammar" of a name at all.

We all agree that there is such a thing as justice or piety ... (Guthrie, Plato ... earlier period, p. 115)

That is the innocent looking move that is the decisive one in the conjuring trick (PI § 308). Once that point in the demonstration is passed over (accepted), only confusion and perplexity will follow.

What would it be like is there were no "such a thing as justice"? There are two possibilities: (1) we might imagine a tribe who had no concept 'justice' (If they spoke English, they would have no word 'justice' and no synonym for it), or (2) that the rule of law was nowhere respected, that lawlessness (injustice) prevailed over the earth. Someone may say: "Nevertheless, regardless of whether anyone knew of its existence, justice would exist"; this might mean that the concept 'justice' would still be available (presuming, of course, that there were a form of life or life-form able to make use of it), or that mankind might return to respecting the rule of law. Suppose someone said, "Even if we did not distinguish between maple and oak trees, the differences between them would nonetheless exist, whether we ever noticed them or not." We have a picture: "for the gods see everywhere" everything, even if human beings do not. If the only creatures on earth were rabbits and sheep, would the concept 'justice' nonetheless exist -- i.e. would there still be "such a thing as justice"? (There is no doubt but that the grammar of the word 'thing' is extremely vague, and that this contributes to our perplexity. "There is such a thing ...", "There is such a thing ...", as if the word 'thing' always meant the same thing.)

... knowledge for Plato would always present itself as knowledge of some "thing" rather than "knowledge that" or "knowledge how". (Guthrie, The Later Plato, p. 133)

Drury made a similar distinction, and said that our longing for "knowledge of things as they really are" is the origin of metaphysics. In Drury's view at that time, the only knowledge our language makes possible is the knowledge of how to do things. A word is not an "object of contemplation".

If "true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms" (246b), then either (1) "true reality" is not to be pictured -- in which case why use the word 'Form'? The word 'form' = 'shape' or 'pattern' or 'exemplar'; what else would it mean here -- 'essence' or 'common nature'? Then why does Guthrie say that the word 'Form' is the correct translation? In the Meno Plato asks for "the Form of shape" -- i.e. the shape-ness that all shapes have in common. If there is such a thing, it is no more to be pictured than a round-square or triangular-circle is. Maybe, one says, the word 'Form' here is only being used figuratively? But a metaphor can be restated in prose -- but then what is the prose equivalent?

[Is it never the case that we can picture a Form that is "true reality"? Does the duck-rabbit drawing show a single Form (essence) shared by two different Forms: the duck, the rabbit, the drawing which is identical for both? Might not Plato say that the Form of "shape-ness" would be like this?]

Or (2) what are we to picture if not shadows (spirits, ghosts [PI § 36]) -- i.e. invisible bodies, "supra-sensual reality", as people say? If the words 'justice' and 'wisdom' really are used to name things, then what else are we to think? [cf. the time-honored confusion about the word 'point' in geometry -- i.e. the confusion about its grammar that results from thinking that 'geometric point' is the name of something, the name of "some thing".]

247c - [Others among the "first party" (246a-b), however, would not keep silent about the question of whether such things as justice and wisdom have "a place among real things", but] would hold out to the end, that whatever they cannot squeeze between their hands is just nothing at all.

Here is metaphysics's "obliteration of the distinction between a conceptual and a factual investigation" (Wittgenstein, Zettel § 458): the philosophers treat as a question of fact whether a "bodiless thing" is real. But, well, this is a conceptual-grammatical question about the word 'real', is it not?

247d - ... if they consent to admit that even a small part of reality is bodiless, [they] must now tell us this. When they say that these bodiless things and the other things which have body are alike "real", what common character that emerges as covering both sets of things have they in view?

Plato asks them for a Socratic definition. Suppose one said that if it cannot be "squeezed between our hands", so to speak (i.e. if it is not a body, or, object), then it cannot have a name either. That would make the grammar of 'name' clearer. And if a word is not a name, then, if it is not merely a meaningless sound, it must have some other use in our language. And now we must describe the way we use words like 'wisdom', 'mind', etc.

Here we can see, as when we were talking about existence, that the word 'real' is being divorced from its original home -- and now, what is "it" -- i.e. that bare sign -- to mean? A word is merely ink marks on paper, spoken sounds -- the question is: what gives those marks or sounds meaning? When, outside philosophy, we speak of things being real or unreal, what [actual or imaginable] cases [practices] do we have in mind? What are examples of how we really use this expression? Because that is what gives this word meaning -- its role in our life. Drury: "a word is not an object of contemplation". It is a tool.

[Dreams are thoughts of what is not. If Theaetetus dreams that he flies, must his dream [i.e. the events in it] in some sense be [have been] real? "In some sense" -- anything you like (The events in his dream might have been other than what they were).]

The advocates of Forms (Platonists)

248a - Let us turn, then, to the opposite party, the friends of Forms [as opposed to the first party, "the friends of bodies"]. [The "friends of Forms" say that there are bodiless things. Cornford's translation, which I have not followed in this, does not use 'Forms' but 'forms'. These Forms would apparently have "real being" (although the dialogue will go on to also the reject (249c-d) the friends-of-form's "definition", since that both change and rest "partake" of existence, and therefore are both "real"). They say that] real being ... is always the same unchanging state, whereas becoming is variable.... we have intercourse with becoming by means of the body through sense, whereas we have intercourse with real being by means of the soul through reflection.

248b - [By 'intercourse' here is meant] The experiencing of an effect or the production of one ... [This is what the stranger proposes as the mark of "real being"].

249a - ... are we really to be so easily convinced that change, life, soul, understanding have no place in that which is perfectly real -- that [what is perfectly real] has neither life nor thought but stands immutable, in solemn aloofness, devoid of intelligence?... can we say it has intelligence without having life?

THEAETETUS: Surely not.

STRANGER: But if we say it contains both, can we deny that it has soul in which they reside?

THEAETETUS: How else could it possess them?

STRANGER: But then, if it has intelligence, life and soul, can we say that a living thing remains at rest in complete changelessness?

249c-d - On these grounds, then, it seems that only one course is open to the philosopher ... He must refuse to accept [either party's doctrines, but like] a child begging for "both", he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once -- all that is unchangeable and all that is in change.... Does it look now as if we had fairly caught reality within the compass of our description?

THEAETETUS: Certainly it does.

STRANGER: And yet ... what if I say after all that I think it is just at this point we shall come to see how baffling this question of reality is?

250a - When you speak of movement and rest, these are things completely opposite to one another, aren't they?

250c - THEAETETUS: It does seem as if we discerned reality as a third thing, when we say that movement and rest are real.

STRANGER: So reality is not motion and rest "both at once", but something distinct from them.... In virtue of its own nature, then, reality is neither at rest nor in movement.

Can we then say that, in other words, the name 'reality' does not = the names 'motion' + 'rest' -- i.e. that 'rest' and 'motion' are not two names for the same thing? Instead, 'reality' is the name of a distinct "Form" -- in fact, there are 3 distinct "Forms" here: motion, rest, and reality (named 'motion', 'rest', and 'reality'). Does Plato mean that the essence of reality ["real-ness"] cannot be [or contain] both movement and rest because movement and rest are completely opposite of one another (A and not-A)? And a thing cannot have a contradictory essence: it cannot claim to have as its essence (A and not-A). Or does not 'Form' = 'essence' here?

This is quite unclear to me. For A to be a sub-Form or sub-class (in a definition-by-division) of B, mustn't A fully share in the essence of B? -- But if A fully shares B's essence, then A and B are identical. If a collie is a dog, then mustn't a collie's essence be "doghood" or "dog-ness"?

Plato will answer this query with another metaphor, the metaphor of Forms "blending" (252e). "Blending", "partaking" -- is not Plato mystifying himself with metaphors, unwilling to give up the notion of "Forms", although giving up that decidedly vague notion may be the only way out of these self-created mysteries? If there are no Forms, there is no intelligibility (Guthrie, Plato ... earlier period, p. 114: "Plato, assuming that only the definable could be known ...", which is tautological, but identifying "what-can-be-defined" with "Form" is not). -- But it is precisely the notion of Forms that is destroying intelligibility.

The only thing language can create the existence of is delusions.

250d - [The stranger reminds Theaetetus that] we were completely puzzled when we were asked to what the name 'unreal' should be applied.

Is the assumption here that a name -- or "true name", or, name "in the true sense and rightly defined" (245a) -- names something unique -- i.e. a single "Form" (cf. 226c)?

251a-b - Let me explain, then, how it is that we call the same thing -- whatever is in question at the moment -- by several names.

THEAETETUS: For instance? Give me an example.

STRANGER: Well, when we speak of a man we give him many additional names -- we attribute to him colors and shapes and sizes and defects and good qualities, and in all these and countless other statements we say he is not merely a "man" by also "good" and any number of other things. And so with everything else. We take any given thing as one and yet we speak of it as many and by many names.

251b - Anyone can ... at once object that many things cannot be one, nor one thing many; indeed, they delight in forbidding us to speak of a man as "good" -- we must only speak of a good as good, and of the man as man.

The "partaking in" and "blending of" Forms

Plato was responding to those who said that we cannot say that a man is good, because man is one "Form" and good is another "Form", and to call different "Forms" by the same name is to say nothing at all. The solution to this was to somehow [I don't know how] justify the "blending of Forms" -- i.e. that it was possible for some Forms to "partake" of other Forms without being identical with those Forms. Thus, although "the Form man" and "the Form good" are different "Forms", "the Form man" is able to "partake" of "the Form good".

Exactly what Plato means by 'partake' [or 'participate in'] he does not, I think, say. Aristotle dismisses that expression as "empty words and poetical metaphors" (Metaphysics 991a, tr. A.E. Taylor). -- But that won't do: a metaphor must be restateable in prose, and Aristotle must make that restatement if he is to justify his claim -- but, if he does so, mustn't he then claim that the restatement is "empty words"?

(What can only be described metaphorically cannot be described at all. A metaphor that cannot be restated in prose is no metaphor.)

According to an earlier account of Guthrie's (The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (1962), Chapter iv, p. 229-231), the notion of "partaking of" or "participating in" is an idea religious in origin. Instantiations do not imitate the Forms (as the word 'Pattern' may suggest) -- no, instead instantiations are possessed by the Forms as a man is possessed by a god in religious frenzy: the god takes over the man's body; the instantiation is not a mere imitation of the Form: it is instead an incarnation of the Form. (I think.)

252b-c - ... the greatest absurdity of all comes from pursuing the theory of those very people who will not allow one thing to share in the quality of another and so be called by its [i.e. the other's] name.


STRANGER: Why, in referring to anything they cannot help using the words 'being' and 'apart' and 'from the others' and 'by itself' and any number more. They cannot refrain from these expressions or from connecting them in their statements, and so need not wait for others to refute them; the foe is in their own household [cf. Cratylus 428d], as the saying goes, and, like that queer fellow Eurycles, they carry about with them wherever they go a voice in their own bellies to contradict them.

252e-253a - Then since some [things] will blend [e.g. a man may be good], some not [e.g. motion and rest], they might be said to be in the same case with the letters of the alphabet. Some of these cannot be conjoined; others will fit together.

253a - [The art which knows which letters can combine with which is 'the art of grammar'.]

253b-c - [There is competence and incompetence in every art, e.g. "To possess the art of recognizing the sounds that can or cannot be blended is to be a musician; if one doesn't understand that, one is unmusical" (253b), and therefore] is not some science needed as a guide on the voyage of discourse, if one is to succeed in pointing out [which Forms "blend" and which will not]?

THEAETETUS: Surely some science is needed -- perhaps the most important of all [cf. Cratylus 427e].

STRANGER: And what name shall we give to this science? [Apparently it is 'philosophy'.] ... have we stumbled unawares upon the free man's knowledge and, in seeking for the Sophist, chanced to find the philosopher first?

THEAETETUS: How do you mean?

253d - STRANGER: Dividing according to kinds, not taking the same Form for a different one or a different one for the same -- is that not the business of the science [i.e. technique] of dialectic?

And the man who can do that discerns clearly one from everywhere extended throughout many, where each ones lies apart, and many Forms, different from one another, embraced from without by one Form, and again one Form connected in a unity through many wholes, and many Forms entirely marked off apart.

253e - And the only person ... to whom you would allow this mastery of dialectic is the pure and rightful lover of wisdom.

About Sophist 255. When two words are not simply two names for a single essence, Plato regards those words as the names of two different Forms, e.g. as is the case with the contrary pair 'motion' and 'rest'. And then Plato speaks of "partaking" of the character of a Form without being identical with it; e.g. both motion and rest can each partake of "sameness" and "difference" -- i.e. according to Plato, motion is the same as itself and different from rest, and rest is the same as itself and different from motion; and therefore motion and rest cannot be identical with (i.e. cannot, I think, have the same essence as) sameness or difference.

255e - First about motion, let us say that motion is altogether different from rest.... But motion is [//exists// (See note below)], by virtue of partaking of existence [and therefore motion and existence are different Forms].

NOTE: I have enclosed clarifications added by the translator (or editors [I don't know which]) in double-slashes, e.g. [//exists//], to distinguish them from my own.

257a - We find, then, that existence likewise "is not" in as many respects as there are other things, for, not being those others, while it is its single self, it is not all that indefinite number of other things.

Again, no distinction is made between an investigation of concepts and an investigation of things (Z § 458) -- or is a Platonic Form a "natural concept"? If a Form is an, as it were, naturally occurring concept, then would a question about the nature of any particular Form be a question about facts (things) rather than about conventions (i.e. concepts, rules for using words)? That would seem to be Plato's view. And well, one asks, are not motion and rest facts of nature? (Percepts versus concepts.)

Certainly, we say, 'motion' and 'rest' and 'existence' are different concepts, but what would it mean to say that they are "different things"? Are motion, rest, and existence natural phenomena? The statement (combination of words) 'Motion exists' has a very different use from the statement 'Theaetetus moves' (and rocks do not); the first statement is a rule of "grammar", the second a statement of fact (if it is true, e.g. if Theaetetus walks about).

Plato invents "logical form"

257b-c - When we speak of "that which is not", it seems that we do not mean something contrary to what exists but only something that is different. -- How? -- In the same way that when, for example, we speak of something as "not tall", we may just as well mean by that phrase "what is equal" [i.e. what is an equivalent phrase, such] as "what is short", mayn't we?... the prefix 'not' indicates something different from the words that follow, or rather from the things designated by the words pronounced after the negative.

If we say that "A is not circular", is that the same as our saying that "A is a different shape from circular"? -- But what is gained by that circumlocution (roundabout way of talking)? It avoids our having to say that "A is something that is not". But is that a gain -- i.e. does it make anything clearer? Maybe it should have done for thinkers like Gilson and Meinong.

Plato here anticipates -- or perhaps invents -- the notion of "logical form" of Philosophical Analysis. Thus Wittgenstein's claim may not be correct:

It was Russell who performed the service of showing that the apparent logical form of a proposition need not be its real one. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 4.0031, tr. Pears, McGuinness)

Russell considered the proposition 'The round square does not exist' from the point of view of Parmenides-Plato, even regarding it as a true proposition. (Well, if it is a true proposition, it is only a true proposition about the English language.)

Does it make things clearer to say 'There is no x such that x is both round and square' [or some such formula] rather than to say 'The round square does not exist'? I do not see that it does. But what does make things clearer is to say instead that: The expression 'round square' is nonsense -- i.e. a combination of words for which there is no use in our language, whereas the words 'circle' and 'square' do have their uses. Plato might say that 'circle' and 'square' are Forms that do not "blend"; but how is that to be understood except as a rule of grammar -- i.e. that their blending is undefined speech?

Where no distinction is made between a "grammatical" (in Wittgenstein's jargon) explanation -- i.e. an explanation of meaning, or, definition -- and a statement of fact, I cannot understand anything in philosophy.

Knowledge is one thing, but its parts are many

257c-d - Knowledge is also surely one, but each part of it that commands a certain field is marked off and given a special name proper to itself. Hence language recognizes many arts and forms of knowledge.

The Form "knowledge", then, would be the common nature of all its subdivisions (as in definition-by-division), just as shape would be the common nature of all its subdivisions (i.e. the various shapes, round, square, triangular, and so on).

256d-e - In fact, it is clear that motion really is a thing that is not [//existence// -- i.e. that is different from existence] and a thing that is, since it partakes of existence.... It must, then, be possible for "the which is not" [//i.e. is different from existence//] to be [//to exist//], not only in the case of motion but of all the other kinds. For in the case of them all the nature of difference [i.e. of the Form "difference"] makes each one of them different from existence and so makes a thing that "is not" .... So, in the case of every one of the Forms there is much that it is and an indefinite number of things that it is not.

257a - We find, then, that existence likewise "is not" in as many respects as [it is different from] that indefinite number of other things.

258a - And so the not-tall [i.e. the indefinite number of things that are different from tall (or, tallness)] must be said to exist just as much as the tall itself.

258b - May we now be bold to say that "that which is not" unquestionably is a thing that has a nature of its own -- just as the tall was tall and so too with the not-tall ... [i.e. "that which is not" is the Form "difference"].

Thought is never of what is not, but only of what is different to what is (237a)

258d - [Despite Parmenides (237a, 241d)] we have brought to light the real character of "not-being" [i.e. the Form "difference"]. We have shown that the nature of the different [difference] has existence and is parceled out over the whole field of existent things with reference to one another, and in every part of it that is set in contrast to "that which is" we have dared to say that precisely that is really "that which is not".

258e - Then let no one say that it is the contrary of the existent that we mean by 'what is not', when we make bold to say that "what is not" exists.

The precise way in which something is the same or different

259b - And if anyone mistrusts these apparent contradictions, he should study the question and produce some better explanation ... [And then, I think, Plato says that it is not difficult to point out these contradictions, but], what is hard and at the same time worth the pains is something different.

259c-d - [What would be worthwhile is] to be able to follow our statements step by step and, in criticizing the assertion that a different thing is the same or the same thing is different in a certain sense, to take account of the precise sense and the precise respect in which they are said to be one or the other.

259e-260a - ... the attempt to separate everything from every other thing [i.e. to say that Forms do not blend] not only strikes a discordant note but amounts to a crude defiance of the philosophical Muse [because] this isolation of everything from everything else means a complete abolition of all discourse, for any discourse we can have owes its existence to the weaving together of Forms.

'Weaving', 'blending' -- one wants to say that these are metaphors, but are they? [Question: does 'Form' = 'meaning' for Plato, or what is the relation of Form to meaning for Plato? It seems not (261d-e): meaning concerns discourse, and discourse is the stringing together of words -- i.e. the stringing together of words which in combination are meaningful. But meaning also concerns the names of Forms -- what gives the name of a Form meaning? Precisely being the name of Form; -- but if the Forms are unknowable in themselves ("shape" e.g.) and, indeed, "cannot exist in our world" (Parmenides 134b), then is the meaning of the words that supposedly name them also unknowable [i.e. nonsense]? If not, then 'meaning of a name' does not = 'Form' [bearer of the name], but must be defined some other way. How does Plato distinguish between sense and nonsense other than to say, tautologically, that "words that fit together" signify, whereas those that do not don't (261d-e).]

260a-b - To rob us of discourse would be to rob us of philosophy [cf. Xenophon's "discussion" (iv, 5, 12)].... And that would have happened if we had yielded the point that there is no blending of any one Form with another.

260b-c - We have next to consider whether ["not-being"] blends with thinking and discourse.... If it does not blend with them, everything must be true, but if it does, we shall have false thinking and discourse, for thinking or saying "what is not" comes, I suppose, to the same thing as falsity in thought and speech.

THEAETETUS: We must, it seems, prove that falsity exists both in speech and thought ...

261d-e - Now remembering what we said about Forms and letters, let us consider words in the same way.

THEAETETUS: What are you going to ask me about words?

STRANGER: Whether they all fit together, or none of them, or some will and some will not.... Words which, when spoken in succession, signify something, do fit together while those which mean nothing when they are strung together do not.

THEAETETUS: What do you mean?

Is Plato identifying word meaning with words "fitting together" -- so that what he has just stated is a tautology, because he does not tell us how to determine which words fit together and which do not? Words that fit together mean or "signify" something (Words that don't fit together mean nothing): for words to mean something is for them to fit together (For words to mean nothing is for them not to fit together). At this point he goes on the distinguish between "names" and "verbs", but he does not answer this question, other than to say that some "names" and verbs fit together and some don't. [But calling all nouns names is the path into the metaphysics of language; it is the path away from logic-of-language, and, according to Wittgenstein, the fundamental mistake of philosophy (philosophers). It is fatal to the understanding.]

If the art of grammar says which letters "fit together" (253a), then the art of philosophy says which words "fit together" (253b-c). But can it be the case that the speakers of natural language require philosophers to instruct them as to the meaning or meaninglessness of language? Perhaps not in the case of "primitive language games", but as soon as philosophers begin to contemplate, Augustine on 'time', Euclid on 'point', then Plato's claim for philosophy, that it is "mastery of dialectics" (253e), does not appear absurd; what else was Wittgenstein doing when he wrote about "grammar and sense and nonsense".

Plato defines 'noun' and 'verb'

261e-262a - The signs we use in speech to signify being are surely of two kinds.... One kind called 'names', the other 'verbs'.... By 'verb' we mean an expression that is applied to actions.... And by a 'name' the spoken sign applied to what performs these actions.

262a - Now a statement never exists solely of names spoken in succession, nor yet of verbs apart from names.

The author of the TLP apparently missed that passage. Also, it must be asked: "What then of Theaetetus' replies 'Quite so', 'No doubt', 'How?', 'Why?' -- or commands such as 'Be quiet!' or 'Go away!' or 'Come here!' [Note: neither 'away' nor 'here' is a name]?" But Plato is taking the first steps toward a "philosophical grammar".

262b-c - ... what I meant was just this -- that these words spoken in a string in this way do not make a statement.... For example 'walks runs sleeps', and so on with all the other verbs signifying actions -- you may utter them all one after another, but that does not make a statement.... And again, if you say 'lion stag horse' and any other names given to things that perform actions, such a string never makes up a statement.

262c - Neither in this example nor in the other do the sounds uttered signify any action performed or not performed or nature of anything that exists or does not exist, until you combine verbs with names. The moment you do that, they fit together and the simplest combination becomes a statement of what might be called the simplest and briefest kind.... When one says 'A man understands', do you agree that this is a statement of the simplest and shortest possible kind?

Plato has added, without discussion: "or signify the nature of anything that exists or does not exist". Is "understanding" to be called an action performed by a man? (262a) or does 'understand' signify the nature of something or that something does or does not exist (262c)? According to Wittgenstein, understanding is a public event [i.e. that this is how we "define", or, are taught and learn to use the word 'understand']: how do we know whether a man understands or not: we look at what he says and does. Perhaps Plato would agree, because how does the stranger know whether Theaetetus understands? Not by looking into Theaetetus's soul. [The visitor uses the method of Socrates: he seeks step by step agreement as he advances the argument (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 14-15).]

262d - Because now it gives information about facts or events in the present or past or future; it does not merely name something but gets you somewhere by weaving together verbs with names. Hence we say it "states" something, not merely "names" something, and in fact it is this complex that we mean by the word 'statement'.

262d-e - And so, just as some things fit together, some do not, so with the signs of speech; some do not fit, but those that do fit make a statement.

Asking about the origin(s) of language in the context of the Cratylus, I wrote: "The Greek language existed before the Greek philosophers, and came to them already packed with concepts of the non-name-of-object type. But not only with those concept-words (i.e. "signs"), but also with meaning. And philosophers were puzzled by that, and tried to explain [understand] what linguistic meaning is." (That is the subject-matter of "logic of language" [the distinction between sense and nonsense], but there is also a metaphysics of language -- i.e. not what is the meaning of the word 'meaning', but instead, what kind of thing is meaning?) Plato goes some way toward this understanding by seeing that noun + verb = statement -- but only if the particular (noun + verb) is a "meaningful" combination of words; and so he does not explain the meaning of our concept 'meaningful'.

[In the TLP there are nothing but names. Wittgenstein does not recognize any other part of speech (The Tractatus is not concerned that not all words, nor even all nouns, are names, because the only "names" that interest it are names of "absolutely simple objects" [cf. Theaetetus 201e-202a, quoted in PI § 46]): there are only named-objects standing in relation(s) [in relational space] to one another. But then, is there any motion in Wittgenstein's "the world" -- or is it a world at rest? But if "A is to the left of B" becomes "B is to the left of A", that could be called 'motion'. A proposition, if it is true, says: "This is how things stand."]

What is the meaning of a false statement (counter-factual)?

262e - Whenever there is a statement, it must be about something; it cannot be about nothing.

263a - "Theaetetus sits" -- not a lengthy statement, is it?... "Theaetetus, whom I am talking about at this moment, flies."

263b - And the true [statement] states about you [i.e. Theaetetus] things that are [//or the facts//] as they are.... Whereas the false statement states about you things different from the things that are.... And accordingly states things that are not as being.


STRANGER: Yes, but things that exist, different from things that exist in your case. For we said in the case of everything there are many things that are and many that are not. (257b-c)

263d-e - You will see more easily if you begin by letting me give you an account of their nature and how each differs from the others.

This again, according to Aristotle, is Socratic definition: what is the common-nature, and how is it different from all others?

263e - Well, thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call 'thinking' is, precisely, the inward dialog carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound.

'Discourse' is talking to others, 'thinking' is talking to oneself. But in both cases, operating with signs (inward dialog)? [cf. Theaetetus 189e-190a, tr. Cornford: "I have a notion that, when the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them ..." In Cornford's translation when Socrates says 'notion' he contrasts that with 'knowledge': a notion has not been put to the test of "giving an account".] One may, of course, picture things to oneself without using language, and this too we call 'thinking', but "philosophy is discussion". [Must we be able to give an account, to put thought into words?]

263e - Whereas the stream which flows from the mind through the lips with sound is called 'discourse'.

264b - ... and what we mean by 'it appears' [is] a blend of perception and judgment, it follows that these also, being of the same nature as statement, must be, some of them and on some occasions, false.

264e - Holding fast to the characters of which the Sophist partakes until we have stripped off all that he has in common with others and left only the nature that is peculiar to him ...

The criteria of Socratic definition: What is the common nature, and how is that nature different from all other natures? Does this not assume that "the Sophist" has a Form, an essence? If we cannot say what it is, why should we assume that it has one -- e.g. why must there be a Form named "shape" (or, "shape-ness")?

265c-e - ... plants that grow above the earth from seeds and roots ... Must we not attribute the coming-into-being of these things out of not-being to divine craftsmanship and nothing else? Or are we to fall in with the belief that ... nature gives birth to them as the result of some spontaneous cause that generates without intelligence. Or shall we say that they come from a cause which, working with reason and art, is divine and proceeds from divinity?

THEAETETUS: Perhaps because I am young, I often shift from one belief to the other ...

STRANGER: I will only lay it down that the products of nature, as they are called, are works of divine art, as things made out of them by man are works of human art.

266b-c - Dream images, and in daylight those naturally produced semblances [a 'semblance', I think, is a mere appearance -- i.e. an of imitation of reality, something not real] which we call 'shadow' when dark patches interrupt the light, or a 'reflection' [when light strikes a mirror-like surface or water] and produces a Form yielding a perception that is the reverse of the ordinary direct view. [This occurs, Plato says, when] the light belonging to the eye meets and coalesces with light belonging to something else on a bright and smooth surface ...

266c - And what of our human art? [Shadow and reflection are divine art.] Must we not say that in building it produces an actual house, and in painting a house of a different sort, as it were a man-made dream for waking eyes?

267b - And could we find a more important distinction than that of knowing from not knowing?.... And the mimicry we have just mentioned goes with knowledge, for to impersonate you, one must be acquainted with you and your traits.... there is still ground for thinking that mimicry is of two sorts[:] Some mimics know the thing they are impersonating; others do not.

267c - And what of the traits of justice and of virtue generally? Are there not many who, having no knowledge of virtue but only some sort of opinion about it, zealously set about making it appear that they embody virtue as they conceive it, mimicking it as effectively as they can in their words and actions?

267d - We must, then, distinguish the ignorant mimic from the other, who has knowledge.

267d - Where, then, must we look for a suitable name for each? No doubt it is hard to find one, because the ancients, it would seem, suffered from a certain laziness and lack of discrimination with regard to the division of kinds by Forms, and not one of them even tried to make such divisions, with the result that there is a serious shortage of names.

The Sophist, then, tries to mimic the Philosopher without knowing what a Philosopher is (but having only some untested notion of that).

Is there really a serious "shortage of names"? For Plato a name signifies a Form, for us a concept. For us, the limit of thought is concept-formation; for Plato, Form recognition. Are these merely different points of view (two possible ways of looking at things)? That is the question.

Can you really say, "The Forms are there -- like our life" [On Certainty § 559]? Are they not instead, in most cases [-- i.e. some words may have essential definitions, the word 'simile' e.g. 'a comparison using the word 'like' or 'as'' may; but we must look and see: the facts of our language do not allow us to assume that all words will have essential definitions (PI § 66) --], theoretical constructs ("shape-ness" [Meno 74d, 72c]), like the Pythagorean counter-earth? For Plato "Form recognition" is not be limited by experience, and that is the difference between his point of view and ours (and therefore "concept-formation" and Platonic "Form recognition" are not equivalent points of view).

The editors of the edition in front of me complain that in this dialog Plato never brings the Sophists who were the actual professors of ancient Greece to life. He only defines 'Sophist' (-- But this is a prescriptive, not a descriptive, definition --) as the mirror-image (inversion) of the Philosopher. But sometimes the journey is more important than the destination (the drive along the Amalfi Coast versus the taverna at journey's end), and besides: do we need a reportive definition of 'Sophist'? We already have before us the examples of Protagoras, Gorgias [from Gorgias 456 ff. and 497b, we see that Plato regarded him as a good man], Hippias, and also Aristophanes' The Clouds.

Concluding Comment

The Sophist shows Plato answering the question of how "thought can be of what is not" (PI § 518) with his discussion of "different from" ("difference") (257b-c). That discussion, like nothing else that I have read of his, shows that Plato was not merely a presenter of ideas (philosophical doctrines) or of an ideal (as was Socrates), but a real philosophical thinker (with as deep insight into logic-of-language as Wittgenstein).

When we speak of "that which is not", it seems that we do not mean something contrary to what exists but only something that is different. (257b)

Does what Plato says amount to this: I can only describe "what is not" [what does not exist] because of "what is" [what does exist]: e.g. I can only describe a man with the head of a giraffe, because there are men and there are giraffes, and in that sense I can only describe what exists, not what does not exist? (cf. BB p. 31, but this must be a common observation.) I think so. But now I have to ask: what kind of possibility is this "can only" supposed to be? If I say: "I cannot imagine how it could be otherwise" -- what am I saying? Am I making a remark about my own peculiar psychology, or about logic-of-language?

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