Plato: Sophist- (Maybe) Solving the Problem of Being

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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5 Responses

  1. Paul B says:

    I’m not eager to re-litigate Parmenides, but I don’t think your examples effectively counter his argument. They all play on the deictic ambiguity in the word “that,” which is nearly as problematic a word as “is.”

    As far as Plato and the Sophists go, I just read Ong’s Orality and Literacy which shed some light on the subject. We’ve talked here about how pre-Socratics built their philosophy from the language of epic poetry, but Ong’s big point (following Havelock’s Preface to Plato) is that their actual thought was shaped by that kind of oral language. The ability, and probably the impulse, to break language down and hash out definitions as Socrates does here is dependent on our knowing that the words we use can be fixed as a text instead of floating away as mere sound. Obviously there’s an irony in Socrates working this out all through dialogue, but he was doing so in a literate way.

    So Plato’s holds a grudge against the Sophists not simply because they got his teacher killed but because they were perpetuating those oral/rhetorical ways of thinking at a time when the Greeks were developing newly literate minds.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, Ah, I tried. Doesn’t the ambiguity about the word “is” weaken his argument though? I’d probably agree that it’s not nearly as good a word as we might think, and I’ve been fascinated by attempts to get rid of it (n-prime language was one), but isn’t that more a problem with the word than the reality it describes? The problem he raises makes total sense to me, but I also can’t imagine a reality in which nothing changes. So, at some point, it seems to me we’d have to do away with the word and keep the way we perceive the world. Right?

      As for the sophists, I understand the case against them. I just figured they might not be as bad as all that, since most of what I’ve heard about them came from Plato, who made the same points you mention, but also might have had an axe to grind. Actually, everything I’ve heard about the sophists came from Plato, which is a bit like hearing about Christianity only from Voltaire. But, if the historians say their method really was what Plato is driving against here, maybe they really were a problem.Report

  2. E.C. Gach says:

    “He says it’s because Non-Being is not Negation- it has a relative existence, Difference, in relation to Being. More simply, if I say something is Not White, I’m not saying it has no specific colour; just that its colour is not white. When I speak of Not-Being, I’m referencing something different that has a relative existence in relation to Being.”

    I’m not quite sure I see the basis for that response. Parmenides contention seems to be that all there non-existence by definition can not exist. In the one sense of the word, we allow that Being “exists”, but for Non-Being you (or Plato) seem to be substituting in another meaning for the word “existence” when speaking of “relative existence.” The second meaning seems to undermine the first, that is, if existence can be relative, what does it even mean to say that Being “exists”?

    In your example there are other colors besides white that something could be, however, by virtue of the term’s significance, nothing can exist that does not exist. The only way to make that language game coherent is to substitute a different term for “relative existence.” In which case the question appears unresolved.Report

    • Rufus in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach, Yeah, that was Plato. I think what he’s trying to get around is the idea that we can’t logically talk about things that don’t exist; after all, we do it all the time. If I talk about what I was like as a boy, or what Parmenides was like, or what I expect to be like in five years, I’m talking about something with no existence. I think what Plato’s idea of Difference gets at that reality a bit- I am not literally talking about non-existence, but something different than what currently exists. But, you’re right that he doesn’t exactly solve the problem.

      Actually, I sort of think he’s better in pointing out that none of us generally recognize this as a problem. But that leaves the possibility that we’re all lying to ourselves and Parmenides has discovered something about reality that we haven’t.

      For me, I guess the question is whether he’s uncovered something about how we perceive the world, about the world itself, or about the failings of words to describe the world. I tend to think the third, but as Paul B points out above, that’s a problem for Plato.

      Thanks for the good points, you guys!Report