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Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
Transitional & middle dialogues:
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
Late dialogues:
The SophistThe Statesman
Of doubtful authenticity:
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

The Sophist (Greek: Σοφιστής) is one of the late Dialogues of Plato, which was written much later than the Parmenides and the Theaetetus, probably in 360 BC. After he criticized his own Theory of Forms in the Parmenides, Plato proceeds in the Sophist with a new conception of the Forms, more mundane and down-to-earth, and makes more clear the epistemological and metaphysical puzzles of the Parmenides; thus, he refers to that dialogue between Parmenides and young Socrates, which was written probably much earlier than the Sophist. Furthermore, he shows his expertise in Dialectic, as he applies it in this Dialogue in order to define the Sophist. Moreover, he solves the puzzle of the false and the right opinion, as well as of the justified true belief that had been inquired in the Theaetetus.



The Dialogue is considered to have been written long after the Parmenides and the Theaetetus, and aims at defining the Sophist. The participants are Socrates, who plays a minor role, the highly promising young student Theaetetus, and a Visitor from Elea, the hometown of Parmenides, who plays the major role in the conversation. Plato probably replaces Socrates with the Visitor from Elea, because he plans to criticize Parmenides’ notion that ‘we cannot speak or think of what is not’ (reference to the dialogue Parmenides between Parmenides and young Socrates). Here Plato's strategy is to distinguish the negation of the being from the not-being, and to define the right and the false opinion by the use of Dialectic. The Stranger sets out to define the Sophist, the Statesman and the Philosopher, claiming that they are three distinct kinds. The definition of the Sophist aims at verbal explanation and requires knowledge of the nature of the kinds, as well as of their ability of blending.

Method of definition

In this Dialogue Plato follows a new method of definition by the use of a model, comparison of the model with the target kind, division, collection, and deduction from the collected kinds. At first he starts with the use of a mundane model (Angler), which shares some qualities in common with the target kind (Sophist). This common quality is the certain expertise (techne) at one subject. Then through the method of collection of different kinds (farming, caring for mortal bodies, for things that are put together or fabricated and imitation) he tries to bring them together (deduction) into one kind, which he calls productive art. The same is true with the collection of learning, recognition, commerce, combat and hunting, which can be deduced into the kind of acquisitive art.

After these two collections he proceeds to the division of the expertise into production and acquisition, and then he tries to find out to which of these two sub-kinds the angler belongs (classification), which means acquisition. By following the same method, deduction through collection, he divides the acquisition in possession taking and exchanging goods, where the sophistry belongs to. After many successive collections and divisions he finally arrives at the definition of the model (Angler). Throughout this process Plato discovers many kinds and sub-kinds (hunting, aquatic-hunting, fishing, strike-hunting).

After the verbal explanation of the model (definition), he tries to find out what the model and the target kind share in common (sameness) and what differentiates them (difference). Through this comparison, and after having been aware of the different kinds and sub-kinds, he can classify the sophistry also among the other branches of the ‘tree’ of division of expertise as follows: 1.production, hunting by persuasion and money-earning, 2.acquisition, soul wholesaling, 3. soul retailing, retailing things that others make, 4. soul retailing, retailing things that he makes himself, 5. possession taking, competition, money-making expertise in debating.

Throughout the process of comparison of the deduced kinds through his method of collection, Plato discovers some attributes in relation to which the kinds can be divided (difference in relation to something). These are similar to the Categories of Aristotle, so to say: quantity, quality, relation, location, time, position, end etc.

After having failed to define the sophistry, he attempts a final deduction through the collection of the five definitions of the sophistry. Since these five definitions share in common one quality (sameness), which is the imitation, he finally qualifies the sophistry as imitation art. Following the division of the imitation art in copy-making and appearance-making, he discovers that the sophistry falls under the appearance-making art, namely the Sophist imitates the wise man. However, in order that his conclusion is irrefutable Plato has to examine first Parmenides’ notion, namely ‘it is impossible that things that are not are’, in comparison with his conclusion, that is to say ‘those which are not (appearing and seeming) somehow are’.

Puzzles of being and not-being, great kinds

Plato before proceeding to the final definition of the sophistry, has to make clear the concepts that he used throughout the procedure of definition. In other words he has to clarify what is the nature of the Being (that which is), Not-Being, Sameness, Difference, Motion and Rest, and how they are interrelated. Therefore he examines Parmenides’ notion in comparison with Empedocles and Heraclitus’ in order to find out whether the being is identical with Change or Rest or both.

The conclusion is that Rest and Change both are, which means both are beings, and not only Rest as Parmenides said. Furthermore, the Being is a distinct kind, which all existing things share in common. Sameness is a distinct kind that all things, which belong to the same kind or genera share with reference to a certain attribute, and due to which the deduction through collection is possible. Difference is a distinct kind that makes things of the same kind not to be identified, therefore it enables us to proceed to their division. The knowledge of these five Great Kinds and their ability of blending is the characteristic of the Philosopher, since it is the expertise in Dialectic. Finally the so-called Not-Being is not the opposite of the Being but something different from it; For instance the statement this is not black does not indicate necessarily the white, but all the unlimited tones of colours. Therefore the negation of the Being is identified with the Difference, since the negative predication indicates something different from the predicate, which is unlimited. Not-being is difference, it is not the opposite of Being.

Following these conclusions, the ‘true statement’ and judgement can be distinguished from the ‘false’ one, since each statement consists of a verb and a name. The name refers to the subject, namely the statement is about something, because a thought or a speech is always about something, and it cannot be about nothing (Not-Being). The verb is the sign of the action that the subject performs (poiein) or is been acted upon (paschein). When the verb states something that is about the subject, namely one of his properties, then the statement is true. While when the verb states something that is different (it is not) from the properties of the subject, then the statement is false. In this way Plato associates the Non-Identity (NI) premise with the Negative Predication (NP).

‘Theaetetus is flying’ is false while ‘Theaetetus is sitting’ is true, because the predicate ‘flying’ is different from the actual predicate of Theaetetus, which is ‘sitting’. Therefore, in order to examine whether a statement is false or true, we simply need to find one at least property that the subject possesses, and which is different from the one that the predicate specifies. It is plausible then, that ‘things which are not (appearing and seeming) somehow are’, therefore it is also plausible that the sophist produces false appearances and imitates the wise man.

Final definition

After having solved all these puzzles, that is to say the interrelation between being, not-being, difference and negation, as well as the possibility of the ‘appearing and seeming but not really being’, Plato can finally proceed to define the sophistry. In other words, sophistry is a productive art, human, of the imitation kind, copy-making, of the appearance-making kind, uninformed and insincere in the form of contrary-speech-producing art.


Since Plato wrote the Statesman after the Sophist, while he never wrote the Dialogue Philosopher, many scholars argue that Plato challenges the audience to search for the definition of the philosopher themselves, by applying the method of inquiry and definition shown in those two Dialogues. However, this does not mean that one can simply extend the method in a mechanical way to the investigation of the philosopher, but he only shows us how one can proceed in such philosophical enquiries.


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