The Puzzle of the Sophist

Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 105 (3):359-387 (2023)
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Abstract

The many definitions of sophistry at the beginning of Plato’s Sophist have puzzled scholars just as much as they puzzled the dialogue’s main speakers: the Visitor from Elea and Theaetetus. The aim of this paper is to give an account of that puzzlement. This puzzlement, it is argued, stems not from a logical or epistemological problem, but from the metaphysical problem that, given the multiplicity of accounts, the interlocutors do not know what the sophist essentially is. It transpires that, in order to properly account for this puzzle, one must jettison the traditional view of Plato’s method of division, on which divisions must be exclusive and mark out relations of essential predication. It is then shown on independent grounds that, although Platonic division in the Sophist must express predication relations and be transitive, it need not be dichotomous, exclusive, or express relations of essential predication. Once the requirements of exclusivity and essential predication are dropped, it is possible to make sense of the reasons that the Visitor from Elea and Theaetetus are puzzled. Moreover, with this in hand, it is possible to see Plato making an important methodological point in the dialogue: division on its own without any norms does not necessarily lead to the discovery of essences.

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Justin Vlasits
University of Illinois, Chicago

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