The Meaning of Existence in Plato's "Sophist"

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  • The Meaning of Existence in Plato's "Sophist"Author(s): Edith W. SchipperSource: Phronesis, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1964), pp. 38-44Published by: BRILLStable URL: .Accessed: 14/08/2013 12:49

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  • The meaning of existence in Plato's Sophist EDITH W. SCHIPPER

    In this paper, I should like to give arguments for the following points: (1) that, for the later Plato, what exists must be defined by forms interrelated in logos; (2) that the particular things of experience

    exist, and also are defined by the interrelated forms. Their existence is not that of substantial subjects beyond their predicative forms, but is comprised by the forms, which formulate them and bring them out of the matrix of experience. Thus, Plato is sketching a profoundly original approach to the perennial problems of philosophy.


    It is usually held that, in the Sophist, Plato, in parting from the Par- menidean dictum that what does not exist cannot be spoken of, is distinguishing an "existential" sense of evo= or 6v from another sense which is somehow predicative. This point has been questioned by W. G. Runciman in his acute and careful study of the Sophist. IHe calls the attributive sense "copulative", since it links a subject to a predicate by saying it is something; and points out that Plato did not usually distinguish the "existential" from the "copulative" sense. Regardless of the meaning of "copulative" - which I doubt to be adequate to the meaning of elvoct (or ov) - Plato does seem to stress its attributive or relational meaning, in which sense existence and its modes and relations is a predicate. But, further, for Plato, ec1va (or 6v) has more than a predicative meaning; it also has an existential one. If anything exists in the first meaning, it also exists in the second. That is, what may be significantly ascribed attributes and relations to other things exists in both meanings, as I shall try to show.

    In the discussion of not-being, (Soph. 237c-239b), the Stranger says that not-being must not be attributed to any existent (xCv OVTCJ)V etL -r To ,uf ov oux ota,7ov) and that To "xl" must always be attributed to an existent, (' Ov-n; 237c-d) Here, tL, as all through the dialogues, would seem to at least include an existential meaning. Thus, in the 1 Runciman, Plato's Later Epistemology, Cambridge, Cambridge U. Press, 1962 esp. pp. 84-88.


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  • Theaetetus, (188e-189e), Socrates says that sight, hearing, touching and 86om, in being about something (rt), are about something that exists. Likewise, in the Parmenides, (132b-c), Parmenides shows that thoughts must be about something (-), which must exist. Here, the stranger concludes that nothing can be attributed to what does not exist (TO t- ov), which, accordingly, cannot be spoken of (238c).

    If nothing can be said about what does not exist, conversely what exists is that about which something can be said. Mr. Runciman, too, says that "Plato seems to find himself forced to the conclusion that... everything referable must in some sense exist".2 Mr. Runciman himself does not consider the implication of this meaning of existence, since it is too inclusive, and since Plato does not explicitly consider it. How- ever, I would say that Plato does accept this broad meaning of ex- istence, though fictional entities such as mermaids (but not, as Mr. Runciman suggests, their images) would not exist in the same manner as natural entities. For the existence of anything, in its broad meaning, must be limited and defined by its attributes and relations.

    That the nature of the existence of what is perceived is defined by %n - which, in the later dialogues, continue to be the unsensed objects

    of intelligence - is clearly brought out in a passage from the Theaetetus where Socrates says that sound and color both exist ('ao'TOv; 185a), and that existence in the predicative sense ( odv 0oatav) is attributable to everything (exd nXvrwv). Socrates adds, in 186b:

    "the existence ('rmv oUGv) [of what is hard and soft] and what each is, (6 rt arT6v) and their difference from each other, and the nature (or existence in the predicative sense, '4v oAuatv) of this difference, the soul tries to judge for us by comparing them and reasoning about them."

    Thus, the nature of the existence of what is perceived is defined by the common attributes, which, although not explicitly called E'L8&, can only be the forms, since they are the objects of intelligence which are not given in perception. Here, -r-v o6aLxv seems to have primarily the more attributive sense, and is referred to (184c-d) when Theaetetus says that the common attributes defining the nature of what is perceiv- ed include oiuabxv ... XcxL To - q ivot, and likeness and unlikeness and sameness and difference". These characteristics, it will be noted, include three of the five basic forms discussed in the Sophist.

    2 Op. cit., p. 64.


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  • Plato, in that discussion of the pyearm yevvn, has chosen five funda- mental forms to exemplify, what all of the forms manifest, the essential interconnectedness of the forms. Just as certain letters or sounds com- bine with others, so certain forms combine with others (253a-c). The forms are inherently interrelated, needing no separate copula to connect them, since they have a capacity to VrzxZLv with each other, as Mr. Runciman points out.3 They define the ways in which what exists may be distinguished, defined, and interrelated.

    Thus, in the Sophist, the forms are inextricably intertwined. That they were ever conceived by Plato as atomic and as simple nameables is a question, since, already in the Phaedo (103e-104e) he spoke of the connections of forms such as fire an(l heat, snow and cold, three and oddness. In the controversial Socrates' "dream" (Theaet. 201D-202c), the conclusion of the argument that logos of a complex of unknowable simples is itself unknowable could be either that we must have know- ledge of simples or that there are no simples apart from the meaning accruing to them from the complexes in which they function. Mr. Runciman prefers the first conclusion,4 although the second is more consonant with later Platonism, as lhe himself interprets it.

    The nature of the forms is defined by and formulated in a logos, an account or argument or statements, as has been maintained by Plato from the Phaedo on.5 He ends his discussion of the intercon- nections of the forms by saying that it makes ),6yoq possible (86a 'rv (X?Xcov xxv etav au t7roxov o Xoyo4 yeyovev ,udv; Soph. 259e) The X6yo4 which "signifies something about action (7piRcv) or inaction or the nature of what is or is not " (262c) must combine verbs and nouns, so that a relationship between them may be expressed. Moreover, it must be about something (-nv6q; 262e). As Gilbert Ryle has said, it must be propositional and contain a "live verb", which relates what is assertable about people or things. In the elp8iox 5 cv Plato relates

    3 Op. cit., p. 105. 4 Op. cit., p. 40-41. 5 In what sense logos is about the forms has been argued by R. C. Cross, in Logos and the Forms in Plato, Mind, vol. 63, 1954; and R. S. Bluck, Logos and the Forms, Mind, vol. 65, 1956. Mr. Cross maintains (pp. 446-8) that the interrelated forms are "logical predicates displayed in logoi", which are about something which is not the forms but their logical subject. Mr. Bluck maintains, on the contrary, (pp. 523-528) that the logos is about the interrelated forms, but is only "an indispensable aid" toward knowledge of them. Since, as Mr. Bluck points out, ocx&r6 T6 xZ rather than being what the form X is about, is the form, I would incline toward his solution.


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  • forms such as xtvcjat and eIvaL which express actions and ways of existing.6 Thus, X6yo4 combines forms, which express the interrelation- ships of what exists.


    The particular things, the sticks and stones, of experience, Plato has always said to exist, but with an existence inferior to that of the forms. In the earlier dialogues, particular sensed things were spoken of as having a semi-existence " midway" between existence (which the forms had), and non-existence, which could not be spoken of. The things were accessible only to an unstable opinion (836o; Republic, 478d-479d). In the divided line analogy, things were grasped by conjecture or belief ([a-rLq) apart from the forms; and, together with their images and shadows, by a fluctuating opinion (86R). But, in the later dia- logues, we hear nothing about a mode of existence or grasp of the sensed things separate from that of the forms. There, ao'6 is no longer an uncertain belief about things, but is a silent X6yo4, which is the same as thought (86Cvota), or dialogue arising in the mind, (Theaet. 189e-190c: Soph. 263e-264a). And this reflection, this "judgment: (as Burnet, Taylor, Cornford translate 86Ao), is not about sensed things apart from forms, but is, as is ?o6yo4, about the interrelated forms.7 Through interrelating the forms, it interrelates the things they define. In fact, the whole discussion of not-being and the interrelations of the forms, in the Sophist, is in order to explain how, through them, at- tributes and relations may be ascribed to things.

    Though XOyos (and 86om) about experienced things must be about the forms characterizing them, it must be relevant to the perception with which it may begin, (80 OCCO? itxpn; Soph. 264a) Unlike dialectic about the forms alone, it may be false. It must relate the forms either truly, as "they are" (-rc Ov'a C ea-t); or falsely, as other than they are: (-epo rtCv O`vtov; 263b) Here, & 6v'cx may refer either to forms or to things, as it often does, (see esp. 234d, 252a). But it must refer to things as characterized by the forms; it cannot refer to things apart from the forms. For, in accordance with the previous analysis, ?oyoq must relate the forms. And presumably - though Plato says

    6 Ryle, Letters and Syllables in Plato, Philosophical Review, vol. 69, 1960, esp. p. 446. 7 For a fuller exposition of this point, see my Perceptual Judgments and Parti- culars in Plato's Philosophy, Phronesis, vol. vi, 1961, pp. 106-8.


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  • nothing about this point - Xoyo4 which relates the forms aright would account for the perceptions to which it is relevant; false X6yo4 would relate them otherwise.

    The examples of the true and false MoyoL, "Theaetetus sits", and "Theaetetus, to whom I am talking, flies" would have to relate the forms, not to a substantial subject of the predicative forms, but to each other. For the person referred to by "Theaetetus" may be describ- ed by the complex of interrelated forms, "a young man, with a snub- nose and a brilliant mind, a mathematics student, who is responding to Socrates' questions". Statements about Theatetus may truly add "who is sitting", or falsely add "who is flying" to the complex of forms characterizing him. Yet, though the name, "Theaetetus", may be the grammatical subject of statements about him, the apparent Theaetetus is not a substantial subject about whom forms are predicated, even though, for Plato, the knowing mind always has a fundamental role. He is not, as Cornford says, an existing subject which "participates" in the forms which are predicates of it.8 For, in the later dialogues, Plato no longer mentions the problematic "participation" of particular things in forms, which he criticised in the Parmenides. Instead, forms "participate" (,Tex?XZLv) in each other. Theaetetus may be spoken of, not as a substantial subject beyond the forms, but as the interrelated forms describing him. Logos is about the interconnected forms only.

    That Plato thought that statement interconnected forms only might possibly have been Plato's theory, according to Mr. Runciman. However, he feels that such a theory led to a fallacy of self-predication, such as would be involved in saying that the Form of Man is seated. He concludes that probably Plato related the forms as predicates of an existing subject, Theaetetus, which was not a form.9 However, to say that to certain forms descriptive of Theaetetus may be added others, also descriptive of Theaetetus, is not to be guilty of self- predication: and does not prevent ?o6yoq from being about the inter- connected forms only.

    An earlier passage in the Sophist confirms this interpretation. In 251a-c, the problem of how one individual man may have many attributes is mentioned as engaging argumentative late learners, to whom, also, is addressed the following discussion of the interweaving of the forms. Thus, that discussion is considered a solution of the same 8 Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1935, pp. 314-15. 9 Runciman, Op. cit., pp. 111-112.


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  • problem, which Plato does not consider one of how a substantial subject may have many predicates, but rather a problem of how different forms may be interrelated. The way to speak of individuals, for him, was by interrelating forms descriptive of them.

    That Plato, in talking about relations between forms, is referring to the particular things to which they apply, is borne out through the discussion. He starts by an analogy to things, to letters and sounds, whose proper combination must be known. (Soph. 253a-b) In saying how forms combine, he begins with speaking of the ability to discern

    Wxav at' ncoXXv evoq ix&ar-ou Z'pt, where, as Mr. Runciman points out,10 "-ro?X)v refers to particulars, for if it did not 'V6o 'x&arou should read ,u&q EXtX-rJ'. Moreover, if ex&aTot refers to a particular, as it usually does in Plato, the exLaGrOC of 253e probably refers again to particulars. Thus, the passage should read that the ability to discern...