Transcript: 28 - Fiona Leigh on Plato's Sophist

Peter talks to Fiona Leigh of University College London about Plato's Sophist, which revises the theory of Forms to explain how falsehood is possible.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Before we get into the Sophist itself, I wanted to start by asking you to say just a little about the theory of forms. If you had to summarize Plato's theory, if it is a theory, in dialogues other than the Sophist, so maybe the Phaedo, the Republic, what would you say? I mean, what's the point?

Fiona Leigh: I would say that forms are that which explains things having properties that they have. So if there are lots of things that are beautiful, a beautiful dress, a beautiful day, a beautiful city - all of those things are beautiful, Plato thinks because the form of beauty makes them beautiful. So it's an explanation and a cause for all the things being what they are, having properties that they have.

Peter Adamson: That answer obviously focuses us on a metaphysical or causal role of the forms, but I guess they're also supposed to have an epistemological role as well, right?

Fiona Leigh: Right. If you can discover the thing that explains in what sense all beautiful things are beautiful and indeed explains them being beautiful, then Plato thinks you've discovered something that looks like the definition of beauty so that if you express it, put it in linguistic terms, you've discovered the definition of beauty, for instance, and that obviously plays an epistemological role.

Peter Adamson: And then you could maybe use that to check whether your opinions about things being beautiful were in fact true or not, and maybe even come to know which things are beautiful. Because if something satisfies the definition, it's beautiful.

Fiona Leigh: Okay, so the primary object of knowledge, if you like, would be the form of beauty, but that then allows you to check your beliefs about other things being beautiful and perhaps come to knowledge. That's debated, of course.

Peter Adamson:I guess the weird thing about this though is that it seems like the causal role of the forms could come apart from that idea that we're checking why things count as having certain characteristics like beauty. I mean, why think that the thing that causes something to be beautiful is going to be the object that's defined by defining the word beautiful? I mean, why couldn't, for example, why couldn't the thing that causes things to be beautiful be, say, a goddess of beauty? And then the definition of this goddess obviously wouldn't be a definition of the concept or the word beauty.

Fiona Leigh: Right, so it's obvious that you could pull apart a definition, an abstract definition, from a cause, and indeed in contemporary philosophy that's what people do. But for whatever reason Plato seemed to think that his forms were causes. And certainly if you find something that is the cause of something by being the nature, itself being the nature of beauty, and if you think that acts as a cause, it's certainly going to follow that. If you discover that thing, you'll discover what it is that all the beautiful things have in common, because they satisfy that definition. So if the form of beauty just is whatever is the real thing out there in the world, Plato thinks forms are real, if the form just is that real thing out in the world that embodies somehow the nature of the property beauty, then that's going to serve an epistemological function. So something can serve both functions, or at least it's coherent or plausible for Plato to have thought that something can serve both functions or fill both roles. But it's also the case and very clear that he need not have gone for something so big and bold - that he could have thought the causal role comes apart from the epistemological role. It just seems clear from the dialogues that he didn't.

Peter Adamson: Right, so maybe it would even be fair to say that the point of the theory of forms is just to claim that when you get hold of a definition of beautiful or beauty, that what you've gotten hold of is the cause of things being beautiful. Would that be a fair way to just summarize the theory?

Fiona Leigh: The point of the theory of forms.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, sure, why not? The point of the theory of forms.

Fiona Leigh: It could be.

Peter Adamson: Okay, I'll take that for now. Let's go along to the sophist. This is not a dialogue I have discussed yet. So maybe you could tell us what happens, who are the characters, what's the point of the discussion?

Fiona Leigh: So the main character, often thought to be Plato's mouthpiece in the dialogue, is unnamed. So it's a mystery guy from a city called Elea outside Athens. So the stranger, as he's often referred to, the stranger from Elea is the main speaker. He's talking to a young man, Theaetetus. And he's talking to Theaetetus according to the fiction of the dialogue the day after Theaetetus has been talking to Socrates in the dialogue called 'Theaetetus.' So this takes place the very next day apparently. Theaetetus has been talking with the stranger prior to the dialogue's opening and they run into Theodorus and Socrates. There are some other people there, but they're the two people who speak throughout the dialogue for the most part are the Eleatic stranger and Theaetetus.

Peter Adamson: And presumably it's important that the stranger is from the city where Parmenides is from, so the Eleatic philosophy is Parmenides' philosophy.

Fiona Leigh: Absolutely. So Parmenides' philosophy is referred to and brought up many times in the dialogue. The main point of the dialogue is to say just what a sophist is. So I don't know if your listeners know much about sophists.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I have done an episode on the sophists.

Fiona Leigh: Right. So they want to try and define what a sophist is and whether or not a sophist is different from a philosopher on the one hand and a statesman on the other or if all three names are names for the one thing or if they're separate. And the stranger says that he can say whether or not they're the same or separate, and he thinks they're separate. But going through the explanation is a long process and he'd like to do it by a question and answer session with a compliant interlocutor. So he doesn't want to just give a speech where he's the only one talking. He wants to proceed by questions and answers, but he wants someone who's only going to let him know if he really doesn't follow what he's saying. He doesn't want someone to be challenging him at every point along the way. Or that's how I read that bit.

Peter Adamson: He's happy to ask extremely leading questions and just have the person say yes all the time, unlike Socrates maybe?

Fiona Leigh: Right. Well, he doesn't just ask questions. He puts forward views the whole way through and it's as if he wants the interlocutor to only interrupt him when he's really not understanding what's being proposed. There's a lot of positive doctrine, I guess it's called often, presented in the dialogue.

Peter Adamson: I guess some people think that Plato is here moving away from the idea of dramatizing Socratic discussions even though he's holding on to the question and answer format. The questioning is not being done by Socrates and the questioning seems to be rather different because the person doing the questioning really has an agenda and a theory that he wants to push.

Fiona Leigh: Right. So Socrates famously didn't put forward his own beliefs or state doctrine for consideration. Whereas the Eliatic Stranger makes various proposals. So he's not just questioning the views that somebody else holds. In fact, we don't find out very much about the views that Theaetetus has in the sophist. He puts forward his own views and the question he puts to Theaetetus is more or less along the lines of isn't that so, don't you agree? It's interesting, isn't it, because in the 'Theaetetus,' Theaetetus is actually allowed to come up with all the theories of what knowledge is and then these are considered one after another. Right. So as where in the 'Theaetetus,' Theaetetus really does submit all the proposals that they consider. The Eliatic Stranger in the sophist puts forward practically all the views they consider. Theaetetus learns along the way and occasionally he says, for instance, oh, I know the answer to that one and he draws on what's been said earlier to propose something because he's a bright young man.

Peter Adamson: The clever kid in class.

Fiona Leigh: Right, exactly. But mainly it's the stranger's proposals. And the purpose of the dialogue ostensibly is to define what sophistry is, what a sophist is and they attempt to do this following the so-called method of collection and division as the stranger proposes that they do. And the method is one whereby you take a very general class of things and then you divide them according to differentia and you keep performing these divisions on the classes, the ever smaller classes until you find the very thing that you're looking for. So the example that the stranger gives to make the method clear is the quest to find out a definition of angling, what a fly fisherman is basically. And he starts off by dividing all the different sorts of hunting until he gets down to the very small group of angling.

Peter Adamson: And he always divides into two classes and picks one or the other and then subdivides that into two more classes until you get to a definition which is basically just a list of the divisions that have been accepted.

Fiona Leigh: And it's not always the case that the two divisions, the two classes that are isolated in the divisions are named. Sometimes he says, 'oh, and this is a nameless thing.' But we know what it is.

Peter Adamson: And then they do this with the sophist actually several times and they come up with different alternative definitions. And one of these asks us to consider the sophist as being a maker of images which is connected to the idea of falsehood. And that brings us to the most important and famous part of the sophist, which I guess is what we should probably spend the rest of the time discussing. That brings us to this famous problem which is raised sort of around the middle of the sophist and the problem of nonbeing, which seems very appropriate given that as we said the strangers from Elea, the city of Parmenides, seems to relate to something in Parmenides, some kind of Parmenidian problem of nonbeing. So can you explain what the problem basically is?

Fiona Leigh: As it's introduced in the dialogue, the problem of nonbeing comes up because they want to say that falsehood is real. So the sophist has been isolated as somebody who sells falsehoods for money, sells images for money, and these falsehoods can be dangerous because he's not advertising them as such. So at this point in the dialogue the stranger says, 'but wait, the sophist would deny there's any such thing as falsehood, because to say what falsehood is involves introducing the concept of nonbeing, and Parmenides, where I come from, has said that there's no such thing as nonbeing. We can't think or talk about nonbeing.' So falsehood is either "saying what is when in fact it is not or saying what is not when in fact it is," as they say in the dialogue. So falsehood involves not being. What is nonbeing? And the stranger decides that what he has to do is explain that not being is and in what sense not-being is.

Peter Adamson: Which sounds contradictory.

Fiona Leigh: Right, it sounds really contradictory. So what's the problem with not-being anyway? Parmenides might have had a particular problem with nonbeing and there's no real comment on that in the Sophist so I'm going to leave that aside in answering the question. But if your concern is falsehood, as Plato's concern was in the Sophist, you might think that the problem of nonbeing concerns states of affairs that don't obtain.

Peter Adamson: Could you give me an example?

Fiona Leigh: So you might say that it's a lovely day outside today in London.

Peter Adamson: It actually is, she's not making that up. It's really a lovely day, for once!

Fiona Leigh: So you might say it's not raining and that's a true statement today. It's a true statement. And it's true because outside it's a lovely day. But you might say it's true because outside it's not the case that it's raining. So a negative state of affairs is the state of affairs in which it's raining. Which is a state of affairs that isn't true, that doesn't obtain?

Peter Adamson: So the idea would be the reason that it's not raining is that the thing that isn't, namely the raining, is out there as it were. And so we have something that isn't, that is, and that's the puzzle?

Fiona Leigh: Possibly. Maybe I'll try and explain it more clearly. The problem of nonbeing could be thought of as either a state of affairs which is inherently negative, so the state of affairs in which it's not raining, somehow being real. And that's strange because in fact when you think about the state of affairs that does obtain, there's nothing to do with rain, there's just blue skies. So the negative aspect of that is said perhaps to be manifesting itself somehow, but it's hard to understand how that's the case. Or it could be in the case of falsehood, if I say it is raining, that I've expressed a state of affairs in my false statement that it's raining that fails to obtain. So you might think that the problem of nonbeing is a problem because it involves the notion of these states of affairs that are negative somehow, that don't obtain.

Peter Adamson: And really all there is out in the world is the states of affairs that do obtain, in other words the way things really are. There's no way things aren't out there in the world because the world is just everything that is the case, to put Wittgenstein.

Fiona Leigh: So there are only positive states of affairs.

Peter Adamson: Right, okay. So that's the problem. If that's the problem, at least as Plato sees it, is it too nasty if I just ask you what the solution is?

Fiona Leigh: So for Plato the problem is also a metaphysical one. If he thinks, as I take him to think, that different things have properties by virtue of participating in forms, then everything that is the case is the case because various things are participating in forms. That's the explanation on a metaphysical level of all the positive states of affairs. And it's not clear how he can explain negative states of affairs. Is it that somebody, if somebody is ugly rather than being beautiful, is there a form of ugliness and that they're participating in that? Is Plato going to have to countenance lots and lots of negative forms? And you might have something, you might have a property that isn't a property which has an opposite. So you might have the idea of largeness that has the opposite property, smallness, but you also might have the idea of equality. So if you're conceiving of measurements, Plato might need to postulate lots and lots of forms to account for all the positive states of affairs, all the ways that things really are. You also might think that he could say or might want to say that things fail to participate in a form. But a failure to participate is a strange thing to explain. He's already faced with the difficulty of explaining what participation is. So a failure to participate could be a difficult thing to explain.

Peter Adamson: Would it be fair to say then that it's like he started out in, say, the Phaedo or other dialogues like that, maybe the Republic, by trying to explain how it comes to be that certain things are true, for example, that Helen is beautiful or that the stick is equal to that stick or whatever it is. And he's kind of got a nice theory of truth, namely that these truths come about because of participation in forms. And then he thinks, okay, next step would be trying to explain falsehood, especially since there were these sophists running around saying that it was impossible to say anything false. So it was a kind of pressing problem for him dialectically as well as philosophically.

Fiona Leigh: Right. That's how I see it. Definitely.

Peter Adamson: And so that's maybe a more deep understanding of why the problem is a problem for Plato, but it still doesn't sound like a solution.

Fiona Leigh: No. So he wants to explain how falsehoods are possible and how negative predications generally are true, or can be true, by way of analyzing positive states of affairs. So Theaetetus is flying is an example from the dialogue. So Theaetetus is sitting down opposite the stranger from Aelia during their conversation. So they consider the statement, the logos, "Theaetetus is flying" and it's a false statement. So the analysis, as I understand it, though this is controversial, people understand this differently as well. The analysis that Plato offers is that Theaetetus is participating in some forms and he's participating in, directly or indirectly, difference from other things. So we explain Theaetetus as flying being false because what's happening is that he's participating in sitting. So Theaetetus sits. And that sitting, either people say that either sitting itself, the form, participates in difference in relation to flying or that Theaetetus as well as participating in sitting or perhaps because he participates in sitting thereby participates in difference from all the things that are participating in flying. So they're two different, I guess, well there are other interpretations as well, but they're two fairly prominent ones.

Peter Adamson: And however you cut it, the solution has something to do with saying that all the work of negation is being done by the form of difference and there's a form of difference and a form of the same. So I guess that idea there would be that if you're sitting and I'm sitting, which in fact we are, then we both participate in the form of sameness as well as the form of sitting and that's why the two of us resemble each other in this respect so that we're both sitting. Is that right?

Fiona Leigh: It could be. I think that's really difficult. The reason that I say it's difficult is that we don't get such cases in the dialogue. Where we do have cases of things participating in difference and sameness are cases of forms participating in difference and sameness. So we don't have a lengthy or complete or detailed analysis in the dialogue of any non-forms, so you and I are not forms, any non-form subjects participating in sameness or difference in fact.

Peter Adamson: I guess that's really one of the breakthroughs, or possible breakthroughs, of the Sophist that Plato starts to think about not just things like me participating in forms or sticks or stones participating in forms, but forms participating in forms so that he's able to say that one form participates in difference by being different from another form. And there are five forms that he focuses on, right? Namely being, motion, rest, sameness and difference. The "greatest kinds."

Fiona Leigh: Yes, the "greatest kinds."

Peter Adamson: Okay, well that sounds like it might be a breakthrough if we actually need to think about forms sharing in one another. But why do I need to think about forms sharing in or participating in one another? Why isn't it enough to think about sticks and stones and Helen participating in forms?

Fiona Leigh: Right, so you might want to, if you're Plato, analyse or consider forms as things that have properties on their own. And it could be the case that in the past if you're Plato you worried that forms couldn't have properties in their own right, or if they had properties in their own right that other problems such as the 'third man problem' from the Parmenides might arise. So it could just be the case that Plato wants to get clear about whether or not forms which are the embodiment of properties, the sorts of things that if we discover them, we've discovered a definition of some property, the very nature of a property, that he wants to get clear on whether or not properties can have properties, whether second order properties are possible. And one, that's one way of looking at the dialogue and some people have thought that that's what he's doing. So if you think that the 'form of motion' might be a numerically distinct form from the 'form of rest,' and indeed the Eliatic stranger argues that it is, you might think that it follows from that that it's got to have the property of being different from the form of rest. But then it follows that the form of motion would have to participate in the form of difference in relation to the form of rest just like anything else, just as you participate in the form of difference from being different from the chair or from me. And Plato might have thought that that was a potentially difficult thing to say or a potentially problematic thing to say because then forms would have properties in a perfectly ordinary way just as other things have properties. But for whatever reason, by the time he gets to the Sophist he is prepared to say that forms participate in one another or can participate in one another. Not all forms participate in one another. So it seems to be the logical forms that forms participate in. So the five "greatest kinds," in the Sophist anyway, all share in the form of sameness. So they're all the same as themselves. They're all self-identical.

Peter Adamson: And they're all different from other forms.

Fiona Leigh: Right, so they all share in difference. There's an implication, there are passages which suggest that all forms share in being. Certainly motion and rest share in being explicitly. But the implication is that all forms share in being. But no forms are said to share in motion - or in rest - in fact, in the dialogue.

Peter Adamson: We're almost out of time but let me ask you just one last question which is a little bit speculative. Do you think that part of what Plato is after here is to give philosophy something to do? Because if you just say well okay so there's these beautiful objects, they participate in beauty, that's why they're beautiful. But that's not really philosophy. Philosophy is not just observing that beauty makes beautiful things beautiful because that's said to be a safe and simple-minded solution in the Phaedo. But here's maybe a really tough question. Think of all of the kind of important concepts that you need in order to understand the world. Now go figure out how they relate to one another. So in other words figure out how the forms participate in one another. Is there some possibility that he's saying that that's what dialectic is, in his sort of special philosophical sense, or that that's what the philosopher would do? Or do you think that's just kind of crazy?

Fiona Leigh: Well no there's actually a passage in the dialogue where he says that working out the interrelations between the greatest kinds is dialectic and that that's precisely what the philosopher does. So whether it's working out the logical relations between the concepts or whether it's working out what follows the entailments of the relations between the objects - given the world that we have in front of us - is an interesting question.

Peter Adamson: And I guess maybe poses a problem as to whether the philosopher is not very interested in the physical world around us because now he's going to be spending all of his time thinking about how forms relate to each other or is thinking about how forms relate to each other just a way of thinking about the things around us?

Fiona Leigh: So I think what you said earlier about truth and falsehood is relevant here. So if in the past Plato was concerned to give a metaphysical analysis of the states of affairs that make our statements true, then of course he's going to be concerned with giving a parallel analysis or an equally satisfactory analysis of the kinds of states of affairs that make statements false or make negative statements true. And if the relations between forms are a necessary component of that then he's definitely concerned with the world because he's concerned with how our statements can be true and false about the world. He's concerned with making sense of the idea that Theaetetus sits is true and Theaetetus flies is false from a metaphysical point of view. So he wants to provide a metaphysical account that can explain the phenomena and make our statements explain how our statements about the phenomena can be true. 


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