Lecture Eight: Dialectic 8.3

8.3 Rescuing differences

The Sophist provides one possible solution to the problems introduced in the Parmenides. Here, Plato advances a new way of conceiving of ideas or forms as necessarily interconnected and sharing in one another. Once again, the dialogue is conducted not by Socrates, but rather by a ‘visitor from Elea,’ who thinks of Parmenides as his ‘father.’ And yet, the visitor is ready to overcome Parmenides’s own contention that ‘what is not’ is something that cannot be thought or talked about. In this sense, the discussion in the Sophist takes the cue from some of the results of the deductions in the Parmenides and then shows another way of disentangling them.

The general purpose of the dialogue is to arrive at a sound definition of what a ‘sophist’ is, especially for the sake of distinguishing between a ‘sophist’ and a ‘philosopher’ (the latter being something like the ‘noble’ and ‘right’ version of the former). The visitor applies a method that is referred to as dialectical but does not work like the one illustrated in the Parmenides. In this new method, the purpose is to first identify a common genre to which the thing-to-be-defined belongs, and then progressively divide up this genre into mutually exclusive sub-categories, such that the thing-to-be-defined has to be neatly posited in one or in the other. This process of subsequent division is continued until one reaches the point where any new division would directly include the thing-to-be-defined as one of the two parts to be divided.

The visitor begins to apply this method in a number of iterations, reaching various definitions of what a sophist might be. However, all these definitions appear to some extent provisional, until he stumbles upon the issue of falsehood. The sophist, so it seems, must be shown to be someone who is not really an expert as he pretends to be, but someone who deceives and creates only a semblance of knowledge. But how can we define this possibility of falsehood in the first place?

This whole matter of appearing, and seeming, but not being, and of saying things but not true things, has always caused puzzlement and confusion in the past, and it still does. It’s extraordinarily difficult to grasp, Theaetetus, how one is to come out with the claim that it really is possible to say or believe things that are false, and express this without being caught up in contradiction. (236e-237a, transl. Rowe 2015, 129)

The problem is that speaking the false means saying something that does not correspond to how things really are. Falsity is a way of asserting ‘what is not.’ This observation leads the visitor to engage with Parmenides’s views. The historical Parmenides already claimed that thought and speech can only be about Being, while non-being cannot be thought or talked about. The visitor introduces a number of puzzles and problems that would follow from denying this Parmenidean tenet. He then states:

So do you see that it’s impossible, correctly, to express or to say or to think what is not in and by itself; it’s unthinkable, unsayable, inexpressible, and unaccountable. (238c, transl. Rowe 2015, 131)

However, even saying this much is contradictory, since it attributes predicates to what is not (238e-239a). This constitutes the ‘problem of non-being,’ namely, a series of puzzles concerning the impossibility of talking about non-being (as when one speaks falsehood) together with the impossibility of not talking in a way that somehow entails a paradoxical reference to some form of non-being. To define a speech as true and not deceitful, one needs to be able to spell out what a deceitful speech is, by thus granting the possibility of speaking falsehood. At this point, the visitor announces:

In order to defend ourselves we’re going to need to cross-examine what our father Parmenides says and force the claim through both that what is not in a certain way is, and conversely that what is also in a way is not. […] So long as these things are neither stated nor agreed, we will hardly be able ever to talk about things said or believed and say that they are false, whether we call them images, or likenesses, or imitations, or just apparitions, nor will we be able to talk about any expertises relating to these, either, without being forced to contradict ourselves and make ourselves the object of ridicule. (241d-e, transl. Rowe 2015, 136)

In reference to what we have seen in the Parmenides, two points needs to be emphasized. First, the problem of non-being can easily be rephrased as the problem of accounting for the idea of difference, since non-being is the paradigm for conceiving of the property of ‘being other-than,’ or ‘different-from’ something else. Without offering a valid account of difference, it will be impossible to account for falsehood or appearance. Paradoxically, the visitor’s claim entails that Parmenides himself would not have been entitled to talk about falsehood (about the ‘path of Night’ that he takes non-being to be) or appearances (about the way in which mortals think about phenomena as really changing and partaking of both being and non-being), since in Parmenides’s view it is impossible to talk about non-being, and hence it is impossible to utter falsehoods or distinguish appearances from reality. The series of deductions we encountered in the Parmenides, however, suggests one way in which this paradox can be alleviated. On one account of the function of the deductions, we saw that the distinction between appearance and reality does not cut across different regions of what can be said, but rather distinguishes between the whole of what can be said (covered by the deductions) and an ultimate reality that is behind or beyond it, accessible only through some intuition. However, even in this case, Parmenides (both the historical author and the character in Plato’s dialogue) does not seem entitled to make this distinction because this would require accepting the reality of such a difference, while also denying that difference (‘what is not’) is something real.

Hence, the second point made by the visitor: the way out from this tangle consists in merging being and non-being to some extent. This is the suggestion that could have been already derived from the Parmenides, insofar as it was becoming apparent that Socrates’s positing of ideas as sharply demarcated from one another was the most problematic assumption in the whole discussion. In this sense, the visitor now tries to flesh out a possible way of envisaging being and non-being as somehow mutually interwoven. In so doing, the visitor also introduces several important clarifications, which will end up creating a snowball effect against the very idea of conceiving of dialectic as an anesthetic practice. This latter aspect is particularly relevant for our present discussion and must be stressed.

One of the most important remarks, for instance, comes from the visitor’s definition of being:

a thing genuinely is if it has some capacity, of whatever sort, either to act on another thing, of whatever nature, or to be acted on, even to the slightest degree and by the most trivial of things, and even if it is just the once. That is, what marks off the things that are as being, I propose, is nothing other than capacity. (247e, transl. Rowe 2015, 145)

‘To be’ means to be capable of acting or be acted upon. Being and action are convertible to some extent and in some way.[1] Since action is transitive, an intransitive reality cannot be said to be active in any way (Indian thinkers would agree). But this then means that what is entirely devoid of action is by definition a sheer nothingness, it is no reality at all (pace Parmenides and Indian thinkers). The visitor goes further:

But – Zeus! – what is this? Are we in any case going to be so easily persuaded that change and life and soul and wisdom are truly absent from what completely is, and that it does not live, or think, but sits there in august holiness, devoid of intelligence, fixed and unchanging? […] In any case, Theaetetus, it follows from what we have said that if things are unchanging no one possesses any intelligence about any of them at all. […] And yet if on the other hand we accept that all things are in motion and changing, this account of things too will result in our removing knowability from the things that are. (248e-249b, transl. Rowe 2015, 147)

There is here the possibility of interpreting being in a quasi-personalistic and theological way, since being must also possess life and intelligence, hence the key qualities that would make up some sort of divine person. The visitor also repeats the issue already encountered about the conditions of intelligibility of reality and the need for postulating ideas: if ideas are completely unchanging, they escape the domain of knowledge (which is a sort of action) and are of no use in knowing anything. Yet if everything is changing, nothing can be known, because nothing will have any stable nature to be known.

This and connected considerations lead the visitor to conclude that ideas must be taken as connected and partaking in each other. To some extent, some ideas must be able to mix, some to a greater degree, some to a lesser degree. Some ideas might be disjoined, but others must be necessarily linked. On this basis, it is possible to better understand that the one who is genuinely skilled in mastering these distinctions is the true philosopher, the expert in dialectic:

The person who can do this is then surely well enough equipped to see when one form is spread all through many, each of them standing separately, or when many forms that are different from one another are embraced from the outside by one; or again when one is connected as one through many forms, themselves wholes, or when many forms are completely divided off and separate. This is all a matter of knowing how to determine, kind by kind, how things can or cannot combine. (253d-e, transl. Rowe 2015, 154)

Notice how different this view of dialectic is from the one we encountered in the Parmenides. There, the sort of training that Parmenides advocated had to do with the ability of articulating various hypotheses, permutating elements, considering positive and negative consequences, until the whole logical space surrounding a given idea was exhausted, and arguably mutual incompatible consequences derived. Here, instead, the visitor contends that dialectic is concerned with distinguishing between various genres and kinds, sorting out similarities and differences. In this sense, this kind of dialectic is already based on the assumption that ideas do partake of each other. Since this assumption was precisely what was denied in the Parmenides, the dialectical practice in the two dialogues is not only different, but it is based on opposite premises.

This becomes most apparent in the way the visitor arrives at a definition of the ‘five great kinds,’ namely, the five most general ideas that can be used to understand the basic features of reality. These are: being, change, rest, sameness, and diversity. For present purposes, it is the inclusion of diversity within one of these five kinds that is particularly noteworthy. This move allows the visitor to define ‘what is not’ as an expression of sharing diversity among different things. As he explains:

What is not, then, must necessarily be, both in the case of change and with all the kinds, because with all of them, the nature of the different, by rendering each a different thing from being, makes it something that is not; and in fact in accordance with this same reasoning we’ll be correct in talking of all of them too as things that are not – and then again, since they share in being, in saying that they are, and talking of them as things that are. (256e, transl. Rowe 2015, 159)

Difference is one of the most general kinds or ideas, in which all other ideas necessarily partake insofar as they are distinct ideas. Socrates’s intuition in the Parmenides, according to which ideas must exist in themselves and by themselves, is thus vindicated. In order to be what they are, ideas (like any entity), need to be different from other entities, and this means that each entity is not something else. The existence of this property of ‘not-being-something-else’ means that all entities necessarily partake in difference. However, difference must not be conceived as a kind in its own right that is absolutely unmixed with all other kinds. In fact, the opposite is the case. By partaking in all other kinds, difference allows for their mutual distinguishability, but also for the fact that things can both be what they are and be different from one another. This is the how the visitor goes beyond Parmenides’s prohibition of talking about non-being.

Such a move comes with an important qualification: ‘when we say something is not, it seems, we’re not saying that it is the opposite of what is, we’re just saying it is different’ (257b, transl. Rowe 2015, 160). The visitor makes clear that ‘what is not’ cannot be conceived in terms of an absolute opposite to being itself, since conceiving of non-being in this way is precisely what leads to the tangle of problems mentioned earlier. The problem with this approach is that it takes difference as an idea that is unmixed with any other, and hence as something that needs to operate as an absolute, like in the absolute opposition (difference) that Parmenides posited between Being and nothing. In this case, difference means that if A and B are different, then they cannot share anything (they cannot also partake of identity). The presence of difference excludes the presence of anything else, including identity. This rigid view of difference is essential to Parmenides’s account, but is also precisely what the visitor rejects. In other words, the underpinning issue in the Parmenidean approach is to stick to a too rigid understanding of ideas that does not allow for their mixing (which was in fact Socrates’s own problem in the Parmenides).

Having abandoned this view as unhelpful, the visitor can thus conclude:

So let no one accuse us of having the temerity to declare that what is not is the opposite of being and then say that it is. We have long since waved goodbye to talking about any opposite to being, no matter whether it is or is not, or whether an account can be given of it or it is completely unaccountable. As for what we have now said that what is not is, either someone needs to challenge us and persuade us that what we’re saying is not well said, or so long as he is incapable of doing that, he too will have to talk in the same terms as us, and say both that the kinds mix with one another, and that since what is and difference pervade them all and one another, difference, with its share in what is, is, because of that sharing, while at the same time it is certainly not what it has that share in, but rather something different from it; and since it is different from what is, he’ll have to say that it is in the clearest conceivable way necessary for it to be possible for it to be what is not. What is, for its part, because of the share it has in difference, will be different from the other kinds, and in being different from all of them it is not each of them, nor all the rest together, only itself, so that what is, in its turn, indisputably is not myriads upon myriads of things. Similarly the other kinds, whether taken one by one or all together, in many respects are and in many respects are not. (258e-259b, transl. Rowe 2015, 162-163)

The opposite of being (absolute non-being or absolute nothingness) is not something that is just left behind untouched by this discussion. Rather, it is dismissed as the wrong way of conceptualizing non-being. The mistake in this account is taking non-being as something that could somehow stand in its own right without mixing with anything else. This sharp ontological demarcation is the main problem, and once it is abandoned, non-being can be more helpfully understood as the quality of ‘not-being-something-else,’ namely, as difference. Difference partakes in being and hence difference is, and certainly the sharing of difference in being is the sharing of two genuinely distinct and irreducible ideas in their mutual inter-mixing. Difference is different from the being in which it shares (sharing in something else presupposes a difference between at least two entities); and since difference is different from being, it must surely be possible for difference to be what is not, that is, it must be possible to assert that difference is a form of non-being. Moreover, in virtue of the fact that being is different from difference itself, being can be asserted as a kind in its own right. Considering being an idea in its own right vindicates some of the qualities attributed to it by (the historical) Parmenides, who conceived of being as an absolute unity, homogeneous, and lacking any determinations. What allows being to have these qualities is precisely its ability to share in the nature of difference, in virtue of which it can be set apart (i.e., be different) from all the other ideas.

One way of contrasting the sort of dialectic presented in the Parmenides with the dialectic advocated in the Sophist is by calling the former a ‘segregating dialectic,’ and the latter a ‘relational dialectic.’ Against the segregating kind of dialectic, the visitor reiterates its inability to achieve any form of meaningful discussion:

If one separates each thing off from everything, that completely and utterly obliterates any discourse, since it is the interweaving of forms that gives us the possibility of talking to each other in the first place. (259e, transl. Rowe 2015, 164)

To be fair, on our reading at least, the segregating dialectic was perhaps not intended to support colloquial conversation, especially if one uses it as a tool for inducing anesthetic intuition. Be that as it may, supporting colloquial conversation becomes now a central feature in the visitor’s discussion, and he can easily make the point that only a relational dialectic fits this bill.

This turn towards language signals the way that Plato drifts away from the anesthetic approach. In the last part of the Sophist, the visitor comes back to the main topic of dialogue. He grants that ‘speech, when there is speech, must necessarily say something of something; it’s impossible for it to say something of nothing’ (262e, transl. Rowe 2015, 168). This remark is a steppingstone for introducing a ‘correspondence theory of truth’, according to which speech is true when it picks out a relation among things that corresponds to how these things actually are in reality (somehow ‘outside’ of speech itself). Falsehood is defined as a lack of such a correspondence between reality and speech. As the visitor explains:

When things are said about you, then, but different things as if the same, and things that are not as if they are – that definitely seems to be the sort of combination of verbs and names that turns out really and truly to be false speech. […] So what about thought and belief and appearance? Isn’t it clear by now that all these kinds come about in our souls as false as well as true? […] Well, thought and speech are the same thing, with just this difference, that the first is an internal dialogue of the soul with itself that occurs without vocal expression, which is why it has the name we call it by. (263d-e, transl. Rowe 2015, 169-170)

Falsehood and appearance instantiate a particular form of difference or dissimilarity between speech and reality. Before this long discussion, it seemed problematic to offer an account of falsehood, since difference entails a form of non-being, and according to Parmenides, non-being cannot meaningfully be part of any discourse or even be thought of. Now this Parmenidean worry has been left behind. The visitor thus makes one further move and identifies thought and belief with speech. Thought is ‘an internal dialogue of the soul with itself,’ which means that from a structural point of view, to think and to use language are the same (hence, there is no thought without some linguistic and conceptual articulation).[2] No further justification and argument are provided here to back up this move, which is perhaps taken to be unproblematic or obvious.

But this is far from obvious. The historical Parmenides himself equated being and thought (Fragments 3 and 6) but considered words (speech) as only misguiding constructions of mortals who follow the path of Night (Fragment 8). This suggests that he would have denied that thought (which is a truthful manifestation of being) and speech (which establishes nothing but ‘names’ and does not yield the truth) can be equated. We can also add that some Indian Upaniṣadic thinkers, at least, would strongly protest against this conflation of linguistically articulated thought and thought in general, since the activity of cognizing does not necessarily entail having an object, and surely does not entail having to be articulated linguistically. So, by equating thought and speech, Plato is redefining philosophy, opening a new way of conceiving of its nature and tasks, which remains the dominant one today.[3]

This Platonic move does not necessarily entail that philosophy becomes entirely a theoretical affair. Quite to the contrary, if we follow Hadot’s interpretation (Lecture Zero), Hellenistic schools will derive from the practice of Socratic dialogue the inspiration for several spiritual exercises aimed at overcoming individual passions and reaching some sort of universal standpoint; perhaps an identification with a Cosmic Reason or Consciousness. However, these exercises all rely on the interiorization of dialogical (and social) practices, which exclude the method of anaesthetic trance and aim at a final goal more akin to an intellectual understanding of the unity of the universe, rather than an actual immediate experience of an ineffable and difference-transcending reality.[4]

We noticed above the definition of being as a capacity to act or be acted upon. We then observed how this quickly led to the possibility of personalizing the idea of being, assuming that it must also be somehow endowed with thought and intelligence. Further, the visitor introduced his account of relational dialectic, as the expertise in drawing distinctions between kinds and accounting for the mixing of various ideas. This sort of relational dialectic (which is the special art of the philosopher) is based on a relational account of difference, no longer conceived of as the Parmenidean absolute non-being, but rather as a relational difference among things or entities. Building on this account, the visitor can draw an even stronger connection between language and dialectic, showing why discourse necessarily requires a relational account of difference. This account allows for the possibility of distinguishing between truth and falsity (or reality and appearance). Eventually, the equation between thought and speech closes the discussion, by revealing that the art of dialectic does not concern only a skillful way of talking about realities, but also the most skillful way of thinking, since there is in fact no difference between speech and thought.


  1. This intuition might be taken to be at the core of the communitarian model of agency discussed in Lecture Three. In this perspective, thus, Plato’s definition of being in terms of a capacity for acting can be interpreted as a philosophical abstraction and generalization of that model.
  2. Notice that this view remains engrained an any account that equates the cessation of speech of verbalized thought with the cessation of thought altogether. When one interprets an ‘inner silence’ in which no word or speech is heard, as a cessation of ‘thought,’ one is clearly endorsing the Platonic equation between thought and speech. If one further extends this point by equating thought, speech, and conceptuality (since language requires conceptuality and conceptuality is articulated linguistically), the same experience of ‘inner silence’ could be further interpreted as a cessation of ‘conceptuality’ itself. And if one makes even a further step, and associates conceptuality with differentiation (given that all difference needs to be spelled out conceptually), then the cessation of speech, thought, and conceptuality, might be further interpreted as a cessation of differentiation, hence, as an instance of intransitive experience. But this all relies on the premise that thought and speech are the same, or that speech defines the paradigm for thought. If one rejects this premise (because thought can be more broadly understood as any process, linguistic or not, that contributes to the appearing of any content of experience), then any ‘inner silence’ will be interpreted only for what it is, namely, a localized episodic cessation of verbalized activities, which reveal how these verbalized activities are not strictly essential for the unfolding of experience in general (namely, there can be experience without any verbalized activity going on). Hence, ‘inner silence’ can be interpreted as pointing to the fact that ‘thought’ (broadly understood as the appearing of any content of experience) is not necessarily connected with speech, contra what is defended by Plato in the Sophist.
  3. Or perhaps, Plato is just reasserting the more archaic view of the essential poietic function of language in providing shape and substance, ‘name and form’ (nāma-rūpa) to any thought.
  4. Later, around the fourth century of the common era, Christian monasticism will establish a direct link between truth and speech, and more specifically between the truth that oneself can recognize within one’s own conscience, and one’s ability to articulate and confess it in words. Michael Foucault devotes the last lecture of his course On the Government of the Living (2014) precisely to this point. He concludes (2014, p. 312-313): ‘The Christian has the truth deep within himself and he is yoked to this deep secret, indefinitely bent over it and indefinitely constrained to show to the other the treasure that his work, thought, attention, conscience, and discourse ceaselessly draw out from it. And by this he shows that putting his own truth into discourse is not just an essential obligation; it is one of the basic forms of our obedience.’

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