In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Plato’s Sophist

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Monographs
  • Collections of Papers
  • Texts
  • Commentaries
  • Translations
  • Dramatic Setting and the Speakers
  • Method of Division
  • Earlier Definitions of the Sophist
  • Appearance and Image
  • Arguments on Not-Being
  • Arguments on Being
  • Art of Dialectic
  • Relations of the Greatest Kinds
  • Logical Issues
  • Distinctions of the Verb “to Be”
  • Explication of Falsehood
  • Final Definition of the Sophist
  • Reception of the Sophist

Classics Plato’s Sophist
Noburu Notomi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0247


The Sophist is a dialogue by Plato (b. c. 427–d. c. 347 BCE) that modern scholarship unanimously places in his later period. This placement connects it with the other later dialogues; namely, the Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, and Laws. Also, it is closely related to the preceding dialogues of the transitional period; namely, the Parmenides and Theaetetus. The classification of “later dialogues,” originally suggested by Lewis Campbell in 1867, is now a common view of the Platonic chronology. Scholars normally assume that Plato wrote it after the second voyage to Sicily (c. 366–365 BCE) in his early sixties. The official theme of the Sophist is to examine and define the Sophist, which had been a major concern for Plato since the earlier dialogues (e.g., the Apology of Socrates, Gorgias, Protagoras). The method of division (diairesis), employed for definition, is originally suggested in the Phaedrus and is used also in the Statesman and Philebus. But the inquiry into the Sophist faces several difficulties of philosophical importance concerning falsehood, image, not-being, and being. After solving these difficulties, it finally defines the Sophist as “imitator of the wise.” The dialogue covers a wide range of philosophical subjects and is famous for substantial discussions on ontology, epistemology, logic, and the philosophy of language. Ontological questions such as the following are asked: Can we speak or think of not-being? What is being? The examination provides a basis for logic and epistemology in the following questions: How is there a falsehood? What are a statement (logos), a judgment, and an appearance (phantasia)? Then, modern scholars ask what negation is, and how one can distinguish between different uses of the verb “to be.” Finally, the examination of the true nature of the Sophist raises issues of education, ethics, politics, rhetoric, aesthetics, and cosmology. The dialogue was probably read and discussed in Plato’s Academy and therefore greatly influenced later philosophers. Aristotle took over many achievements of the inquiry, such as definitions of “statement” and “truth/falsehood,” and critically used the method of division. Since the mid-20th century, the analytical approach has shed new light on the logical aspects of the dialogue (in particular, falsehood, negation, and the verb “to be”), so the context and development of scholarly arguments have to be taken into consideration, while many earlier studies keep their interpretative values. More-recent studies show a wider variety of approaches to the dialogue (different from the analytic tradition).

General Overviews

An overview of the dialogue within the Platonic works is available in Guthrie 1978 (including useful references to the scholarly discussion), but specialist discussion has been much advanced since then. Generally, there are two approaches to the dialogue. First, the monographs—such as Cornford 1935, Bluck 1975, Rosen 1983, Benardete 1986, Notomi 1999, and Ambuel 2007—interpret the dialogue as a whole, since a reader needs to hold an overall view of the dialogue to understand each specific topic or argument. Each author has a particular focus and presents a consistent line of interpretation based on his or her own assumption. Second, articles in the journals or collections treat particular parts or topics within the dialogue, often with reference to other dialogues. By focusing on particular aspects, they critically examine the passages and logic of this difficult dialogue. Readers may need both sides to tackle the philosophical issues in the dialogue, but since it is crucial to see how the dialogue is composed of different parts and levels of argument, they are advised to consult monographs first. It is still an essential question regarding where the dialogue is placed within Plato’s philosophy. Cornford 1935, a classic study, couples the Theaetetus and the Sophist so as to show that knowledge is discussed negatively and positively in the twin dialogues. While the Theaetetus fails to define what knowledge is because it lacks any reference to Forms, the Sophist eventually solves the problem and presents the substantial consideration on Forms. This view of the Theaetetus—“unitarian” or “Reading A” according to Myles Burnyeat in his introduction to The Theaetetus of Plato (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1990)—assumes that the theory of Forms of the middle period is somewhat retained in the later dialogues and places the Sophist in the center of the revised theory, along with the Philebus and Timaeus. Many other studies refrain from such a clear position in relation to the Theaetetus and tend to interpret the Sophist more or less separately (but Klein 1977 and Benardete 1986 treat the trilogy). The “developmentalist” view tends to see a clear departure of this dialogue from the earlier ones in ontology and epistemology. On the other hand, many studies coincide with Francis Cornford’s in that some theoretical difficulties raised and left unsolved in the Theaetetus are tackled and finally solved in the Sophist; for example, the explanation of “false statement.”

  • Ambuel, David. 2007. Image and paradigm in Plato’s Sophist. Las Vegas, NV: Parmenides.

    The book contains an analysis of the whole dialogue, a readable translation, and an appendix that examines some scholarly discussions. It reads the whole dialogue as “aporetic,” forming reductio ad absurdum, with the intention to criticize Parmenides, whose incomplete thought leads to Sophistry. The author also contributed to Havlíček and Karfík 2011 and Bossi and Robinson 2013 (both cited under Collections of Papers).

  • Benardete, Seth, ed. and trans. 1986. Plato’s Sophist. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Originally published as Part II of The Being of the Beautiful (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), the translation and commentary of the trilogy, the Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman. The editor, a classicist with a Straussian background, provides an insightful and careful reading of the whole dialogue.

  • Bluck, Richard S. 1975. Plato’s Sophist: A commentary. Edited by Gordon C. Neal. Publications of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Manchester 20. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

    A commentary of the dialogue from the beginning up to 259D, edited posthumously (the author died in 1963). The editor’s introduction compares it with three then-recent works: I. M. Crombie’s An Examination of Plato’s Doctrines II (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), Frede 1967 (cited under Relations of the Greatest Kinds), and Owen 1971 (cited under Arguments on Not-Being). See also Bluck 1957, cited under Explication of Falsehood.

  • Cornford, Francis Macdonald, ed. and trans. 1935. Plato’s theory of knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato. London: Kegan Paul.

    A running commentary with a translation of the two dialogues. The book set the standard for the modern scholarship on the Sophist even if Conford’s interpretations were critically examined by later commentators.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1978. Sophist. In A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 5, The later Plato and the Academy. By W. K. C. Guthrie, 122–163. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A chapter in the volume of later Plato in the history of Greek philosophy. It provides a standard view of the dialogue and basic references of discussions on the dialogue up to 1978.

  • Klein, Jacob. 1977. Plato’s trilogy: Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The commentary of the trilogy starts with the Sophist, continues with the Theaetetus, and ends with the Statesman. The author treats them as a dramatic unity to investigate into being and other concepts.

  • Notomi, Noburu. 1999. The unity of Plato’s Sophist: Between the Sophist and the philosopher. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107297968

    By taking the definition of the Sophist as the basic problem, this monograph examines the relations of the central issues—appearance, image, falsehood, not-being, and being. It reveals how the important issue of the distinction between the Sophist and the philosopher raises philosophical questions in a unitary project of philosophical inquiry.

  • Rosen, Stanley. 1983. Plato’s Sophist: The drama of original and image. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    The author reads the dialogue as a unitary and artistic work. It focuses on an image both in phenomenological and analytical ontologies and provides detailed discussions on each part of the dialogue.

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