Who's a Philosopher? Who's a Sophist? the Stranger V. Socrates

By Zuckert, Catherine H. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Who's a Philosopher? Who's a Sophist? the Stranger V. Socrates


Zuckert, Catherine H., The Review of Metaphysics


MANY READERS HAVE TAKEN THE ELEATIC STRANGER to represent a later stage of Plato's philosophical development because the arguments or doctrines the Stranger presents in the Sophist appear to be better than those Socrates articulates in earlier dialogues.(1) In particular, in the Sophist Plato shows the Stranger answering two questions Socrates proved unable to resolve in two of his conversations the day before. In the Theaetetus Socrates admitted that he had long been perplexed by the fact of false opinion; he was not able to explain how it was possible. Likewise, in the Cratylus Socrates and his interlocutors were not able to determine satisfactorily the relation between names and the things to which they refer.(2) Through his teaching about the idea of the other, the Stranger shows not only how false opinion is possible but also why names do not always correspond to the kinds or ideas of things. More generally, in the course of his account of previous thought the Stranger presents a fundamental critique of the teaching of "friends of the forms" like Socrates. When we examine the definition of the sophist to which the Stranger comes at the end of the dialogue, however, we find reasons to question the adequacy of his teaching and, consequently, his superiority to Socrates. If philosophy consists in knowledge--of the whole or merely of self--we are forced to conclude, neither the Stranger nor Socrates is a philosopher. Each or even both might appear, therefore, to be a pretender--or sophist. If, on the other hand, philosophy consists in the search for knowledge by means of a dialectical sorting of things according to kinds, Socrates and the Stranger represent two different, although related types.

The Initial Contrast. In the very first line of the Sophist Theodorus expresses his belief in the Stranger's superiority when the geometer informs Socrates that he and his associates have returned as they agreed yesterday morning (at the conclusion of the Theaetetus), bringing with them a stranger from Elea who is (in implicit contrast to Socrates) "very much a philosopher."(3) However, we know from the Theaetetus that Theodorus is not a competent judge. Socrates raises questions about the geometer's ability to judge human beauty or nobility at the very beginning of that conversation; and in the course of the dialogue Socrates shows that Theodorus perceives and becomes willing to admit the conflict between the intellectual presuppositions of his own science and the claims made by his friend Protagoras only under pressure. Although Theodorus considers himself to be a man of theory in contrast to those who engage themselves actively in political affairs, he does not want to investigate the basis or presuppositions of the search for knowledge. On the contrary, he openly expresses his dislike of Socrates' insistence on argument, which the geometer regards as a kind of eristic contest.

Socrates responds to Theodorus' announcement by wondering, paraphrasing Homer, whether the anonymous Stranger is not a god in disguise who has come to refute those who are poor in speeches. Echoing Socrates' description of the geometer himself the previous day, Theodorus assures the group that is not the Stranger's way.(4) The Eleatic is more measured ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) than those (again implicitly like Socrates) who are zealous in contention.(5) Although Theodorus does not believe the Stranger is a god, the geometer thinks that, like all philosophers, the Stranger is divine. Indirectly questioning Theodorus' ability to judge again, Socrates observes that philosophers are not much easier to discern than gods. Philosophers also appear in many guises, traveling from city to city, looking down from on high on the life of those below.(6) Perhaps because they have to look up--and hence into the sun--people below do not agree on the value or the character of the philosophers' activity.(7) Some think philosophers are worthless; others that they are worth everything. …

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