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The ontological Ground of Syntax: an analysis of Plato’s Sophist, 262c2-5. A reply to Bruno Centrone

Michele Esposti Ongaro
p. 177-181

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1At Soph. 260d5–261a4, after having investigated the reality and the nature of not being, the Eleatic Stranger takes into consideration a new possible objection of the sophist: this admits the reality of not being, but states that not all things can be affected by it. Not speech which, excluded by this participation, can’t be false. At Soph. 261c6 begins the analysis of the structure of the sentence, which is aimed at solving the problem of not being. The Eleatic Stranger aims to demonstrate that, since meaning conditions are not the same as truth conditions, there can be perfectly meaningful false sentences.

2Every sentence results from the composition of a name (ὄνομα), which designates a thing or an agent (πρᾶγμα), and of a verb (ῥῆμα), which designates an action (πρᾶξιϛ): if one fails to observe this syntactical rule, the sentence becomes meaningless (261e4-262c9).

3At this stage the Platonic analysis only distinguishes grammatical form (name and verb) and general content (agent and action) of speech; the relation between an agent and an action turns out to be a temporally characterized expression (...περὶ τῶν ὄντων ἢ γιγνομένων ἢ γεγονότων ἢ μελλόντων; see also 262d2-4). But at Soph. 262c2-5, in support of what he has said, the Eleatic Stranger declares:

If names aren’t mixed with verbs the uttered words won’t express in any way either an action or a state, either the essence of being, or of not being.

οὐδεμίαν γὰρ οὔτε οὕτωϛ οὔτ᾿ ἐκείνωϛ πρᾶξιν, οὐδ᾿ ἀπραξίαν, οὐδὲ οὐσίαν ὄντοϛ οὔδε μὴ ὄντοϛ δηλοῖ τὰ φωνηθέντα, πρὶν ἄν τιϛ τοῖϛ ὀνόμασι τὰ ῥήματα κεράσῃ.

  • 1 Platone, Sofista, Translation of B. Centrone, Torino 2008, note 146 p. 223.

4In his most recent translation of the dialogue, B. Centrone1 argues that the expressions οὐσία ὄντοϛ and οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ can be interpreted in different ways, according to how we interpret the noun οὐσία, either as an indication of what a thing is or as an indication of the fact that it is.

5Therefore, Centrone remarks that the meaningful λόγοϛ can assert (a) that a thing which is, or a thing which is not, are (the horse is; the chimera is); (b) what a thing which is (exists) is, or what it is not (the horse is a quadruped, it isn’t a biped); (c) what a thing which is (exists) is, or what a thing which is not (doesn’t exist) is (a swallow is winged; a chimera is winged); or (d) that a particular nature is or is not.

6Centrone suggests that the first is the right interpretation. Nevertheless I am not sure that he really gives a complete range of choices. I don’t believe that the expression οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ could refer to a non-existing entity like “a chimera”, for the simple reason that Plato had previously excluded not being as an entity: “not being” is rather an expression which means the idea of Difference, in relation to a subject. I will therefore try to demonstrate that the expressions ὄντοϛ and μὴ ὄντοϛ aren’t equivalent and that the first refers to a particular entity, while the second has a completely different function.

7To do so, I’ll start by asking two questions:

    • 2 After evaluating the different uses and meanings of the term ῥῆμα in the Platonic corpus, Moravcsik (...)

    How can the verb2 of a sentence, in relation to the noun, express such ideas (πρᾶξιϛ, ἀπραξία, οὐσία ὄντοϛ and οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ)?

    • 3 For classical interpretations of the passage, see G.E.L. Owen, Plato on not-being, in Vlastos (ed), (...)

    What do such concepts, in turn, mean exactly?3

8Let’s start from the first point. Plato has already said that the verb means either an action or a state of affairs; essence of being and essence of not being are therefore something that the verb expresses in relation to the noun. We may observe that the union (in Platonic term, συμπλκὴ) of noun and verb constitutes a syntactical unit: generally speaking, the noun represents the subject while the verb represents the predication. It is thus the predication, not just the verb, that expresses the four concepts already quoted. But what is exactly predication in the syntax of Greek (and of English), and why isn’t it simply a verb?

9Predication is what we say of a subject; and that is the Platonic definition too, see Soph. 262e6–263b1. In Greek (and English), we can have either verbal or nominal predication: the former is just a verb, the latter is constituted by the copula (normally, the verb “to be”) and a predicate (a noun or an adjective). Since even the nominal predication has a verb inside itself, it isn’t incorrect to use the word “verb”, instead of using the word “predication”.

  • 4 Among the different translations, see Jovett: “neither the existence of existence, or not-existence (...)

10Let’s now go back to the passage. I believe that Plato means that verbal predication can express actions or states of affairs, while nominal predication expresses essence of being and essence of not being4.

11Let’s consider the second point: what do such concepts, in turn, represent?

12The dimensions of πράξι" (action) and ἀπραξία (absence of action) constitute the deep semantic aspect of the verb: verbs can express actions or states of affairs, that is, an absence of action. I use the expression “deep semantic aspect” because it is evident that each verb has its own meaning, both intentionally and extensionally: but most verbs should roughly been classified into one or other class.

13On the other hand, it is more difficult to understand what Plato means by the expressions οὐσία ὄντοϛ and οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ. And why should nominal predication express such concepts? The term οὐσία, in this context, seems quite clear: it means “essence”, “real nature” (that is the more common meaning in Plato). We must therefore ask ourselves what (if considered as an abstract entity) or which (if considered as a class) is the being (ὄντοϛ) whose essence is expressed within the nominal predication. About the notion of οὐσία ὄντοϛ there shoudn’t be many doubts: “being” seems to be the thing uttered as subject of the predication. For example, in the sentence “Socrates is a man” or “Socrates is a philosopher”, nominal predication expresses the nature of Socrates, that is, the idea of “man” or “philosopher”. It’s true that not all predications express the nature of a thing (of a being), and can simply express an accident; but that is evidently an Aristotelian doctrine. Nor does Plato say that every positive predication must express the nature of being: it simply can express it.

  • 5 In the analysis of not being the Eleatic Stranger has demonstrated that not being is possible not a (...)

14It’s clear that such an interpretation isn’t suitable for the negative side (μὴ ὄντοϛ): we couldn’t say which is the essence of a negative term, because this simple question would presuppose the existence of a not being, i.e. “Not Socrates”. Nor is it reasonable to think that Plato has in mind non-existing entities like unicorns or other similar things. The essence of not being is not the essence of not beings; a solution has thus to be sought elsewhere. I think that Plato has in mind the simple negative verbal expression, whose essence, as we’ll see, turns out to be the idea of Difference5.

15In conclusion: a sentence as “Socrates is a men” expresses the essence of Socrates, which is a being. But a sentence such as “Socrates isn’t a politician” doesn’t express the essence of Socrates, nor the essence of any negative entity: it just shows the nature and the function of not being in general – and not being has a nature and function only as a verb.

16At this point, we know that οὐσία ὄντοϛ and οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ represent the “deep meaning” of nominal predication. But how can we explain this asymmetry?

17I think that the answer is to be found in Ontology.

18The Ontology of the Sophist is firstly the doctrine of the greatest kinds: Being, Identity, Difference, Movement and Rest. If things are like that, the semantical dimension of ῥῆμα must be related to the ontological dimension of the greatest kinds: πρᾶξιϛ and ἀπραξία correspond to the kinds of Movement and Rest, while οὐσία ὄντοϛ and οὐσία μὴ ὄντοϛ correspond to the kinds of Identity and Difference.

  • 6 The kind of Difference turns out to be the ground, not only the simple meaning, of negative predica (...)

19First two correspondences are evident, and need no explanations for now: we only need observe that the correspondence between ἀπραξία and στάσις has never been considered by interpreters. With regard to Difference, we have already pointed out that, in the Platonic doctrine, this kind constitutes the ontological side, the essence of “not being”, that is, the (non referential) meaning, the condition of possibility of the negative copulative expression6: a negative sentence constituted by subject and nominal predication (e.g. “Socrates isn’t a politician”) expresses firstly the essence of not being, that is, the idea of Difference.

  • 7 Difference, of course, concerns indirectly also the attributive relation: “Socrates is a philosophe (...)

20Couldn’t we object that, if this is how things are, every negative sentence has the same meaning, because expresses simply the idea of Difference? This objection would be incorrect, because Difference isn’t a monolithic idea, that is, there is a difference for each negative sentence. The difference expressed by the negative predication (e.g. “isn’t a politician”) is the relation between the subject and the idea of “politician”: Socrates is different from the idea of “politician”, he is something other, partakes of other ideas. So we can say that a negative nominal predication expresses the Difference, that is, the difference between subject and predicate7.

21The correspondence between the semantic notion οὐσία ὄντοϛ and the kind of Identity seems more uncertain. We saw that an affirmative predication can express the nature of a subject; but the nature of a thing (e.g.“Socrates is a man”) doesn’t correspond strictly to his identity (e.g. “Socrates is Plato’s master”). One solution would be to suppose that, according to Aristotelian doctrine, an entity has an identity relation with his own essence: and such a doctrine could go back to late Academic doctrines. But it isn’t correct to attribute Aristotelian doctrine to an (even late) Platonic dialogue, or to suppose a kind of anticipation. I think rather that Plato’s idea of Identity - to which Plato dedicated far less attention than he did to the idea of Difference - must be something more than the relation expressed in a sentence such “Socrates is Plato’s master” and should be investigated in the light of the equivalences previously mentioned. I believe that is reasonable to suppose that, at Soph 262c2-5, Plato intends to build a symmetrical schema, albeit one that is neither complete nor perfect: verbal predication expresses Rest and Movement, nominal predication expresses Identity and Difference. With regard to Being, the dialogue doesn’t stress any correspondence with specific typologies of predication, and I don’t believe that the passage 262c2-5 refers to it. As a kind, Being underlies the other kinds and allows them to exist and to connect to each other. As a verb, it’s evidently involved in every nominal predication.

22The relation between the ontological dimension of the greatest kinds and the syntactical dimension of predication typologies seems to constitute a coherent outcome of the foregoing analyses of Being, Not Being, Identity and Diversity. In saying that, I don’t understimate that this Platonic essay in philosophy of language is firstly aimed at solving the problem of false statements: but it also reveals the persistence of a method that is crucial in the previous analyses of Being, Identity and Difference, that is, the attempt to find a relation between the structures of predication and the metaphysical ideas (the greatest kinds).

Scheme of correspondences

GRAMMAR

SYNTAX

(not explicitly Plato’s doctrine)

MEANING

(not explicitly Plato’s doctrine)

DEEP

MEANING

ONTOLOGY

Noun

Subject

Socrates; Justice, etc.

Verb to be +

noun or adjective

Nominal predication

is Greek; is a politician etc.

isn’t Greek; isn’t a politician etc.

Essence of Being

Essence of Not Being

Identity

Difference

Verb

Verbal

predication

suns; flies etc.

sits; stays, etc.

Action

State

Movement

Rest

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Notes

1 Platone, Sofista, Translation of B. Centrone, Torino 2008, note 146 p. 223.

2 After evaluating the different uses and meanings of the term ῥῆμα in the Platonic corpus, Moravcsik, (Being and Meaning in the Sophist, “Acta Philosophica Fennica”, 14, 1962, p. 62), chooses the translation “affection”, while de Rijk (Plato’s Sophist. A Philosophical Commentary, Amsterdam 1986. p. 198) chooses the translation “attribution”. But I think that the right translation, in this context, is certainly “verb”.

3 For classical interpretations of the passage, see G.E.L. Owen, Plato on not-being, in Vlastos (ed), Plato. A Collection of critical essays. I: Metaphysical and Epistemology, New York 1971, 263; L. M. De Rijk, Plato’s Sophist, Amsterdam/Oxford 1986, pp. 199-202, S. Rosen, Plato’s Sophist, Yale 1983, p. 302; for a summary see G. Movia, Apparenza, essere, verità, Milano 1991, pp. 434-435.

4 Among the different translations, see Jovett: “neither the existence of existence, or not-existence”; Zadro: “né l’essere di ciò che è, né l’essere di ciò che non è”; Cordero: “ni la realité existante d’un être, ni d’un non-être”; Meinhardt: “weder das Sein eines Seiendes noch das Sein eines Nichtseinden”; Fronterotta: “né una realtà essente, né una realtà non essente“; Centrone: “né l‘essere di una cosa che è o di una che non è”. I think that the right translations are those which have been proposed by Zadro and by Meinhardt: οὐσία is being, in the sense of “essence”, not in the sense of “existence”, neither in the sense of “real existence”. Mὴ ὄντοϛ is not being, but not in the sense of “a thing which is not”.

5 In the analysis of not being the Eleatic Stranger has demonstrated that not being is possible not as entity (τι), that is, concrete thing, but as verbal expression meaning the idea of Difference; see M.Dixsaut, La négation, le non-être et l’autre dans le Sophiste, in Aubenque (ed), Études sur le Sopiste du Platon, Napoli 1991, pp. 176-180. Also see Esposti Ongaro, Analisi nominale e analisi verbale nel Sofista di Platone, “Giornale critico della filosofia italiana”, (1) 2008, pp. 243-254.

6 The kind of Difference turns out to be the ground, not only the simple meaning, of negative predication, whatever that could express. We know that negative expression can express the absence of partecipation (“Socrates isn’t nice”); the absence of identity (“Justice is not beauty”); or even a contrariety (“Movement is not rest”). Difference is the idea which underlyes all those types of relation and which makes them possible; see D. O’ Brien, Le non-être. Deux Études sur le Sophiste du Platon, Sankt Augustin, Academia Verlag 1995, pp. 57-59; J. van Eck, Not-Being and Difference: on Plato’s Sophist 256d5-258e3, «Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy», II (2004), pp. 63-84. F. Fronterotta (a cura di), Platone, Sofista, Milano, Rizzoli 2007, pp. 442-444, note 238.

7 Difference, of course, concerns indirectly also the attributive relation: “Socrates is a philosopher” presupposes that “Socrates isn’t identical to the idea of philophy”, that is, “Socrates isn’t philosophy”, “Socrates is different from philosophy”.

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Michele Esposti Ongaro, « The ontological Ground of Syntax: an analysis of Plato’s Sophist, 262c2-5. A reply to Bruno Centrone », Études platoniciennes, 6 | 2009, 177-181.

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Michele Esposti Ongaro, « The ontological Ground of Syntax: an analysis of Plato’s Sophist, 262c2-5. A reply to Bruno Centrone », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 6 | 2009, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2016, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/775 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.775

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