Plato’s Analysis of Being and Not-Being in the Sophist

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1980


John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


In this paper I offer an account of Plato's analysis of Being and Not-Being in the Sophist. This account differs from those current in several important respects. First, although I take it that Plato distinguishes in the Sophist among existential statements, statements that are predicative in grammatical structure, and statements of identity, I do not believe that he distinguishes corresponding senses or uses of the verb "to be." Second, I do not take Plato's analysis to be linguistic or logical in nature, but rather metaphysical or ontological. In my view, the Greek verb "esti" is analyzed in terms of a metaphysical theory, the Theory of Forms, and specifically in terms of the metaphysical concept of participation. This indicates a third difference between my view and that of commentors who believe that Plato's late dialogues show a trend away from transcendent metaphysics and toward a more neutral sort of conceptual analysis. As I shall hold that the genuine conceptual breakthrough of the Sophist is made with the metaphysical apparatus not much changed from the Phaedo, I dent that this passage, at least, can be taken as evidence for such a trend.

The passage in which Plato makes his analysis is Soph. 251a-257c. I shall examine briefly the entire passage, but concentrate on 255e-256e, from which I draw the bulk of the material for my account.