Image and Reality in Plato's Sophist. By David Ambuel


Pp. xvii, 279 , Las Vegas , Parmenides Publishing , 2007 , $32.00 .

After introductory matter, this book consists of a thorough commentary on Plato's Sophist, a translation of the dialogue, and then end matter, including a useful appendix in which he argues in more detail against a common view of the dialogue. The commentary is divided into three parts (roughly, on the divisions or the attempted definition of the sophist; on the problem of non-being; and on its solution), and the reader is also helped by frequent section breaks with subheadings. I will say no more about the translation: it is useful to have it in the book, to refer to, but it is plain and literal almost to the point where on occasion it hardly reads like English.

Ambuel wants to make two main points. First, contrary to a strong trend in scholarship over the last fifty years, he sees the dialogue as metaphysical rather than logical; that is, it is not merely an exercise in logical division followed by a disambiguation of senses of the verb ‘to be’, but primarily an exploration of forms, entities with real ontological status, and their relationship to the everyday world of particulars. This thesis of Ambuel's is attractive, but it stands or falls with the success or failure of the rest of the book, in which he applies and justifies this insight. I can see no reason why the book cannot be both logical and metaphysical; the two are often hard to distinguish in Plato's dialogues.

Ambuel's second main thesis is that, despite appearances, the dialogue is aporetic. Even though it appears to end in certain firm conclusions about ‘to be’ (or about being), Ambuel argues that these conclusions are undermined because the method used to reach them has been patently inadequate. This seems to me to be a hazardous and implausible thesis. Interpretations of Plato's dialogues that promise a revolution are rarely successful; good academic work is more commonly cumulative, building on careful prior work.

Ambuel's thesis means, as he freely admits, that, contrary to what all scholars have thought, the Eleatic Stranger does not speak for Plato. In that case, what is the point of the dialogue? Ambuel believes that Plato is asking us to pick up on certain clues, never spotted before by anyone, that show that the dialogue does not have the function it purports to have. These clues are (1) that the method of division practised in the dialogue does not conform to theory and practice of division in other dialogues, specifically because there is no prior collection and because division proceeds only by dichotomy; (2) the sophist is consistently allowed to be a practitioner of a skill, even though elsewhere Plato denies that sophists have skills; (3) that in certain respects the metaphysics of the dialogue does not square with some of Plato's earlier ideas – specifically, in that forms are said to relate to one another (which destroys their singularity), and that images and paradigms are not kept as radically distinct as before. It would take too long to argue against these points in detail; suffice it to say that only strong unitarians would think that Plato could not have changed his mind on any or all of these three points.

But if the dialogue does not, then, have the purpose it appears to have, what is its purpose? Ambuel believes it shows that Parmenidean logical tools fail to cope with the subtleties of Platonic metaphysics, particularly because it is bound to blur the distinction between image and paradigm; therefore, the dialogue shows, in this indirect way, the necessity of a firm ontological distinction between image and paradigm.

Even though I disagree fundamentally with almost everything Ambuel says, there are things to be grateful for in this book; above all, it is well argued and clearly written. And, just because of its difficulties, Sophist is studied less than many Platonic dialogues: it is good to have a new translation and a thought-provoking book-length commentary.