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Nicolas Zaks, Apparences et dialectique. Un commentaire du Sophiste de Platon

(Brill’s Plato Studies Series 12), XII + 400 p., Leiden-Boston : Brill, 2023, ISBN : 978-90-04-53306-6
Lorenzo Giovannetti
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Nicolas Zaks, Apparences et dialectique. Un commentaire du Sophiste de Platon, (Brill’s Plato Studies Series 12), XII + 400 p., Leiden-Boston : Brill, 2023, ISBN : 978-90-04-53306-6

Texte intégral

1Zaks’ essay is a commentary of Plato’s Sophist, offering a comprehensive discussion of the dialogue from the first page to the last. Such a feat can prove challenging due to both the inherent complexity of the text itself and the extensive body of critical literature surrounding it. Significantly, Zaks manages to both achieve great clarity and offer new interpretations of some passages of the dialogue.

2Zaks’ main argument is that the central focus of the dialogue is on dialectic as the form of knowledge that, through language, elucidates the way kinds are woven together. A distinctive aspect of Zaks’ interpretation is that this knowledge is true insofar as what is being said by a dialectical logos is internally consistent. This contrasts with logoi that describe appearances, whose truth consists in their correspondence to empirical state of affairs (pp. 280ff.). Notably, the main quality of this book is its strong pursuit of internal consistency: just as for Zaks Plato introduces a notion of dialectic, wherein truth is grounded in the coherence of thoughts within the dialectician’s mind, so also Zaks approaches his exegetical objective with marked consistency, which is also signalled by the constant cross-references between sections and chapters in his work. It remains to be determined whether, despite its internal consistency, Zaks’ interpretation is also entirely convincing.

3It is not possible to survey all questions addressed in the book. I will limit myself to exposing the most innovative arguments that readers of the Sophist may find worthwhile. I will then conclude by highlighting one key aspect of Zaks’ study, which does not sound convincing.

4The emphasis on the consistency requirement for any true dialectical enquiry has a Socratic origin, to which the author gives great significance throughout the commentary. In the Sophist the Eleatic Stranger puts forth seven different definitions of the art of sophistry. The sixth definition has also drawn particular attention insofar as it speaks of a sophistic art of noble lineage aiming to purify the souls of the interlocutors, a clear reference to Socrates. Zaks offers a very interesting reading of this passage (p. 61-84): the first six definitions of the art of the sophist are meant to dispel Theaetetus’ false preconceptions on the topic culminating in the sixth definition itself, which makes the very process experienced by Theaetetus explicit.

5This subtle point is part of the author’s broader strategy to deal with the entirety of the dialogue, aiming to integrate the outer part (prologue, example of the angler, the first six definitions, and the final definition) with the core (paradoxes of not being, the discussion of the ontology of the predecessors, the communion of kinds, the theory of logoi).

6The author offers an extended treatment of the core of the dialogue, proposing some new insights and readings concerning specific points. The engagement with the secondary literature is often quite detailed (the major exegetical claim Zaks seems to fully embrace is Brown’s analysis of how the verb “be” is to be construed in Plato). In line with Fronterotta and Teisserenc, Zaks posits that the definition or mark of being at 247d-e (i.e. the capacity to act and to be acted upon) should be linked to the subsequent discussions on the relations between kinds. More specifically, kinds acquire this capacity by participating in the kind being (p. 162-163). Zaks then extends this view by asserting that the kind being not only connects one kind with different kinds, but also each kind with itself, thereby giving it its own nature (p. 222).

7To illustrate how dialectic works, the Stranger at 253ff. employs a grammatical metaphor: some kinds are like vowels and are required for there being any connection and separation between kinds, and there are some consonant-like kinds that are being connected. Zaks argues that the vowel-like kinds are being, otherness but also sameness. This is taken to be the ontological requirement for the very existence of dialectic. Zaks then interprets what follows in the text as a description of how the method of collection and divisions operates: the entire process is designed to identify to the maximum degree of consistency the nature of an investigated kind. This implies, among other things, that this passage is the key to maintaining the cohesion between the outer part and the core of the dialogue: the method of collection and divisions is dialectic, and the core is meant to explain how the weave of kinds to be dialectically identified is structured. While this idea is not entirely new, the author provides a fresh perspective on the issue.

8The connection between outer part and core is also signalled, according to Zaks, through the reference to the dialectician being characterised by freedom. Building on a paper published in Elenchos in 2017, Zaks assigns methodological significance to the freedom of the dialectician. During the initial selection of jointly exhaustive kinds with which to weave the kind one is starting with (e.g., acquisitive/productive woven with the kind craft or skill), the dialectician is considered free, constrained only by the requirement of consistency in exploring how kinds are to be distinguished. An interesting claim by Zaks (p. 199) is that the definitional process, far from disrupting the unity of each kind or form, is precisely what makes it unique: it is only by retrieving its unique set of relations that a given kind is what it is and thus only for this reason it is properly one.

9A very interesting point made by the author regarding the communion of kinds, including the greatest ones, is that their relations are always to be conceived as characterising the nature of each kind. For instance (cf. p. 211), the sameness and otherness of the kind change (changement) “ne désignent pas des attributs possédés par le changement conçu comme forme ou genre, mais bien des caractéristiques indissociables de sa nature”. This view, which would be worth further development, entails that there is no room for the distinction between ordinary and essential predication, or between identity and predication in the Stranger’s treatment of the communion of kinds. Consequently, the commonplace notion that the kind change, as a kind, should possess the character of stability derived from the relative kind, is to be rejected.

10To briefly touch on a couple more exegetical propositions, Zaks presents a new reading of the notorious distinction between ta kath’hauta and ta pros alla at 255c (pp. 213-223). The argument is intricate, but the key idea is that the two expressions correspond to kinds or forms and to sensibles, respectively. This is brough to bear on the Stranger’s argument that the kind being and the kind otherness are distinct in a way that, I am afraid, may leave some readers quite unconvinced. Then, the author analyses the remaining passage 256-259 concerning being, otherness and not-being. His view is summarised at p. 266: “le non-être n’est pas seulement concevable comme partie de l’autre analogue aux parties de l’autre, mais également comme une généralisation de toutes ces parties”. In other words, there is only a shift of perspective: not-being is other than being and is a part of the other just as the part not-beautiful is other than the kind beautiful, but at the same time, Zaks claims, being is always being determined and therefore, since all being is “being y” and the parts of the kind other are “not-being y”, not-being (y) ultimately coincides with the entirety of the kind other.

11I wish now to conclude by addressing the part I find most problematic. Zaks makes a sharp distinction between speaking of kinds and speaking of sensibles. He argues that the former is always true, with each different association of terms identifying different kinds. By contrast, ordinary talk of empirical state of affairs can be either true or false, depending on its correspondence with the empirical world. Accordingly, Zaks claims that the famous statement at 259e that “the logos has come to be for us from the reciprocal interweaving of forms” only applies to dialectic, while the description of how logoi work only applies to ordinary statements.

12Zaks correctly recognises (p. 277) that one can use predicates without being a dialectician – for example, stating that Theaetetus is sitting without having a full grasp of the nature of the kind sitting. However, from this, he draws the uncompelling conclusion that there is no relation at all between kinds and ordinary predicates.

13Ultimately, Zaks’overarching reading hinges on the notion that the dialectical logos does not state something but names a kind (p. 281). Such a logos makes the conditions of individuation of a kind explicit, and this holds for both the method of collection and division and the description of the communion of kinds. Dialectical logoi always convey something true, representing what the dialectician is thinking. The most unfavourable scenario occurs when this type of logos speaks of kinds that do not mix, indicating, for Zaks, that the dialectician is contemplating nothing at all (for that mix or weave does not exist). This conclusion sounds quite paradoxical in the context at hand, which is devoted to reshaping the notion of not-being. Similarly, the idea of “naming logoi” being true could also sound rather paradoxical. More generally, the important distinction drawn by the author, namely that speaking of forms can significantly differ from speaking of sensibles, can be explored without accepting his interpretation (as suggested, perhaps, by a more natural reading of Soph. 262d2-3 and Tim. 37e3–38b3).

14In conclusion, despite some unconvincing claims, Zaks’ work provides a comprehensive, undoubtedly clever interpretation of the dialogue, and offers a nuanced discussion of the scholarly literature. In doing so, he tackles vexed questions, presenting new insights that are likely to foster the ongoing debate on the Sophist.

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Lorenzo Giovannetti, « Nicolas Zaks, Apparences et dialectique. Un commentaire du Sophiste de Platon »Philosophie antique [En ligne], Comptes rendus en pré-publication, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL :

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Lorenzo Giovannetti

CNR, Istituto Per Il Lessico Intellettuale Europeo E Storia Delle Idee

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