Limitations of Language in Platonic Inquiry

Dylan Sapienza
7 min readMay 22, 2020

The concept of Philosophy evolved out of a familiar and natural route of inquiry, people exchanging ideas through discussion. Despite its origin, the use of the dialectic method is insufficient in the inquiry of platonic forms. Through an analysis of the dialogue Sophist by Plato this message is ever-present. I will argue my point by first positing that language is insufficient for the articulation and expression of platonic forms. Then I will define the dialectic method using Sophist as a technique that is inherently dependent on the use of human language and communication. Finally, I will bolster my claim by analyzing the dialectic method in use and pointing out all the instances where my argument is evident.

Human language and verbal communication prove to be insufficient in expressing platonic forms. It is first important to explain why communication needs to exist in the first place. While sharing in a public world, we all have one area which is inaccessible to anyone but ourselves, our mind. This restriction whether we are presently aware of it or not is what drives us to have the need to communicate with others. Without this medium, we would have no way to discuss the ideas we have and in turn, no way to convey those to others. The speakers in Sophist acknowledge this shortcoming and recognize it early in the text when they say “All that you and I possess in common is the name. The thing to which each of us gives that name we may perhaps have privately before our minds.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 960). This perfectly gets at the limitation of communication. While we may be talking about the same things by name, this does not necessarily entail it has the same representation in our private mind. Our speakers look to try and curb this problem by clearing inconsistencies as best they can before they inquire any further. However, we should take note that we have already been presented with a reason to be hesitant about this future investigation and its validity. Later in the inquiry, we are informed of an insight brought upon the speakers. In reference to someone trying to express a platonic form through a speech, we get the quote “His pencil representations bearing the same name as real things” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 982). Those who are hearing the words and lecture of someone trying to convey a true form are disappointed and feel as if it is a stripped-down and incomplete version of the true idea. I think this should make complete sense to us; these ideas are simply impossible to completely express through language. When one tries to speak of real essences and the forms of things, they bear an appearance to those ignorant of the idea as a mere skeleton of representation. The speakers continue the discussion of these attempts to spread the forms through this method. “Young hearers advance in age and, coming closer into touch with realities, are forced by experience to apprehend things clearly as they are, most of them should abandon these former beliefs.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 982). Here we can see people who have supposedly been enlightened of the forms and these true ideas are having difficulty reconciling them with what their experience has shown them. Those who are experiencing these ideas according to the quote are forced to have this new clear perception and as our speakers suggest they should abandon their earlier ideas. Notice that this clear perception does not come to them through a verbal medium but rather through an experience. “All the illusions created by discourse will be completely overturned by the realities which encounter them in the actual conduct of life” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 982). As previously explained but further distilled in this quote, our actual experiences of the forms will dispel all the misconceptions we have formed from using a discourse contingent on language alone.

It is important to define the dialectic method before we can make claims about this specific point of inquiry. While I do contend that the dialectic method is in jeopardy, I am more focused on the specific version of diaresis that is used in the dialogue. This method is no better defined than by seeing a recapitulation of the process at work. I present an excerpt from Sophist when the speakers seek to find the true form of an angler. “Then now you and I have come to an understanding not only about the name of the angler’s art, but the thing in itself.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 963). This shows us that this method is used to ascertain the “thing in itself” about something, a pseudonym for a true form about something. Now that we know what the method seeks to find we shall investigate how they arrive at their conclusions. “One half of all art was acquisitive — half of the acquisitive art was conquest or taking by force, half of this was hunting and half of hunting was hunting animals; half of this was hunting water animals; of this again, the under half was fishing; half of fishing is striking; a part of striking was fishing with a barb, and one half of this again, being the type which strikes with a hook and draws the fish from below upward, is the art we have been seeking” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 963). We can see from this excerpt that the method follows this framework. Two people work starting in the vaguest sense and using definitions of words, find a way to continuously divide getting closer to the specific target. The points of division are seemingly arbitrary and the words by which they choose to create dichotomies also appear to have no concrete reasoning. We can see from this the method is one that is fundamentally based on a discussion of ideas and definitions to perform a synthesis of a true form. If we are willing to accept this, we must then be faced with the problems stated previously. If we accept the private nature of minds and the inability to completely convey one’s ideas to others through discussion, this will create trouble for the veracity of this inquiry. Putting aside the arbitrary nature by which the users decide the forks and terms, it seems like this problem of language would further complicate the defense of the method. The definitions of the words they choose as we have seen are very unlikely to have a true one-to-one correspondence between participants. With these sorts of inconsistencies, our level of confidence in the conclusion greatly dwindles. In Sophist when presented with the two branches of conquest or taking by force, how are two people supposed to have a complete agreement on the definitions of the terms and more worryingly what sorts of heuristics are they to employ to know if they aren’t?

Now that we know the dialectic method is composed of a discussion through language, and we have seen how a language is an insufficient tool by which to express these sorts of ideas we need not look further than Sophist to find all the issues that come along with using this method. “And now, following this pattern [dialectic, diaresis], let us endeavor to find out what a Sophist is.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 963). Our speakers declare their inquiry and use this method to find the form of the Sophist. Early on in their attempt, they seem to arrive at a conclusion they do not believe to be correct. This leads them to reconsider their path and start again. “Let us take another branch of his genealogy” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 965). More time passes and our speakers have attempted the process six different times. Each time they come to a, sometimes drastically, different conclusion. “In how many guises the Sophist has appeared. First, I think he was found as the hired hinter of rich young men… secondly as a sort of merchant of learning as nourishment for the soul… [3,4,5] … his sixth appearance was open to doubt; however, we conceded his claim to be described as a purifier…” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 974). With all this variance in the forms being generated by this method, it should come as no surprise to us that they are finding so much difficulty coming to a satisfying conclusion. In trying to reconcile all the different conclusions one of the speakers says, “One cannot see clearly that feature in it which all these forms of skill converge.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 974). It appears to us that after the six attempts they are left with these varying forms instead of a clear, clean all-encompassing form. Once more, they continue to reevaluate and try again to use the method “Let us begin by going back to one among the characteristics we attributed to the Sophist.” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 974). We can even see an admission of the frustration brought upon by using the method when one of the speakers says, “It is really surprising how hard it is to get a clear view” (Plato, Hamilton, & Cairns 974).

In retrospect, we can see how there exists a barrier from person to person. This barrier is due to our inability to accurately experience and know what is in someone’s mind. With this, we often resort to using language to share and process our ideas. However, as we have seen using language in this way has its issues. When discussing ideas and more specifically those which are enigmatically obscured from the senses, like the platonic forms, we should not be surprised to find issues. When tried, our attempts to use language and these dialectic based methods often fall flat. The ideas come across as incomplete and are debunked when the listener finds the true idea through a way not limited by language, experience. The dialectic method may be a familiar and natural form of discourse, but as we have seen we must move to another method to be more successful in our inquiry into the things in themselves.