The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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In this paper I show that the orthodox syntax suggested in Sophistes 262C6-7 and the surrounding text is not adhered to in the dialogues. Within the limited universe of monadic atomic sentence syntax extended with constants for existence and unity, in fact, all but three of the 14 possible irregular forms are used in one or other of the three dialogues instanced here. Self-predication, which, in the mid-twentieth-century, fascinated so many scholars, turns out to be just one among the many varieties of irregular syntax in the dialogues.

The nonadherence of other interlocutors to the Eleatic Stranger’s description of monadic atomic sentences enables these interlocutors to talk about Ideas in the dialogues in familiar ways; unless the syntactically irregular sentences were used, the interlocutors would not have been able to talk about Ideas the way they did. The dialogues contain a variety of sentences and sentence schemata that we commonly consider ill formed and that we should expect to produce peculiar results when used in argument. Of course, there are no grounds for attributing syntactical insensitivity to Plato the author who, himself, represents this insensitivity in an orderly and carefully structured way as characterizing the conversation of some of his fictionalized interlocutors.

The appearance of these irregular sentences in the dialogues apparently engaged Aristotle, who devoted much attention to what can and what cannot be predicated of what. Thus in Aristotle one finds a theory of predication which systematically excludes the irregular sentences. The Categoriae addresses what can and cannot be said of what in the normal course of things, and the Tópica addresses, for example, unity and existence as predicates. I would suggest in closing that the apparatus I have offered here provides a largely unexplored way to reconstruct the controversies of the Academy and to track the way they led predication. into the development of what we have begun to understand as Aristotle’s theory of predication.


John Mulhern presented "The First and Littlest of Sentences" to the Society at its meeting with the American Philological Association in Montreal i 2006.

John Mulhern is Director of Professional Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government; he teaches in government administration and classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania.