Barry O’Donnell – The Sophist and the Psychoanalyst

THE LETTER 09 (Spring 1997) pages 61-72

In the Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis Lacan announces: The psychoanalyst is the presence of the sophist in our time …’. In this paper I will investigate this provocative statement. The paper is divided into four sections. Firstly I will introduce you to different understandings of the term sophist and then in the subsequent three sections I will situate and explore a text of Plato’s entitled Sophist under the following headings:

One: Definitions and Defining.

Two: Getting it wrong: the possibility of falsehood and deception.

Three: Mimicry and Knowing: the sophist and the psychoanalyst.

In this last section I will return to the quotation from Lacan and attempt to situate his reference to the sophist. As we proceed through what is a broad outline of the story of Plato’s Sophist I would ask you to bear in mind that the figure of the sophist as presented by Plato is in some significant way comparable to the psychoanalyst as presented by Lacan.

What do we understand by the term sophist? Firstly let us distinguish between the historical sophist and the Platonic sophist.

The historical sophist was a professional, itinerant teacher. Prominent in Greek society at the perceived high point of that culture – the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the sophist travelled from city to city educating, in…

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