Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The dialogue arises from a question Socrates poses to a stranger from the city of Elea: do people in his home consider statesmen, philosophers, and sophists to be the same or different? In this way, the basic problem of this dialogue emerges: the problem of definition itself, which leads to a larger theme, that of the problem of being and non-being.
Methods of Definition
As such, the dialogue is concerned with testing out various methods of definition. These include considering the connotation of the word (in this case, "sophist" implies some connection of wisdom (or sophia), the the compilation of lists of things it is like (the "target kind," in this case the sophist). First and foremost, however, is the need to find a paradigm that can guide the development of a definition.
Finding a Paradigm
The stranger chooses the paradigm of the angler or fisherman as a way of demonstrating how to approach a definition of the sophist by using a method called dichotomous division. That is, in the case of the fisherman, the stranger begins with the most general statement about fishermen (they possess a skill), divides the skill into two kinds—productive (e.g., skills that make something) and acquisitive (e.g., skills that gather or acquire something)—and follows the acquisitive branch to a final description of the fisherman. What the stranger finds, in applying this method to the term "sophist," is that it can be defined many ways. For example, a more satisfying definition can be had locating sophistry as a productive skill: the sophist produces imitations, specifically he is an imitation of a wise man.
This definition poses further problems, however. How is it possible for the the sophist to produce something that doesn't exist (false wisdom)? This leads the stranger to consider the problem of being and non-being and consider being in terms of change and rest. He concludes that not-being is not the opposite of being, merely different. The sophist is not the negation of the wise man, but simply a different type.