Friday, March 18, 2011

Parmenides' vision of the nature of reality

To: Edvard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' vision of the nature of reality
Date: 25 April 2001 12:01

Dear Edvard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 16 April, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, 'Describe Parmenides' vision of the nature of Reality. What are the implications of that vision for the activity of metaphysical inquiry?'

In your essay, you have picked up on the term 'vision' which gives this question extra significance:

'To understand Parmenides' vision or Parmenides' view on the True means seeing once again the True, because to read about experience of something for sure does not mean to experience that same thing. And that is exactly what is all about in Parmenides' case. It is about an experience of truth of hidding nature of being. This essence of being is what is in his poem experience as hidden-revealed.'

I have not tried to correct your English here, because I am not sure exactly what to put for 'an experience of truth of hidding nature of being'. An experience of the truth of the hidden nature of being? Let's not worry too much about that, however.

The important point seems to be this: that reading Parmenides's poem leads one to experience a certain vision. This vision cannot be adequately described in words, because to merely read a description of the vision is not sufficient for experience of that vision. It follows that the words have to function in a subtly different way. We have to follow Parmenides' line of thought, from the point where we are faced with the stark alternative, 'Is it, or is it not?', aware of the temptation of the illusion which Parmenides is seeking to combat. The reader who is successful, with the aid of Parmenides' words, in resisting the illusion come to see what Parmenides sees. They come to share his metaphysical vision.

This gives rise to the idea of metaphysical inquiry as a 'dialectical' process whose objective is revealing that which is hidden, rather than simply a series of logical steps leading to a conclusion.

Later, you say,

'Parmenides does not want to work on the way where the final destination is a language of signs (the latter is the case with logic and mathematics), but walks on the avenue to an encoded language of ideas, familiar to metaphysical speculations. He does not formulate points of exclusion, but he is actually first who uses them precisely, in a manner that shows the power of necessary thinking through alternatives. It is true, that his intentions are just to show the essence of being but his procedure becomes the means (tool) of every necessary precise thinking.'

What exactly is the difference between a 'language of signs' and an 'encoded language of ideas'? Example of statements in the language of signs might be, 'If (P or Q) and R, then (P and R) or (Q and R)', a theorem of propositional logic, or 'a x (b plus c) = a x b plus a x c', a theorem of algebra. Theorems of metaphysics are not like this. They are 'about' something. Whereas the two examples I have given are merely formal. You can substitute anything for 'P', 'Q', 'R', or 'a', 'b', 'c'.

When Parmenides presents the alternative, 'It is' or 'It is not', the 'It' can indeed be understood in a similar way to the use of a schematic letter in logic or algebra: 'Either A is or A is not, for any A'. His conclusion, however, is not merely schematic but refers to something real: that which is, the One. That is the difference between a system of formal logic and a system of metaphysics. Metaphysics is about something: Being. The process of metaphysical argument leads us to see Being for what it is, to reveal the hidden nature of Being.

What then about, 'his procedure becomes the means (tool) of every necessary precise thinking'? I read this as meaning that Parmenides' approach may be seen as defining what it is to undertake any metaphysical inquiry. (This seems to be confirmed by what you say later about Parmenides being the 'ancient father of modern rationalism'.)

However, you then say, 'After logic metaphysical speculations went on their own way - on the road where deepest truths are allowed to be formulated by words. And as a third, aesthetic picture of the essence of the world went on the way of mental figures which are non-necessary pictured in infinite variations of intellectual game.'

Is the idea here that after the discovery of formal logic, metaphysics reverted to what I described earlier as 'a series of logical steps leading to a conclusion', while the aspect of metaphysical vision, the 'aesthetic picture of the essence of the world', thus separated from logical thinking, was reduced to a mere game? I have a strong feeling that I may be missing the point completely here.

But lets' move on.

Near the end, you say that 'There is no rational basis on which to distinguish a really objectively existing conceivable thing from a really objectively non-existing conceivable thing.' This metaphysical insight gives rise to the idea of a 'plenum of all possibility'. I find this very suggestive. The thing we term the 'actual world' is a place where certain things are, and other things are not. In the actual world I am a philosopher, but I am not a racing driver. That is why Being or reality cannot be the actual world. In the plenum of the One, every possibility is realized. There is nothing in the One that 'is not'.

Again, I ask, Is this anywhere close to what you mean?

As you can see, I have been struggling with this essay. The difficulty is partly due to language, and also partly due, I suspect, to the that I have not read Jaspers 'The Great Philosophers', and so have not had the opportunity to appreciate his original views about Parmenides.

One small point. At the beginning, you say that Parmenides met the young Socrates. The consensus of opinion amongst scholars seems to be that this meeting is fictional (as described in Plato's dialogue 'Parmenides'). However, one can never be sure.

I hope you will accept these comments, poor as they are.

All the best,