Monday, May 9, 2011

Parmenides' argument for 'It is'

To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' argument for 'It is'
Date: 30 April 2002 11:51

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 April, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Analyze, and give a commentary on Parmenides' argument for the proposition, "It is".'

On a personal note, one of the earliest essays I wrote as a first year undergraduate was an essay on Parmenides. I worried over it for two months or more before handing it in!

The problem for students and commentators with Parmenides is deciding what can be said consistently with the proposition, 'It is.' There is, arguably, room for a strict and more relaxed interpretations.

According to the strict interpretation, which I argue for in the program, nothing can be said which in any way implies a negative proposition. Thus, while we can say that 'what is' is a plenum, finite, and *like* a sphere in its absence any difference or asymmetry, we cannot make any statement about the alleged contents of 'what is', such that there are stars or mountains or human beings. Any statement about particular things logically implies that something 'is not'. For example, a star in the constellation of Orion is not in the constellation of the Great Bear, a mountain in Greece is not in Persia, a man is not a woman, a red cloth is not blue and so on.

I would love to see a plausible case made for a more relaxed interpretation, where one is allowed to make statements such as the one's above without contradicting the metaphysical proposition, 'It is'.

Your solution to the dilemma, as I read it, is to argue that anything that we can think about 'is' in some sense. For example, if we describe Pegasus, then all that we can logically say are things that are 'thinkable and therefore part of "what-is".'

This has the consequence that far from depleting reality, as the strict interpretation appears to do, reality is inflated to include every conceivable object whether actually existent or not. A similar view was in fact held by the Austrian philosopher Meinong towards the end of the nineteenth century, and attacked by Bertrand Russell for displaying an insufficiently strong sense of reality!

(I actually quite like Meinong's relaxed approach to ontology. Provided that we understand the difference between concrete objects and abstract objects, or characters in fiction etc. I think it is perfectly OK to say things like, 'Pegasus exists' (in legend) or 'Sherlock Holmes exists' (in the novels of Anthony Conan Doyle). What one cannot say is that one and the same entity 'exists' as a concrete object at one time, and then at some other time 'exists' in a non-concrete way. So, when we think of a thing that existed in the past, the object of our thoughts is the thing in the past, not a Pegasus-like thought entity that exists now.)

Perhaps, as you suggest, the consequence of Parmenides' argument is the Platonic view that all that can be truly said and known concerns the eternal forms, while the changeable world of phenomena are consigned to the unreal world of 'what is and is not'. If this is the message that came through to Plato, however, I am still not convinced that this is what Parmenides himself believed.

If we do stick to the strict interpretation, then we face the massive task of explaining how we fall under the illusion that there exists a changeable world of things in space and time. Parmenides' 'Way of Opinion' might seem to provide some evidence that Parmenides took this problem seriously. However, it is not clear how in that case the theory he puts forward responds to the question posed.

All the best,

Geoffrey