Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Parmenides: following the path of 'It is not'

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: following the path of 'It is not'
Date: 11 January 2006 11:51

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay on Parmenides, in response to the University of London Plato and the Presocratics question, 'Is it possible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

This is not a bad effort. You have answered the question, and have not been afraid to express your own views. If I was marking this as an examiner, this might scrape through with a 2/i. So there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Don't get despondent. To help you think about the issues raised by this question I have attached two units from the Pathways Presocratics program which deal with Parmenides. You can use these as you would any other philosophy text, citing the reference in an essay or exam.

You can skip all the stuff about hexameter poem, and the charioteer's divine journey. Remember, you will have just one hour to write your answer. The convention is that you 'cut to the chase' and don't waste time with unnecessary preliminaries.

First question, then, 'What is this 'it is' and 'it is not' that Parmenides alludes to?' Good. That was the right question to ask. I agree that there are three interpretations of 'is'.

You go on to argue for one particular interpretation, rejecting the other two. My question would be, Is it necessary for there to be one, and only one interpretation? Why can't Parmenides say, 'Whatever meaning you give to 'is', my argument is still valid'?

Let's look at your arguments. If 'x' refers to a toothbrush, then it does not make much sense to ask whether a toothbrush is 'true' or 'false'. However, you are assuming here that 'it' refers to an object. If 'it' referred to a statement, e.g. 'The earth goes round the sun' then the argument would run: Either a given statement is necessarily true, or the statement is necessarily false. But a necessarily false statement cannot be thought. Therefore, every statement that can be made is necessarily true.

What would be your argument against that interpretation?

Then you reject the predicative reading, on the grounds that 'it would lead to an indefinite number of attributes since Parmenides had not proposed what x might be'. But why is that a problem? Why can't Parmenides say, 'Take any object x and any property F. Either x is F and cannot not be F, or x is not F. But the latter alternative is unthinkable, therefore x is necessarily F.'

This has some unwelcome consequences. Every object x has every property F, including patently incompatible properties like being red and blue, or square and circular.

So we are left with the existential reading. That which 'is not', i.e. does not exist, cannot be thought about, because to think about something implies that it 'is'. You reply, 'But why are we able to speak of unicorns, dragons, griffins and hydras...? although something cannot exist, it doesn't mean that it is 'nothing'.'

I wonder if it had occurred to you that in saying this you have fully accepted Parmenides' point. On this interpretation, when I say, 'St George killed the dragon', I am referring to an object which in some sense has 'being' even though it does not 'exist'. This would be the 'Meinongian' solution (look up the Austrian philosopher 'Meinong'). In effect, you are proposing different realms of 'being' - physical being, mythical being, imaginary being etc. So it is a matter of mere convention that physical being is called 'existence'.

There are severe problems with this 'solution'. The more widely accepted view is that 'existence is not a predicate'. When I say that 'Unicorns do not exist' I am not referring to non-physical 'objects' called unicorns. I am merely saying, 'It is not the case that there is an x such that x has the property of being a unicorn'. This analysis of 'existence' as a 'second-order predicate' (look this up) meets Parmenides' challenge by interpreting the occurrence of 'unicorn' as a predicate rather than as a singular term.

This analysis also explains how a 'zonkey' could come into existence for the first time. There is a certain property, that of being a zonkey, which is instantiated at t+1 but not at t ('t' refers to a given time).

In your concluding paragraph, you express the view that 'The path of 'it is' is still the better of the two' because testing 'our creative and speculative abilities... does nothing to aid us in the acquisition of knowledge.'

I would dispute the claim that testing our creative abilities does not aid in the acquisition of knowledge. But, in any case, in expressing the results of inquiry, we want to make negative existential claims, e.g. 'There is no eleventh planet', 'There are no witches' etc.

All the best,

Geoffrey