Monday, May 13, 2013

Parmenides' case for the proposition 'It is'

To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' case for the proposition 'It is'
Date: 28th January 2010 12:50

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 20 January, with your essay for the University of London BA module, Plato and the Presocratics, entitled, 'On Parmenides'.

In your essay, you set out to give an exposition and interpretation of Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is.' It would have been helpful if you had found an examination question to respond to, because this will help you when you come to take the exam. I would like you to do this in future, whenever possible.

You have really made an effort to get into the world of Parmenides. I particularly liked your observation that Parmenides is trying to say something which it is almost impossible to say in language, or possibly cannot be said. In this respect, his thought stands comparison with a philosopher who took a very different view of reality, Heraclitus, who speaks in metaphors and riddles because his vision of the Logos cannot be literally described.

Your observation that the story of the Goddess recalls the myth of the cave in Plato's Republic is something that had not occurred to me. Scholars have noted the strong influence of Parmenides on Plato's conception of the unchanging Forms (as well of course as the influence of Heraclitus on Plato's conception of the world of becoming) but I have not seen a connection made between the images of an ultimate reality -- Parmenides' One, Plato's Form of the Good -- communicated in a vision from 'on high', which the philosopher seeks to articulate discursively through dialectical argument.

You put forward an interpretation of Parmenides which makes his views seem less paradoxical then they appear to a reader who comes upon Parmenides for the first time. The One is, you say, 'the fact of being'. In other words, the distinction between the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion, is the distinction between what one can say about Being, as such, and what there is to say about particular beings.

What can we say about Being? It is not the mere totality of particular beings, because particular beings can change in any number of ways while Being, or the fact of being, remains the same. Nor, for the same reason, is it 'all that is the case' (Wittgenstein Tractatus 'The world is all that is the case.') Parmenides' momentous discovery, on your view, is that there IS such thing as the fact of being, or Being as such.

Were his predecessors not aware of this? Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes have a lot to say about the cosmos, its constituents and structuring principles. But they never once raise the question of Being. On the contrary, everything they say about physics and cosmology, merely relates to 'the totality of beings' or 'all that is the case'.

This is a Heideggerian reading of Parmenides. On this view, Parmenides made a great discovery which the succeeding history of Western philosophy has allowed to be 'covered up'. We have forgotten the importance of Being.

My problem with this interpretation is that it makes it hard to see what Parmenides' successors -- Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Leucippus -- were arguing against, or how they thought Parmenides' strictures on what can be said about 'what is not' affected their theories.

You acknowledge the fact of being, that there is such a thing as Being, then what? Where does that lead? Parmenides offers his own version of a physics and cosmology in the Way of Opinion. In what way, if any, has the game changed from pre-Parmenidean physics to post-Parmenidean physics? If the answer is, 'in no way at all' then this would seem to diminish Parmenides' historical importance, notwithstanding Heidegger's enthusiasm.

Similar considerations apply to Plato's two-world theory. As with Empedocles, Anaxagoras and the atomists, Plato recognizes a distinction between the unchanging and the changing, between Forms and phenomenal particulars. However, to say that the fact of being, or Being as such is 'unchanging' is close to being a tautology. On any theory, including that of Heraclitus in which the only unchanging element is the Logos, the fact of being IS the fact of being.

For these reasons, I personally would look for a more challenging and paradoxical interpretation of Parmenides. Perhaps along the lines of seeing that any possible theory of the cosmos has these two components, the changing and the unchanging, but then realizing that this just can't work. That if the unchanging is truly unchanging, then there is no way that the changing can arise out of it. In other words, if we are talking about the truth of how things are, there cannot be a 'theory of the cosmos'. There is only the statement, 'It is.'

On this view, subsequent thinkers saw the challenge as giving a plausible account of the unchanging aspect which allows for an aspect of change. So they tinkered with Parmenides' argument, just enough to allow for a theory which 'saves the phenomena'.

That's just another theory about Parmenides, another interpretation. You show in your essay that you have done some reading about Parmenides and that you are aware that there are different possible interpretations. In an examination, even if you have a strong preference for a particular view, it is a good idea to show that you are aware of the alternatives.

I liked this. I am pleased that you have got off to a good start. Well done!

All the best,

Geoffrey