The Presocratics Part IV: Parmenides

by melanchologist

Though I have described several of the early Presocratics in terms of their metaphysics, our next Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides, is considered to be the father of metaphysics.  Parmenides was born approximately 515 b.c.e. in Elea, which is on the southern coast of what is now Italy.  Parmenides was alive, although he would have been elderly, in the time of Socrates, and although it is doubtful that Parmenides and Socrates ever actually met, Plato has a dialogue that is called The Parmenides.  Parmenides is said to have been both a student of Xenophanes, and loosely associated, possibly in his early years, with the Pythagoreans.  His writings, however, which were written in verse and are full of poetic images, are essentially a rejection of all that came before him, in terms of Western philosophical thought.  In one of Nigel Warburton’s wonderfully fascinating Philosophy Bites podcasts, Warburton interviews the philosopher Raymond Tallis, who claims that Parmenides is in fact the most important Western philosopher, and that, rather than all subsequent Western philosophy being a footnote to Plato (as Alfred North Whitehead famously said), Plato should be more properly considered one of the more interesting and significant footnotes to Parmenides.  Tallis maintains that Parmenides laid the groundwork for basically all subsequent Western thought.

Parmenides’ ideas were indeed a radical departure from his Presocratic forebears.  If Heraclitus’ vision was governed by change, flux, and fire, then Parmenides’ teachings were almost the polar opposite.  He is said to be the ultimate monist—that there is but one single, unchanging entity in the cosmos, and nothing else.  This position can be summarized thus: what is, is; and what is not, is not.  Parmenides writes,

The only ways of inquiry there are for thinking:
the one, that it is and that it is not possible for it ot to be,
is the path of Persuasion (for it attends upon Truth),
the other, that it is not and that it is necessary for it not to be.

Similarly,

That which is there to be spoken and thought of must be.
For it is possible for it to be,
but not possible for nothing to be.  I bid you consider this.

Parmenides believed that an entity could neither come into being, nor pass out of existence, because for an entity to come into being means that it must come from what it not, which Parmenides deems impossible.  Similarly, for an entity to pass out of being, or cease to exist, it must pass from what is, to what is not, which, again, is impossible.  To Parmenides, “what is not, is not,” meaning that the mere notion of what is not cannot be thought or comprehended.

So much can be said about the above passages that I can’t even begin to do them justice in this brief essay.  Suffice it to say that Parmenides laid out what is likely the first incontrovertible philosophical argument* in Western philosophy.  When discussing the existence of, say, a tree, one might argue the following.  Before a tree is planted, or is even a seed, the tree does not exist.  Therefore it is not.  While the tree is alive, the tree exists, or is.  After the tree is chopped down and burned as firewood, it no longer exists; therefore, it is not.  By this logic, one can, in fact, conceive “what is not.”  Parmenides would counter argue, however, that the above argument is invalid, as we would be allowing ourselves to be misled by sensory experience.  In the continuation of one of the above fragments, Parmenides says,

This I point out to you to be a path completely unlearnable,
for neither may you know that which is not (for it is not to be accomplished).

Thus, we return to the notion that all sensory information that we, as humans, experience, comprises the sum total of our reality.  Reality is simply, what is.  Everything else is what is not, which is something that we cannot imagine.  It is essentially non-existence.

Furthermore, Parmenides believed that what is, is in fact indivisible; that what is is simply one single undivided and indivisible entity.  He writes,

Nor is it divided, since it all it is alike;
nor is it any more in any way, which would keep it from holding together,
or any less, but it is all full of what is.
Therefore, it is all continuous, for what is draws near to what is.

In other words, for what is to consist of more than one entity, the entities in question must be separated by what is not, which, per Parmenides, would be impossible.

On a final note, in classical logic, there are three classic laws of thought: The law of identity; The law of non-contradiction (or the law of contradiction); and The law of excluded middle.  Parmenides is said to have anticipated two of these three laws: The law of non-contradiction (that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time); and The law of excluded middle (that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is).

*On a side note about arguments, since I am writing this from a lay perspective, I need to define the term.  By “argument,” I do not mean the act of squabbling over whether or not what Parmenides had to say has merit.  Rather, I mean argument as a statement that provides evidence in support of a claim.


Sources

Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts.

Argument. (2012, April 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:29, April 29, 2012.

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Edmonds, David & Nigel Warburton.  Philosophy Bites.

Heraclitus. (2012, April 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:58, April 25, 2012.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Parmenides.

Law of thought. (2012, April 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:48, April 29, 2012.

Palmer, John, “Parmenides“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

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