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Parmenides on the nature of 'what is'


To: Pat F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides on the nature of 'what is'
Date: 12 January 2005 12:33

Dear Pat,

Thank you for your email of 4 January, with your essay for the UoL Programme, 'Provided one is convinced 'what is not' cannot be thought of, one has to accept most of Parmenides views on the nature of what is.' [Discuss].

My first comment on this is that you haven't answered the question. I am reading this as a possible exam essay, and the questions for the UoL philosophy examinations are on the whole crafted very carefully. You have to study them as if you were studying a crossword clue.

With the eyes of an examiner, I looked for your answer and found a kind of answer in the very last paragraph. Basically, all you say here is 'I'm not convinced,' without giving any further argument.

Earlier in the essay, you propose to discuss the validity of the premiss, 'It is', commenting that 'If the premiss does not hold then the question of the conclusions is moot and to proceed would be absurd'. Well, the examiner who set the question doesn't think so. He (or she) thinks that it is a valid question to raise, whether someone who accepts that 'what is not' cannot be thought of has no choice but to accept Parmenides' conclusions concerning the nature of 'what is'.

Just to give you some ideas for a possible approach to this question I have attached units 7 and 8 of the Pathways Presocratics program, which deals, first, with Parmenides argument for 'It is', and secondly with the consequences which he draws from this proposition. I won't repeat the points here. However, just to give an example, suppose someone raised the question whether It is square (i.e. whether the term 'square' can be used to describe any part of what 'is').

Here's an argument Parmenides might give:

1. Assume that Pat thinks x is square, for some x.
2. What is not cannot be thought of.
3. If Pat thinks x is square then Pat must think x is not triangular.
4. If Pat thinks x is not triangular, then Pat thinks 'what is not'.
5. Contradiction
6. Therefore there is no x such that Pat thinks x is square (Reductio)

The same argument can be run through with any term that might be used to describe 'what is'.

The argument above is framed in terms of what can be thought. So you might think that it might still be true that there is an x such that x is square, only we cannot think this. However, the first, and most important conclusion that Parmenides draws from the premiss that what is not cannot be thought of is, 'It is, and cannot not be'. Not only can we not think of 'what is not', it is impossible for any proposition concerning 'what is not' to be a true description of reality.

Having said that, there is, admittedly, a special problem with accepting for the sake of argument the proposition that 'what is not' cannot be thought, which you do touch on when you discuss Aristotle's and Plato's views. So it would be acceptable to say something along the lines of, 'We need to grasp what Parmenides thought he was arguing for, when he asserted that "what is not" cannot be thought, in order to determine whether the conclusions he draws follow validly from this premiss, as he understood it.'

You make an interesting point when you observe that Parmenides distinction between the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion 'anticipates Socrates/Plato's theory of the forms and Aristotle's substances'. Once again, however, I don't think that this belongs in an essay written in answer to the question set.

In discussing Aristotle and Plato, you do offer your take on 'It is'. According to you, Parmindes is not saying that, for any x, 'x is not' (or 'x is not F') cannot be thought, but rather, that it is impossible to think that 'the whole universe including thoughts and objects' does not exist. If one takes this line, however, then it is indeed very difficult to see how Parmenides believed he could infer anything. There is a sense in which reality 'is and cannot not be' no matter how things are in reality. If, for example, there is no physical universe, no stars or planets, no space, the proposition, 'There are no stars' is still true. So what? Nothing interesting about the actual world follows from that observation.

It might still be argued that a kind of sense that could be made of 'reality cannot not exist' in Parmenidean language. Wittgenstein in the Tractatus defines the world as 'the facts in logical space'. So it seem we could draw a distinction between the contingent existence of states of affairs, on the one hand, including all that is covered in the Way of Opinion, and the necessary existence of logical space itself. In that case, all that Parmenides says about its lack of spatiality, temporality makes a kind of sense, even if the metaphor seems to us rather overblown.

I think Parmenides meant something much stronger. He things, e.g. that nothing can 'be' square (although things somehow 'appear' square). This leads to an awkward paradox, since the very same argument can be run through with, 'Pat thinks that x appears square'.

All the best,