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Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'it is not'


To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'it is not'
Date: 15 December 2006 10:54

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 8 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Why does Parmenides hold that it is impossible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

This is without doubt a first class piece of work. Your argument is clearly laid out and you make excellent use of citations. You have taken great care to explore the various options and made judgements which are, at least, sufficiently justified by the textual evidence to be persuasive.

I am attaching the units on Parmenides from the Pathways Presocratics program. Lacking Greek, I am not able to participate in debates over the precise meanings of Greek terms. However, my gut feeling which I try to justify in these units is that Parmenides argument is more interesting than your final diagnosis - Parmenides' ignorance of first-order predicate calculus - would seem to imply. I am aware that this probably puts me in the minority of students of Parmenides.

The problem that Parmenides is onto, according to my view, is the ontological status of negative facts. As you show, Plato offers a way of parsing some negative statements so that the negation is no longer explicit (although it remains implicit). The temptation - which for example Sartre succumbs to in Being and Nothingness - is to say that reality itself can't have any 'negation' in it so it is we, or 'consciousness', which must supply it. As the medieval principle has it, 'All determination is negation.'

This would account for the consequences which Parmenides draws from 'it is'. Here I think, possibly, you should have said something because one might half agree with the claim that it is not possible to make a negative existential judgement, until one realizes that the consequence Parmenides wishes to draw - which tells us more about what he means by 'it is' than the argument alone - is that there can be no plurality, movement or difference of any kind. How does one get to the One from 'it is'? If you were answering this question in an exam, I think that more explicit reference to this point would be justified.

I like the way you have drawn attention to the 'change of subject' in B2 and B6. In my reading, Parmenides is arguing dialectically. So the very meaning of the argument changes after one has appreciated the significance of the conclusion. 'Take anything you like,' he starts off, 'either it is or it is not'. Then, after working through the argument, we can start again, this time appreciating that there is in fact only one possible subject, the One.

The idea that 'centaur' might be an idea in the mind is not just a red herring, but a serious fallacy. However, it is perfectly possible to employ a first-order sense of 'exists' as a predicate without committing this fallacy. Call this 'eggsists'. Then the statement, 'A eggsists', where 'A' is a proper name, is always true. Nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when one is tempted to explain the statement, 'A does not eggsist' as a statement which takes as its subject the idea of A. In which case the statement is about the idea of A, and not A, and is necessarily false for the same reason as before. (The principle, 'no object, no thought' is emphasised, for example, by Gareth Evans in his account of proper names in 'Varieties of Reference'.)

In what sense does the same thing exist for thought and for being? 'The same thing exists for thought as for being' does not mean that being is the same as thought. It cannot, literally, be the case for Parmenides that 'Being is Being-known', because this applies a predicate to Being which is other than 'is'. In that case, it follows logically that there is, after all, something that Being 'is not'. (I remember long, long ago drawing the incorrect conclusion that 'Being is thought' in an essay I wrote on Parmenides in the first year of my BA!) What Parmenides means is that whatever can be, can be thought, and whatever can be thought, can be. This is the principle you use in your argument, so I cannot accuse you of making the aforementioned error.

So we get back to Frege. How strong is this point, given that it is perfectly possible to use 'exists' (or rather 'eggsists') as a first-order predicate? Is it really true, that without first-order predicate logic we are forced to embrace Parmenides' conclusions?

It is worth noting that the issue of 'negative facts' has appeared sporadically in analytic philosophy. It was raised by Russell. It also appears in the famous Aristotelian Society debate between J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson in Truth. I would argue that this is the beginning of the slippery slope which can only end in Parmenides' One.

All the best,