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Empedocles' response to Parmenides


To: Catherine H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Empedocles' response to Parmenides
Date: 3 April 2007 11:31

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your email of 26 March, with your essay fragment in response to the University of London question, 'Assess whether Empedocles has a good response to Parmenides'.

You have proceeded in the correct way, first seeking identify the key or claim or claims made by Parmenides which Empedocles responded to. But after a brief description of Empedocles theory of four elements, all you say is, 'Thus, on one level, the constituents of reality are everlasting and immutable; on another level their mixture makes change possible.'

How can we make this better?

First, in an exam I would strongly advise against making statements like, 'Parmenides was the founder of Eleatic philosophy, named after the town in which he lived', or 'Parmenides set out his philosophy in one short poem, comprised of five separate Stages, in ungainly hexameter verse modelled on Homer’s Odyssey.' Unless this is relevant to the question, these kinds of detail should be skipped. They will lose you time, and can also lose marks.

You should be thinking all the time about what would constitute a good answer to the question. Avoid mentioning anything that is extraneous or irrelevant.

For the purposes of this question, we can leave aside Parmenides' cosmological theory of light and night. This is not the challenge Empedocles was responding to. (Unless, of course, you can find some unexpecteded way in which it might be relevant.)

Parmenides argued that change is impossible. We can only say, 'It is' and never 'It is not.' You raise the question of what 'It is' means. This is crucial. One interpretation would be, 'It exists' and we can never say, 'It does not exist'. If this is what Parmenides meant, then Empedocles' response looks more promising than it does if Parmenides is making the much stronger claim that we can only say, 'It is F' and can never say, 'It is not-F'.

Any property F divides objects into those which are F and those which are not-F. If we can only say 'It is F' and never 'It is not-F' it follows that there cannot be 'properties' as we understand them. Hence, no differentiation or change of any kind.

So this is how I would organize the essay. Consider each possible interpretation of Parmenides and then the appropriateness/ effectiveness of Empedocles' response.

'It exists'

Whatever exists, exists for all time and can never go out of existence. The problem with this is that it is hard to see how Parmenides is led to draw the conclusion that reality is not differentiated in any way.

But let's speculate on how the argument might have been turned against the Milesians. No entity or substance A can turn into any other entity or substance B, because this involves A ceasing to exist and B coming into existence in its place. It follows, for example, that air cannot 'turn into' earth because this would involve air going out of existence and earth coming into existence.

In this way, it is plausible to see Parmenides' contemporaries regarding his argument as an unbeatable challenge to Milesian monism.

But what if we posit a plurality of basic substances? Choose a suitable range which by combination can explain all the attributes that we see and the job is done. Hence, Empedocles' four elements earth, water, fire and air.

'It is F'

Unfortunately for Empedocles (as arguably Anaxagoras saw) Parmenides' argument does not just apply to the question of existence and non-existence. If there is such a thing as being F, for any property F, then this property itself cannot be replaced by some other property G. But this is what Empedocles wanted. Impressed by the way mixtures give rise to properties which could not have been predicted on the basis of the properties of the things mixed, he believed that it was possible to satisfy Parmenides and yet still posit properties which come into existence or go out of existence.

I've given a very brief sketch of how the argument might go. There is more to say, and for this you need to look at the secondary texts and the discussions of this question.

The main point I would make if I was answering this question is that it is not simply a question of, 'Parmenides said this, and Empedocles responded with that.' It is not clear what Parmenides said, or rather, what he meant by what he said. What seems clearer, is what Empedocles seems to have thought he was responding to.

I say, 'seems to' because I am not convinced that things are as simple as this question makes out - and this is another relevant point that one can make. Maybe (as I think) Empedocles and his contemporaries were troubled by Parmenides' arguments but (like us) convinced that he was wrong about the undifferentiated reality of 'It is'. Employing the principle of interpretative charity (just as we would do) Empedocles and his contemporaries looked for something valid within Parmenides' reasoning to which one might construct an intelligible response.

In that case, the question is not so much about whether Empedocles 'succeeded' or 'failed' in his response to the Parmenidean challenge - as one would talk about a good or a bad argument, tout court - but rather whether he made good use of Parmenides' ideas.

I think it is also relevant and valid to look ahead at Anaxagoras who seemed to see more in Parmenides' challenge than Empedocles did. This isn't something you would dwell on at too great a length but it is relevant because it purports to be a 'better' response than the one that Empedocles gave.

All the best,