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Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is'


To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is'
Date: 7 August 2012 14:07

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your email of 27 July, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Analyse, and give a commentary on Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It Is'.'

I am impressed by the amount of work you have put into this, not only in terms of research but also thinking about Parmenides' argument and the question of what he meant by the proposition, 'It is.'

You remark at the beginning that Raymond Tallis 'suggests that the principle notion of Parmenides' 'It is' rests in the concept that truth lies outside direct experience,' and then you go on directly to connect this two what I say about Metaphysics as that 'which investigates the nature of reality and includes that which is beyond the human senses and therefore beyond human science.'

However, we seem to be dealing with two different distinctions here. The first distinction concerns the very idea of a difference between appearance and reality. You are travelling along a dusty road on a hot summer's day and see water shimmering in the distance. The reality is that you have seen a mirage.

We are all conversant with the appearance/ reality distinction. Indeed it can be said that a grasp of this distinction is necessary in order to have a grasp of the very notion of judgement, a grasp that we can think that something is the case, yet be wrong.

The activity of science takes our common sense grasp of the appearance/ reality distinction a stage further, by allowing us to infer explanations which cannot be directly verified through experience. The table appears solid, but 'in reality' it is mostly empty space. We understand what the physicist is saying, even though, in a sense, the table surely is solid.

However, it is a further step to claim, as happens in metaphysics, that all that we can know through experience, reasoning upon experience and formulating scientific hypotheses itself counts as merely 'knowledge of the world of appearance' by contrast with a reality beyond experience, beyond science, a reality of 'things in themselves'. Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena, or Bradley's theory of the Absolute are classic examples. As indeed is Parmenides' theory of the One.

However, if all Parmenides was doing was trying to give expression to the idea of an appearance/ reality distinction, surely there was no need to say what he goes on to say about the One.

The question is, is Parmenides' argument valid? And to answer this, we need to decide exactly what Parmenides was arguing for.

You will come across interpretations which try to give a relatively easy gloss on Parmenides. The problem is, you come up crunch against the claim that anyone who believes anything which implies 'it is not' -- anyone who believes that there exists space, change, colour or any of the other features of reality -- does not know, has not grasped the truth. None of this is real. There is only the One.

When you remark, 'If you add one substance to another it can take on different characteristics,' you are giving the response to Parmenides which he himself forswore. Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the atomists all thought they could preserve a Parmenidean element, that which remains unchanging, while explaining what we all believe, that change does happen. In these thinkers, all change reduces, as Jonathan Barnes notes, to locomotion. Unchanging bits of Parmenidean Being rearrange into different combinations producing the appearances that we perceive. But this is emphatically not Parmenides. Motion is banned, along with any concept that implies differentiation. Parmenides makes this perfectly clear in the text.

As you note, Parmenides seems to have wanted to say, not only that there is no such thing as time -- a claim which you will find in contemporary physics, or indeed in metaphysicians like John McTaggart who argued against the reality of time in 'The Nature of Existence' -- but also that the one IS present now. The idea of a perpetual 'now' found its way into traditional theology via Plato, who arguably got the idea from Parmenides. There is a much-discussed article by the Greek scholar G.E.L. Owen which you might come across on the net, 'Plato, Parmenides and the Timeless 'Now'' which offers a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of the notion of an all-knowing God for whom all is 'now'.

But, still, we haven't got to grips with the main question: Is Parmenides' argument valid, and, if not, where is the fallacy?

There is a temptation when studying a historical philosopher to want to find a way of interpreting what they say in a way which makes it true. The technical term philosophers use is 'The principle of charity'. It is worth while taking every effort to find important insights, avoiding having to say that the thinker simply went down the wrong track. In my interpretation of Parmenides, I have done this to some extent too. But still, we get to the point where we have to make a decision. I don't believe in Parmenides' One and neither do you. So, once again, at what point in the argument can we say, 'Hold on there, that's not true'?

Parmenides seems to have wanted things both ways. He wants to say that only the One is real, and yet he admits that there exists the appearance of change etc. An appearance is not reality, we have established that, but insofar as appearances appear, insofar as we can say, 'It is true that it seems to be the case that P', they are *part* of reality. But how can they be, when the One has no parts? - I don't know the answer to that question, and, I suspect, neither did Parmenides.

All the best,