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In what sense was Parmenides a monist?


To: Paul B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In what sense was Parmenides a monist?
Date: 5th November 2008 10:51

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 27 October, with your University of London Greek Philosophy: Plato and the Presocratics essay, in response to the question, 'In what sense was Parmenides a monist?'

This is an excellent essay, which raises the most fundamental difficulty for Parmenides' philosophy, namely the relation between the 'truth' about the One and the mere 'opinion' about the world of changeable things. As you point out, Plato's philosophy is appropriately characterized as a form of dualism -- the dualism of the world of Forms and the world of phenomena -- so why isn't Parmenides tarred with the same brush?

That's one question we want to resolve. The question hinges on the attempt that Parmenides makes (or fails to make) to 'save the phenomena'. If we are talking about truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then part of the truth is that THERE IS a way that things appear. This is OK for Plato, but Parmenides can have none of it. The only thing concerning which we can truthfully declare, 'There is,' is the One. There is no 'truth' about appearances, not even the observation that appearances appear.

Another question occurs to me: calling Parmenides a 'monist' is like calling a serial killer a 'naughty boy'. Materialism is a form of monism. Materialists say that all that exists are the posits of physics. Idealism is a form of monism. Idealists say that all that exists is (in some sense) an attribute of mind. The sense in which Parmenides is a 'monist' goes far beyond the standard categorization of metaphysical monism vs dualism etc. Neither a materialist nor an idealist would wish to claim Parmenides as their intellectual forbear.

A good answer to this question could consist in an investigation of the Parmenides-Plato connection, or the investigation of the difference between Parmenidean hyper-monism and the ordinary varieties of monism -- or both. In general, when this happens in an exam you have a choice which way you want to go. However, you will gain extra credit if you show the examiner that you are aware of an alternative interpretation (or interpretations) of the question.

Before we look closer at the relationship between Plato and Parmenides, there is a question of interpretation. You make a somewhat dogmatic statement, 'It is generally agreed that 'it' means 'anything at all one is thinking about' and that 'is' means 'exist'.' An examiner would be more impressed if you could at least go through the motions of canvassing different possibilities, as this could well be relevant to how one interprets Parmenides' 'One'. As it happens, I agree about the 'it' but not about the 'is'. Why is it necessary for Parmenides to go so far as to distinguish the 'is' of existence from the 'is' of predication or the 'is' if identity?

From what you go on to say about the application of Parmenides' principle, there seems no inconsistency in saying that the impossibility of saying, 'It is not' applies in all the following cases: when we want to say that A exists at time t1 but not at time t2; or when we want to say that A is F at t1 and not-F at t2; or when we want to say that A is identical to A, but A is not identical to B. Parmenides may well have thought about the 'is' of identity or predication as somehow ways of 'existing', but this is pretty hard to discern from the text.

You do make an interesting point in passing (which you don't dwell on) concerning a potential inconsistency in Parmenides' use of the term 'not' to express his prohibition about thinking of 'what is not'. I would defend Parmenides here by saying that 'Do not...' is a command, not a statement. He is consistent in not allowing any statement containing or implying the term 'not' to be true.

However, and this is the main issue, this consistency comes at a price. Parmenides has no way to 'save the phenomena'. He is stuck with the rigid insistence on the truth of the One, unable to even make a coherent, true statement (according to his own philosophy) about how things seem to 'two-headed mortals'. Bearing this in mind, can we really allow him to accept the mantle of monism? Isn't Parmenides the worst kind of dualist, unable to account in any way for the connection between the two disparate realms which he describes?

All the best,