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


To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'It is not'
Date: 16th January 2009 11:33

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 2 January, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'Why does Parmenides hold that it is impossible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

In many ways, this is a model answer to the question. You have given plausible reasons for interpreting the 'is' in 'It is' as the 'is' of existence, and then offered an interpretation of Parmenides' argument which diagnoses a modal fallacy: 'if x can exist then x must exist,' which entails the proposition, 'If x does not exist, then x cannot exist.'

This is the view held by my old professor for Greek Philosophy, D.W. Hamlyn and also by Jonathan Barnes: two notable authorities.

It is hardly necessary to have studied logic or philosophy to see that the fallacy is blatant. Nobody believes this in real life. How could Parmenides have believed it?

We are concerned here with an interpretative principle known as the 'principle of charity': other things being equal, we should favour an interpretation which makes a philosophers argument looks most convincing. Or in other words, don't attribute crudely fallacious reasoning unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Now, in favour of the Hamlyn/ Barnes view it can be said that in the time of Parmenides logic was in its infancy. But that hardly justifies attributing the view, e.g. that if a house doesn't exist then it cannot exist (you cannot build a house) or if because of my wife's miscarriage my 20 year old son doesn't exist, then it was impossible for my wife to have avoided a miscarriage.

Here, I would argue, is one exception to the general rule that when answering an exam question you should stick to the terms of the question and not add anything. Surely, in order to understand what argument Parmenides thinks he is giving, you need to refer to the deductions from 'It is'. According to Parmenides, one cannot make any statement which implies, 'It is not'; which entails that all the things human beings believe about their world are, in reality, false. There are no people, houses, colours, nothing that implies any kind of differentiation.

One way to reconcile this paradox consistently with the Hamlyn/ Barnes view would be to say that Parmenides regards ordinary factual discourse -- the way of seeming or the way of appearances -- as not touching the question of existence or non-existence. Our ordinary ways of talking don't even scratch the surface of what is, or is not 'real'. When Parmenides talks about 'ways of inquiry' he means something radically different from factual inquiry: inquiry into the real.

But now this begins to look suspiciously circular: how would Parmenides have even formed the idea of a 'real' which is different from appearances?

Here is one suggestion: Parmenides is looking at the inquiries of his predecessors and passing judgement on the coherence of their logic.

For example: Anaximenes says that what is real, is air. Because air is the real, and all appearances are explained as different states of air, air must exist. The 'modal fallacy' is not a fallacy (or, at least, not so obviously a fallacy) when we are describing the 'arche'. But now the problem arises how the arche, air, have any particular quality. The changes in the world of appearances are explained by air, but now we are told that air itself changes (e.g. from being more dense to less dense). How can that be, unless there is a reality underlying air which is constant and not subject to change?

I'm not claiming this argument is watertight: just gesturing in the direction of the kind of thing one would be looking for.

My view (for what it's worth -- have a look at the units on Parmenides in the Pathways Presocratics program) is that Parmenides is deliberately conflating the 'is' of existence and the 'is' of predication. It makes no difference to his argument which way you read 'is'. What he has seen is a genuine problem concerning the nature of negation, and not a crude modal fallacy. Which of course is not to say that Parmenides hasn't made an error. Clearly, something has gone wrong with his argument. I just think that whatever has gone wrong is more interesting, and more challenging, than the Hamlyn/ Barnes view implies.

As I said, I think you have given a model answer, which would score well in an exam. However, I think examiners will be impressed if you try to do more -- whether or not you ultimately succeed.

All the best,