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Anaxagoras' response to Parmenides


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaxagoras' response to Parmenides
Date: 18th March 2009 12:02

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 8 March, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Assess whether Anaxagoras had a good response to Parmenides.'

As a one hour timed essay question, this is without doubt an excellent piece of work. If I was marking this I would give it a First. The mark would be on the borderline, however, reflecting the fact that you make an assumption at the beginning of your essay which can be questioned -- and therefore deserves supporting argument, which you haven't given.

You say, 'We can take it that ultimately reality corresponds to the 'One',' the task therefore being to 'give an account why and how we are deceived into believing in change and plurality'. However, later in your essay you admit that Anaxagoras' account is not just of how things appear to us but how they are constituted in reality. This is hardly consistent with the original task, as you have described it.

There is certainly an issue in Parmenides concerning the need to 'save appearances' (explain how we are deceived etc. etc.). Parmenides offers his own account of appearances in the 'Way of Opinion' where he describes a cosmos in a similar way to his predecessors, as constituted from an arche. However, it is difficult to see how his theory fares any better than the others with respect to the challenge of explaining appearances.

An alternative tack would be to view Anaxagoras (along with the other philosophers who came after Parmenides) as seeking to preserve what he thinks is valid in Parmenides' argument against change, while deliberately going against other aspects of Parmenides' theory of the One. At any rate, that is the orthodox view.

However, in these terms, strictly speaking Anaxagoras has a hopeless response to Parmenides. It is worth making this point. He doesn't criticize Parmenides' reasoning. He merely helps himself (as the other post-Eleatic philosophers did) to elements in Parmenides' theory which he wished to preserve while blatantly contradicting other elements.

That said, why is Anaxagoras' theory a better theory -- construed as a response to the challenge of Parmenides -- than that given by Thales or Anaximenes, or indeed Parmenides? Anaxagoras evidently sees the problem in terms of the impossibility of qualities coming into or going out of existence. So every possible quality is instantiated, and only the concentrations change.

You accuse Anaxagoras of offering a 'circular' definition of gold as that in which 'gold' predominates. I would have expected you to say a bit more here, given that you offer a remarkably coherent account of the theory of 'everything in everything', emphasizing that Anaxagoras rejects a view of reality as 'packaged' in discrete units.

There never is, and never was, a 'lump of gold'. What there is, is 'goldish', lumps of stuffs in which the gold quality predominates. We can mentally conceive of the quality in its pure state, but in the real world, this never occurs. We know what we 'mean' by 'gold' through exercising a recognitional capacity. Successful exercise of that recognitional capacity is consistent with the view that there never was and never will be an item that satisfies the mental template for gold 100 per cent. (So much for the accusation of circularity.)

Still, one could raise a question about how important it is for Anaxagoras that every quality be present in every sample. We have already established the principle that all qualities exist from the beginning, and no quality is created or destroyed. Why does it matter that every quality be instantiated everywhere (to some greater or lesser degree)?

Suppose that I have a lump of stuff that contains every quality except gold. Then, so far as this lump is concerned, gold *is not*. By Parmenides' principle (if we can call it that) there can be no portion or segment of reality however small in which F *is not*, for any quality F.

Given that responding to Parmenides is a 'hopeless' task, what this shows is that we can interpret Anaxagoras (as well as the other post-Eleatics) in terms of the extent to which they see something worth preserving in Parmenides' argument.

I agree with your assessment of Anaxagoras' introduction of Mind as 'ad hoc'. However, this counts as further evidence that he never really was concerned to 'respond' to Parmenides. It is more likely that he was taking a pragmatic view, offering a theory which included all the elements of the pre-Eleatic theories, but tightened up in order to present the smallest possible target for Parmenides' strictures.

Final point: I am aware that there could be a case for giving a more relaxed reading of Parmenides which would allow us to say that Anaxagoras *had* responded successfully. There is nothing wrong with pursuing this line, provided that one can find a way to reconcile the interpretation with what Parmenides actually says. (I can't see this, but I could be wrong.) Is Parmenides speaking literally or metaphorically when he describes his 'One'? Could Anaxagoras' theory count as a 'theory of the One'?

All the best,