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Parmenides on the nature of reality


To: Cornell J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides on the nature of reality
Date: 21st April 2009 10:33

Dear Cornell,

Thank you for your email of 3 April, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'Parmenides on the Nature of Reality'.

This essay topic is an occasion for a trip down memory lane: Christmas/ New Year of 1972-3 when I spent a month labouring over an essay on Parmenides Way of Truth for my professor D.W. Hamlyn. It was my first year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck. Up until then, my work had not been spectacular. This time, I was determined to push the boat out.

For a month, I lived and breathed Parmenides. The big issue for me then -- as it is for commentators now -- was how seriously to take Parmenides' claim that there can be no statements concerning 'what is not', hence no statements which imply change, differentiation, temporal or spatial distinctions.

From what you say in your essay, it is difficult for me to discern exactly what your view is. Here are the alternatives: Either Parmenides is talking about Reality with a capital 'R', as distinct from what we know as 'the world' or 'what exists' in an empirical sense; or Parmenides is talking about the world, existence, anything that 'can be said' as such.

In my essay on Parmenides, I chose the latter horn of the dilemma. My conclusion, 'I really think Parmenides believed in his 'One'.' In other words, he isn't challenging us with a paradox (like Zeno), he isn't talking about two worlds, the 'real world' and the world of 'appearances' (like Plato). The 'Way of Opinion' is just that, an account of what human beings erroneously believe, and the kind of muddle-headed 'philosophy' one is led to if one accepts those beliefs. It is not a description of something which is 'true' or 'exists' in any sense. It is simply false.

This leaves a massive problem of 'accounting for the phenomena'. If time is 'unreal', then how is one to account for the fact that it 'appears' to us that there are events in time? If there is no differentiation of any kind, then how does one explain the given reality of our differentiated experience? Parmenides leaves no clue.

What about the first horn of the dilemma? In your first three paragraphs, you seem to be veering in this direction, but you don't follow this up or draw the conclusions that one would be expected to draw.

The Milesians (sic) distinguished between the world as we perceive it (trees, houses, men, animals etc.) and the One of which everything is composed, the 'arche' -- water, or air, or the 'apeiron'. Parmenides is responding dialectically to these theories, arguing that the One cannot be anything *specific*. If the One is water, as Thales believed, then it *is not* fire. But that which 'is' in a pre-eminent sense, the ultimately real, cannot be 'not'.

Then what about Anaximander's 'apeiron'? wouldn't that do? It passes the test of not having one quality 'rather than' another. But it fails for a more profound reason: the very definition of 'apeiron' is 'a peiras', *not* having a limit.

On this deflationary interpretation, Parmenides comes over as a mere sceptic about physics as an attempt to describe reality. Any theory that we put forward can only concern appearances, not what 'is'. You can still have physics (such as the theory of 'night and light' described in the 'Way of Opinion'). But physics isn't a description of reality. (At the risk of anachronism, physics isn't metaphysics.) When you probe the world of appearances and formulate theories or 'inferences to the best explanation', you just get more appearances.

It would be nice if this were correct: Parmenides would be seen as the forerunner of the great metaphysical systems -- e.g. Spinoza (who you mention) or, even better, Kant (the theory of phenomena and noumena). But I don't buy it.

(One clue you give that you are not convinced by the deflationary interpretation is that you accept that 'It' refers to 'any object of inquiry', rather than more specifically, the 'one' or 'arche' of the Milesians. Unless of course one reads 'inquiry' in a very narrow sense, as 'philosophic' or 'metaphysical' inquiry, precisely the kind which searches out what is ultimately 'real'.)

The only remaining question -- assuming that we are not persuaded by Parmenides deduction of 'It is' -- is where he 'goes wrong', diagnosing the logical fallacy. In the unit I tried to show how the prohibition against saying 'what is not' is not as crazy as it seems. There is a genuine philosophical problem concerning the nature of negation which I think Parmenides is onto. Only he doesn't solve the problem; he merely succeeds in highlighting it.

If you can't make philosophical sense of negation, then the only conclusion is that nothing can be said, other than 'It is'.

Some years later, Hamlyn made a comment in response to something I had written (an early draft of 'Naive Metaphysics') which was very revealing. He couldn't help thinking that sometimes I took Plato's injunction to 'follow the argument wherever it may lead' beyond reasonable limits, i.e. the point where most people would say, 'There must be something wrong with the argument.' But what I admired so much about Parmenides was precisely that he refused to take this easy way out.

All the best,


P.S. You asked me about Logic. I have looked at Copi's 'Introduction to Logic' which you mentioned. It is a big book which has the virtue of emphasizing the role of logic in evaluating the validity of arguments in ordinary language. The book which was used for some years at Sheffield is 'Languages of Logic' by Samuel Guttenplan, which would be useful if you want more insight into systems of symbolic logic. The book I used as an undergraduate was E.J. Lemmon 'Beginning Logic' which goes one step further and gets you proving long theorems in symbolic logic -- good if you have a taste for maths. On infinity, see the excellent book by Adrian Moore 'The Infinite' (Routledge).