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Does Anaxagoras have a good response to Parmenides?


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Anaxagoras have a good response to Parmenides?
Date: 24th November 2009 12:11

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato module, in response to the question, 'Assess whether Anaxagoras has a good response to Parmenides.'

The main challenge of this essay question is to give plausible views of Parmenides and Anaxagoras, which represents Anaxagoras as giving a decent response to Parmenides (which succeeds, or nearly succeeds, or fails but in an interesting way). In other words, as an interpreter you are called upon to use the 'principle of charity' twice, or possibly three times: once for each philosopher, and once for their 'debate'.

As you point out, one difficulty is that Anaxagoras never mentions Parmenides or his argument (as indeed do none of those who are represented as 'responding' to him) which makes the whole exercise even more conjectural.

First big question: Is Parmenides responding to the Milesians, and if so in what way? That the 'One' is the one of Milesian cosmology has been debated by interpreters. My view for what it's worth is that the beauty of Parmenides' argument is that it doesn't matter what you take 'it' to refer to. Take any x, and the argument applies. Similarly, it doesn't matter whether you take 'is' to be the 'is' of existence or predication. The only thing that is assumed is that we are discoursing about Reality, with a capital 'R' just as the Milesians intended to do. Hence the distinction between the 'way of truth' and the 'way of appearance'.

What Parmenides felt, rightly or wrongly, is that when you are dealing with Reality, there is a basic problem with the very idea of negation. How can Reality be 'not' anything? His solution is simple and drastic. No truth can be asserted of Reality which has the logical implication that something is 'not'. In the proem, Parmenides is quite explicit about the consequences of this austere view.

How does Anaxagoras respond to this? I think an examiner would feel that a major fault of your essay is that you don't give an account of Anaxagoras' view of 'basic things which neither came into nor went out of existence' which is sufficient to distinguish Anaxagoras from Empedocles. As you know, according to Empedocles, there are four such 'things', Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Why have more? What real or imaginary objection is Anaxagoras responding to, when he says that (apparently) every quality that we are able to distinguish -- e.g. bread, hair, gold, flesh -- is such a 'basic substance'?

Empedocles tried to 'accommodate' change by 'ascribing all change to rearrangement of basic things'. His view allows qualities to come into existence (as we would observe salty white crystals coming into existence from sodium and chlorine). In asserting that there is a 'portion of everything in everything' Anaxagoras is seeking the only possible alternative to such a compositional view of the world of appearance. Salt is the substance in which the salty quality predominates, and the same for gold, flesh etc.

You remark that Anaxagoras was 'the first to correctly grasp the notion of infinite divisibility', but it is much more than this. His solution depends on the fact that there is no smallest entity in fact (and not merely in conception, as one can infinitely divide in thought a Democritean atom).

I like the fractal idea: this is a good analogy insofar as things are complex all the way down (to infinity). However, there is no suggestion in Anaxagoras of anything corresponding to our idea of 'structure' (or as commentators have attributed to Empedocles -- Aristotle's 'bricks and mortar' analogy). Instead, the case is more like the idea of different concentrations of a gas or liquid. You can keep on halving the amount of gold in a given volume of flesh but never remove it entirely.

Parmenides' response to Anaxagoras (or Empedocles) is, or ought to be, that any theory which requires locomotion fails by his strict logic. To say that x, which is was at point A, is now at point B, implies that x 'is not' (at point A). However, Anaxagoras scores higher than Empedocles because at least he recognizes that flesh, gold or hair cannot come to be when previously they were 'not'.

On second thoughts: if there are no 'things' to be 'located', would that mean that in reality nothing 'moves'? We see 'movement' in the 'soup' which constitutes reality, but that is just like observing the movement of shadows or light beams.

However, even if Anaxagoras escapes the criticism which fairly targets Empedocles, there remains the fact that if you take any given location, there will 'be' different concentrations of basic stuffs at different times. In which case, at time t there is more gold than flesh, and at time t+1 there is more flesh than gold, i.e. it is not the case that there is more gold than flesh.

The only question remains whether Anaxagoras' failure is an interesting failure or not. What do you think? Is there anything worth preserving or respecting in Parmenides' original insight?

An examiner would place a big 'R' (for relevance) next to the parts where you go on to talk about Socrates in the Phaedo, as well as Anaxagoras' view that Nous has a key role in the world. (Regarding your final remark, this begs the question why Democritus and Leucippus failed to get natural philosophy 'back on the rails'.)

All the best,