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In what sense was Parmenides a monist?


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In what sense was Parmenides a monist?
Date: 19th April 2011 12:17

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 7 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato module, in response to the question, 'In what sense was Parmenides a monist?'

You make the valid point that we are separated from Parmenides by 2500 years of cultural history, and also that the writings that have come down to us are merely fragments, copies of copies etc. There are serious and fundamental questions about how his words (in Ancient Greek) are to be translated. And so on. However, I think that there is a danger of making too much of this. The texts we have show a remarkable consistency and coherence. And while there is scope for competing interpretations, the differences are less significant then they might first appear. I will look closer at that question later.

But this isn't the main focus of the question you have been asked. The question of what kind of 'monist' Parmenides was, if any, isn't primarily a question about which interpretation of his philosophy you accept, but rather it is a question about *monism*. What is it to be a monist? According to your understanding of what monism is, how does Parmenides -- or how to the alternative interpretations of Parmenides -- measure up?

Consider a form of monism widely held today: material monism (or materialism). This is a view about the mind-body problem which rejects idealism and also rejects mind-body dualism. All that exists (at least, in a concrete sense if we leave out sets, numbers etc.) is 'material', or, more accurately the things described by physics.

Material monists face an obvious challenge: how to account for the phenomena of consciousness. There are various approaches, one of which is to characterize our beliefs about psychological states in terms of an error theory. This is known as 'eliminative materialism'. The challenge for eliminative materialists is to explain how it is, e.g., that Peter can worry about the pain in his left shoulder, even though in reality there does not a mental state of 'being worried' or 'feeling pain'. These are just words we use (in folk psychology) which gain any truth or validity they may have from facts about physical states.

Couldn't we say the same thing about Parmenides? The way of appearances in the second part of Parmenides' proem describes our pre-philosophical beliefs, and moreover does so in a way which goes one step further and accounts for them in terms of a rudimentary physical theory (as folk psychology accounts for our beliefs about our own and others' mental states). In other words, he recognizes the need to take account of the phenomena, even though, regrettably, the theory of the One offers no indication of how the phenomena are to be explained. In short, he can still be a strict monist.

But in what sense of 'monist'? Parmenides wasn't saying that everything is made of the same fundamental stuff or essence. His claim is that there are no 'things', no plurality. It actually doesn't matter whether you interpret the 'is' as 'exists' or in terms of predication ('is F' for some F). The crux of the argument, as you correctly note, is that any statement implying 'is not' cannot be true. So there is no change, no plurality, etc.

(One thing you miss is that according to Parmenides the One must be finite, because infinitude implies 'not' -- having no limit -- a point on which he disagreed with Melissus. This explains the image of a sphere, which you correctly interpret as being metaphorical rather than a literal description of the nature of reality.)

In some respects we might be tempted to compare Parmenides to 'block universe' theories of the 19th and 20th centuries such as McTaggart or Bradley, where time is an illusion. But these theories are not monisms in Parmenides' sense. The Absolute is one, but it is not just 'one'. It has an inner structure, albeit a structure which cannot be described using the normal apparatus of terms and relations which serve adequately for the description of the world of appearances.

So far as interpretation goes, I think the most interesting question concerns *what* is 'One' according to Parmenides. He was writing at a time when philosophers had put forward theories of appearance and reality, for example Anaximenes' theory that the entire world, all our variegated experience, can be accounted for in terms of condensation or rarefaction of a single basic material, 'air'. That's a kind of 'monism'. One can see Parmenides as taking the Milesians to task, 'You think you are describing the reality which accounts for appearances, but all you are really doing is talking about appearances.' Your primary substance fails the test for what is required to be 'real', because...'.

As with all the interpretations of Parmenides you will encounter, there are arguments for or against. If Parmenides is merely critiquing the One of Milesian cosmology, then the seemingly impossible task of saving appearances becomes somewhat easier. But you don't have to decide that question. It is sufficient to be able to say, 'IF that was Parmenides' view, then that would make him such-and-such a kind of monist.' What the examiner most wants to see is a discussion about the nature of monism, with arguments justifying your view that Parmenides was this or that kind of monist, depending on the interpretation.

All the best,