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Topic #D37


Plato, Parmenides


3 December 2001
Scribe: Zoë Nudell


These minutes were spoken on 7 December; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


The Parmenides expresses Plato’s interest in the student teacher relationship.  Here Socrates is the student but Plato shows Parmenides and Zeno respect him and appreciate that this live wire is interested in them.  This is perhaps analogous to what Plato felt when the seventeen-year-old Aristotle searched him out despite his sixty years.  Though it is not the Aristotle who speaks in this dialogue, Plato’s use of the name “Aristotle” is not a coincidence.  By giving this name to the student who pumps iron, and dares to enter the ring with venerable Parmenides, Plato refers to his Aristotle who definitely dared to engage him


              In fact, Aristotle was known in the ancient world as “the foal” because a foal sucks milk from the mare, and then turns and kicks her.  Aristotle sucked all that he knew from Plato for twenty years and then tore his philosophy apart, especially his original material - the general forms.  Aristotle admits in NE I.6 the misfortune that the wierdos who invented this useless hypothesis are his friends but nonetheless proceeds, in the name of truth, to take it apart. 


              The Parmenides is complex in terms of literary structure as well as content. There are four levels of people telling people what went on.  Furthermore, Parmenides, not Socrates, is Plato’s spokesman, and yet Socrates introduces the idea of the forms.  The young geniuses, Aristotle and Socrates, must pump intellectual iron and master the conceptual structure of being if they are to refute Parmenides’ criticisms.  Plato both critiques and defends his philosophy but he also makes a point of sincerely appreciating Zeno and Parmenides.


              For example, though many have expressed the difficulties in postulating either that things are one or that things are many, Plato separates Parmenides out from the rest of the ‘swirling materialist relativist crowd’ (Theaetetus 152d+).  Hence, in this discussion of oneness and separateness, we have the good guys sorting out the real truth.  To show us these difficulties the professor launched into the middle of Parmenides’ discussion of largeness and smallness as “things in themselves” which spirals into a confusing plethora of di-, tri-, and quadri-lemmatic arguments.  The arguments in this dialogue can be mapped out.  However, one is always having to ask “where have we been, where are we coming from, and where are we going?”  Tracing elaborate conceptual connections creates road after road of possibilities, all dead-ending, until by elimination we come to a more concrete understanding.  This kind of conceptual geometry is extremely difficult and if we don’t have a high degree of skill we will be incapable of it.  First we must grasp the “leading concepts”.


              To help us through the abstract territory we are in, Professor Hutchinson decided to make up this name “leading concepts” for the category of things that we are attempting to get our heads around.  At 130b Socrates outlines these “leading concepts” and their antithesis.  He says there are forms and they are separate from the things that participate in them.  However some things have no form.  Certainly there are forms of the good, just, beautiful, etc..  He is unsure whether there are forms for humans and the elements, earth, air, fire, water.  There are no forms for hair and mud and other things we touch with our hands. 


              Acres of forest have been felled for useless scholarly books and articles about the form of my cat and my mother; but these are all irrelevant if we see that Plato has always thought that the forms are only existent for highly conceptual things: just, good, being, not being, motion, rest, like and unlike.  These are the leading concepts and we can’t understand or deal with anything else until we have a grasp of them.  We are gifted at birth with memories of these leading concepts.  However, questions about how many there are and how they relate to each other get weird and difficult.  For example, how do we discuss leading concepts being numerous and therefore different from each other if difference itself is a leading concept?  Nonetheless, Parmenides asserts at 135b that some version of this theory of the separateness of forms must be true or all thought and dialectic becomes impossible.  Things exist in order to be known and hence, must in some part be the same; equality is spread across things that are different. 


The main concepts we must tackle are discussed at 136a.  Any metaphysical discussion of motion, rest, being, not being and so on has a unifying quality – the necessity of assuming being as such.  Not, that is, being as a human, a rock, or being ready for dinner.  Plato believes this esoteric enquiry into metaphysics is useful; Aristotle did not think so. 


At 136d Zeno eggs on Parmenides in a very odd way to undertake the mental gymnastics of such an enquiry.  Parmenides is likened to an erotic poet, an old man trying to make it in the eyes of a luscious young morsel.  A man in this situation is likened to an aged thoroughbred stud who used to win all the races but now trembles at the prospect of an inability to ‘perform’, especially in front of a crowd.  Perhaps the fact that Zeno himself was rumored to be Parmenides’ cute boyfriend explains the dry sexual undertones of his depiction of Parmenides.  


So what’s wrong with the forms?  They were never fully explained but the version of the thesis that runs into trouble insists on separation; there are forms up in the other realm versus things here in this world.  A student asked why separateness is a problem.  It is a problem because unless the forms are separate from their objects Parmenides’ claims have no hold.  However this is not a flippant retort as it is quite difficult to imagine a relationship without separation.  Hence some kind of relationship must exist along the lines of separation but more sophisticated.  Parmenides challenges Socrates’ youthful, untrained eagerness accusing him of oversimplifying the relationship.  Socrates puts forward the analogy of a day as something which encompasses the type of relationship he means; it is both one and shared by all, nothing is taken away from it and it is not divided into parts by the sharing - it remains unchanged.  Parmenides replaces Socrates’ analogy with the problematic sail analogy and refutes Socrates’ example.  However, a student pointed out that Socrates’ analogy is not problematic, Parmenides’ is; and yet Parmenides makes this substitution, discards Socrates’ analogy and then says it’s Socrates who has made the mistake!  Perhaps Plato wants the alert reader to catch onto this fact.


There are five more criticisms.  Much ink has been spilled on one called “the third man” which relates to the idea that once you create this likeness relationship between things and forms “ a fresh form will never cease emerging.” (133a) After class it was decided that if the forms which never cease emerging are understood as equal to the form and not just similar to it, there is still only one form and hence, there is no problem.  Again, perhaps this is the conclusion that Plato wishes us to come to on our own. 


The main criticism is that the forms are unknowable.  They are unknowable because knowledge is a relationship and concepts of relationship are inextricably tied to issues of not being.  Plato was convinced that a new definition of negation was necessary in order to come to a better understanding of truth and falsehood.  In fact, one can’t verify any hypothesis unless one first understands negation, including and especially the meaning of negation itself (this is a topic taken up in Plato’s Sophist).  For example, a student asked if evil was explained negatively by Plato as not good.  However, can one negatively explain something if the meaning of negation is not defined?