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Topic #A6 –

Parmenides

 

21 September, 2001

Scribes: Jane Sigen and Charles Trapunski

 

These minutes were spoken on 24 September; for a different version,

go to the unspoken minutes

 

 

     Prof.  Hutchinson announced that, with Parmenides, we break through to a new phase in the course.  This author is a serious scholar.  His work, expressed in a poem of which the title is now lost, takes into account everything we have covered to date.  We can see echoes of Pythagoras and the knowledge of the Milesians

     Parmenides grew up in west Greece (now southern Italy), where Pythagoras settled.  There is no evidence of his travel to Ionia, the source of the Milesian work.  Therefore books were available or travellers such as Xenophanes carried the information to him.

     This work presents the first example of synthesis, a marrying of Pythagorean and Milesian thought.  Like many syntheses, the sum is greater than the parts.  Parmenides incorporates a wide range of material and makes progress to new, more profound levels. 

     We have more actual text from Parmenides than from the earlier philosophers.  We are still missing more than half of the work but have major fragments.  We can than the scrupulous scholarly work of Simplicius for this.  When commenting on Parmenides’ philosophy 1,000 years later, Simplicius realized that, for the sake of his readers, he should include direct quotes of the work as the books were rare, even then.  Parmenides wrote his poem in Homeric hexameter.  It is obvious to a scholar of ancient Greek that the quotes are accurate, word for word.  Although archaic, overly serious, even flat-footed compared with Homer, the fragments are authentic.

     The poem has a strange structure.  It opens with an unknown person going on a weird trip, see Fragment 1, lines 1 to 14 page 56.  This person gets into the presence of the goddess who welcomes him and sets out his goal: he must learn ultimate truth.  The rest of the first part of the poem, the proem, is the goddess revealing esoteric truths about reality.  The structure suggests Parmenides is drawing on the old stories of the gods, they might hold the key.  He uses images of light and dark, day and night; alternation is the manifestation of Justice.

     Compare the above with Anaximander and Heraclites.  Night and day are central ideas that form the cosmology of the second part of the poem.  Testimonia 2 is evidence, such as it is, of this cosmology and it seems to be classical Milesian.  However, Parmenides called the second part the Way of Opinion, or the Way of Not-Being.  The first part he called the Way of Truth.  Thus there is tension between the argument of the first part – we can only know what is and the cosmology of the second where Parmenides goes on to talk about illusions.  The first part undermines the second but presents what become classic problems which all scholars have to address.

     Professor Hutchinson presented three different opinions, he agrees with the third:

1.   The second part is an extended joke.  The first part states that only what-is can be known and is true reality.  It presupposes no possibility of knowledge of what-is-not.  Therefore the cosmology is laughable.  The support for this is the words of the goddess (F1 lines 28 – 30):

                                You must learn everything—

Both the steady heart of well-rounded truth,

And the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.

 2.  The cosmology of the second part is the best account presently available of how the world came to be.  It not only contradicts the first part but it is radically a failure because things that are not cannot function.

3.   The second part is a working hypothesis, always provisional and short of real knowledge as disclosed in the proem.  The cosmology cannot be called knowledge, only opinion.  It is the best we can find out but fails majestically to explain. 

The advantage of the third view is shown in the way Plato structures his cosmology in the same way.  For example in Timaeus he works from the general to the particular in the areas of physiology, child rearing, embryology.  Plato strongly believed Parmenides in that cosmology cannot aspire to truth, it falls short of knowledge.

     Professor Hutchinson then reviewed the cosmology of the second part starting with Testimonia 2, an excellent commentary on Parmenides by Plutarch. 

Actually, Parmenides has not done away with fire and water and crags and the settlements of Europe and Asia …

…[he is in] the true fashion of a scientist of old who is developing his own theory, rather than criticising someone else’s, he covers every issue of importance.

Parmenides provides the standard contents of Milesian cosmology and gives his understanding.  For example,

     F10 is clearly on the Milesian list of origin questions. 

     F13 provides astronomical context: between night and fire is the goddess Aphrodite who brings together male and female.  This echoes the Pythagorean tradition – the goddess of Love controls the cosmic system. 

     T8 is theoretical astronomy;

     T9 is important to the history of astronomy (Parmenides was the first to identify the morning star, which was in fact the same as the evening star: Venus.)

     T10 is geography, showing zones of the world;

     F17 is embryology: a child is male or female depending on the side of the uterus it resides in.  (It is only a theory!)

T11 discusses menstruation, a significant part of humanity, and states that this is why women are warmer than men.

All of the topics here, Parmenides wanted us to believe only as his opinion.

     Continuing these opinions, F18 provides a physical explanation for perception and thought.  On the whole, Parmenides did not go into this with any clarity, but only said that there were two elements and that knowledge is due to one of them being in excess of the other.” Human bodies flow and change in gross and subtle ways leading us to believe that such and such is real.  We convince ourselves things are real and true.  Thus Parmenides’s large cosmology is elegant, it explains not only knowledge, but also why we think it is knowledge.

     The cosmology, preceded by the methodological reflection, attracts much study and is an inspiration to later philosophers.  Parmenides is seen as a hero of the mind, finding deep esoteric truth, a mental traveller who does not take opinion for knowledge but bases conclusion on rigorous argument.  He determines there is no such thing as change, no coming into being or going out.  He puts all his chips in one boat.  He can be criticised but do not ignore the reasoning just because you don’t like his conclusion.

     Prof.  Hutchinson then read from a student’s position paper, including this remark: “I was amazed with the clarity and strength with which Parmenides presented his argument, but upon inspection there were a few qualms I found with this philosophy.  I felt that he did not do a sufficient job establishing that there can be no such thing as nothing, but rather that this fact was simply assumed.”

     The following epistemological questions face the next generation of ancient philosophers.  Why sign up for the logic camp?  Why prefer mental over perceptual media?  How can I prove there is no such thing as nothing?  Of course there are many solutions.  For the Epicureans the world is full of nothing, for many the cosmos is a mixture of something and nothing, for some, Aristotle for example, there is no such thing as a void.  Physics at different times was conditioned by these understandings.

     As a starting point to “What is knowledge?”  Prof.  Hutchinson suggested we look at what we grasp about an object of thought.  If thought is true then the object is true.  All thought presupposes a relationship between the thinker and the object.  Thus the object has to be there to be in the relationship.  Therefore we cannot have a relationship with a non-existent thing.  A non-existent thing cannot be an object of knowledge, just of opinion.  The constraints are not metaphysical but epistemological, what must be in the relationship.  If true it must always be true.  Therefore there is no knowledge of the non-existent.  Thus the world we see, which does change, at time is non-existent (for example one can think of a child not yet conceived) but counts only as opinion, not knowledge.  The only thing that can ground knowledge is a thing that always is, that has permanent existence.

     Parmenides was the first true genius, he changed the landscape.  Zeno, Empedocles and later philosophers were all responding to his line of thought.