Parmenides and non-Parmenides

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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26 Responses

  1. Avatar Keljeck
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    I have to wonder how much of Parmenides is one big joke. Like you mention, he opens up the poem with him riding on a chariot with a bunch of women, all these noises, and cheats his way past the gates to meet the Goddess. This does nothing but invalidate his philosophy.

    And moreso, at the end of the Aletheia we are told that all of reality is one big sphere. Which leads me to wonder how we could say that. Doesn’t a sphere require a border? How can all of reality border with the nothing which is not? It’s like it’s meant to break down. How much is serious, I don’t know, but I don’t think we are meant to agree with the conclusion.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Keljeck
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      Yeah, that might be true. Like you say, the fact that Being has limits seems to imply non-Being, even though he continually says there’s no such thing.

      Another thing, which obviously wasn’t intentional, is just how fragmentary it is. One of the fragments reads: “It is indifferent to me where I make a beginning; for there I come back again.” Proculus, who preserved it, thought that has to do with being. But it’s just such a small fragment that it could be about being, or a conversation, or a sphere, or Parmenides’ own voyage, or… really just about anything!

      But, indeed, it’s probably a problem that we have very little of the original poem and it already seems to be breaking down.Report

  2. Avatar Mr. Prosser
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    Oh, how I hate most philosophers!

    The long chains of reasonings, simple and easy, by which geometricians are wont to achieve their most complex proofs, had led me to suppose that all things, the knowledge of which man may achieve, are strung together in the same way, and that there is nothing so distant as ultimately to be beyond our mental grasp, or so hidden that we cannot uncover it, provided only we avoid accepting falsehoods as true, and always preserve in our thoughts the discipline essential for the deduction of one truth from another.

    –René Descartes, Le Discours de la méthode pt 2 (1637)(S.H. transl.)Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Mr. Prosser
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      says:

      I wonder if there’s not some sort of underlying difference of tastes with these things, because I know exactly what Descartes is talking about in terms of mathematics proceeding slowly and methodically through easily grasped proofs to more complex ones, but for me, that got to be sort of boring. I never had much trouble with it, but it didn’t really tie me in knots like philosophy does, and maybe that’s what I enjoy about philosophy. Even if Parmenides doesn’t quite work for me, I enjoy trying to think through what he must have been thinking to write this stuff down. With math, it’s much more straightforward: you learn the formulas and proofs and plug in the numbers. But sometimes I like things that are just totally bewildering.Report

      • Avatar Mr. Prosser in reply to Rufus
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        says:

        Unfortunately for me the very language is bewildering. I think it’s a lack of ability with words, not necessarily the concepts. I think I understand what he’s trying to say, it’s just so dense for me.Report

        • Avatar Rufus in reply to Mr. Prosser
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          Well, I’m sure it helps when you get someone better versed in philosophy to explain it. I’m really just starting with this stuff and part of the reason I’m reading the pro-Socratics is because, indeed,I’m often unsure just what Plato and the philosophers afterward are trying to say.Report

  3. Avatar Parmenides
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    says:

    The main thing to think about when looking at the pre socratics is how much of their language is built out of poetry. Rarely are they using words exactly as they seem. When a presocratic says that the world is made of water he’s not saying that the wet stuff that we drink is all that the world is made of. Instead the idea of water is what the world is made of. So when Parmenides says that being is a sphere he is more saying that being is a unity in that a sphere has a ratio of surface to volume of 1 to 1. Also, non being is all around being equidistant to the center of being. Zeno’s paradox’s are in part an attempt to defend parmenides by showing that other views are nonsensical.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Parmenides
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      says:

      So when Parmenides says that being is a sphere he is more saying that being is a unity in that a sphere has a ratio of surface to volume of 1 to 1

      A sphere has a ratio of surface to volume of r/3, no?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Parmenides
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      says:

      Yeah, maybe my mistake here was forgetting to look at this as poetic language. With Heraclitus I looked at the “fire” as both poetic and literal at once and that helped quite a bit. As I was falling asleep last night, I tried to think of Parmenides in the same way- not that there’s nothing outside of Being, but that this is a bit how perception represents things. That actually helped quite a bit and I also started seeing how many people after Parmenides were addressing the same problems.Report

  4. Avatar Paul B
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    says:

    It’s pretty astounding to think of how influential Parmenides was. His argument against change and for capital-B being being was truly revolutionary, and it pretty much derailed natural philosophy as everybody set to work solving the metaphysical problems he raised (Plato’s theory of the forms was a direct attempt to reconcile the world we see every day with Parmenides’ notion of the eternal, unchanging whole).

    The kicker, though, is that the whole problem of change arises because Parmenides has a fuzzy notion of the verb “to be,” sliding between existential and predicative usage (I think Charles Kahn is a good source on this, but it’s been a while). But since the presocratics had to invent philosophy with the language they already had, they didn’t really have a technical way of dealing with the root of the issue and sent philosophy on a 2000-year wild goose chase instead.Report

    • Avatar Paul B in reply to Paul B
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      says:

      To Parmenides credit, though, he had a non-pernicious influence on the development of mathematics.

      Serendipitously, most of the story is here: after scaring a few generations of mathematicians away from considering infinity, Zeno’s famous paradoxes eventually pushed Archimedes to develop a kind of proto-calculus. Not mentioned at the link, but notable here, is that Zeno developed his paradoxes to support Parmenides’ arguments against motion/change.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Paul B
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        says:

        Actually, an even better example than Heidegger (who I’m still not convinced isn’t basically full of it) is Henri Bergson, who wrote a really influential book called Time and Free Will in the late 1800s. That book is, essentially, an attempt to answer Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Paul B
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      says:

      That’s an important point about Plato. Parmenides’ discussion of Being also reminded me of the “existentialist” discussions following Heidegger, who definitely gets tied up in knots about what “to be” means. I’d have to read Kuhn to know how one actually gets out of those knots, but my sense of it is that Parmenides doesn’t exactly give us answers, but he poses some very important and profound questions, which I think is what philosophy is for. And, honestly, I’m not sure how to answer them, even though “to be” is such a basic term.Report

  5. Avatar sam
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    says:

    “On the other hand, think of all the things we can’t talk about. I can’t even tell you a story about Rufus at age five falling down and needing stitches because “Rufus at age five” is a being that “does not exist”. If you cut out everything that “does not exist” we can talk about very little.”

    Of course, if you free yourself from the idea that the meaning of a word is an object, these headaches go away.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to sam
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      says:

      That’s a great point and basically what I take away from Parmenides is just a reminder that, in very many conversations, we’re not discussing objects.Report

      • Avatar sam in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        Yeah, and this would take us far afield, but I thought when I was reading the Parmenides that the second part of the dialogue was about predication.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to sam
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          says:

          It’s so fragmentary though. It’s possible that he’s doing what Plato often does- giving us the views of other people before Socrates finally destroys them. We might just be missing that final attack on predication that the first section seems, to me, to promise. Or I could just be reading too much into it.Report

  6. Avatar sam
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    says:

    Oh, and I’d have to disagree with this, somewhat:

    “To Parmenides credit, though, he had a non-pernicious influence on the development of mathematics.”

    It was the Greek’s aversion to nonbeing, to not be able to talk about “what is not there,” that prevented them from embracing the zero. It was left to the Indians, specificially Buddhists — see, sunyata — to make the concept of zero respectable.Report

    • Avatar Paul B in reply to sam
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      says:

      It’s true that Parmenides contributed far more confusion than clarification (you can read an analytic sneer whenever I write “metaphysics”), but getting the ball rolling on infinite series is nothing to sneeze at.

      And for the record, Hellenistic astronomers did have zero at their disposal and used it in a system supposedly developed by Hippasus (who was also notable for proving the irrationality of ?2, which got him thrown overboard at sea by the Pythagoreans). It’s my understanding that this was a few centuries before Indian mathematicians completely formalized their understanding of zero.

      Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita contains a line almost straight out of Parmenides (2.16: “That which really is cannot go out of existence, just as that which is non-existent cannont come into being”). But unlike the Greeks, the Indians didn’t tie themselves in knots trying to solve this problem.Report

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