When Parmenides met Socrates

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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9 Responses

  1. Paul B says:

    I’ve never actually read the Parmenides, but isn’t it the source of the “Third Man” problem? It strikes me that Plato’s way out of that might have been to posit the form of the good (as discussed in the Republic), in which all the other forms partake and which give us access to the intelligible world. Maybe that’s not the case, but anyway the FoG always struck me as Plato’s way to collapse the forms back into Parmenides’ notion of being.

    And if this is it for the presocratics, I want to give a quick shout out to Anaxagoras/Empedocles/Democritus, who addressed Parmenides’ arguments by giving material/elemental/atomic accounts of the world without resorting to anything quite as silly as the forms. Which is just to say, the Greeks weren’t all so willfully obscure!Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, Yeah, I didn’t want to get into the problem yet, but it seems like his way out was to talk about a “receptacle” that all the forms partake in within the physical world. But I think he does get to that in The Republic. He never really answers the question here.

      The form of Good does work a bit like Being, doesn’t it? The problem with the Forms that Parmenides raises with Socrates, and he never really answers it (but he was young), is that you keep having to go up. Something is greater than Greatness, or like Likeness, and with Being, you can put a cap on the whole thing. I guess you’re right that Parmenides makes more sense that way.

      As for the other presocratics… I might just get to them next week. The main reason I moved on to Plato was just that the really good library I use is an hour away and I have to schedule my trips there! Plato I have on the shelf already.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, Anyway, what I should say is that I think you’re on to something about the form of the good being a way to collapse all the other forms into Being. I’m curious what the third man problem actually is though. There are a lot of problems posed in there and I can’t think of which one would apply.Report

      • Paul B in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, the Third Man argument has nothing to do with Orson Welles, alas.

        The “third man” terminology comes from Aristotle (which probably explains why you didn’t recognize it!), but I guess in the Parmenides it’s where they’re talking about largeness — something large would partake of the form of largeness, but because the form of largeness itself must be large there would then have to be another form of largeness in which it partakes along with all the other large things, and so on to infinity. There’s a good summary here:


        • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

          @Paul B, Ah, okay, I was thinking of it as the infinite regress problem. It seems like Plato should be able to get out of it by questioning the assumptions underlying it, as they point out in that article. Alas, he doesn’t in the Parmenides. It certainly doesn’t seem inescapable.

          I’m looking forward to reading more Aristotle. I haven’t read him since university and I keep encountering people who are very familiar with his stuff. It leads to Aristotle envy, of course.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Okay, I guess the issue I’m having with the third man problem, as they call it, is I can’t see why it has to be necessary. The Stanford article talks about Parmenides making the non-identity assumption: “No form is identical to anything that partakes of it.” That’s what I don’t get- why can’t the form of Largeness take part in itself? Of course, there’s one part at which Socrates says, basically, maybe we’re just talking about patterns that the mind recognizes in nature, and I thought, “Yeah, you think?!”Report

            • Paul B in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Leave it to Socrates bring the conversation back down to earth!

              But I think the non-identity assumption makes at least a little sense given the terms of the debate, since without it you wouldn’t have that absolute cleavage between the sensible and the real that Parmenides’ notion of being demands.

              What make less sense to me is the assumption of self-predication — what does it even mean to say that the form of largeness is itself large? If it’s large the same way that a mountain is large, we’re dragging it out of the realm of the intelligible and into the sensible. If it’s large in some purely intelligible way (say, as a set with a large number of elements), then we can surely find a larger form compared to which the form of largeness is small — which is something neither Parmenides nor Socrates allows. I suppose we could leave the forms incommensurate, but doesn’t that render the concept of largeness (along with self-predication) more or less meaningless?

              (We can get rid of these new-fangled reply tags when it’s a two-man conversation, right?)Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

                (Sure) You’re right about self-predication. I wondered why the form of largeness has to be large too, especially since it might just be mental and there probably isn’t a realm of forms outside of our minds.

                I think that what Parmenides and Socrates are fascinated by is something uncanny about the mind- we seem to know these things already. Even without teachers, we seem to come with instructions about symmetry, circles, largeness, and so forth. You don’t need to be told that two men have a common form. So, what’s really interesting to me- and what reminded me of Freddie and Jaybird, is the idea that Beauty and the Good work the same way. That they’re written on the heart as the Christians put it. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I often suspect that, were I born in a tribe with a totally different culture, I’d still have a sense of beauty and of goodness. Even given the relative differences, it’s hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t know that, say, saving a child trapped in a fire would be in line with Goodness.

                So, I’m impressed that they were getting at these things 2600 years or so ago. Also, of course, positing the reality of this mental realm makes is much easier to do math, as we’ve discussed. So, that’s a bonus.Report

        • miconian in reply to Paul B says:

          Are you sure that Welles wasn’t making a reference to Plato? Welles later worked on a dramatization of the cave allegory, demonstrating that he was comfortable with, and perhaps interested in, ancient Greek philosophy.Report