Tuesday 1 May 2007

The Mystery of the Parmenides (2007)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXV No. 1 Spring 2007

Head from a squared stone pillar with a carved head on top discovered at an excavation in Velia in 1966. The pillar had been discovered in 1962, with the inscription ‘Parmenides the son of Pyres the natural philosopher’, however it is unlikely that the sculptor knew what Parmenides looked like. Instead, it is believed that this portrait is actually based on the bust of the Epicurean philosopher, Metrodorus.

By Kelsey Wood

There is an old joke that many philosophers must have heard: If metaphysics tries to understand existence as Existence, and the theory of knowledge tries to understand knowing as Knowing, then metaphilosophy is the effort to understand a as A.

What should we understand by ‘metaphilosophy’? One way to put it is that metaphilosophy questions our ability to understand anything as it is in itself, apart from particular examples of that thing in particular situations. In other words, metaphilosophy is philosophy as the critique of philosophy itself. Critical philosophy, or metaphilosophy, tries to understand our ability to comprehend truth as such; in short, metaphilosophy probes the boundaries of philosophy.

And this is why Plato’s Parmenides has been something of a mystery for scholars for centuries. Scores of interpretations have been published by commentators who cannot seem to come to agreement about the meaning of this dialogue. The Parmenides dialogue remains a mystery because both traditional Plato scholars as well as hostile critics of so-called 'Platonism' have been misreading the dialogue at least since Aristotle. My argument (set out more fully in a book, Troubling Play (SUNY Press, 2005) is that both Platonists and hostile critics of Platonism have missed the full significance of Plato’s dialogues all along. Plato's Parmenides is neither metaphysics nor yet epistemology; it is metaphilosophy; a critique of philosophy. It is not a theory of reality or a theory of knowledge. In the Parmenides, Plato is asking the question, ‘What is philosophy really capable of?’ He is not simply dealing with how we know, or what we mean when we say that something exists. More fundamentally, he is asking: ‘How does truth happen; how is truth at all possible?’

Parmenides is not the only Platonic dialogue that questions the very nature of philosophy and of thinking as such: in fact, this ‘metaphilosophical’ question is one of Plato’s primary themes, a theme addressed in many other of his dialogues, including Meno, Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, and Republic, among others.

This long-standing tendency of scholars to misread Plato’s Parmenides is why the dialogue remains controversial to this day. But why does the Parmenides remain so fascinating to readers of Plato? The fascination is due, in part, to the fact that this dialogue represents the initiation into philosophy of Plato’s teacher Socrates by the legendary Parmenides of Elea. In addition, Parmenides is one of Plato's most carefully-crafted works, and yet it seems to be thoroughly contradictory. Significantly, in this dialogue Plato undermines the (allegedly) Platonic metaphysics, or theory of reality: the so-called ‘theory’ of Forms. This is why I argue that both hostile critics of Plato and traditional Platonists have been misinterpreting Plato for centuries, because Plato himself insists in his later dialogues - such as Parmenides - that there is no ‘theory’ of forms. Plato's Parmenides demonstrates decisively that if the Idea or Form existed separately, apart from human experience, then both sense perceptions and Ideas would be utterly unintelligible.

Now, it is true that from early on in Plato}s thinking, the notion of Form indicates the sameness - the identity - that gives a variety of things in our experience their intelligibility. This means that it is by the Idea or Form of humanity we recognise any person we see to be a human being, in spite of variations in appearance between newborns, adults, the very old, or people with disfiguring diseases, etc. In other words, Plato’s term, Idea or Form, refers to the understandability of experience.

But it is important to realise that Plato wrote conversations - dialogues that question our assumptions and biases - not treatises that provide answers. It is of vital importance to recognise too that Plato’s dialogues - especially later works like Parmenides - when examined closely, do not contain any consistent and comprehensive theory. Instead, what dialogues like Parmenides do is precisely the opposite of this: they show why there cannot be any consistent and comprehensive account or theory of truth or knowing or existence. The Parmenides shows why any philosophy, any theory, any political science, or any ideology, is inherently and irreducibly incomplete and inconsistent. In short, this dialogue is metaphilosophy: it is thinking as the testing, criticism of, and often rejection of a remarkable variety of hypotheses and theories.

Plato’s dialogues are conversations that raise questions and then transform these questions into better questions. Plato’s figure of Parmenides teaches Socrates the art of questioning some of our most fundamental assumptions. We participate fully in this activity only when we are shaken by some vital question to the point that we realise, like Socrates, that paradoxically, there is a sense in which we really know nothing. The Platonic pursuit of wisdom is propelled by persistent social critique and self-examination, carried to the point of intellectual crisis as the apprehension of irreducible paradox.

Now, let me set the stage. As is well-known, the earliest Greek philosophers believed that there must be some one thing or element or principle behind all the things we perceive around us in this world. The name for this belief or theory is monism. The English word monism derives from one of the ancient Greek words for a unitary abiding existence, in short, the One. As a theory of reality, monism involves the belief that everything that exists is unified, that all beings are in some way essentially one. Perhaps the main thing that distinguishes the earliest Greek philosophers is how they variously describe this abiding, ultimate existence or substance that lies behind all the appearances in nature that we perceive with our sense organs.

One of the earliest Greek philosophers we know anything about is Thales, who lived on the Western coast of what is today Turkey. Thales claimed that all things are essentially one, and that this unifying substratum is water. No doubt Thales and his predecessors arrived at their belief in monism through some process of reasoning like the following. In nature we observe things changing. For example, a goat eats grass, and the grass is transformed through digestion into the goat's body and then the goat's waste products are excreted. In short, one type of existence - grass - is transformed into another kind of existence: goat. Then when humans roast and eat the goat, its flesh is again transformed, this time into human flesh and energy.

But the process of changing grass into goat (when the goat eats and digests) does not take forever, otherwise the goat would starve no matter how much grass it ate. Similarly, the process of changing goat meat into human flesh and energy does not take an infinite amount of time, otherwise we would starve no matter how much meat we ate. So - and this is the important bit - one being is transformed into another in a definite and limited time. Now it is well-known among scholars of ancient philosophy that Greek thinkers in general were uncomfortable with the notion of an actually-existing ‘infinity’. Unlike some modern philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, the Greek thinkers in general thought it unreasonable to assume that an infinite thing or process or event could exist or happen or be understood. So no doubt it seemed unreasonable to Thales and his colleagues and pupils that a process - such as digestion - could be an infinite process that occurs in a definite, finite time period. Even if an infinite process were possible, why should we believe that it could be completed in a finite time?

So monism, the belief in an underlying unity, is an attempt to avoid the looming shadow of the infinite regress, epitomised by Zeno's paradoxes..

Let me mention another of the many Greek philosophers before Plato, whose work is relevant to our effort to understand the main point of Plato’s dialogue. Like Thales, Anaximander was also a monist: in other words, he believed that all things are essentially unified by some primordial ‘something’ that underlies all the beings and processes we observe in nature. But unlike Thales, Anaximander argued that water is just one element in our experience among other elements, such as fire, earth, and air. Now if - as Thales argued - water is the underlying substance of everything we perceive, then water is the substance of fire. But if that were the case, then why does fire make a little water evaporate? And why does a lot of water put fire out? If water were the substance of fire, it seems reasonable to believe that adding it to fire would increase and not decrease the flames.

So although Anaximander agreed with Thales that all things are one, that there must be some single, universal that underlies all the changes we observe; unlike Thales, Anaximander argued that this oneness - this universal substratum or element - is not like any of the particular things or elements that we observe with our sense organs in everyday experience. Anaximander, like Thales, was a monist, but he claimed that the hidden oneness beneath all things is not definable; it is sheer indefiniteness. Only things in our experience are definable and understandable: we can understand and talk meaningfully about any one thing or event in our experience. A dog, for example, is a mammal, though of a different species than a cat or a cow, etc.

So, to summarise the implications of Anaximander’s view of the unity of all things: only particular ones in our experience are understandable. The big One - the universal underlying element or substratum that unifies all the particular things in our experience - of this we can have no perception and no knowledge. It is reasonable to believe that it exists, but it exists beneath or beyond the realm of the definite and definable particular things in our experience. For Anaximander, the big One, in itself or as itself, is utterly indefinable. Anaximander's word for it is apeiron, and he uses this word apeiron to mean something that is indefinite and without definable, limiting features.

Perceptions and thoughts may be definite, but the underlying origin or cause of what is definite, this hidden origin is utterly indefinite and indefinable. In a sense, apeiron is a name for nothing; the word simply points toward the boundary of sense perceptions and the inherent limit of the names and concepts we use to talk about experiences. 

Plato's Parmenides remains fascinating and controversial because it demonstrates decisively that Plato was no Platonist.

Now we are ready to begin understanding the main point of Plato's Parmenides, because just seventeen lines into Parmenides' lesson for young Socrates, Parmenides claims that the One considered in itself alone is apeiron (see Parmenides, 137d). Plato's use of Anaximander’s term near the outset of Parmenides' training of Socrates is significant, because beginning in the initial philosophical exchanges, and throughout the dialogue, Plato's figure of Parmenides disputes Socrates’ claim that Form exists apart from human experience and apart from other Forms.

Here is something that Plato’s character of Parmenides says in the introductory section of this dialogue that bears his name: ‘Do you see, Socrates, how great the impasse is if we distinguish a Form as a separate entity in itself?’ (133b). It is important to realise, though, that in what follows Parmenides does not entirely reject the notion of the intelligible Ideas; rather, he refines Socrates' initial, naive conception of form. Parmenides suggests that denying the possibility of intelligible experience is like engaging in dialogue and then claiming that dialogue is impossible. He says:
Yet on the other hand, Socrates, if someone, having an eye on the difficulties we have just brought up and others of the same sort, won't allow that there are Forms for things and won't mark off an Idea for each, he won't have anywhere to turn his thought, since he doesn't allow that for each thing there is a character that is always the same. But this would utterly destroy the possibility of dialogue. (135b-c)
The Idea or Form then, is whatever it is that allows us to learn from experience, and to communicate what we have learned to others. Consequently, if we say that there is no Form, we are attempting to communicate the impossibility of communication.

But in spite of his (qualified) approval of the notion of form, in the remainder of the dialogue, Parmenides repeatedly demonstrates for Socrates why Forms cannot exist apart from one another and from sensible things: in short, if an intelligible Idea existed separately - as an entity in itself - it would be utterly unintelligible. So, to decisively answer a couple of our initial questions, Plato's Parmenides remains fascinating and controversial because it demonstrates decisively that Plato was no Platonist.

Evidence indicates that the Parmenides dialogue was probably written around the time Aristotle joined Plato's academy (c. 367 B.C.E.). This is noteworthy because Plato’s own critique of the  ‘Theory’ of Forms in his Parmenides is far more rigorous and thorough than Aristotle’s later criticisms. From Aristotle onwards, hostile critics of Plato have accused Plato of maintaining an impossible theory of Forms: impossible because if Ideas existed separately from our experience, then they would be completely unknowable. But Plato’s Parmenides had already demonstrated this. In fact, the arguments these critics use to attack Plato are usually taken from his dialogue.

To see that such critiques of Plato are misguided, all we have to do is to recognise the fact that in the majority of the dialogues attributed to him, Plato does philosophy as metaphilosophy. The Platonic quest for the truth does not involve any ultimate, overarching theory at all; Plato’s way of truth is the relentless testing and critique of a remarkable variety of hypotheses, and by implication, of theory itself. This is why, in his dialogue, Plato also depicts - long after the historical figure was dead - his character of Parmenides re-evaluating his own hypothesis on the One-Being. Plato is urging that even the legendary and revered Parmenides practiced philosophy as the ‘Socratic’ critique of knowing, as the testing of the limits of reason itself.

In the main body of the dialogue, his character of Parmenides investigates the existence and non-existence of the One, or unity. Plato portrays Socrates being initiated into philosophical self-examination - by the revered Parmenides - who practices philosophy as the testing of one's own hypotheses. Thus reductio ad absurdum and refutation constitute the mode of training that Parmenides demonstrates for Socrates, reducing to absurdity a remarkable variety of hypotheses about existence, including his own claim that the experience of any thing implies the oneness or unity of that thing.

In the process, irreducible ambiguities that accompany claims to truth are disclosed: Parmenides reveals a dimension of 'productive ambiguity' in truth or disclosure. By productive ambiguity, I refer to Parmenides’ repeated demonstrations that meaning is use in a context. But because the intended uses of language vary, and because the context differs at least in some way in every use of language, there is ambiguity associated with every moment of insight, every communication, every Idea. This is precisely why Parmenides in Plato’s dialogue describes his method as a ‘troubling play’: the aim of this dialogue is to reinterpret the Parmenidean One-Being in terms of Plato’s own notion of intelligible Form. In this dialogue, Plato's figure of the legendary Parmenides demonstrates for Socrates that the Idea is the one-in-many that unifies sense perceptions with the concepts of reason and language.

This becomes clear in the main part of the dialogue (from 137c-166c), where Parmenides demonstrates the style of inquiry that he describes as troubling play. This style or method involves alternating between empirical and non-empirical orientations in a provocative way: in other words, Parmenides intentionally juxtaposes things that are true of sense perceptions with things that are true of Ideas, in an effort to provoke Socrates to better understand the distinction between immaterial Ideas and material things. Parmenides states that only if Socrates perfects this oppositional mode of investigation, will he apprehend truth (136c5-7). Parmenides describes this manner of alternation as follows: 
You must examine the consequences for the thing you hypothesize in relation to itself and in relation to each of the others, whichever you select, and in relation to several of them and to all of them in the same way; and you must examine the others, both in relation to themselves and in relation to whatever other thing you select, whether what you hypothesise is assumed to exist or not exist (136b-c). 
Parmenides discloses absurdities implicit to Socrates’ claim that Form exists separately - in itself - apart from our experience. Then Parmenides reorients the beginning philosopher by indicating irreducible ambiguities that accompany any insight or successful communication. Recognition of such ambiguities in truth itself is the first step beyond conceptual deadlock. Conceptual deadlock, or impasse, is the result of the belief that there is only one mode of truth.

Again, the main point of Plato’s Parmenides is to indicate that no term, or statement, or thought, means anything in itself, apart from its context. This is why, in this dialogue, Plato's figure of Parmenides plays language games that unexpectedly shift between contexts. The implication is that such shifts between perception and concept constitute the intelligibility of experience. The terms ‘Form’ and ‘Idea’ name our ability to learn from experience and to communicate what we have learned. But the apparently un-Platonic conclusion of the Parmenides is that no Form or Idea signifies anything whatsoever in itself, apart from other Forms and perceptions. The Form or Idea always has two sides (at least). In other words, any moment of making sense of our experience is irreducibly ambiguous; truth itself is ambiguous. To put this Platonic insight into contemporary philosophical terms, apart from all of its signifiers, the sign would signify nothing.

This means that the unifying Idea and the unified perceptions are shown to be distinct modes of truth which nonetheless cannot exist separately, in themselves. The Forms gather sense perceptions into a concept or term that stands for, or signifies all of our previous perceptions of the thing named by the term. In the dialogue, the intelligibility of any one concept signifies its other, its many perceived and recollected appearances. Similarly, the many sense perceptions signify that which is other to them, namely the one Form or Idea of which they are examples.

Truth is in this way shown to involve signs that are two-sided, or dyadic. Ideas without perceptions would be empty names for nothing, just as perceptions without any intelligible Form would be sheer chaos. Parmenides playfully reveals these two sides of any term throughout this dialogue. For example, in Parmenides’ game, sometimes ‘the One’ means unity as displayed by a part or characteristic of a thing, and sometimes the term means one particular entity as distinguished from others. And at one point (153b), Parmenides even uses ‘the One’ to indicate the number one, the first unit of counting! In short, Parmenides' language games alternate between different kinds of oneness: on the one hand, examples of ‘ones’ (beings, numbers, and concepts) that are definable and even countable. On the other hand, Parmenides shows that there is another, more basic kind of unity that underlies and accompanies any truth about beings, or numbers, or concepts.

For traditional interpreters of Plato, the most troubling feature of this dialogue is that Parmenides demonstrates again and again that no being can be intelligible or exist separately, in itself (141e-142a; 155e-157b; 159d-160b; 164a-b; 165e-166c). In fact, at 141e, Parmenides argues that no ‘One’ considered entirely according to itself could even be one! This means that Form as Form - any singular, unique Idea - signifies nothing. Parmenides tells young Socrates that any Idea considered entirely according to itself cannot be known, cannot exist, and cannot even be named. Like his other late dialogue the Sophist, Plato’s Parmenides shows that reasoning involves the ‘interweaving’ of forms with one another and with sense perceptions; the complete separation of each Form from all others would be the obliteration of reason and communication (Sophist, 259e).

Significantly, the motif of time is woven through the entire dialogue. Parmenides investigates the possibility of any adequate disclosure of existence through reasoning. The problematic of time is developed as part of this broader investigation into the possibility any access to the full truth.

If thinking is nothing but the repetition of identities like A=A, then we learn nothing, and communicate nothing, because all such identities are purely formal and void of information. And yet we must presuppose the principle of identity - that a thing is what it is - if any statement expresses the truth about a thing or event.

The pivotal moment of Parmenides' demonstration for Socrates comes at his Third Beginning, at 155e-157b, where difficulties relating to time culminate in the paradox of the instant. This crucial section of the dialogue shows that the conceptual representation of temporal existence implies irreducible impasse: Parmenides shows that logical principles imply an impossible instant of simultaneity that neither exists nor does not. This means, paradoxically, that the logical principles of non-contradiction as well as the principle of identity are inconsistent with the law of the excluded middle, insofar as the instant of simultaneity neither is nor is not, but according to the Law of the Excluded Middle, a thing either exists or does not, and a statement is either true or false.

This section can be compared to his late dialogue, Philebus, where Socrates argues that anything that means something to us, even sensuous pleasure, involves the anticipation and memory of possibilities for experience. The Forms are the two-sided signs that allow sense perception to make sense. Again, one side is the concept that any term signifies, and the other side is all the sense perceptions, the signifiers that the Form names. This is precisely why in the earlier dialogue, Meno, Plato urges that all learning and communication involves recollection. Without memories of past experiences, any Idea would be an empty name for nothing, utterly void of information. And this is why Plato shows his figure of Parmenides demonstrating repeatedly that Form cannot exist or be intelligible in itself, apart from other forms and from sensible things.

Parmenides teaches Socrates that within any system of Ideas, there is some surd element that proves to be both essential to the system and yet utterly indefinable (‘the instant’ Parmenides, 155e-157b). This means that conceptual distinctions signify only as contextualised. But the context of all contexts transcends both perception and thought. In short, Plato's Parmenides reveals the incompleteness of any formal system.

To conclude, the surprising feature of the Parmenides is that it is Form considered entirely according to itself - abstracted from all relational contexts - that proves to be the absolute non-being. Form is the intelligibility of experience; but the singular Idea is nothing apart from its relations with other Forms and with perceptions.

Consequently, discourse would be impossible if there was not one form for each thing (135b-c). On the other hand, discourse would also be impossible if any one form existed in itself, entirely apart from everything else (Sophist, 259e). In this way Plato reaffirms the Parmenidean One as the intelligible unity of many particular phenomena.

In the Philebus, Socrates claims that this dialectical interpenetration of one and many is a necessary feature of language; it is a result of the sentences we utter, and he argues that any Form is both a one and an indefinite many. In Philebus, Socrates also shows that pleasure ‘is’ only in the differentiation from pain, and that the Idea itself intimately involves its opposite - its other - within itself. What anything is intimately involves what it is not.

In Plato’s later dialogues the recognition of Form - in other words, our ability to ‘make sense’ of sense perceptions - is shown to involve analogy. No experience could be utterly unique. Any experience we can have is comparable or analogous in some way to other experiences that we have already had, as well as experiences that we anticipate having in the future.

This means that any present moment of experience that makes sense involves the past and the future. Any Form or Idea - any experience or communication that makes sense - only does so insofar as it is compared and contrasted with remembered experiences from the past, and our expectations about the future.

Parmenides’ central inquiry into time shows why all truth, all learning and successful communication, involves analogy and substitutions: comparisons and contrasts with memories of the past and expectations about the future. The Parmenides shows that because experience makes sense to us, thinking must imply both Formal structure and variation of context, both sameness and difference.

This is precisely why both learning and effective communication would be impossible unless there is one form for anything that exists. And yet, on the other hand, learning and effective communication would also be equally impossible if any one Form existed in itself, entirely apart from everything else. In short, Parmenides shows Socrates a sense in which any ‘One’ is non-coincident with itself. This means that anything that exists could not be what it is apart from other things that it is not.

Let me finish with a very Platonic example used by Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who was originally a Classicist: Isn't a clearing in the woods just the measured space where there are no trees? Yet, without the surrounding trees, the clearing would not be a clearing; it would just be part of a large open field or plain. It is in this sort of way that Plato tests the limits of reason, truth and existence itself.

Because of its articulation of many distinct but interrelated modes of truth, Parmenides is the pivotal dialogue for understanding Plato. In its inquiry into time and the tenses and moods of language, the dialogue anticipates much recent philosophy. Study of Plato’s Parmenides shows why Platonism - properly understood - remains vitally relevant in contemporary philosophy.

Address for correspondence: jkwood@ualr.edu

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