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Parmenides on Mortal Belief FRED D. MILLER, JR. A DISTURBING FEATURE of Parmenides' assault on the thoughts of mortals is that it reduces his own poem largely to nonsense and makes elenchus of the sort he practices an impossibility. Montgomery Furth speaks for many modern readers when he speculates that Parmenides' "attitude toward his conclusion was belief in the sense that Hume's radical doubt was doubt, maintainable only (to his relief) in his study. Or, perhaps, he believed it all the time and was mad."' For the Greeks, and for Plato in particular, however, Parmenides was not a madman, a charlatan, or a fool. Plato's Socrates describes him as a "reverend and awful" figure, with "a depth in him that was altogether noble" (Theaetetus 183e6-184al). But it is difficult to understand his language, much less his underlying reasoning. We have no choice but to accept Plato's picture of Parmenides: that of a philosopher whose nobility of intellect drives him to accept conclusions, even if they oblige him to regard the obvious or trivial as nonsense, and even if they force him to throw away the ladder he has used to reach those conclusions. I shall argue here that we, also, ought to accept Plato's judgment as to the philosophical merit of Parmenides' work. At the core of Parmenides' logic, I believe, we find neither a crude equivocation on the Greek word "to be" nor a crude confusion between meaning and reference or between meaning and truth, nor a bundle of modal fallacies. What we do discover is an important insight concerning the nature of thought and discourse, expressed in such a subtly (but disastrously) confused way that the valuable was not completely disentangled from the nonsensical until Plato wrote the Sophist. The repudiation of the beliefs of mortals at the outset of "The Way of Seeming" is founded upon the "strife-encompassed proof" which is developed in "The Way of Truth." I will endeavor to clarify his reasoning, considering Parmenides' attack on naming and the repudiation of mortals' beliefs (Section I) and later his principle or dictum that "you cannot think or say what is not" (Section liD. In trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Parmenides' reasoning, I will also make use of two arguments that were intentionally directed against Eleatic teachings: Leucippus 's defense of the void (Section II) and Plato's defense of falsity (Section IV). 1. Parmenides' Attack on the Mortals At the outset of "The Way of Seeming" (B 8.50-61) Parmenides' goddess identifies the fundamental error underlying mortal beliefs. The crux of this passage is a couplet in which the goddess blames the errors of mortals upon their perverse habits in using names: ' "Elements of Eleatic Ontology," in A. P. D. Mourelatos, ed., ThePre-Socratics(NewYork, 1974), p. 268. [2531 254 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY B 8.53 >op~oas yap K~r4Oevro ~bo 3,V&l~s 2 6VOlaat;e~v, rgov la't~v ob Xpe~v~crr~v, ~v ~ rrerrXctv~la~vo~ e'~iv 3 Commentators generally are agreed that the error involves the introduction of names for contraries or opposites (B 8.55, 59: ravr'ta), but there is no consensus as to the scope of the indictment against naming. The crucial clause B 8.54 rCo~~'Lav ob Xpegov darLv . . . can be read in two different ways, depending on the scope of the negative ou: "one of which it is not right..." (narrow scope); "not one of which it is right..." (wide scope). On the narrow-scope reading, the mortals are right to use the name of just one form, "light," to name being, but not to try to use a name for another, opposing form, "dark." On the wide-scope reading, neither "light" nor "dark" is a permissible name for being. The narrow-scope reading, which has been adopted by most commentators, is associated with a view of "The Way of Seeming" suggested by Aristotle, who sees the goddess as offering a cosmology that is, so far as possible, true and reliable, and as maintaining that this cosmology comes to wreck because its proponents fail to recognize that only one of the two forms, light, is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 253-265
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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