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  • Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy by John Palmer
  • Barbara M. Sattler
John Palmer. Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp.xii, 428. $99.00. ISBN 978–0–19–956790–4.

Palmer’s book presents a modal interpretation of Parmenides’ poem: Parmenides is allegedly the first philosopher to distinguish systematically between the necessary, the impossible, and the contingent. Parmenides’ What Is (τὸ ἐόν) should be understood as necessary being, while the realm of mortal opinions deals with contingent being. Palmer connects this interpretation with the claim that Parmenides was not the major turning point in the history of Presocratic philosophy, but should rather be seen in continuity with his successors and predecessors: Parmenides’ What Is thus has its analogue in the divine principles of the early Greek philosophers, while light and night as the two basic principles of Parmenides’ cosmology correspond to the material principles of other Presocratic cosmologies.

The first chapter canvasses the different narratives of Parmenides’ place in Presocratic philosophy and points out some problems with the standard interpretations. Chapters 2–4 then develop Palmer’s modal interpretation, while chapters 5–7 discuss Parmenides’ connection with some of his immediate predecessors. The final chapter situates Parmenides within Presocratic philosophy [End Page 421] as a whole. The useful appendix, finally, contains the Greek text of the poem, as well as Palmer’s translation and textual notes.

The idea that Parmenides’ Being has to be understood as a necessary being is not new, and indeed we find some modal claims explicitly in the text. Palmer, however, is the first to make modality the main point of interpreting Parmenides’ poem. This is indeed the big strength of the book, for it allows us to see how far we can get with a modal understanding of the poem. This interpretation does not need to make the realm of doxa a realm of mere illusion; it is simply what is contingently, and it presents no problem for there being a cosmology in the second part of Parmenides’ poem. There are, however, at least four problems with Palmer’s modal interpretation:

  1. 1. It is not sufficiently clear what we should understand by the different modalities. Take necessity, for example. Parmenides’ What Is is a necessary being, and by this Palmer understands a mode of being, rather than a logical property. But, as Palmer himself points out and as fragments 1 and 10 make clear, Parmenides claims some form of necessity also for the realm of doxa, the alleged realm of contingent being. All Palmer tells us about this modal complexity is that the necessity of What Is is a metaphysical or logical necessity, the necessity in the mortal realm a natural one; but there is no discussion of how natural necessity is connected with (presumably metaphysical) contingency. Furthermore, fragment 2 claims Being to be necessary, while fragment 6 claims that it is necessary to say and think that Being is. These are two different forms of necessity yet again, one to do with the existence of Being and the other with our thinking and saying. But Palmer does not tell us anything about how to understand the relation of the two.

  2. 2. Palmer tries to develop a new understanding of “is” out of fragment 2 so that every instance of estin in the alêtheia part indicates necessary being, which at times seems to be somewhat of a stretch.

  3. 3. Palmer simply assumes that this modal account is the very starting point of Parmenides. He does not even consider the possibility that it may instead be the result of other assumptions, like the result of Parmenides’ understanding of the logical tools available and of what counts as a rigorous investigation.

  4. 4. Finally, Palmer sees this ontological distinction—what must be, what cannot be, and what is but need not be—connected with distinct forms of cognition in such a way that, not very convincingly, all of Plato’s distinctions in Republic V are already available.

Palmer’s second big hypothesis—that Parmenides is basically in continuity with Presocratic philosophy as a whole—fights Guthrie’s narrative that Parmenides is the watershed in the development of Presocratic philosophy. It follows a recent trend, but...


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