The Presocratics – Parmenides and Zeno

Parmenides.jpgBust of Parmenides

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Hans Georg Gadamer, an important 20th century Germany hermeneutical philosopher, emphasizes … the importance of Parmenides and the Eleatics for Plato’s later theory of the forms. Like Plato … Parmenides, as well as Zeno and other Eleatics, dismisses sense experience as a source of truth. For these thinkers, it is the analysis of concepts that lead to a truth that one must affirm regardless of how out of sync it is with our common understanding of the world.

In Parmenides case, the great rational revelation concerned the constancy and unchangeability of Being. “What is is,” he wrote, “and what is not is not.” If something were to come into being, then it would now be nothing. But nothing cannot exist. Similarly, if something now existed it could not later no longer exist. If so, where there is now something there would later be nothing. But nothing cannot exist.

For Parmenides, the eyes and ears lead us astray. As he notes: “Seeing, they saw in vain; Listening, they failed to hear.” In his view, following the logic of the argument, we should recognize that Being is unitary and unchanging. Our ordinary, temporal understanding, it follows, must be illusory. Being must, by definition, be eternal without beginning and without end.

Other Eleatics, like Zeno, followed in Parmenides’ footsteps. Zeno developed a series of logical paradoxes to underline the Parmenidean view that change, as perceived by sense experience, is illusory. Zeno’s arrow paradox plays on a concept of time. If an arrow is shot toward a target, at any given instance in time it would find itself at rest at some place on the trajectory. Since at every instant the arrow is at rest, it could never move from the arrow to the target. Logic, Zeno argues, disproves that movement is possible. We should thus not trust our senses.

His racecourse paradox reaches a similar conclusion. Imagine Homer running toward a target. To get there, he would first have to get halfway there and to get halfway, he would first have to get to the half-way point of that half-way, ad infinitum. Between each space, however, there would be an infinite number of points to cross from one to another, since each half can again, mathematically be divided in half, ad infinitum. It is impossible to cross an infinitude, so the motion can never occur. The race could never start.

Though these paradoxes clearly have something wrong with them, they are mind-bending What are the problems with taking logic and applying it to realities of space and time in this way? Aristotle criticizes Zeno, as well as Plato. Plato, for his part, follows the lead of the Eleatics. He thinks we should follow reason even if it conflicts with sense experience. He like the Eleatics is thus known as a rationalist.

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3 thoughts on “The Presocratics – Parmenides and Zeno

  1. This might go a little bit off topic but I’m just following my train of though from reading this in my unsophisticated way.

    It’s been quite enlightening for me to make a study of the Philosophers. It’s been sometimes scary and sometimes entertaining and comforting. I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my studies is that these “great minds” often seem to get it really wrong and it’s really not a stretch for me to think on the level these guys are even though I don’t have the academic background to do it in a long winded big wordy way. I do now feel I’m capable of understanding most of these theories well enough to decide myself if they are worth my believing in. I don’t need to believe just because they are famous. I find it most frightening that many people don’t do that for themselves. IMO most of these theories are not correct which has come as a surprise to me.

    I guess another thing is that many philosophers and academics just love to think and be heard and get some recognition even if they really aren’t taking on the important issues that confront our personal lives inside a culture. I’m sure Ancient Greece and Rome had them also. I think often they didn’t think the average guy was worth reaching out to. Some of their language excludes many of us uneducated types. They were just talking to their peer group.

    Plenty of exceptions are there of course. Ernest Becker and Schopenhauer come to mind. I think the Becker types wanted to find out what exactly it was that was bugging us and causing us to create so much havoc and suffering in our world before moving on to the less immediate or critical issues. Maybe in the very same way only a few people seem to be actually concerned that we may soon finish the job of destroying most of the life on this planet which includes ourselves. Very few people for some strange reason seem to think it’s really not something to focus on. I’m at the point where I think the solutions to our problems are so far out of the realm of most peoples willingness to confront them that it’s best to step out and step back and then just watch the show.

    Someone just told me it’s Thanksgiving Day. I didn’t even know. I’m not very emotionally involved with our cultural holidays so they always catch me off guard. I don’t think most are based on healthy ideas. My dogs never bother to tell me. They think it’s funny when I have to be told. Well I think I’ve gone far enough off topic so I’ll stop here.

  2. Hey J Miller:

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It is amazing to see how wrongheaded we have thought in the past and disconcerting to see how wrongheaded so many think in the present.

    The history of philosophy is largely a history of failed attempts. But I think we can see that in many cases the failures themselves brought us a little further. The failure of later generations in many instances were not quite so bad as the failures of those who had come before them. In many cases, thinkers followed some intuition (as in the case of Parmenides and Zeno, and Plato) that seemed worth pursuing and that opened up new questions. Those who came later were able to see the mistakenness of following along the same path or at least of doing so in the same way.

    I earlier in my life spent a lot of time studying Hegel. He thought that through a dialectic process thought advanced as individuals moved from orientations in thought that were more “atomistic” that try to dissect ideas discretely and focus on the minutia to orientations more “organic” that try to synthesize ideas into a holistic worldview. Over history, he argued, the pendulum would swing from one orientation to another. But in his view thought progresses in this process as more and more knowledge is gained and the holistic views become increasingly better grounded.

    I sometimes wonder of the value of the study of the history of philosophy, given the other pressing concerns in the world — like the environmental issues that you mention. I would say there would be nothing wrong with my giving up these types of studies or individuals simply not engaging in them and focussing only on contemporary issues instead. However, for that, I do think that the study of these ideas, obscure and false as they often are, can broaden our perspectives, can underline the limitedness of human knowledge, and can show how much progress we have made. The views are part of the history of the human attempt to make meaning and sense of reality.

    They are, it appears to me, a testament both to the severe limitations of human understanding and, in retrospect, the progress we have nonetheless been able to make. Well-articulated misunderstandings have often ultimately begot a clearer, if still quite incomplete, understanding. Or were I more pessimistic I might say one misunderstanding gives rise to another misunderstanding, but where the severity in the deformation of our thought does over time lessen.

  3. “Very few people for some strange reason seem to think it’s really not something to focus on.”

    Many want some sort of Armageddon. By not focusing, they wish to not interfere with what they perceive as necessary unfolding of the their various eschatological scriptures. Some want the partial realization of scripture to serve as warning. Some merely want warning, without any realization, of scriptures.
    Though there’s no connection, Parmenides lived roughly around the same time as Gautama. By that time, philosophy had evolved considerably.

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