BMCR 2005.06.05

The Legacy of Parmenides. Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought

, The legacy of Parmenides : Eleatic monism and later presocratic thought. Las Vegas: Parmenides Pub, 2004. 1 online resource (xxix, 280 pages). ISBN 9781930972421 $22.00.

This book by Patricia Curd (C. hereafter), professor of Purdue University (Indiana, υσἀ, was published for the first time in 1998 (by Princeton University Press). The present paperback version of the book contains a few small changes in the main text and is prefaced by a new detailed introduction, in which C. answers criticism and clarifies her present position. The book is supplied with detailed indexes, bibliography and abundant footnotes.

This introduction allows the reader to understand the C.’s intentions and the nature of her interest in Parmenidean doctrine. The introduction also maps the book: it refers to the parts of the book where the reader can find a detailed exposition of C.’s particular claims.

The hardback edition (1998) was reviewed by Monte Ransome Johnson, University of Toronto (BMCR 1999.06.21), and that review is still relevant, since C. notes that “this is not a revised or second edition” (xvii).

The most valuable feature of the work is undoubtedly its strong analytical style and logical approach combined with strict argumentation of all the claims. In spite of the fact that the book is aimed towards analysis of the legacy of Parmenides, a good half of it is devoted to Parmenides’ own doctrines. Therefore, the title is slightly misleading: the book should rather be entitled “Parmenides and his Legacy”, not just “the Legacy of Parmenides”. Furthermore, not all aspects of Parmenides’ teaching and legacy are covered equally well, and some of them are omitted entirely, as the author admits on p. 8 of the Introduction and elsewhere.

The doctrine of Parmenides is explored in the first three chapters. The remaining three chapters are devoted to the pluralists (Empedocles and Anaxagoras), the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus), and Melissus and, finally, the doctrines of Philolaus of Croton, Diogenes of Apollonia, and Plato as “the last Presocratic”.

Professor Curd says that her main intention is to argue “against both the prevailing interpretation of Parmenides’ monism and the usual explanation of the ‘is’ in Parmenides.” Instead, she claims that “Parmenides’ subject is what it is to be the genuine nature of something, thus linking Parmenides with the inquiries into nature of his philosophical predecessors.” She, therefore, accepts that Parmenides is a monist, but denies that he is a numerical monist (Introduction, p. 4).

The standard interpretation of Parmenides in English-language accounts (Owen, Barnes, Stokes, Furley) is examined in the Introduction (3-23). According to these authors, the term esti must be understood in an existential sense: “what can be thought or spoken of can exist and indeed must exist” and “only one such thing can and must exist” (9). C. notices that this reading leads to the conclusion that later Presocratic philosophers had shown a serious misunderstanding of Parmenides; moreover, they simply ignored his arguments in constructing their own cosmologies. If accepted, the argument would be a serious justification for revision of the traditional approach to Parmenides.

C. denies the independence of Parmenides’ doctrine from early cosmological theories and maintains that Parmenides does not reject studying nature but rather “seeks to make it legitimate, by proposing criteria that a successful theory of what there is must meet, and showing that such a theory must be grounded in principles that are metaphysically and epistemologically justified” (27).

Researchers used to ask two questions: “What subject is to be supplied for the subjectless esti in B2″ and “What is the sense of the verb ‘to be’ at work in Parmenides’ assertions about what-is” (34). C. dwells for some time on an analysis of ‘what-is’ in its connection with thinking and understanding faculties and the basic characteristics of the Parmenidean poem in general.

C. believes that the Parmenidean “is” seems to be “the natural home of noos, to which noos travels if it takes the proper route of inquiry, hodos dizesios, and is more than an existential ‘is’ …” It is predicative in a certain fundamental sense: “what we know in knowing what-is is the real or genuine character of a thing; thus it is what we know when we know just what something genuinely is, or what it is to be that thing” (39).

The most important constituent of the book and the base for C.’s arguments is the distinction of three types of monism, which are first specified in the introduction to this edition (xviii-xxi) and then examined in detail in Chapter II, “Parmenides’ monism and the arguments of B8” (65-75). Two kinds of monism are traditionally distinguished: material and numerical. The first asserts that there is a single material stuff underlying all things that form the kosmos. Monism of such type allows many things to exist in the world, each being a modification of the first material substance (like the monism of Thales or Anaximenes). The second type allows the existence of only one thing — “Being”. The later type of monism has traditionally been attributed to Parmenides and Melissus. It is normally thought that Parmenides insists on the existence of the only one thing, namely “the One” or “Being”; Aristotle, Theophrastus, and all doxographies from them seem to support this assumption. A preconception that the arguments of Parmenides are crucial for all subsequent Presocratic thought, which is represented as a series of answers to these arguments, is also commonplace. All these philosophers, according to C., did not try to justify pluralism, recognizing it as a given, without any argument challenging the understanding of the doctrine of Parmenides as monism (64).

For the purpose of clarification of this matter, C. explores the critical fragment B8 DK. C. develops her position very carefully and, before consideration of Parmenidean proofs in B8, gives a new interpretation of the whole sequence of the fragments. Fr. B4 is a preliminary allusion to the internal unity of what-is. Then, “the connection between authentic and what-is, expressed in B3, guarantees that genuine thought about what-is will be true; but that guarantee of truth holds only if what-is itself is something that holds together” (68). Parmenides examines criteria to establish what genuinely exists in B8.6-49. As a prologue to the arguments, Parmenides points out four signs of what-is: it is ungenerated and indestructible, indivisible, immobile, and complete or perfect. Fr. B8.4 sets the what-is ( to eon) as mounogenes, “of a single kind”, complete by nature. Liddell-Scott (LSJ) and others offer the translation “unique”, thus supporting numerical monism. Mourelatos and Burnes translate mounogenes as deriving from genos (“kind” or “genus”) rather than from gignesthai (“to come to be”). Then mounogenes can be understood as “the belonging to only one kind” that guarantees the internal monogeneity of what-is, “and this is precisely predicational monism” (71).

Following Mourelatos and Austin, C. specifies unity of thought in B8.5-6, offering the following reading: “all together one”, where hen means the cohesiveness ( suneches) of what-is. “The assertion that to eon is hen reads much more naturally as a claim about the internal or predicational unity of what-is (only what is one can be) rather than as an assertion of numerical monism (only one thing can be)” (73).

According to C., Parmenides has chosen a correct method, asserting that what-is could not come from what-is-not and that nothing in what-is-not could be the cause of what-is. C. envisages here a remarkable Parmenidean answer to the question of the beginning and his rejection of the concept of the apeiron (77). In the context of this polemic the question about the impossibility of generation and corruption is discussed: “if the nature of things itself is the subject of change, the scientific knowledge of things is impossible” (78).

Finally, C. criticizes the last possibility for numerical monism, to wit: if there are a plurality of entities, each of which satisfies the criteria for what-is, they must be different from each other (94). The signs of what-is, according C., are a “powerful weapon against earlier metaphysical theories; moreover, he [Parmenides] was able to formulate criteria that future metaphysical and cosmological theories must meet” (95).

Now we turn to the following chapters of the book, although space restrictions do not allow us to examine them in the detail they undoubtedly deserve.

In Chapter III (Doxa and Deception), C. argues that the Doxa of Parmenides’ poem must also be reinterpreted in a new light. In her own words, “the Doxa would yield a rationally grounded cosmology if the basic entities of such a theory met the criteria of B8 for what-is”, and “Parmenides’ model cosmology, based on a set of basic realities that mix and separate, was just as influential on those Presocratics who came after him as were his arguments about what-is” (6). The relationship between the two main parts of the poem, the Aletheia and the Doxa, is discussed at some length, and five basic puzzles in interpreting them are formulated on pp. 100-104. The second section of the chapter discusses the opposite forms (first of all, Light-Night, interpreted as a dualism of oppositions). It becomes clear that the dualism of the Doxa, if it is interpreted simply as a plurality of theoretically fundamental entities, is thus not in principle incompatible with the argument of the Aletheia (105-106). The opposites are interpreted in (rather exotic) terms of enantiomorphism (= mirror images) or incongruent counterparts (107). There is no part of the cosmos that is neither light nor night and thus not infected with enantiomorphic oppositions. Therefore, according to C.’s interpretation, ultimate principles of mortal cosmology have enantiomorphic natures, being an illegitimate mix of what-is and what-is-not (108). In the rest of the chapter C. defends her claim that Parmenides has built a rational cosmology which could serve as a model for later cosmological theories, including Empedocles and the Atomists. This helps us understand the importance of the second part of the poem: “the Aletheia and the Doxa work together, with the Aletheia providing criteria for what counts as the genuine nature of an entity that plays a fundamental role in a cosmology, and the Doxa offering a model of a cosmology” (126).

Chapter IV is devoted to the Parmenidean influence on the metaphysical foundations of pluralism. It specifically focuses on the nature of things ( chremata) in Anaxagoras, the four roots in Empedocles, and Zeno’s arguments concerning division. Parmenides influenced the pluralists’ theories in two fundamental aspects: in their conceptions of the fundamental entities and in form.

C. argues that both Anaxagoras and Empedocles meet two conditions for a rational cosmology imposed by Parmenides: cosmology must be based on entities that meet criteria for what-is, and it must find the way for those entities to account for and explain the world of the senses. Establishing the chronology, C. stresses that “Anaxagoras wrote earlier than Empedocles and that Melissus was perhaps rather later than both” (128 n.1).

Generally speaking, the first part of the book, dedicated to Parmenides, is cemented by a strict schema and logic of argumentation, while what follows looks less structured, perhaps inevitably. This is particularly true, to my mind, of the long section on Anaxagoras (131-154), where C. identifies various and ‘multifaceted’ (154) influences of Parmenides on Anaxagoras, leaving the reader in doubt of the nature of these influences. The Parmenidean influence on Empedocles looks even more doubtful, which C. freely admits (155), but she believes she has proven his debt to Parmenides, since the roots of Empedocles are conceived as Parmenidean unities, each of which satisfies the criteria of B8 (171). But why are Love and Strife basic ontological entities, as C. maintains? The claim is not supported by the extant sources, and it seems more appropriate to understand them in terms of the archai rather than entities. Moreover, they appear to be acting archai, which allows for distinguishing, after Anaxagoras, between the properties of archai and those of entities.

A shorter section on Zeno is more coherent. We have three pictures of Zeno: Zeno the Sophist; Zeno the “pure dialectician, caring little for truth, but only for the force of paradoxical argument” (178); and Zeno as “a serious philosopher, who will follow an argument where it leads, and this means that he may well have discovered and raised difficulties about Parmenides’ views that Parmenides himself had not yet seen” (179). The analysis ends with the suggestion that Eleatism was not a monolithic philosophical view but one that allows for differences of shade and even doctrine (179).

The problem of the nature of void and other relevant matters are examined in Chapter V, on Leucippus and Democritus. It is argued at the outset that the Atomists conceived of both atoms and void as entities that have unchanging and knowable characters or natures of their own, thus satisfying the Parmenidean criteria for what-is. Despite serious differences, C. concludes that the claims of Leucippus and Democritus are “an answer to Eleatic arguments and an attempt to work within an Eleatic framework, rather than mere retort” (206).

The later Presocratics accept the argument that change is merely apparent and not real but that nevertheless the phenomenal world can be the subject of rational explanation, except for Melissus, the last of the Eleatics, who goes beyond Parmenides in arguing that pluralism itself is incompatible with the correct account of what-is and that, in any case, pluralistic theories cannot successfully account for the world reported to us by our senses. Melissus develops his variant of monism, described by C. as both numerical and predicational monism. Working in a post-Parmenidean intellectual context, Melissus criticizes the Atomists. And, in turn, “Atomism developed as a response to a cluster of Eleatic problems, including Parmenides’ account of the nature of what-is, Zeno’s arguments about division, and Melissus’s concerns to deny the empty and to challenge Pluralist theories of mixture. There is a sense in which it is not surprising that the Atomists should give such an answer to Melissus’s argument” (215).

Charter VI (‘Final Remarks’) contains a brief discussion of Philolaus and Diogenes of Apollonia and a more detailed account of the influence of Parmenides’ monism on Plato. An analysis of numbers and harmonia as genuine basic entities would be interesting in this context, but C. passes the matter by. Indeed, it would be relevant not only in the context of the question whether Philolaus’ epistemological principles satisfy the Parmenidean criteria of what-is but also in view of the Pythagorean background of Parmenides.

C. identifies Eleatic influence on Plato’s views in both early and later dialogues. Thus, she concludes that the Platonic system too is a part of the legacy of Parmenides. C. explores the Beautiful itself in the Symposium (228-233) in some detail and also touches upon other dialogues (the Phaedo, the Parmenides, the Euthyphro, etc.). C. wonders why Plato made Parmenides, in the dialogue named after him, an advocate of the numerical monism (in Pythagorean style). She suggests that one should not perceive the person portrayed therein as a historical figure, bearing in mind that “the purpose of the dialogue is to explore and to criticize certain aspects of Plato’s Theory of Forms, especially the relation of participation, and the conception of Forms at work in the theory” (240).

To sum up, the book offers a very detailed and intelligent analysis of Parmenides and the later Presocratics. The fragments, rendered in English by C., leave a favorable impression, since in general the translations are clear and free of unnecessary conceptual complexities. C. has managed to cover a huge area of study (from the first philosophers to Plato) in a remarkably systematic way. Surely some of her claims cannot be accepted as they stand, partly because they highly complicate our perception of the early philosophical tradition. But C.’s approach, focused upon actual problems of the Presocratics, allows a fresh look at the history of early Greek philosophy.

The book is very well produced; I noticed no typographical errors. It is a must for any serious researcher of early Greek philosophy and is highly recommended to graduate students working in the field, although probably too complicated for the undergraduates and certainly not suitable for class use.