BMCR 2005.10.26

To Think Like God. Pythagoras and Parmenides. The Origins of Philosophy

, To think like God : Pythagoras and Parmenides, the origins of philosophy. Las Vegas, NV: Parmenides Pub, 2004. 1 online resource (xxx, 374 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781930972445. $32.00.

The main burden of this book is to offer a non-standard interpretation of Parmenides that identifies him as the first true philosopher. Rather than in a metaphysics, Parmenides’ originality is said to lie in his argument for the possibility of a limited range of certain knowledge (in response to a sceptical challenge from Xenophanes) and in the use of formal logical techniques to reach that certainty. The book also offers an interpretation of Pythagoras and of the Pythagoreans that presents the founder almost purely as a cult leader and his cult followers mostly as unpopular political activists. Throughout the book Pythagoras is seen as a counterpoint to Parmenides, although any connexion between the two beyond this comparison is not made clear.

Hermann (hereafter referred to as H.) claims that this book is aimed at scholars of the Presocratics, other classical scholars, philosophers, classics students, historians of law, and interested laymen (p.xiv). It is my opinion that this book does not do certain things one expects from a scholarly work, such as providing proper discussion of rival views, and that it may be a little too abstruse for most laymen.

After an interesting preface and some house-keeping sections, the introduction links the title to the main protagonists of the book. Gods were held by some of the earliest pioneers of philosophy (p.1) to have unfettered access to knowledge, mortals having to make do with something less. Xenophanes arrived and posed a problem which provoked a crisis: even if we are lucky enough to have the right idea, how do we know we have it? Parmenides answered Xenophanes’ challenge, according to H., by introducing methods of falsification (in particular the principle of non-contradiction).

Chapter one introduces the Pythagorean idea of the unit as a perfect premise (in other words “that whole and wholesome rationale with enough persuasive power to end all further questions” p.15), but is largely an investigation of the figure of Pythagoras. He is denied any reliable claim to the significant philosophical doctrines associated with his name, unless, H. says, “we consider the transmigration of the soul, immortality, musical harmony, magic, vegetarianism, purification rites, and initiations to be proper philosophical pursuits” (p.17). The first chapter also divides Pythagoreanism into early, middle, and late periods, during which H. sees varying degrees of cult, political association, and speculative school.

Chapter two is the longest in the book and looks at the Pythagoreans in a social and politico-historical way. H. tries to find a consistent thread in the accounts of Pythagoras and his followers in order to describe their life and times, and this section will give an entertaining picture to the layman, describing, as H. tells us at one point, a Pythagorean ” Götterdämmerung” (p.41) in the anti-Pythagorean revolts in Croton, the burning of their meeting houses, and their death or expulsion from the city. He goes on to expound what the movement’s political views might have looked like (p.60) in eight short bullet points.

Chapter three considers the significance of number to the Pythagoreans. H. sums up what numerical philosophy meant to the Pythagoreans, in terms of “the study of suitable proportion” and the “defense of the integrity of the unit” (p.106), and goes on to discuss the rather more superstitious aspects of numerical philosophy with a sceptical eye, starting off with the surprising statement that “[t]he notion that all things can be reduced to number is quite absurd” (p.107).

Chapter four marks a bridge from the discussion of Pythagoras to the discussion of Parmenides by using what H. identifies as a parallel shift in Plato’s philosophical approach. In Plato’s Phaedo philosophy is a preparation for death, a purification for that state alone in which we will find true knowledge. For H., this position is parallel to acceding to Xenophanes’ challenge and accepting that knowledge is impossible for mortals. By contrast, H. tells us, in Plato’s Parmenides the emphasis is on training oneself in reasoning now, on pursuing truth in life. Plato here adopts the Parmenidean approach, we are told, and it is Parmenidean, H. says, because “to exercise reasoning, if only for reasoning’s sake, was not conceivable before Parmenides had shown the way as inventor of dialectic” (p.124).

Chapter five opens with an historical look at Parmenides, discussing the tradition of Parmenides as a lawmaker, and then treats Xenophanes the epistemologist. H.’s Xenophanes is painted as the traditional founder of Elea, but more importantly as the writer of fragment 34: that no man knows, and, even should a man happen to speak the truth, he would not know that he did. H. goes on to frame Parmenides’ poem as a response to the challenge of Xenophanes, prefacing his later pages with the twofold statement that, while Parmenides saw the sensible world as inherently unreliable (p.141), he also saw that there was a realm in which the tool of contradiction in discourse enabled certainty.

In chapter six, after a brief introduction to the poem, H. offers his own translation of Parmenides’ poem. This runs quickly into chapter seven, which deals in greater depth with a series of points of detailed interpretation and lays the foundations of H.’s overall understanding of Parmenides.

The signficance of this overall understanding turns on what the subject of Parmenides’ poem is, and this is where H. situates his disagreement with most other scholars. He offers a number of formulations, ranging from the simple:

I believe that esti is intrinsic to thought. On its most basic level, it is simply the recognition of that which is. (p.185)

In Charles Kahn’s words, it is the object of knowing, what is or can be known. (p.187)

To the less simple:

[W]e can narrow esti down even further by defining it as the result of a deliberative process, that is to say, a determination of what is the case brought about by an act of critical judgment. To substantiate this conclusion we need merely to review the pivotal function esti has in Parmenides’ system, which, only for the sake of his unusual demonstration, becomes a twofold one: while esti — or that which IS — is generally the criterion that an account must meet if it is to be reliable, in fragment 8, it itself becomes the object of judgment of said account, hence the outcome of an evidentiary method. It is this unprecedented approach by means of forensic argumentation that seizes upon the is or esti of a thing, the overriding factor that makes it rationally coherent by allowing the unity of its formula to be expressed. (p.188)

It should be noted that this is the point at which the layman may start to get lost. The socio-political history and the retelling of traditional tales in a number of the previous chapters is apt to catch the eye and is written in a style the layman will find clear; moreover, the broader sweep of the large-scale epistemological points of other parts of the book will be easily accessible to scholars who are not specialists in Parmenides. However, the increase in the density of the arguments from the earlier chapters to this point is precipitous, and H.’s style sometimes lacks clarity, as indicated by the last quotation (see also the quotation from Proviso 10 in the next paragraph but one).

If I may attempt to paraphrase the formulations of the subject of Parmenides’ poem, I think I can best express H.’s view by borrowing terminology from Plato: for H., the subject of Parmenides’ poem is the absolutely abstract notion of a Form or concept, the object of cognition solely considered as such. Furthermore, the characteristics of a truly viable Form or concept are those of logical coherence and consistency, etc.; and any failure in viability is revealed by forensic argumentation.

Chapter eight sets out twelve guidelines which H. finds in the fragments of Parmenides and which he claims are necessary for a reliable account of a thing (or, as I tried to put it just now, for a truly viable object of cognition), ranging from Proviso 7 (“One cannot know What IS NOT, neither through thinking nor speaking” p.221), which will be very familiar to those who have read Parmenides, to the less familiar Proviso 10 (“The construction and/or examination of an Evidential Account is an exercise in separation of concepts or designations, i.e., landmarks, that prevent the integral unity of such Account. It follows the Principle of Like according to Like and avoids contradiction” p.223), which is deeply theory-laden with what has passed before in the book.

Chapter nine looks in some detail at the Methods of Proof and Disproof used in the poem, ranging from the principle of like according to like to the principle of sufficient reason, the law of non-contradiction, and the avoidance of infinite regress.

Chapter ten is an investigation of the effect of the discovery of irrational numbers on the Pythagorean doctrines: how the discovery of numbers which cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers undermined the use of the unit as what H. calls a perfect premise. H. says he approached this chapter and the next as the ” pièce de résistance” (p.251) of the book. It is rather disappointing, then, to find that the section of chapter ten headed “The Indirect Proof of Odd Being Even”, in which H. intends to show how the Pythagorean notion of the unit fails the Parmenidean test of consistency by embodying the opposing characteristics of being both odd and even, actually does not contain a complete proof. A proof would have helped to make clear why H. says that, in using the Indirect Proof to undermine the consistency of the unit, we can check whether the square root of two is odd or even; and that, if we determine it to be one or the other, then it is evident that we have probed a very long, but nonetheless finite, number. This is not an easy point and should not have been left unexplained.

Chapter eleven serves as a summary of the significance of Parmenides, as outlined by H. through this book: the differentiation between two types of objects, those of truth versus those of opinion, equivalent to the intelligible on one side and the sensible on the other; and, most significant, the differentiation of the two ways of accounting for each, one certain, the other plausible/approximative.

After the main part of the book, there is an appendix describing the results of H.’s attempt to classify the historical data concerning Pythagoras into categories ranging from certain to little more than hearsay. This section does not add much to the main arguments of the book, and I am not quite certain for what audience the appendix is intended.

Overall, and throughout this work, H. is a little too quick in dismissing the views of those with whom he disagrees. For example, in discussing the cosmological interpretation of Parmenides’ poem, which understands its subject as being as a whole rather than concepts, H. tells us that “[i]t is hard to understand why so many commentators believe that Parmenides’ object of discourse is the tangible world … [t]he verses in question are simply too explicit” (p.191). And yet he does not address the arguments of his opponents in this work. However, H.’s contemporaries are not the only ones to be treated this way: this interpretation of Parmenides, H. tells us, goes as far back as Aristotle, “and is largely due to a few careless remarks on his part” (p.192). Unfortunately, these remarks are not investigated. Carrying on with this topic, H. explains that Zeno’s arguments in defence of Parmenides show us only that ” if we follow some of our assumptions to the end, we may be surprised at the absurdity of the result” (p.195); and that, even though the arguments have often been understood as arguments against motion, in fact “we cannot find any conclusive statements [in the fragments of Zeno] about the state of the world or of the things that form it” (p.195). However, the fact that Zeno chose to present reductiones ad absurdum against ideas of motion is at least interesting in light of the popularity of the cosmological interpretation of Parmenides, and this makes it all the more disappointing when the arguments of Zeno are not presented, and the various interpretations of these arguments are not weighed in the balance.

The manner in which the cosmological interpretation is rejected moves me to my next concern. It is not obvious to me that the proponents of the cosmological interpretation deny that the subject of the poem is the object of thought. Where they and H. appear to disagree is concerning the metaphysical status of the object of thought and, as a consequence, the number and type of objects of thought. H. seems to want to disengage the object of thought from the world it represents, in a way which is practically Kantian; but a reading of the subject of Parmenides’ poem which treats it as the object of thought, with restrictions upon that object of thought which make it necessarily fit for cognition, is not mutually exclusive with treating that object of thought as the external world in a pre-Kantian way. The objects of thought for Plato are separate (in some sense) from the world of experience but are nevertheless true external realities in a metaphysical sense.

The other concern I have with this book is H.’s treatment of certain ancient authors. Most works that deal with the beginnings of philosophy these days have something to say about systematisation in Hesiod, for example, or deal with the early poets in some other way. But the first of a very small handful of references to Homer and Hesiod (treated together) says that “[t]he twofold distinction [between human and divine knowledge] was quite a novelty at the time [of the earliest pioneers of philosophy], a shift in thinking which challenged Homer’s and Hesiod’s depictions of the gods as flawed or depraved beings, obsessed only with their Machiavellian ploys and their insatiable sexual appetites” (p.1). This hardly seems an adequate treatment of such important authors.

In summary, this is an interesting but in some ways frustrating work that tries, ambitiously, to be all things to all readers. Many of H.’s ideas are surely interesting to scholars, but he does not show how he has engaged with opposing interpretations of Parmenides; and he says much that will interest laymen, but not everything is clear or accessible.