REASON AND EXPERIENCE

Against the conception of reality in the Milesian inquirers into nature

In a story Plato (429-347 BCE) repeats, the historical Parmenides visited Athens when Socrates was young and Parmenides was about sixty-five (Parmenides 127b). Athens executed Socrates in 399 BCE when he was seventy. If Socrates was twenty when Parmenides visited Athens, Parmenides was born in about 515 BCE.

Diogenes Laertius says that Parmenides flourished in the 69th Olympiad (500 - 504 BCE) (Lives the Philosophers IX.3). This implies he was born in about 540 BCE.

Map of the Ancient World Elea was a Greek city in Magna Graecia.

Strabo (Greek geography and historian, first century BCE to first century CE) reports that (what is now) southern Italy had been a place of Greek colonization since the time of the Trojan war (Geography VI.1.2).

Parmenides of Elea is one of the first philosophers in the new philosophical tradition.

The city of Elea was founded by Greek refugees from Phocaea. Phocaea was a city located north of Ionia. Herodotus reports that the Phocaeans were the first Greeks to make long sea-voyages (Histories I.163.1), that when Cyrus the Great defeated Croesus (the king of Lydia), the Phocaeans abandoned their city rather than submit to Persian rule (Histories I.164.3), and that some of the Phocaeans made their home in Elea (Histories I.167.3).

The connection between Parmenides and Thales and the Milesian inquirers into nature seems to have run through Xenophanes. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) reports that Xenophanes was born in about 570 BCE, that he was banished from his native city of Colophon (a city in Ionia about fifty miles north of Miletus), and resettled in Elea (Lives the Philosophers IX.2), and that he was Parmenides's teacher (Lives the Philosophers IX.3).

The Milesians published their inquiries in prose. The earliest fragment is DK 12 (Anaximander) A 9 + B 1; D 6.

Parmenides (in what survives of his writing) does not mention any of his predecessors by name.

Reason shows that Reality does not Change

The details of what Parmenides thought are challenging to understand.

The first reason is that he writes in hexameter verse, not prose. He follows in the older tradition of didactic epic we see in Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days. From this, we know that prose had not yet taken hold as the medium for academic writing.

The second reason is that he argues for a paradoxical conclusion: that reality is changeless.

This is not the conception of reality we have seen in Thales and the Milesian inquirers.

Anaximenes identified air as the nature of reality and explained that drops of water (and other objects we experience) come into and go out of existence in terms of changes in this nature.

This explanation implies that reality is not changeless. Drops of water come into existence in the sky, fall to the earth as rain, and go out of existence under the heat of the sun.

Nothing Comes into or Goes out of Existence

In hexameter verse, a metrical line has six feet. A foot is two long syllables or a long and two short syllables.




Parmenides thinks that "mortals," in their confusion about "is" and "is not," wrongly believe in the reality of change.

"But also from this one, which mortals who know nothing
Invent, two-headed! For the helplessness in their
Breast directs their wandering thought. They go along,
Deaf and likewise blind, stupefied, tribes without judgment
Who suppose that this is and is not is the same
And not the same, and that for all the path is backward-turning" (DK 28 B 6; D 6).

"This mortals have established, convinced that they are true,
That they are born and are destroyed, are and are not,
Change their place and bright color" (DK 28 B 8; D 8).
The translation that follows preserves the metrical lines in Parmenides's hexameter verse.

"One, continuous. For what birth could you seek for it?
How, from what could it have grown? Not from what is not—I shall not allow
You to say nor to think this: for it cannot be said nor thought
That is not; and what need could have impelled it
To grow later rather than sooner, if it had nothing for its beginning
So it is necessary that it either be completely or not at all.
An neither will any force of belief ever affirm that out of what is not
Something is born beside itself. That is why Justice
Has not, loosening its fetters, allowed it either to be born or to be destroyed,
But holds it fast. The decision on these matters depends upon this:
Is or is not (ἔστιν ἢ οὐκ ἔστιν) Well, it has been decided, as is necessary,
To abandon the one [is not] as unthinkable, unnameable (for this is not
The true road), and thereby that the other [is], by consequence, exists and is real.
How then could what is exist afterward? And how could it be born?
For if it was born, it is not, not any more than if it is going to be someday.
In this way birth is extinguished, and unknowable destruction" (DK 28 B 8; D 8).

An Analysis of Parmenides's Argument

The arguments for the conclusions that "birth is extinguished" and "unknowable [is] destruction" proceed by the method known (in Latin) as reductio ad absurdum. reductio, "a leading" ad, "to" absurdum, "absurdity"

In a reductio ad absurdum proof, we make an assumption and show that we can derive an absurdity. This permits us to discharge the assumption and to assert its negation.

Here is the form in the Gentzen style of natural deduction:

    [assumption]¹
             .
             .
             .
       absurdity
----------------- ¬Introduction, 1
   ¬ assumption

This means that Parmenides's two arguments have the following form:

Assume that some object o comes into existence.
It follows from this assumption that "is not" is true of o before it comes into existence.
This consequence, however, is absurd: "is not" cannot be true of anything.
Hence, contrary to the assumption, no object o comes into existence.

Assume that some object o goes out of existence.
It follows from this assumption that "is not" is true of o after it goes out of existence.
This consequence, however, is absurd: "is not" cannot be true of anything.
Hence, contrary to the assumption, no object o goes out of existence.

In third premise in each of these arguments, thinking that something "is not" is supposed to be absurd because thinking this is supposed to require us to do something impossible.

Why does this thinking require us to do something impossible?

Parmenides's idea seems to be that we must be in contact with something to think about it and that we cannot be in contact with "For it is the same, to think and to be" (DK 28 B 3; D 6).

"[T]hey suppose that thought is sense-perception" (Aristotle, Metaphysics.4.1009b).
what "is not" because what it does not exist.

The New Philosophical Tradition

We can, on reflection, see that Parmenides is doing something interesting.

He frames his argument in terms of "the only roads of investigation for thought" to take. From these starting-points, he argues that "birth is extinguished, and destruction is unknowable."

"What are the only roads of investigation for thought:
The one, that is, and that it is not possible that is not,
Is the path of persuasion, for it accompanies truth.
The other, that is not, and that it is necessary that is not—
I show you that it is a path that cannot be inquired into at all.
For you could not know that which is not (for this is impracticable).
Nor could you show it" (DK 28 B 6; D 6).

"The school of Hesiod, and all the theologists, considered only what was convincing to themselves, and gave no consideration to us" (Aristotle, Metaphysics III.4.1000a).

Plato thinks this is true of some Presocratics too.

"[They] tell us a story (μῦθόν), as if we were children. ... They go on to the end, each in his own way, without caring whether their arguments carry us along with them, or whether we are left behind" (Plato, Sophist 242c, 243a).

Aristotle does not think much of early philosophy either.

"The earliest philosophy speaks inarticulately like a child" (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.10.993a).
This attempt to limit the weight of tradition marks the new discipline of philosophy.

Two Forms of Thinking: Reason and Experience

Why do we believe that things come into and go out of existence?

Parmenides has an explanation.

He thinks that although we should form our beliefs about existence in terms of reason, the much more common way for us to think about things is in terms of experience. Reason reveals the truth, but the habit of relying on experience is ingrained in human beings.

"But as for you, keep your thought away from this road of investigation
And do not let much-experienced habit force you down onto this road
To wield an aimless eye and an echoing ear
And tongue. No, judge by reason (κρῖναι δὲ λόγῳ) the much-disputed refutation
Spoken by me" (DK 28 B 7; D 8). The Greek word translated here as "refutation" is ἔλεγχος. It means more generally "argument of disproof."

Parmenides says that his refutation is "much disputed."

What does he mean?

"Mortals" believe in "birth" and "destruction." This is their "experience," but if they use "reason" to "judge," Parmenides thinks they will see that he is right and that their "experience" has given them false beliefs.

Socrates will rely on the ἔλεγχος in his love of wisdom.

"While I have breath I shall never give up the love of wisdom or stop exhorting you, charging any of you I happen to meet in my accustomed manner: 'You are the best of men, being an Athenian, citizen of a city honored for wisdom and power beyond all others. Are you not ashamed to care for money, and reputation, and public honor, while having no thought or concern for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?' If some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, I shall not immediately dismiss him and go away but shall question, examine, and cross-examine (ἐλέγξω) him, and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue, and yet says he does, I shall rebuke him for counting of more importance things which by comparison are worthless" (Apology 29d).

To convince us that reality is changeless, Parmenides uses premises and reasoning in his arguments that belong to the kind of thinking he calls reason.

Parmenides does not explain what this reason is.

He assumes that the thinking in his "refutation" is something we can use "reason" to judge, but otherwise he does not explain either reason or the thinking he calls experience.

The Mistake the Milesians Make

Against the background of Parmenides's distinction between reason and experience, we can take him to think that Thales and Milesian inquirers depend too much on tradition.

These inquirers use reason in their attempt to get beyond the traditional stories involving the gods, but they also rely on what Parmenides calls "habit born of much experience."

Anaximenes, for example, relies both on reason and experience.

He relies on reason to get beyond the traditional stories involving the gods and to think that the nature of reality does not come into or go out of existence, but he relies on his experience for his belief that when it is raining, water droplets come into existence in the sky and go out of existence in the heat of the sun when they have fallen to the ground.

Anaximenes, from Parmenides's point of view, makes the mistake the Theologists make.

He explains drops of water as portions of air that come into and go out existence with changes in the state of air, but the belief that things come into and go out of existence depends for its authority on the weight of tradition. It is a "habit born of much experience," and reason shows that our confidence in this way of thinking is not something that "accompanies truth."

We might think Parmenides is wrong about what reason shows, but it is important to see how he informs the history: the philosophers will talk about and appeal to reason.





Perseus Digital Library

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

αἰσθάνομαι, aisthanomai, verb, "to perceive, apprehend by the senses"
αἴσθημα, aisthēma, noun, "that which is perceived"
αἴσθησις, aisthēsis, noun, "sense-perception"
αἰσθητός, aisthētos, adjective, "sensible, perceptible" (opposed to νοητός, "thinkable")

-μα is added (Smyth, 841) to verbal stems to form neuter nouns denoting the result of an action.
αἰσθάνομαι "perceive" → αἴσθημα "that which is perceived"     νοέω "think" → νόημα "that which is thought"

-τός is added (Smyth, 472) to verbal stems to form verbal adjectives (adjectives derived from verbs) that express possibility (or have the meaning of a perfect passive participle).
αἰσθάνομαι "perceive" → αἰσθητός "perceivable"     νοέω think → νοητός "thinkable"

δόξα, doxa, noun, "belief" (opinio in Latin)
ἔλεγχος, élenchos, noun, "argument of disproof" or "refutation"
ἐλέγχω, elenchō, verb, "treat a speech with contempt, cross-examine, question"

"I shall... cross-examine (ἐλέγξω) him..." (Plato, Apology 29d).

εμπειρία, empeiria, noun, "experience"
ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, noun, "knowledge"
κρίνω, krinō, verb, "separate, distinguish, discriminate"
κρίσις, krisis, noun, "separating, distinguishing, judgment" (iudicium in Latin)
κριτικός, kritikos, adjective, "ability to discern"

Aristotle thinks that all animals have the capacity to "discriminate," that in non-human animals and children this capacity takes the form of perception and to some extent experience, and that in adults it also occurs in the form of reason.

"[All animals] have an innate power of discrimination (κριτικήν), which we call perception" (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics II.99b).

λόγος, logos, noun, "reason"
Πειθώ, Peithō, name, the goddess "Persuasion"
πειθώ, peithō, noun, name of Πειθώ, "the faculty of persuasion, winning eloquence, persuasiveness"
πείθω, peithō, verb, "persuade"
πολύπειρος, polypeiros, adjective, "much-experienced"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "sensibleness, the ability to behave sensibly"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume V: Western Greek Thinkers, Part 2,




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