There once was a philosopher named Parmenides. Parmenides was from the island of Elea in ancient Greece, so he and other Presocratic philosophers who thought like him are now called the Eleatics. Parmenides wrote down his thoughts in the form of a dense and confusing poem, irritating scholars like Jonathan Barnes who said he found this choice “hard to excuse” (122).
In his poem, Parmenides seems to have said that there is only one thing, and that this one thing is eternal, unchanging, and everywhere the same. Parmenides even said that this one thing is in some sense like a sphere, and some historians of ancient philosophy think he meant that it literally is a sphere.
You might think Parmenides is dumb, because reality doesn’t look like it is just some big, bland, possibly spherical unity. But Parmenides’s whole point was that things just aren’t the way they look—and isn’t that often true? Parmenides suggested that if we just think everything through carefully enough, we will discover that things are the way he says, not the way they look. So if you already have decided that Parmenides is dumb because of the way things look to you, then maybe you are the one who is dumb. To settle who is dumb, or at least who is wrong (smart people can disagree with one another, you know) we have to look at the reasons Parmenides gave for his startling claim.
What are his reasons? Here’s where Parmenides seems to start: if I say “Meow-Meow is a fluffy cat,” what makes it the case that I am talking about my cat? A natural idea is that what makes it the case that I am talking about my cat is that I am pointing at my cat with my words. But if we think this kind of pointing is what makes words refer to something, what happens when someone tries to talk about something that doesn’t exist? It’s awfully hard to point at something that isn’t there. So if the notion of talking about things as pointing is right, then words that might seem at first to refer to nonexistent things actually don’t refer at all. And this, in turn, would seem to mean that those words are nonsense: they may sound like they mean something, but they actually don’t. And whatever goes for words presumably also goes for thoughts: the same kind of problem comes up when you try to think about things that don’t exist.
Parmenides expresses all of this by saying that one cannot speak or think of that which is not. You can form the words with your mouth or in your head, but the words don’t actually mean anything. And Parmenides thinks his wild conclusions follow from our not being able to do this:
1. Nothing changes. For Meow-Meow to change from a kitten into an adult cat would mean that at first there is no adult cat and then later there is no kitten. So, talking about Meow-Meow changing means talking about two things that are not: first a nonexistent adult cat, and then a nonexistent kitten. Since we can’t do this, says Parmenides (because we cannnot speak or think of that which is not) we can’t ever say or think that anything changes.
2. There is only one thing. If Meow-Meow and I both exist, then that would mean that there is at least one thing that is not me, and there is also at least one thing that is not Meow-Meow. Now, it isn’t completely clear why Parmenides thinks this is a problem: isn’t it easy to point to existing things that aren’t Meow-Meow? Maybe Parmenides thinks that to say that something is not Meow-Meow means to point at the absence of the characteristic of being Meow-Meow—that certainly seems like it might be hard to do, since an absence isn’t a thing in itself. However he gets to it, Parmenides thinks that talking about different things means talking about that which is not. Since we can’t do the latter, we can’t say there are different things.
3. The one thing is the same everywhere. If there were differences you could point to, then there would be parts that are some way and parts that are not that way, but you can’t talk or think about the parts that are not that way since you can’t talk or think about that which is not.
4. The one thing is a sphere or sort of like a sphere. It is at least like a sphere in that it is the same in every direction, for the same reason that it is the same everywhere.
Is the argument we are attributing to Parmenides a good argument? Probably not. However, this does not make the argument dumb. One of the most important lessons one can learn from philosophy is that it is one thing to be confident that an argument goes wrong somewhere, but quite another to say exactly what the problem is. This is one of the things that has always attracted me to philosophy: it offers so many arguments whose conclusions seem patently absurd, and yet it is extraordinarily difficult to settle where, if anywhere, those arguments go wrong. Even when we think we have located the source of the problem, we may be surprised; for instance, the most obvious culprit in Parmenides’s argument probably is the pointing notion of meaning, but without his argument we might never have realized that there was anything wrong with that notion. We might still not be sure what to put in its place.
1 Not that poetry is always a bad medium for philosophy. The Roman philosopher Lucretius expressed himself in very clear poetry that anyone can understand. But Parmenides seems to have used poetry as an excuse to be vague and unclear, and real philosophers hate vagueness and unclarity, whether in poetry or prose.
J Barnes. 1982. The Presocratic Philosophers: Revised Edition. London: Routledge.