Parmenides of Elea (c.510-? 440 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Parmenides of Elea (c.510-? 440 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? We really don’t know of him as much. Fragments of a poem called ‘on Nature’ are all that have survived so far. But nonetheless, what we have of him is when he tried to prove that change is not possible. His position stands in stark contrast to Heraclitus. He argued that reality is singular, undivided and uniform. In the beginning of his poem, ‘The Way of Truth’, which was revealed to him by a goddess as he claimed, he distinguishes between an investigation into what is and what is not. Lao Tzu, one of the authors of ‘Tao Te Ch’ing’ said the Dao, as it is pronounced, is beyond ‘is’ and ‘is not’. The Tao being beyond any duality cannot accept being and non-being.

Parmenides believed that ‘one cannot know that which is not- that is impossible- nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought, that is’. At this juncture he didn’t realize that even ‘is’ could be an illusion.

The essence of this little hidden or mysterious argument is that to think of something which is not, for example a unicorn we must be thinking of something. In other words, there must be some idea existing in our mind, namely the idea of a unicorn, a horse like creature with a single horn on its head. However, when we think of a unicorn this would mean that the unicorn or its idea exists in our mind. Thus, it couldn’t be said in reality that unicorns don’t exist entirely even though we took a horned horse as an example. We know what horns are, on the one hand, and what horses are on the other. We put them together and come up with such an animal, which doesn’t exist in reality. But nevertheless, its idea exists in the mind though we were not born with it. We’re the ones who put them together. In fact, he would have maintained that unicorns have mental existence.

The argument is focused on two complicated issues. First of all, what do we mean by ‘exists’ here?

Real definition of the word ‘existence’, of course, is ‘outstanding’. The term ‘existence’ is a combination of ‘ex’ and ‘standing’. What is the difference between that which exists in the world and what exists in the mind? This starts a debate which will appear again throughout much of the history of philosophy. For instance, it surfaced in Anselm’s ontological argument on the existence f God 1500 years later, which was eventually rejected by Immanuel Kant in 18th century. It seems as if Kant wanted to get rid of the personal God including Jesus as an avatar or incarnation.

Second of all, what are the relations among thoughts, words, and things? If that disputation began with Parmenides, it has burdened almost every famous philosopher ever since such as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V. Quine.

Parmenides argued that when we think of something, we automatically give it some resemblance of existence. That is why we cannot think of something which is not. Thus, we can only think of what is. The second part of his deductive reasoning is the first instance of a formal deduction in the history of Western philosophy. To think of something referrers to the existence of something that is not. If something is yellow, then this means it is not green. If something is a man, then it would mean it is not a cat. If something is a house, then it is not a boat. However, since through his former argument he showed us that negative existential claims are not possible, it looks as if one cannot make positive existential discrimination either. If I were to distinguish X from Y, then it would mean X is not Y. This is exactly what Parmenides warned us to stay from. Thus, we cannot logically discriminate among things in the world. According to him we’re only able to say that everything is as a result the true nature of reality is that which is- should be of undivided, uniform and single entity.

Through the same argument he tried to explain why change is also not possible. If we could think of something which will exist in the future, then it must also exist in our mind now. If we could remember something or someone that passed away, then they should also be present to our mind at the time we’re thinking of them. Hence, coming into being and passing away are nothing but illusions. Finally he concluded that change is an illusion. Everything in the universe is one, undivided, changeless and eternal. In Hinduism, going back to thousands of years before Parmenides, time and change were illusions called MAYA.

Let us think for a moment, when we try to walk and before we start at one point we’re stationary and once we take the first stride, we’re moving forward. However, as we move we leave a vacuum behind. In logic only nothing can come from nothing and only something can come from something. Something cannot come from nothing and yet, as we can see, every step is the manifestation of something coming out of nothing. This alone must make us think, is it possible Parmenides was right in his claim? If there’s no constant, motion has no meaning. If the station moves with the train, then what is the meaning of change?

It is obvious that modern folks who study Parmenides’ philosophy would think though his logic is valid but it is not sound. Apparently with the rise of modern philosophical logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries negative existential claims were understood. But regardless of the historical significance of the first known effort at logical deduction, which was later to be perfected in the works of Aristotle, Parmenides is important for shedding light on the difficult to understand parts and logical complications embedded in the notions of existence and the connection among language, thought and reality.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes)