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Fr. 373

August 19, 2013

Parmenides’ account of the inability of mortals to acquire knowledge of reality in fragments B6 and B8 centers on different aspects of a single distinction. Simply, mortals typically consider reality or existence to be something other than that which it is in fact; the physical world traditionally characterized as existence or the real is nothing more than appearance.

In B6, Parmenides remarks: “What can be said and be thought must be; for it can be, and nothing cannot (81, B6.1-2).” Simply put, Parmenides’ argument consist in the following premises. Mortals possess the ability to think of or conceptualize objects. It is impossible for mortals to formulate genuine thoughts either of nothing or of things that do not exist. Hence, Parmenides concludes that that which a mortal can think or conceive must exist. The thinkable is not merely possible; the thinkable necessarily exists.

This property of the thinkable as indubitably real comes, however, with certain limitations and qualifications. While it is possible for a mortal to consider a griffin in detail, that does not necessitate that the image of the mythical beast possess a real-world correlate. Parmenides might contend that this image is not properly thinking; after all, the mortal utilizes her imagination to treat such a beast rather than engaging what might be said to be real. Thus, the qualification of “genuine” thoughts might be imposed in order to prevent such fantasies being lent an air of authenticity. Yet a tension immediately arises within his system as Parmenides elsewhere strongly distinguishes between reality and appearances within the world itself. Those physical objects that mortals might typically regard as possessing reality are, in fact, little more than appearances and are, thus, illusory. By contrast, reality consists in the absolute or totality underlying those objects apprehended by the senses. As a result, that which is, in truth, fundamental reality qua infinity and perfection cannot easily be conceptualized by finite beings reliant on sense-perception. This casts some doubt on Parmenides’ claim that the thinkable necessarily exists. It seems likely, however, that Parmenides would treat this disjuncture as characteristic of the mortal lack of comprehension.

In B8, Parmenides emphasizes the ungenerability of the absolute in the following passage: “…it is ungenerated and indestructible. Nor was it ever, nor will it be, since now it is, all together, one, continuous. For what generation will you seek for it?…what need would have impelled it…to spring up – if it began from nothing? Thus it must either altogether be or not be (82-83, B8.3-11).” The contention laid out above is rather straightforward. A mortal might suppose that the world came into existence at some time p. Two options for the generation of reality present themselves. Either reality came into existence from nothing, or it came into existence from something. In the former case, Parmenides underscores the impossibility of anything coming into existence from nothing; there would be nothing to impel it to do so. In the latter, Parmenides emphasizes that even if something generated reality at some time p, this reality would not then have existed at any time prior to p. In order for a thing to exist, it must always exist; its timeline is continuous. The current reality would then represent a change from the previous, a possibility denied by Parmenides’ formulation of the absolute (i.e. existence) as eternal. This second contention seems, however, to be ruled out by Parmenides’ definition of existence rather than any formal proof. Change is only truly precluded if the present reality could not have come into being from another reality or composite of properties; the argument provided does not seem to convincingly eliminate this possibility.

Later in the same fragment (B8), Parmenides turns to the issue of the distinction between appearance and reality, central in B6. Here he elaborates: “Hence all things are a name which mortals have stored up, trusting them to be true – coming into being and perishing, being and not being, and changing place and altering bright color” (83-84, B8.38-41). The premises follow from that which Parmenides has previously contended concerning fundamental reality and sensory objects. Mortals do not properly recognize that which actually exists; they take the phenomenal world to be reality. Simply, they take to be real those things for which they have “stored up” a name or reference. Convention grounds this reality, rather than the strictly metaphysical view afforded by Parmenides’ analysis of the absolute. This elucidates the limited manner in which Parmenides’ conception of the absolute can be thought to engage considerations linked to phenomenal reality. It renders the physical world wholly illusory. The absolute or infinite simply does not account for sensate properties in a way that can properly locate them within the model of reality he has devised, and it therefore remains ambiguous what mortals are to do in order to transcend it.

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