Plato, Parmenides and Heraclitus

Ozzy asked:

Heraclitus says that everything is changing all the time. List at least two problems with believing this. Do you think that they can be overcome?

Miriam asked:

Could you please tell me what Socrates speech in Plato’s dialogue ‘Parmenides’ is about? in your opinion?

Paula asked:

Explain what it means for Plato to side with Parmenides more than Heraclitus.

Peter asked:

How did Plato resolve the problem of permanence?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m taking these questions together because they all relate in one way or another to Plato’s theory of Forms. Parmenides and Heraclitus were Plato’s great predecessors. I am going to say something controversial here: Plato agreed with Parmenides and he also agreed with Heraclitus. They were both ‘right’ as far as he was concerned.

What are Forms? The common explanations I’ve seen of this are misleading at best. I remember as a school student in Chemistry first hearing about Plato’s belief that there is an ‘Ideal Table’, a heavenly Table that all actual tables more or less closely resemble. And similarly for all other things that we recognize and give a name to. This is complete piffle, as I will explain below.

In answer to each question:

No, Ozzy, there was no real problem for Heraclitus in the notion that ‘everything is changing all the time’ although there seems to be. If everything is changing all the time, how is it that we are able to refer to things, or recognize something as ‘the same again’? If everything is changing all the time how is it that all sorts of things that we see around us don’t seem to change?

The answer isn’t ‘some things change very slowly so it isn’t a problem’ (I’ve actually seen this proposed by a dimwitted commentator) but rather that there is one thing that is universal and can never change: the Logos. The Logos describes the rules by which things appear to change or not change, transform into other things rapidly or over a longer period of time. If you have Logos you don’t need permanent ‘stuff’ as well. All there is, is the Logos and appearances. You can think of the Logos as ‘the laws of nature’ but Heraclitus had something much more abstract in mind then a specific set of rules. Logos is rationality, reason itself. The human soul is part of, or participates in the Logos. That is how you and I are able to reason things out — because of a fundamental ‘fit’ between our minds and reality. Brilliant!

Miriam, I don’t know which ‘speech’ you are referring to specifically but I can guess. In Plato’s late (and arguably greatest) dialogue Parmenides the young Socrates meets the elderly Parmenides (a meeting that so far as we know did not actually take place). In the first part of the dialogue, Parmenides quizzes Socrates on his thoughts about the Forms, then in the second part Socrates turns the tables and gives Parmenides’ theory of the One a thorough working over.

The first question Parmenides puts to Socrates is deceptively simple: what sort of things have Forms? Is there a Form for hair? How about a Form for mud? Oh, no! says Socrates, not that kind of stuff. ‘That is because you are still young,’ remarks Parmenides, condescendingly, ‘When you are older you will learn not to despise such things.’

Why would there be a Form for hair? Human beings have hair, it is one of their constant, universal attributes. Why is that? Why are any attributes of anything universal? Why don’t some ‘human beings’ have metal spikes instead of hair? Why do we find life in general divided into kinds? Mud looks more like a random a mixture of stuff — you can have every kind of mud, and between any two samples of different kinds of mud, you can mix the two together. But if you think of mud as made from water and earth, then you may begin to see that the physical properties of mud are not so random after all.

Paula, you are just plain wrong in saying that Plato ‘sided more with Parmenides than Heraclitus’. Or, rather, your teacher is. (I’m guessing that this was a question you were given.) Parmenides realized that apart from all the things we talk about or perceive around us, the things about which we say, ‘it is’, or ‘it is not’, there has to be something that simply IS, full stop. Things change IN reality, but reality, what IS, cannot change. He called this the One. There are various ways of spelling this out — and much controversy over exactly what Parmenides meant — but I’ll keep things simple. A few days ago, you posted your question on Ask a Philosopher. That’s a fact. It will still be a fact in 1000 years time, or after the human race has become extinct. What IS, is, and can never not be.

As I’ve already explained, Heraclitus is not in fundamental disagreement with the idea that what IS is unchanging. The Logos IS. The notion that the Logos could be different from one day, or millennium, to another is something Heraclitus would never have entertained for one second. Reason just IS reason. ‘Fire’, ‘strife’, ‘war’ describe both metaphorically and literally the result of the continuing and unchanging hand of the Logos that ‘governs all things’.

Finally, Peter. What is the problem of permanence? Reading Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, the same question comes up again and again: how is it that we seem to have notions of human virtues, like ‘justice’, ‘courage’, ‘temperance’ — show by the fact that we just know when an offered definition is wrong? His answer was, because these things simply are, and never change. What human beings mistakenly or correctly call ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ is determined by the unchanging fact of Justice itself.

But, as I’ve already explained, concrete reality shows the same features as our abstract ethical concepts. Gold is always gold, horses are always horses. Gold will always have the same density. Search as hard as you like, you won’t find a continuum of animals ranging between a typical horse and a typical lion. Because they fall into ‘natural kinds’. The notion of an underlying explanation of things falling into kinds in terms of the atomist theory of Democritus and Leucippus seemed at the time far fetched or even impossible. By the principle of ‘insufficient reason’ there are atoms of every shape and size, moving randomly. How could that possibly give rise to gold, or horses?

It could be argued the greatest invention of all time was the lens (according to Wikipedia, some time between the 11th and 13th centuries) because it led to the discovery of the ordered world of the microscopic. and eventually the possibility of explanation in terms of microstructure — the laws of physics, chemistry and biochemistry. Take that away, and there’s a massive gap that can only be filled by the notion that natural kinds arise from a Logos, an ultimate classifying principle built in to the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Plato’s Forms.

What about the ideal Table, then? Plato actually uses this as an example in his dialogue Republic to explain the Forms, but he doesn’t mean simply that there is a Form of the table, in the same way as there is a Form of the human. Tables exist in a variety of shapes and sizes, but anything that is literally a ‘table’ that we use as a table (by contrast with Table Mountain, or a doll’s house table) references human need. A table is like the ground, but higher up for convenience. You can deduce the range of constructed items that satisfy the requirements of being a table from the Form of the human. For example, the range of possible lengths of a table leg. Unlike human beings, tables are made by carpenters according to specifications and plans. Folding, not folding, square, round, rectangular, and so on. This is like the way the Form of the human gives rise to the variety of human beings. But only like. It’s an analogy, nothing more.

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