Plato, Parmenides and the One

Delicia asked:

Why did Plato disagree with Parmenides’ philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

For me, this is a question of more than historic interest. But, first, the textual evidence.

Plato’s late dialogue Parmenides records a fictionalized meeting between the young Socrates and Parmenides where the two great philosophers take turns to criticize one another’s views.

In the first part of the Parmenides, by far the most studied, Parmenides argues against Plato’s theory of Forms, here attributed to the young Socrates, although we cannot be sure how close Socrates and Plato were on this question. You may have come across the ‘Third Man Argument’ which Parmenides uses to undermine the theory of Forms dialectically, by means of an argument from vicious regress.

In the second part of the Parmenides, Socrates employs his dialectical method to reduce the Parmenidean theory of the eternal and unchanging One to various kinds of self-contradiction. Current views are divided as to how seriously this part was meant to be taken. Was it just an exercise for Plato’s students? The general problem is that, when dealing with ultimate questions, it is not at all surprising that we should encounter contradictions and paradoxes, not to mention language simply giving out.

Hegel attacked this problem but, again, there are many who are unconvinced by his story of dialectical ‘triads’ starting with Being-Nothing-Becoming. – To say this is, of course, incredibly glib, but I’m assuming that reading Hegel’s ‘Logic’ is not part of your assignment. (I admire Hegel’s dialectic but I don’t believe it. I am (even) less qualified to talk about Plotinus who attempted a not dissimilar task.)

Rather than get entangled in textual debate, I would like to consider the matter afresh. Yes, I do think that Parmenides was onto something. There is something Real, something that is, or could be termed, ‘ultimate’. But, if there is, what can we legitimately say about it? And how to connect the ultimate Real to the familiar world of appearances, of ‘sights and sounds’ as Plato calls it?

In the surviving recorded fragments of Parmenides’ writings, an account of the world of appearance is offered, but so far as I am aware no scholar has been able to find the argument that connects the world of appearances to the One. Parmenides basically says, ‘This is my account of appearances, take it or leave it, but whatever you do, don’t mistake this for the truth, as so many humans foolishly do.’

That’s just not good enough. The task that we are given is saving appearances. An an account of Reality that fails to save appearances, that is to say, fails to account for the very fact that there is a ‘world of appearance’, cannot be adequate. That was Plato’s impetus and challenge.

His response was the theory of Forms. Like the Presocratic philosophers who came after Parmenides, he was willing to give the status of the ‘eternal and unchanging’ to something other than just the One. He proposed entities he called ‘Forms’. There would not be this world of appearances unless there was some kind of blueprint or template from which particular copies could be made. Unlike the example of a negative and a photographic print, however, the original is not in the world but outside it.

One question here is how many Forms we need, and Plato is Plato is not at all clear on this point. Are there Forms of disgusting things like mud or hair, for example, as the fictional Parmenides asks in Plato’s dialogue? Is there just one Form of dog, or mammal, or animal? What about different varieties of dogs? What should we say about the Form of ‘motor car’ or ‘computer’?

Although I’m not a great fan of Forms, I can see a connection here to simulation theory, the idea that this world of appearances has been created out of 1s and 0s in a galactic super-computer. The problem here is that that’s just more of the same. A ‘super-computer’, whatever it is made of, is just more stuff, just more of ‘something that appears’.

For me, the big question concerns contingency. As Parmenides argues, if ‘nothing’ is unthinkable then, of necessity, something ‘is’. The One is necessary. That’s the beginning of an answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The next step is the one that is crucial: how to get from the One to this world of appearances? Is there a coherent story to tell here? Can you see a way to improve on Plato’s response? At whatever level you look at the world, you encounter things that ‘could have been otherwise’. There might not have been any dogs (or wolves, etc.). Or the so-called ‘laws of nature’ might have been different.

Theists will appeal to the ‘God’ theory at this point. Plato had ‘the Good’ as the highest Form, that somehow, in a way not explained, accounts for all the rest. Can we accept, then, as an alternative, that contingency itself is, in some sense an ‘ultimate’? Or is that thought unthinkable, as Einstein thought when he remarked that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’?

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