TA112 (Müller)

Response 14 (addition to R9)

by Herbert FJ Müller
3 November 2009, posted 7 November 2009


Parmenides  The  Metaphysician  Versus  Parmenides  The  Reality-Designer

The occidental tradition of metaphysics goes back to before Plato and Aristotle, to an opinion which Parmenides said a goddess conveyed to him :  that 'it is and cannot not be' (Fragm. B6), apparently meaning that reality is independent of thinking (i.e., reality excludes the subject, with the result of an inversion of thinking).   

The opinion that the object of belief must exist and must be found by the mind and not by the senses was transmitted from Parmenides to Plato (Furley 1967), and became the foundation of metaphysics-ontology.   The  ‘senses versus mind’  (appearances versus reality)  distinction  is closely related, it seems to me, to the one between gestalt function versus object-completion.   But the object of belief is understood here (by Parmenides, Plato, and others) without  the subject’s structuring activity.   The crucial point is that they assumed reality to be mind-independently pre-structured, and found in such a pre-structured state by humans who only uncover it.

But the goddess had also earlier told Parmenides that 'knowing and being are identical' (
το γαρ αυτό νοεΐν εστίν τε καί είναι, Fragm. Β 1.3), implying that the subject’s thinking activity determines reality.  And this is where the needed correction of the ontological error, which resulted in the inversion of thinking, might come from :  the subject, not an imaginary authority called nature (or a goddess), is in charge of pragmatically structuring ongoing subject-and-object-and-all-inclusive experience.   At a minimum this statement is compatible with the concept of structuring in the encompassing-unstructured matrix, here for instance in the form of the early Greek concept of ‘apeiron’, and also with the oriental traditions of the unstructured origin and aim we have discussed.  

The first-mentioned opinion of Parmenides (B6) thus corresponds to the belief in mind-independently pre-structured reality (ontology-metaphysics), and the earlier one (B1.3) to subject-inclusive reality-structuring (design) in the unstructured.    Parmenides seems to have thought that the two opinions are mutually compatible, though I find it difficult to see how that can be;  he might have seen ‘knowing’ as the activity of finding the pre-structured reality  -  which would make it ambiguous. 

Parmenides  The  Reality-Designer  Versus  Heidegger  The  Ontologist

In this context, I should mention that Heidegger has presented an extensive discussion of this  statement of Parmenides (B1.3),  that knowing and being are the same (and of the first chorus in Sophocles’  tragedy ‘Antigone’), in his ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ (1935 pp.88 ff).   But his conclusion from there is different (in  Heidegger’s Greek):   φύσιϛ = λόγοϛνθρωπον ἔχων: physis = logos anthropon echon’, that  ‘the being has and founds human existence’, replacing the usual άνθρωποϛ = ζῷον λόγου χον:anthropos = zoon logon echon’, man as animal rationale (p.134), which he found was ‘too zoological’.  

To me his opinion is quite puzzling, and Heidegger remarked himself  that his interpretation may be seen as controversial.    If we take his statement literally, we subjects  ‘are being had and founded’  by a fictitious ontic entity called ‘the being’ (‘physis’, ‘das Sein’, later ‘das Seyn’), which is his favourite idea (central for instance in ‘Sein und Zeit’), and is used in pursuing his wish to arrive at a  ‘fundamental ontology’  based on phenomenology.   This proposition strikes me as self-contradictory, like some other proposals by phenomenologists;   namely all those who still allow the interpretation that objects are  ‘given’  as such, and this paradoxically on the basis of phenomenology. 

Heidegger’s conclusion differs from the one presented above,  that Parmenides’ view that  knowing and  being are the same  keeps the way to the unstructured open.   And until further notice I will stick to that proposal, in which onta, ‘being’ and ‘beings’,  (as well as ‘time’)  are  not primary and in-themselves, but  human stabilizing and handling tools,   not permanent but in principle always operational and temporary.   



Furley DJ (1967),  Parmenides of Elea.  In Edwards P. Ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  MacMillan Co., Inc, & The Free Press :  New York;   Collier MacMillan Publishers : London.

Heidegger M (lecture 1935, printed 1953 / 1998),   Einführung in die Metaphysik.  (157 pp.)   Max Niemeyer Verlag  :  Tübingen.

Kranz W (1949)  Vorsokratische Denker. Auswahl aus dem Überlieferten. Griechisch und Deutsch.  Weidmann : Frankfurt/M.


Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <Herbert.muller (at) McGill.ca>