Thursday, November 12, 2015

Allen’s misrepresentation of Plato’s Parmenides

After finishing his exposition of the greatest difficulty concerning the Forms, Parmenides reflects on the whole preceding discussion concerning the Forms. He opens his remarks with the words: ‘These, and many other difficulties on top of these, necessarily pertain to the Forms (tauta mentoi kai eti alla pros toutois panu polla anankaion echein ta eidê), if these Forms of beings exist (ei eisin hautai hai ideai tȏn ontȏn), and if one is going to define each Form itself (kai horieitai tis auto ti hekaston eidos, 134e9-135a3).

Allen paraphrases: ‘Parmenides now suggests that difficulties or aporiai such as these, and more in addition, are inevitable, if Ideas are to be distinguished as things by themselves, apart from sensibles.’ (R. E. Allen, ‘Comment’, in Plato’s Parmenides, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 203)

Parmenides goes on to say, in Allen’s translation: ‘The result is that the hearer is perplexed (hȏste aporein te ton akouonta) and contends that they do not exist (kai amphisbêtein hȏs oute esti tauta), and that even if their existence is conceded (ei te hoti malista eiê), they are necessarily unknowable by human nature (pollê anankê auta einai têi anthrȏpinêi phusei agnȏsta, 135a3-5).

Allen paraphrases: ‘The hearer will be perplexed, and argue that Ideas do not exist, and that even if they do, they are unknowable to us.’ (loc. cit.)

Parmenides goes on to say, in Allen’s translation: ‘In saying this (kai tauta legonta), he thinks he is saying something significant and (dokein te ti legein kai), as we just remarked (ho arti elegomen), it’s astonishingly hard to convince him to the contrary (thaumastȏs hȏs dusanapeiston einai). Only a man of considerable natural gifts (kai andros panu men euphuous) will be able to understand (tou dunêsomenou mathein) that there is a certain kind of each thing (hȏs esti ti genos hekastou), a nature and reality alone by itself (kai ousia autê kath’ hautên), and it will take a man more remarkable still to discover it (eti de thaumastoterou tou heurêsontos) and be able to instruct someone else (kai allon dunêsomenou didaxai) who has examined all these difficulties with sufficient care (tauta panta hikanȏs dieukrinêsamenon).’ (135a5-b2)

Allen remarks: ‘It will be observed that Parmenides does not suppose that the arguments against participation cannot be solved. He rather supposes they can be solved, but that it will take a man of remarkable gifts to solve them.

It is evident from this single passage that Parmenides does not suppose that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are a mere tissue of fallacies. On the contrary, they are deep and serious, and raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained. Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care.’ (loc. cit.)

Pace Allen, nothing in what Parmenides said suggests that he ‘does not suppose that his criticisms’ (tauta), ‘and many other difficulties on top of these’ (kai eti alla pros toutois panu polla, 134e9-135a1) can be solved. On the contrary, he maintains that these difficulties ‘necessarily pertain to the Forms’ (anankaion echein ta eidê, 135a1). Yet he views all these criticisms of the theory of Ideas as false. When he says that a man who voices such criticisms ‘thinks he is saying something’ (dokein ti legein), he implies that ‘he is saying nothing’ (ouden legei). Criticisms that Parmenides had raised will be irrelevant to a person who finds the Forms.

Allen’s ‘he thinks he is saying something significant’ is too weak to render the force of dokein ti legein at 135a6, yet even his weak rendering chimes strangely with his insistence that Parmenides’ criticisms of the theory ‘are deep and serious, and raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained;’ it remains unaccounted for in his interpretation of the passage.

The passage, which closes the discussion concerning the difficulties ‘of necessity pertaining to the Forms’, is closely linked to the passage that opened the exposition of ‘the greatest difficulty’; Parmenides’ words ‘as we just remarked, it’s astonishingly hard to convince him to the contrary (thaumastȏs hȏs dusanapeiston einai)’ (135a6-7) refer to his words ‘one could not show to him that he is saying a falsity (hoti pseudetai), unless the objector happened to be a man of great experience and natural ability, willing to follow a man who would show him the Forms in the course of a copious and lengthy undertaking. Otherwise, the man who compels them to be unknowable would be left unconvinced (all’ apithanos eiê ho agnȏsta anankazȏn auta einai)’ (133b6-c1) Plato’s dusanapeiston hard to convince’ at 135a7 elucidates the meaning of apithanos ‘unconvinced’ at 133c1.

Socrates fully agrees with Parmenides’ unequivocal dismissal of all objections against the Forms as irrelevant to a man who finds the Forms (tou heurêsontos): ‘I agree with you, Parmenides, for you’re saying very much what I think too (Sunchȏrȏ soi, ȏ Parmenidê, panu gar moi kata noun legeis, 135b3-4, tr. Allen).’

Socrates’ appreciation emphasizes the importance of what Parmenides has just said. But left as such, it would mean that the young Socrates could return to his theory of Forms, all objections against it having been thrown away. But this would obfuscate the difference Parmenides makes between Socrates who conceived the Forms he can’t uphold and a man who is to come, who will find the Forms immune to any objections and any criticism. And so Parmenides disregards Socrates’ enthusiastic agreement, and says: ‘Nevertheless (Alla mentoi), if someone (ei ge tis dê), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates), again will not allow that there are the Forms of things that are (au mê easei eidê tȏn ontȏn einai), seeing all the present difficulties and others like them (eis panta ta nundê kai alla toiauta apoblepsas), and will not define as something a Form of each single thing (mêde ti horieitai eidos henos hekastou), he will not even have where to turn his mind (oude hopoi trepsei tên dianoian hexei), not allowing a Form of each of the things that are to be ever the same (mê eȏn idean tȏn ontȏn hekastou tên autên aei einai); and so he will utterly destroy the power of discourse (kai houtȏs tên tou dialegesthai dunamin pantapasi diaphtherei). But you seem to me to be only too well aware of this (tou toioutou men oun moi dokeis kai mallon êisthêsthai).’ – Socrates: ‘You are right (Alêthê legeis).’ – Parmenides: ‘What will you do about philosophy, then (Ti oun poiêseis philosophias peri)? Whither will you turn (pêi trepsêi) with these things unknown (agnooumenȏn toutȏn)? – Socrates: ‘I don’t think at all that I can see (Ou panu moi dokȏ kathoran), at least at present (en ge tȏi paronti).’ (135b5-c7)

Allen’s ‘Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them [i. e. the difficulties that of necessity pertain to the Forms] through with sufficient care’ is unobjectionable if it refers to the young Socrates who went to Zeno’s lecture and confronted Zeno and Parmenides with his theory of Forms, such as similarity, which makes all similar things similar, beauty, which makes all beautiful things beautiful, justice, which makes all just things just (130e5-131a3). But this is not what Allen can mean, for in his ‘Comment’ he maintains that the historical Socrates could not have spoken as he will here be made to speak, the chief topic of discussion being the Theory of Ideas (op. cit. p. 74): ‘the theory criticized is essentially that of the Phaedo and Republic’ (op. cit. p. 105).  – So what can Allen possibly mean? How could Plato derogate his most mature works in the way that Allen’s words appear to indicate: ‘Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care’?

Next, Allen says: ‘If the criticisms are not trivial, neither are they fatal. Parmenides supposes not only that they can be solved but that they must be solved, and he gives his reason: if the existence of Ideas is denied, intelligence will have no object, and the power and significance of discourse will be utterly destroyed. In short, the man who has criticized the theory of Ideas subscribes to the theory he has criticized. His arguments are not to be understood as a refutation of that theory, but as a set of perplexities that must be thought through if that theory is to be understood. The criticisms are answerable, and the answers must be found if philosophy is to be pursued.’ (loc. cit.)

Allen’s remark refers to Parmenides 135b5-c2 quoted above. There is nothing in this passage, or anywhere else in the dialogue, that suggests that the criticisms of the theory of the Forms ‘not only can be solved but must be solved’.

Allen is right when he says that Parmenides’ ‘arguments are not to be understood as a refutation of that theory’, but he is wrong when he says that these arguments are to be seen ‘as a set of perplexities that must be thought through if that theory is to be understood … the answers must be found if philosophy is to be pursued.’ The Republic remains Plato’s paradeigma when he writes the Laws, his last work (Laws 739b8-e3).

Aristotle viewed the criticisms raised by Parmenides as valid and as fatal to the theory both in his first book of Metaphysics, in which he speaks as a member of Plato’s Academy, and in the 13th book, in which he disassociates himself from Platonists. What Aristotle had to explain was how it was possible that Plato was immune against any conceivable criticisms of the theory of Forms, for this is what the Parmenides was all about.

Aristotle explains in the 1st book of the Metaphysics: Plato in his youth (ek neou) embraced the Heraclitean doctrines ‘that all things are in constant flux’ (hȏs hapantȏn aei reontȏn). Engrossed in the Heraclitean view, Plato encountered Socrates who focussed his attention to moral terms (peri ta êthika pragmateuomenou) and ‘brought his mind to a standstill, fixing his mind on definitions’ (peri horismȏn epistêsantos tên dianoian). Plato realized ‘that the entities on which Socrates’ mind was fixed and brought to a standstill were different from things perceptible by our senses (hȏs peri heterȏn touto gignomenon kai ou tȏn aisthêtȏn), and he called the entities of this kind Forms (houtos men oun ta men toiauta tȏn ontȏn ideas prosêgoreuse)’. (987a33-b8) According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato was twenty, when this happened: ‘At first he used to study philosophy … as a follower of Heraclitus. Afterwards, when he was about to compete for the prize with a tragedy, he listened to Socrates in front of the theatre of Dionysus, and then consigned his poems to the flames … From that time onward, having reached his twentieth year (so it is said), he was the pupil of Socrates (III. 5-6).’ This means, in the light of the introductory scene of the Parmenides, that Plato knew of the criticisms directed against the Forms before he discovered the Forms immune against all that criticism or was acquainted with it shortly afterwards. One can imagine the pleasure Antiphon had derived from teasing his older half-brother simply by diligently reciting all the criticisms he had learnt from his friend Pythodorus, criticisms pronounced by Parmenides, a great philosopher.

Let me return to Parmenides’ prediction that there will come a man who will discover the Forms ‘and will be able to instruct someone else (kai allon dunêsomenou didaxai) who has examined all these difficulties with sufficient care (tauta panta hikanȏs dieukrinêsamenon)’. Allen unduly narrows down Parmenides’ tauta panta by translating it ‘all these difficulties’. Tauta panta means ‘all these things’, and at this junction it refers to everything that has been said so far. Only a man who rightly judged dieukrinêsamenon all that he was told in the Parmenides (tauta panta), who realized that all possible criticisms of the Forms were irrelevant as far as the Forms were concerned, had a chance of reaching the Forms by studying the Republic.

Aristotle’s passionate plea directed against the Forms in the 1st book of the Metaphysics indicates that after Plato’s departure for Sicily the Parmenides had the effect Plato had hoped for: ‘In general, though philosophy seeks the cause of perceptible things (holȏs de zêtousês tês sophias peri tȏn phanerȏn to aition), we have given this up (touto men eiakamen), for we say nothing of the cause (outhen gar legomen peri tês aitias) from which change takes its start (hothen hê archê tês metabolês); but while we fancy we are stating the substance of perceptible things (tên d’ ousian oiomenoi legein autȏn), we assert the existence of other substances (heteras men ousias einai phamen), while our account of the way in which they are the substances of perceptible things (hopȏs d’ ekeinai toutȏn ousiai) is empty talk (dia kenês legomen); for ‘sharing’ (to gar metechein), as we said before (hȏsper kai proteron eipomen), means nothing  (outhen estin)’ (992a24-29, tr. W. D. Ross with a minor change; Ross translates heteras men ousias einai phamen ‘we assert the existence of a second class of substances’, I have translated ‘we assert the existence of other substances’).

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