Sunday, March 02, 2008

Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and Reason

Note: I wrote this in 2000, for a class on the history of science. I've done little editing and I still think it does a decent job in setting a certain pallet, a way of perceiving the history of philosophy (that I was already imbibing from Pirsig, but later drank more fully from Rorty).


In the history of Western thought, the possibility (or impossibility) of change was a question that pushed early thinkers to some of the most important philosophical distinctions of their time period and ours. These distinctions would leave their mark on philosophical inquiry and would not be fully taken up until the Modern era. Some of the most important distinctions were defined by the Eleatics (led by Parmenides), Plato, and Aristotle. While all three theories of change did not grow out of a vacuum, Parmenides more or less followed the force of his own logic, Plato kept Parmenides’ conclusions close at hand, and Aristotle’s theory grew in direct response to both of them. All three also used reason as the primary gateway to knowledge. But in their responses to the problem of change, each one integrates the material world more than the last. This integration allows more satisfactory models, but poses significant problems in itself. Parmenides never runs into these problems because he rejects the material world outright as an illusion. So to address these problems in Plato and Aristotle we must first identify Parmenides’ answer to the problem of change and its consequences: to both change and to the use of reason.

Parmenides’ argument is easily constructed in an analysis of the statement “A becomes B.” In this statement, it can be seen that A is not B because if A=B then there would be no need for change: A is already B. As it is, A is not B and so “A” can be replaced by “not B”. The statement “not B becomes B”, though, does not make sense to Parmenides. A cannot become B unless A has some of B already in it, but for Parmenides this would violate its essential not-Bness: A cannot have any of B in it because A is not B. It is through this kind of argument and logic that Parmenides says that change is impossible and that A does equal B, which equals C ad infinitum. As David C. Lindberg, in his magisterial history of Western science, says,
“What does one do if experience suggests the reality of change, while careful argumentation (with due attention to the rules of logic) unambiguously teaches its impossibility? For Parmenides and Zeno, the answer was clear: the rational process must prevail.”[1]
And so Parmenides declares that all change is merely an elaborate illusion and the underlying reality is a completely stable, unchanging monism.

Enter Plato. The force of Parmenides’ argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is truly stunning, but not quite satisfactory. Plato agrees that the underlying reality must be unchanging, but disagrees that this must be all that reality is. It is here that Plato enunciates the first great metaphysical distinction, between appearance and reality, which Parmenides had used, but not in a systematic way. It is encapsulated in Plato’s divided line, which he elaborates in The Republic. Plato designates the underlying reality as the Realm of Forms. The Realm of Forms is incorporeal, perfect, eternal, insensible, and changeless. In contrast to the Realm of Forms is the material world. It is everything that the Realm of Forms is not: corporeal, imperfect, transitory, sensible, and changing. The divided line separates the two. Plato says that the material world is a reflection of the Realm of Forms and that while the Realm of Forms is completely stable and unchanging, the material world, the reflection, does change as can be plainly seen in everyday life. In this way Plato supplies a rational, fixed underlying reality while still allowing the material world some relevance.

One challenge to this argument would be to question how the Realm of Forms interacts with the material world. How can things that are corporeal interact with things that are insensible? Plato answers this in two ways. First, through a series of arguments, Plato shows that, while we cannot sense the Forms now, our souls were in the Realm of Forms before they were placed in material bodies. We can gain access to the Forms, then, by a process of anamnesis or recollection. Through contemplation we are able to recall the Forms. (Plato does this notably in the Meno by showing how he can teach even a slave the basic mathematics: something that clearly only could be done if a Realm of Forms existed.)

Plato also answered this challenge in the form of the Allegory of the Cave. In summary, the Allegory describes people whose only known reality is the back wall of a cave where they can make shadow puppets. One day, one person ventures outside and discovers that the cave and the shadow puppets are not all that exists. In fact, he realizes that the shadows are really only reflections of the sun. It is through this analogy that Plato shows that the Forms (specifically the Form of the Good) represented by the sun, “illuminates” the material world. Without the Forms, the material world would not, could not exist.

It is important to notice here that Plato is continuing with Parmenides’ placement of reason as the pinnacle of knowledge. The process of anamnesis can also be called “reason.” It is through reason, which Plato made into a method called the “dialectic,” that we can reach the Forms. Plato merely adds a material world to account for the change of our senses. The change is real, but not as important as the unchanging, reason begotten by the Forms.

There is one other important distinction to make before we move to Aristotle. It is the distinction between the General and the Particular. The distinction has actually already been made. The General can be equated to the Realm of Forms and the Particular to the material world. This is important because the difference between Plato and Aristotle can be termed a difference in orientation to the General and the Particular. Plato believes and argues that what is real is the Forms or the General and statements about what is real are found in the material world or the Particular. Aristotle, on the other hand, is just the reverse. What is real is the Particular and statements about what is real is the General. With this distinction in hand we can turn to Aristotle.

Aristotle believes that what is real is the material world and all that the material world is contingent upon. To Aristotle, the Realm of Forms are really just properties possessed by the material Particular, or substance. And like Plato and Parmenides, Aristotle designates that the ultimate reality be unchanging. But how do we account for change now, if the material world, represented as substance and properties, is now unchanging?

To account for change, Aristotle goes back to Parmenides. Parmenides made a distinction between Being and non-Being. Aristotle sees this and says that Being can split into two different types of Being: Potential and Actual Being. So Aristotle agrees with Parmenides that a thing cannot move from non-Being to Being. However, when change occurs, Aristotle says that it is Potential Being changing into Actual Being. Take an acorn and a tree for example. In Parmenides’ model, an acorn (non-tree) cannot change into a tree. In Aristotle’s model, however, an acorn (potential tree) can change into a tree (actual tree) because the acorn houses tree-ness in the form of potentiality. So Aristotle also accounts for change and places an even greater emphasis on the material world than Plato.

What is important about these three philosophers is their use of reason. Each one placed reason on the highest pedestal, but Plato and Aristotle each successively put more and more emphasis on the material world and the senses. The question that arises then is why didn’t they question the use of reason? Parmenides used only reason and he found that change was impossible. He stuck to his guns and followed his own argument to its logical conclusion. But instead of looking around himself and seeing the fallacy of his conclusions, he declared that his use of reason had detected a flaw in the senses and that all the “evidence” to the contrary is illusory. But why does the flaw exist in the senses? Nothing in logic dictates that the flaw be placed upon the senses. It's just as logical to think that the flaw exists in the instrument of argumentation used: reason itself. Parmenides doesn’t think so and neither do Plato or Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle add the senses back into reality to some degree, but the philosophical question that arises out of the problem of change is “How much do the senses and reason play in reality?” Once you let a little in, who’s to say how much? And so the philosophical lines between the Rationalists and Empiricists of the Modern era, who would drag “reality” between these two polar points of reason and the senses, were drawn 2,000 years before the culmination point during the 17th century.

[1] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnnings of Western Science, University of Chicago Press: 1992, p. 33


  1. You ask: The question that arises then is why didn’t they question the use of reason?

    Barfield has an answer to this, but it is difficult to explain. Roughly, it is that Greek consciousness and modern consciousness were different in a way such that they couldn't question reason. It would be like questioning if they existed, since for them they were their thinking. Here are some snippets from an essay of Barfield's ("Thinking and Thought", from Romanticism Comes of Age"), though to fully get what he is saying, one needs to read the whole essay:

    "With the Greeks themselves there could be no question of having to overcome such laws of thought [like "a thing cannot both be and not be"]; for no such laws of thought had been formulated. Even by the end of Plato's career Greek consciousness had not yet succeeded in distinguishing either of the two opposed concepts of 'being' and 'becoming' from a third concept of mere logical 'predication', as we do. The struggle to achieve this can actually be overheard, at an acute stage, in the dialogue called Sophist. And if we go a little further back, we come to a period when the Greek mind had not even succeeded in distinguishing 'being' from 'becoming'. For up to this point Greek consciousness had actually lived in this experience of 'becoming'. And because of this the Greek mind could not at first be conscious of it as such. Thus, although the early Greek philosophers were indeed occupied with a problem which we are now able to name as that of 'coming into being' or 'becoming', they themselves could have no such name for it, for being conscious in it, they could not get outside it and be conscious of it. So that, in a sense, this too was the problem of early Greek philosophy -- to acquire, as far as possible, the idea of such a world of becoming. And it began to do so, when Anaxagoras set over against the for-ever-changing world of growing and decaying substance (the 'universal flux' of Heraclitus) the other principle of Nous or Mind. This was the beginning of the antithesis (hitherto unapprehended) between Spirit and Matter, and if enforced brevity may excuse a somewhat amateurish expression, it may be said that by Plato's time the central problem of philosophy was how spirit, or nous 'becomes matter, or how matter, at certain times and seasons imitates or takes the 'form' of spirit. It is no wonder that the Greeks were a nation of artists!


    "[W]hat were the 'forms' of which Bacon speaks, and which, by altering the meaning of the word, he wishes to eradicate from men's minds, putting in their place his own abstract 'laws'? They were nothing else than the memory, so far as it had been retained by European thought since Plato's and Aristotle's day, of those elements, as it were, of nous -- of the mind -- or spiritual world, which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings. They were a faint, shadowy recollection of those Thought Beings, neither objective nor subjective, which Greek thinking could actually enshrine within itself -- Beings, by whom the part of Nature which is perceptible to our senses is continually brought into being and again withdrawn, in the rhythm of the seasons and of life and death.

    "But by Bacon's time most, if not all, men had lost the power to think these Forms. They could only think of them..."

    To put it another way, because of the change of consciousness, we can think about reason, but the early Greeks could only reason, and so couldn't question it. Because of this change, we can treat reason as "something we do", and so we can detach reason from Nature, while for the Greeks, reason is "something we (and Nature) are".

  2. I tend to think the question, "Why didn't they question the use of reason?" is a bad question now. I think it plays into a certain conception of activity in which reason is separable from the way we behave, whereas I tend to think now that "reason" is not something we can reasonably speak of as ignoring or questioning or not using or whatever. Reasoning is thinking, and the only thing that stops thinking is death (as the Buddhists point out). What I would rather say is that Plato and Aristotle didn't tend to question a certain set of assumptions, mainly because nobody had yet.

    I think Barfield's way of thinking needs updating, because I've also come to think that people like him (for instance, Pierre Hadot and Alasdair MacIntyre) are right that there is something fascinatingly different about the Greeks from us. The way I would put it now is more like there were certain conceptions of the way things are that the Greeks couldn't have countenanced (some of which became enshrined in philosophical discourses) because they hadn't been created yet. As usual, I would identify "consciousness" with "linguistic use," and we can chart changes in consciousness with the further and further differentiation of natural languages.

    So, I think Barfield's right that, in your words, "we can think about reason, but the early Greeks could only reason," because I would reframe it as (in one particular instance) "we can think about the appearance/reality distinction, but the early Greeks could only use the appearance/reality distinction." But because of the reframe I would like to entertain, I don't think that necessitates, in your words, supposing that "we can treat reason as 'something we do', and so we can detach reason from Nature, while for the Greeks, reason is 'something we (and Nature) are'." While we are in the throes of any particular line of reasoning, we can't question the assumptions that enable it without thereby abandoning that line of reasoning, which necessarily means we've begun a different one (this is something I learned from Fish).

    I think we are the assumptions we think from. The difference between us and the Greeks is that we've seen more, different kinds of assumptions enabling thoughts (and we've learned more about the way thinking works). I will give you this, though: the very idea of different assumptions (wait, people can think differently?) isn't an obvious thought, and was created in time, too. So, there is something irrevocable about modern compared to Greek, unless of course you destroyed all traces of modern society, history, etc., like in some sci-fi novel. We could go back, but it would be difficult to create those circumstances (let alone whether we'd want to or not).

  3. Well, you are still thinking in modernist terms, of interpreting what the Greeks thought as a consequence of having certain ideas/assumptions, and going back further, of animists as being the same way, but having even more restricted ideas/assumptions -- of certain ideational possibilities not having occurred to them. Instead, if one follows Barfield's lead, one must think of them as having different data to work with: a different experience, that is not the strict subject/object experience that we have, so that if such ideas were expressed they would have no sticking power, as, say, solipsism has with us. This is something that Hadot and MacIntyre also don't grasp -- in fact the only ones to grasp it seem to be anthroposophists such as Barfield (though Julian Jaynes did argue for a different subjective sense for the pre-Axial Age Greeks). Descartes' radical dualism was only possible in our time because prior to that, the subjective sense was not as it is now for us. We have more "space" in our minds, to, among other things, think about thinking, to raise the question of epistemology, in short, to experience our minds as a different substance from how we experience through our senses.

    Perhaps the only comparison to be made is that the difference between then and now is more like the difference between a child and an adult, rather than between two adults with very different educational backgrounds. Obviously, the comparison only works partially, but it is that kind of qualitative difference that Barfield is talking about.

    Now one can, of course, reject Barfield's thesis, and to remain a materialist, one must. So, alas, it is a conversation stopper. Which means, I guess, that what I am trying to do is to explain why the conversation stops -- why I think MacIntyre's program won't work, for example, though I think he does shed a lot of light on how modernist morality fails. And why I think we have a genuine appearance/reality distinction. Cartesian dualism is our current appearance, but we doubt that it can be true reality. Hence, materialism arose (also forms of idealism, but they haven't "taken"), but only by denying appearance. If I consider a tree, I can note there is a lot in common between it and my body, but there is nothing in common between it and me. In pre-modern experience there was a commonality: both are expressions of reason. But in modern appearance, that is no longer true. Because of that, we can question reason. (I know, I am ignoring that you are saying that we should stop doing so, but what I am saying is that it is irrelevant unless and until the Barfieldian question is answered). The Barfieldian thesis, however, is that this modern appearance is temporary, that in "final" participation, the commonality will be newly recognized, but in a radically different way than it was for "original" participation.

  4. Yeah, I have to admit this is something I still don't understand, both in unfamiliarity and unintelligibility.

    On the latter, some of my thoughts are like this:

    - I would certainly acknowledge "modernist" terms or assumptions, but wonder how one throws them off in a way that is not modernist, since being modernist in the sense you just used seems to be coextensive (at least in part) with using the vocabulary of "terms" and "assumptions" (as Brandom put it in relation to Rorty, the "vocabulary vocabulary").

    - I could go along with "certain ideational possibilities not having occurred to them," but if it helps to clarify, it's not as if I think these so-called possibilities are all out there, sitting around all at once waiting to have somebody consider them. I'm an historicist, and as such I don't think "possibilities" are possible at all times, but are created in history--it is only because of what the Greeks started that we are able to think the way we do. I absolutely agree with you, following Barfield, that they had, as we have, a different experience, different data as it were (since I agree with the "theory-ladenness" of data, as they used to say), and I would go even further (as I think you would, too) and say that it's not that certain possibilities, like solipsism, would have had no sticking power, but that solipsism wasn't created until modern times (in a related fashion, Bernard Williams and Miles Burnyeat deny that idealism as a thesis didn't exist in Greek times; and remember Rorty's argument at the beginning of PMN). (Also, in this fashion, you might be right about Hadot, who does seem a little nonhistoricist at times, but I think MacIntyre is an historicist in this sense, which I think is what you were saying and that I agree with.)

    - How does the child/adult analogy to history play against the kind of thinking embodied by Rorty when we openly acknowledge this historicism and our sense of "ethnocentrism" (you can only start from where you are)? Because our argument is that, yes, modernism is the adult of the Greek childhood. (And as Freud taught us, it is sometimes very important to look back and understand our childhood and how it formed us.)

    - I agree that there are occasional conversation-stoppers dealing with different starting assumptions, but I'm not sure we've found ours. I'm not sure why I have to reject what I'm interpreting as historicism to remain a materialist (itself an outmoded appellation that I find distasteful, as you are aware, since by your understanding, materialists have to deny the phenomenal qualities of things--as Nagel would have it--but I think Rorty has shown us how to understand materialism--i.e. scientific understandings--without being reductionists).

    - I think the biggest conversation-stopper between us, practically speaking (which gives rise to different formulations of what our theoretical one is), is the fact that you think the universalism/nominalism debate is inescapable, whereas I think it is dispensable. You interpret Rorty as a nominalist, whereas I think Rorty shows us how to avoid the debate. This, at least, reverts to our earlier, inconclusive conversations.

  5. It's the same conversation stopper. We are all instinctive nominalists now, so when Barfield says "nominalism is wrong", he is making what Rorty would call an appearance/reality distinction.

    By "instinctive nominalist" I mean that in our current stage of consciousness evolution, we regard language and thinking as something that only goes on in our (human) minds. Original participation, contrarily, was the stage of consciousness evolution where one was an instinctive realist, that is, the external world was speaking to us, that mentality was perceived "on the other side of the phenomena" as Barield puts it. Human thinking was something done to us (by the gods). So when Barfield makes his claims, he is making an appearance/reality distinction. We no longer experience that mentality in nature, which is what I mean by saying we are instinctively nominalists. (Nor I am I saying that original participators "had it right" -- just that they had it "wrong" in an opposite way than we do.)

    The child/adult analogy I had in mind was one based on Piaget, though in anthroposophy those stages are understood as recapitulating the historical changes, so it is more than an analogy. A certain developmental change had to occur before one could be a Plato, and another before one could be a Descartes or Galileo, just as in growing up, before a certain age one does not have an ego, and another age has to be attained before one think logically, and another before one can acquire the "vocabulary of vocabulary". Roughly speaking, in the age of original participation, the second change didn't occur, and in the middle period (post-Homer to the Renaissance) the third change didn't occur. But the all-important point that separates the historicism of Rorty from that of Barfield is that for the latter, the effect of that development is to lose consciousness of the supernatural, while Rorty assumes that the supernatural was always an interpretation.

    Apologies for using the word 'materialist'. But I need some word to cover the gamut of those who regard res cogitans as being dependent on res extensa, to include both those who are reductive and non-reductive. Likewise, for convenience, I use the word 'idealist' for the gamut of those who regard the dependence to be reversed.

  6. The common sense of our age now is that, yes, certain things were always true. For instance, certain laws of science, like gravity, don't get to be physical laws without being able to explain how everything has always functioned. Pirsig calls them ghosts that are created in time and both him and common sense can be, I think, correct at the same time.

    The idea that I think Rorty provides resources (at a broader level) is the idea behind Nietzsche's "God is dead." From this perspective, a supernatural God did exist, but not (really) anymore. The part you don't like is that on the Rortyan explanation of how this happens, how we know God died, is that we don't talk about God the same way we used to, because the way we talk, and the kind of existential commitments required of our talk (recurring to science, for gravity to exist it has to have always existed), is tied inexorably to how we experience.

    This, I think, is what you point to as nominalism. But from our side, this kind of consideration is not something we can get around because of the necessity of language to communicating our experiences. Which is why we chart linguistic changes to chart experiential changes--which is the same thing Barfield does. I'm trying to say that there's no difference in Rorty (that makes a difference) between the two, just as it would appear, at least in his investigatory practices, to be in Barfield.

    I'm willing to say that we used to experience mentality. The question is, why does this mean an appearance/reality distinction? As far as I can tell, willingness to say that God did exist and that rocks used to talk to us doesn't require it. It's fair enough to field an appearance/reality distinction, but the way you're pursuing it seems to tie it to historicism, but I don't see it. The only sense in which Rorty assumes that the supernatural was always an interpretation is the sense in which gravity always existed.

    Neopragmatists are perfectly fine with admitting that history may march on past our present philosophical positions and present common sense. That existential commitment is part and parcel of what it is to be a neopragmatist. But nothing follows from this, either for or against using an appearance/reality distinction. What I've always wondered is how what Barfield stands for is not, like Heidegger, simply nostalgia? Especially after you've added the bit about the child/adult analogy to history, why isn't our "nominalist instinct" where we are supposed to be before going beyond to the next stage? If it is, how does Barfield's historical excavation of a past age of original participation help us move to the next stage? Or rather, how does the past tell us where the future lies? Re-tellings of the past will indeed help us move further, but I would think it a tremendous fallacy (roughly, the mistake Popper identified as "historicism") to think that the past will tell us the future.

  7. Yes, in one sense, our current instinctive nominalism is "where we are supposed to be", because what Barfield has excavated is confirmation of the traditional fall-redemption story. Just what the fall consists of I can't really say -- roughly I understand it as the loss of knowing one is "safe", that is, an integral part of divine reality. Hence, the stage of original participation was post-lapsarian, not pre-, since the people of that time needed oracles, shamans, divine rulers, etc. But one can say that in one sense we are now more fallen than they were, since we have lost all sense of participation in the divine, while they still had some sense of it. But in another sense we have been provided with the tools to recover, namely intellect and self-consciousness, including historical consciousness. This provides us with an autonomy that earlier people did not have, and what that implies is that, while the evolution of consciousness up to this point was, so to speak, divinely effected, from now on that evolution -- our redemption -- is our own responsibility. (Which, I should point out as a side note, implies a major change in how theology needs to understand faith and grace.) So in a certain sense, this is in agreement with, say, existentialist and neopragmatist thinking, but of course what use we make of this autonomy will depend on whether we think that the story so far -- from original participation to modernity -- is in fact a segment in the overall fall and redemption narrative.


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