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Parmenides' Alētheia in Anaxagoras and Empedocles

Rose Cherubin

George Mason University

Several early Greek philosophers identified problems, puzzles, and paradoxes that they traced to linguistic conventions and usages. These difficulties seemed to be implicated in, and thus to challenge, the use of everyday language to describe and investigate what is. In apparent accord with Parmenides’ goddess’s injunctions, Empedocles and Anaxagoras both proclaim that those who speak of coming to be and perishing go wrong (Anaxagoras B17, Empedocles B8 and B9). Each proposes an ontology and a cosmology wherein a redescription of observed phenomena is supposed to overcome the difficulties that derive from saying that anything comes to be or perishes.  Empedocles and Anaxagoras claim that mixing and separation really happen, and that one can identify and speak rightly about what really is. 

        These proposals do not resolve the problems Parmenides had raised. To some extent Parmenides anticipated them. Empedocles’ and Anaxagoras’ innovations are at most partial responses to Parmenides’ goddess’s arguments against claims that there are multiple distinct and different things, some of which move and change. They take a two-pronged approach: Each proposes a fundamental ontology that on some level (but not all) does not engender the problems Parmenides’ goddess points out. Then each proposes a way of describing the processes we say we observe, such that the new description does not immediately run afoul of the goddess’s criticisms (though it may not escape those criticisms entirely).

          Parmenides’ goddess’s account of the opinions of mortals anticipates this approach, and there is evidence that he thought it had unacceptable costs. The goddess presents that account as an improvement over mortals’ standard ways of speaking and conceiving of things (B8.60-61) and as capable of some level of descriptive and predictive success (B14 and B15 would seem the best examples of this today, but B10 –B12 and B16 –B18 might also have been seen that way in Parmenides’ time). However, she also states that mortals’ opinions are flawed (B1.30-32), even (B8.51-54) when presented in accordance with the improved framework offered at B8.53-61 and B9. 

          Empedocles’ and Anaxagoras’ responses run afoul of the restrictions Parmenides’ goddess says are imposed on legein and noein by the work of dikēanangkē, and moira (B8.7-38) on her recommended road of inquiry (hodos dizēsis, B2.2, B6.3, B7.2, B8.1). Thus one cost of their proposals is that they block explanation and strand inquiry. Empedocles and Anaxagoras present something as eternal and unchanging, then allow distinction, division, motion, and change as long as these can be interpreted so as not to require one to say that something comes from or perishes into nothing, or that anything is defined by not being something else. 

       Parmenides indicates two problems with this: First, the goddess holds that motion, change, and distinction involve not-being at some level (B8.19-20, B8.25-27, B8.30). That may not be a problem as far as usefulness in everyday description and prediction is concerned; but it is a problem as far as alētheia is concerned: another cost. Alētheia was understood as requiring that the condition reported be traced to its origins.  

        Second, Empedocles and Anaxagoras make unconditional assertions about the nature of what is, without investigating the assumption that what we say is is what is. Parmenides calls into question our ability to make unconditional assertions accurately and in a way that conveys the alētheia. He shows that given our conceptual and linguistic starting-points, the requisites of inquiry (and of alētheia) conflict with one another. Empedocles’ and Anaxagoras’ modifications of those starting-points do not overcome these conflicts. Parmenides frames the goddess’s speech about inquiry on one side with the tale of the journey to the goddess, a journey invoking movement, opposition, and diversity; and on the other with her account of the opinions of mortals. This acknowledgment of the conceptual context of the goddess’s speech challenges Empedocles’ and Anaxagoras’ claims to be able to offer accurate unconditional descriptions of the nature of what is.

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Language and Naming in Early Greek Philosophy

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