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Parmenides on language and the language of Parmenides

Shaul Tor

King's College London

In a recent thought-provoking article, Rose Cherubin (2017) argues that the language of Alêtheia imports images, concepts and assumptions from the ‘human opinions’ (B1.30) that frame Doxa, the cosmology that occupies the latter part of Parmenides’ poem and that Parmenides brands as, in some sense, ‘deceptive’ (B8.52). Alêtheia thus rejects human opinions through arguments which, in various ways, take the concepts and assumptions of human opinions as their starting points. One upshot, according to Cherubin, is that it is impossible to construct an argument (any argument) without undermining in advance some of the core claims of Alêtheia. Thus, Parmenides in fact places a question mark over Alêtheia as much as he does over Doxa, despite what we might have initially inferred from his programmatic statements about the two sections and despite what appears, prima facie, to be an emphatic axiological hierarchy that favours Alêtheia over Doxa.

In this paper, I first recapitulate the puzzling phenomenon that is identified by Cherubin and underpins her article: the goddess does indeed deploy in Alêtheia language and imagery that pointedly sits ill at ease with some of the claims advanced in Alêtheia and that is redolent of the same human world-view that is subjected to a critique by Parmenides’ goddess. One notable example (discussed by Owen (1960) 100) is the goddess’ appeal to Moira (literally, ‘division’) in the context of her exposition of Being as ‘indivisible’. Subsequently, however, I explore the textual articulations and logical contexts of this phenomenon in a way that points towards a different resolution of the puzzle. On the view that I will defend, the deployment within Alêtheia of language and imagery that stands in tension with the tenets of Alêtheia does not, in fact, vitiate the goddess’ arguments for those tenets. The inferential moves constructed by the goddess can be shown to survive the importation of the relevant concepts and images. One clear and telling example is the goddess’ remark that coming-into-being and perishing have been ‘extinguished’ and ‘wandered far away’ (B8.21, 27-28). Earlier in her account, the goddess justifies similar views without appealing to such images of extinction and motion (B8.5-18), as Cherubin herself (2017: 225) recognises in this particular case.

I will argue that this example can be generalised. In different ways, the goddess’ importation of language and images redolent of human opinions and in tension with Being can be shown not to vitiate the validity of her inferential moves themselves. They do not undermine her grounds for accepting a certain view of the nature of Being. And yet, this language and imagery is often at odds with what she has shown Being to be like, and sometimes pointedly so. In short, the language that conveys the goddess’ idea of Being is often a vehicle which, if taken literally, does not preserve that same idea of Being. This phenomenon, I will suggest, tells us something about what we may and may not expect words to achieve. The goddess is arguing validly for a certain idea of Being, and yet this idea of Being is itself ultimately ineffable. It cannot strictly speaking be articulated in a literal way through human words, and we possess no other kind.

In a concluding section, I connect this analysis of Parmenides’ Alêtheia to his critique of human naming elsewhere in the poem (an issue recently discussed in Tor (2017) 203-208 and Strauss-Clay (forthcoming)). Finally, I connect Parmenides, as he emerges from this paper, to later Platonic conceptions of the One as something that we can, in a sense, infer through reason but which remains ultimately ineffable. I conclude that, despite a strong recent trend to presume the contrary, here – as, on my view, also elsewhere – Parmenides in fact shows a profound affinity with later Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, which rightly looked back to him as an important ancestor and over which he exercised a profound and varied influence.

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Language and Naming in Early Greek Philosophy

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