On Plato’s ‘Parmenides’​ — Being and Non-Being

‘In the meantime, I can bear in mind that if at times the excellence of Plato’s philosophy has been held to lie in his scientifically valueless myths, there have also been times, even called times of ecstatic dreaming, when Aristotle’s philosophy was esteemed for its speculative depth, and Plato’s Parmenides (surely the greatest artistic achievement of the ancient dialectic) was regarded as the true disclosure and positive expression of the divine life, and times when, despite the obscurity generated by ecstasy, this misunderstood ecstasy was in fact supposed to be nothing else than the pure Notion’

- Hegel, ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, para. 71, 1807.

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, (1770–1831), amongst other things was a metaphysician in a tradition that can be traced back to Parmenides, (fl. 475 BC). That is to say, the principle concern of philosophy is taken to be the problem of Being, and in particular philosophy in its most broad sense is concerned with the identity of Being and Knowing. Hegel discerned in the work of Parmenides thought first becoming aware of itself as such, as a conscious endeavour towards the application of rational thinking to the undertaking of establishing a universal organising principle or underlying structure of reality. Here is the moment whereby foundational and elemental categories or ideas of such organising principles, hitherto implicit in human perception, thought and action, and in the world as perceived, or thought about, or acted upon, initially begin to become objects for thought, that is to say, the first explicit formulation of such a fundamental organising category.

Hegel contended that Parmenides was in actual fact aspiring towards an articulation of the idea of Being as prior to all predication and to all determination, and for Hegel pure immediate, unspecified and indeterminate Being is the starting point of metaphysics insofar as it is the most general form of all reality. Whatever anything at all may be, this or that, prior to any distinction of form or content, it must be, and in virtue of that fact, or rather subsequent upon it, it is presupposed in all perception, thought or imagination. This initial step in the process of abstraction generates a profoundly abstract result, and yet it contains within it the seeds of further progress, through dialectical self-development of ideas, to increasingly concrete and differentiated conceptions of ultimate reality. Abstraction demonstrates for us that pure Being is that which every existing object has in common, in virtue of which it is the immediate form of subjective awareness, as awareness simply of existence.

In the light of this what are we to make of the Parmenides that is presented to us in the Platonic dialogue of that name? And of his follower Zeno, c. 495 — c. 430 BC), author of a treatise defending Parmenidean monism against those enthusiastic supporters of plurality, that there is more than a One, who proclaimed that Parmenides’ supposition that there is a One (in spite of appearances there is only the One) brings forth insufferable absurdities and contradictions?

The primary ideas brought to the fore within the dialogue are:

1. Zeno had contended that if Being is many, it must be both like and unlike, which is impossible, but Zeno has overlooked the fact that although the universals likeness and unlikeness are not identical, particular things can be alike in some respect, and unlike in some other respect.

2. Socrates, (c. 470–399 BC), asserts that there are absolute Forms or Ideas of the Just, the Beautiful, the Good and the True, though perhaps there are no Ideas of coarse and gross materials such as mud, hair, and dirt.

3. Parmenides has various criticisms of the Doctrine of Forms or Ideas: If an Idea is one and yet exists in many things, it is separated from itself, and if Ideas cover things with only parts of themselves, anything partaking of smallness would be smaller than absolute smallness.

4. Furthermore, Parmenides argues, the Doctrine of Forms or Ideas leads to an infinite regress of Forms or Ideas, and the Forms or Ideas are absolute, they cannot be known by us.

5. Parmenides then demonstrates his sophistical proficiency by arguing that if the One is, then the One is not, and if the One is not, then Nothing is.

The ‘Parmenides’ provides us with a captivating as well as a thorough and profoundly insightful critique of the Platonic Doctrine of Forms or Ideas. Eidos: the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality of the Realm of Forms or Ideas and what they are is abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space, existing in the Realm of Forms or Ideas, albeit in its undeveloped state, a theory propounded by the youthful Socrates who was about nineteen at the time the Platonic dialogue is supposed to have occurred. Ideas may be a better translation than Forms though, for Ideas suggests something existing in the mind or a Mind (is there a Form of Mind?) which Platonic Ideas do not. In the ‘Parmenides’ Antiphon, (the youngest brother of Plato), gives a report of a conversation between Parmenides and Socrates, with some assistance from Zeno and Aristoteles, (who was to become one of the Thirty Tyrants and not to be confused with Plato’s later student Aristotle, (384–322 BC)). Socrates met Parmenides when the latter was about sixty-five years old and famous for his poem ‘On Nature’, in which he argued, with astute resourcefulness, that ‘All is One’.

For this shall never be proved, that the things that are not

are; and do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry.

Nor let habit force thee to cast a wandering eye upon this

devious track, or to turn thither thy resounding ear or thy

tongue; but do thou judge the subtle refutation of their

discourse uttered by me.

One path only is left for us to

speak of, namely, that It is. In it are very many tokens that

what is, is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete,

immovable and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it be; for

now it is, all at once, a continuous one. For what kind of origin

for it will you look for? In what way and from what source

could it have drawn its increase? I shall not let thee say nor

think that it came from what is not; for it can neither be

thought nor uttered that what is not is. And, if it came from

nothing, what need could have made it arise later rather than

sooner ? Therefore must it either be altogether or be not at

all. Nor will the force of truth suffer aught to arise besides

itself from that which in any way is. Wherefore, Justice does

not loose her fetters and let anything come into being or pass

away, but holds it fast.

It may very well be that the conversation actually happened just as delivered, apart from the minor detail that Parmenides and Zeno of Elea were residents of Southern Italy that was being subjected to Greek colonization at the time the dialogue is supposedly taking place. It is, however, somewhat more likely that Plato, having heard that upon some occasion a youthful Socrates met an aging Parmenides, he then appropriated this slice of historical information as a dramatic centre about which to construct a summary of Parmenidean criticism of his Doctrine of Forms or Ideas, taking some of the edge off the critique by characterising Socrates as clever but to a degree immature in his thinking. As a consequence, the ‘Parmenides’ serves as evidence that Plato was never entirely satisfied with the Doctrine of Forms or Ideas, and that, like all serious minded philosophers, he continually returned to his central thesis, subjecting it to critical scrutiny, modifying it in accordance with the discoveries of its flaws and of its weaknesses.

Kazimir Malewitch, ‘Black Circle’, 1923

The presentation of the dialogue is somewhat complicated as Cephalus repeats an account originally given by Antiphon of the meeting between Parmenides and Socrates, the actual conversation presumably occurring several years earlier. Socrates, accompanied by others, had gone to hear the writings of Zeno, who was visiting Athens with Parmenides, and upon hearing Zeno read from some of his writings, Socrates summed up Zeno’s thesis as stating that ‘if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and .. this is impossible…’ Socrates then pointed out that this was merely a rather periphrastic way of supporting Parmenides’ doctrine that All is One, for to declare that Being is many and to state that it is One is to make one and the same claim. To which Zeno concurs but he defends himself by saying that his argument was designed to show the inconsistency in upholding the doctrine that Being is not One, but many.

Socrates then professes not to see the extraordinariness of saying that things could be both like and unlike. It would be paradoxical, he concurs, to assert in respect of the Idea of Likeness that it could somehow partake of Unlikeness, for after all, the likeness that things might share could not in itself, as an absolute nature, be unlikeness. But things, as distinguished from absolute Ideas, or Natures, could very well be alike in some respect or to some degree, and unlike in some other respect or degree. To say that things are One merely in virtue of the fact that it is not impossible to speak of them as partaking of the Idea Oneness, while at the same time they might, in some other respect, partake of the Idea of the Many, is only to utter a truism. The impression left by Socrates’ argument was that the view held by Parmenides and Zeno might very well merely be a piece of trivia, a truism, and naught else besides.

Parmenides and Zeno were both apparently irritated while at the same time impressed by Socrates’ criticism, but the venerable Parmenides had no intention of permitting Socrates to avoid scrutiny of his own views. He thus commences upon probing Socrates’ distinction between Ideas in themselves (or kinds of things) and things of certain kinds (partaking of Ideas). He draws from Socrates the concession that he, Socrates, believes in Ideas (such as the Idea of Likeness) which can be distinct from that which partakes of the Ideas. Socrates emphatically asserts that there are absolute Ideas of the Just, the Beautiful, the Good and such matters, but he was not certain that there were Ideas of Man, Fire, and Water, and he was certain that there are no absolute Ideas of such lowly and gross materials as Hair, Mud, and Dirt. Nevertheless, Socrates did admit that he sometimes thought that there is an Idea of everything, that even the lowliest and vilest things partake of absolute Ideas, but he was concerned that this extreme view would turn out to be nonsensical. (One could equally ask is there a Form of Faeces? Or Boogers? The problems that arise, we see it in religion too, through grounding a theory, or a doctrine, or a philosophical or religious outlook, upon notions of perfect Ideals, a perfect World, perfect Creation). Parmenides replies, somewhat condescendingly, that Socrates’ reluctance to extend his view was caused by Socrates’ youth, that the time would come when he would ‘not despise even the meanest things’.

Thereupon, by employing the language of things to talk about Ideas, Parmenides endeavours to demonstrate the difficulties of claiming that many things can partake of a single absolute Nature or Idea. If the whole Idea is one and exists as one in many things, then it is separated from itself, resulting in a condition, Parmenides suggests implicitly, that would not be possible. Socrates responds by contending that the Idea is like the day, ‘one and the same in many places at once’. Upon which Parmenides seizes the advantage of this spatial metaphor to argue that just as a sail spread over many persons covers each with only part of itself, so an Idea spread over many things would cover each with only a part, not the whole, of itself. And yet if Ideas cover things with only parts of themselves, then things partaking of Equality, for instance, would in fact be partaking of less than equality, and things partaking of Smallness would be partaking of part of Smallness, and since a part is smaller than the whole of which it is a part, the part would be smaller than the absolutely small, which is absurd. Hence, Parmenides concludes, there are difficulties in Socrates’ view, whether the Idea covers things as a whole or only in part. Socrates concedes that he has no ready answer to this criticism.

Another objection was then put forward by Parmenides, that if one compares the Form or Idea of Greatness to great things, it would appear that, according to Socrates’ way of thought, there must be another Idea by reference to which greatness and great things can be seen to be alike in partaking of this second greatness. But there is no end to this mode of analysis, and one begins to wonder about the method. And further criticism by Parmenides leads to the rejection of the suggestion by Socrates that the Ideas might only be thoughts, for if the Ideas are only thoughts, the thoughts have no objects, but if, on the other hand, the thoughts are of Ideas, there are Ideas. Socrates thus proposes that Ideas are patterns and that to say that something partakes of an Idea or Nature means only that it fits the pattern, is like the pattern in some respect. But Parmenides then uses a variant of one of his former arguments to maintain that this view would involve another infinite regress of Ideas, for the pattern would be like the copy in respect of a certain Idea, and that Idea would be like the pattern in respect of a third Idea, ad infinitum.

Another difficulty involved in the claim that there are absolute Ideas, Parmenides informs Socrates, is that if the Ideas are absolute and not relative to us, they cannot be known by us, since all our knowledge is relative to us. Furthermore, he continues, God surely has absolute knowledge, but if so, he cannot know human beings by reference to the absolute Ideas which God has, for the relative cannot be understood by the absolute. Yet to know them in any other way would be to know them in an inferior fashion, and therefore, in Socrates’ view, God is either ignorant in part, or knows in some inferior fashion. Socrates having been made uncomfortable with his adept criticism, Parmenides then gives the young philosopher advice concerning his profession by suggesting that Socrates follow the practice of considering the consequence of any proposed hypothesis and also the consequences of the denial of the hypothesis. Socrates asks for an example, and after some prompting Parmenides agrees to illustrate the method he endorses by considering the hypothesis that One is, that Being is One, and then that One is not, that Being is not One.

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Circles in a circle’, 1923

To follow the logical analysis that is being offered by Parmenides, who supposed that he was in some manner getting at the nature of reality, it is necessary to understand what might be meant by the contention that All is One, sometimes alternatively expressed as One is and Being is One. To say that All is One may be to say that whatever is must be one with whatever is, at least in respect of being. My laptop and pen are one in that they both are, they both exist. If we attempt to think of something that does not exist, then it is either something that is not part of the One that is, for instance, Pegasus the flying horse, or else, if it is something like empty space, then it is empty space, it has being, and is one with anything else that has being. And if we then refuse to talk about anything at all except in terms of its being or not being, it is of course evident that everything that is is one with everything else that is, only we should eschew saying else, or for that matter everything, for to do so would involve making a distinction in terms of something other than being. Upon initiation of this mode of dialectic the multiplicity of uses of the word ‘is’ and of the word ‘one’ may be exploited in defence of the assertion that One is, or that Being is one and not many. Parmenides, it may be argued, was so adept at sophistical game playing (as some might view it) that his place in history has been secured, for after all he was persuasive enough to impress both Socrates and Plato, though for those unsympathetic to these kinds of projects Socrates and Plato might also be looked upon as happy participants in sophistical game playing while under a misapprehension that they were making discoveries about reality from the perspective of metaphysics.

Let us consider the arguments more closely. The first proceeds in this manner: If particular things come to partake of the Form of Beauty or Likeness or Largeness they thereby become beautiful or like or large. Parmenides presses Socrates on how precisely many particulars can participate in a single Form, for on the one hand, if the Form as a whole is present in each of its many instances, then it would as a whole be in numerically different places, and thus separate from itself. Socrates suggests that the Form might be like a day, and thus present in many things at once, but Parmenides retorts that this would be little different from a single sail covering a number of people, wherein different parts touch different individuals, and consequently the Form is many. As for the second argument, Socrates’ reason for believing in the existence of a single Form in each case is that when he views a number of, for instance, large things, there appears to be a single character which they all share, that is to say. the character of Largeness. But considering the series of large things, p, q, r …. Largeness itself, the latter is also in some sense considered to be large, and if all members of this series partake of a single Form, then there must be another Largeness in which large things and the first Form of Largeness partake, but if this second Form of Largeness is also large, then there should be a third Form of Largeness over the large things and the first two Forms, and so on ad infinitum. Hence, instead of there being one Form in every case, what confronts us is an indefinite number, and this Largeness regress is commonly known under the name that Aristotle endowed it with, the Third Man Argument, whereby if a man is a man because he partakes in the form of Man, then a third Form would be required to explain how man and the Form of Man are both man, and so on, ad infinitum.

If F is a form then the theory of Forms is committed to the following principles:

One-over-many: For any plurality of F things, there is a Form of F-ness by virtue of partaking of which each member of that plurality is F.

Self-predication: Every Form of F-ness is itself F.

Non-self-partaking: No Form partakes of itself.

Uniqueness: For any property F, there is exactly one Form of F-ness.

Purity: No Form can have contrary properties.

One/many: The property of being one and the property of being many are contraries.

Oneness: Every Form is one.

The Third Man Argument demonstrates that these principles are mutually contradictory, as long as there is a plurality of things that are F.

The third argument in the ‘Parmenides’ is that to the suggestion that each Form is a thought existing in a soul, thus maintaining the unity of the Form, Parmenides responds that a thought must be a thought of something that is a Form, and therefore the participation relation remains unexplained. And furthermore, if things share in Forms which are no more than thoughts, then either things consist of thoughts and think, or else they are thoughts, yet do not think. Then comes the fourth argument whereupon Socrates suggests that the Forms are patterns, or paradigms, in nature, of which the many instances are copies or likenesses, to which Parmenides counters that if the many instances are like the Forms, then the Forms are like their instances, but if things are like, then they come to be like by participating in Likeness, therefore Likeness is like the likeness in concrete things, and another regress is generated. And the fifth argument, labelled ‘the great difficulty’ by Parmenides, is that the theory of Forms arises as a consequence of the assertion of the separate existence of the Forms whereby Forms do not exist in our world but have their being with reference to one another in their own world. Similarly, things of our world are related among themselves, but not to Forms. Just as Mastership has its being relative to Slavery, so mastership in our world has its being relative to slavery in our world, for no terrestrial master is master of Slave itself, and no terrestrial master-slave relation has any relationship to the ideal Master-Slave relation. And so it is with knowledge in that all our knowledge is such with respect to our world, not to the world of the Forms, while ideal Knowledge is knowledge of the things not of our world but of the world of the Forms. Therefore, we cannot know the Forms, and furthermore, the gods themselves who dwell in the divine world can have no knowledge of us and neither can their ideal Mastership rule us.

In spite of Socrates’ inability to defend the theory against Parmenides’ arguments, in the following transitional section of the dialogue Parmenides himself appears to advocate the theory, whereby he insists that without Forms there can be no possibility of dialectic, and that Socrates was unable to uphold the theory because he has been insufficiently exercised. There follows a description of the kind of exercise, or training, that Parmenides recommends as the rest of the dialogue is taken up with an actual performance of such an exercise, the object of which is to demonstrate to young Socrates how philosophy should be practiced. Parmenides seeks the assistance of young Aristoteles to replace Socrates as Parmenides’ interlocutor and to give him the right answers to the questions put by Parmenides.

Considering first the alternative that One is, he quickly establishes that if One is, it cannot be many, and if it cannot be many, it can neither be a whole nor have parts, since in either case it would be many, and since only something other than the One could limit the One, if the One is, it has no beginning, middle, end, hence, it is unlimited, formless, existing nowhere, neither resting nor moving, and never in anything. The One could not be the same as or different from itself or anything other than itself, nor to anything other, it could be neither the same age as, nor younger than, nor older than itself nor anything other. And finally, Parmenides concludes that no mode of being could be attributed to the One, consequently, the One is not, that is, the presupposition that the One is has brought forth the conclusion that the One is not.

Max Ernst, (1891–1976), ‘Dopplemond’

Parmenides then looks into the proposition that the One is not, but only after having decided that if the One is, it partakes of Being, and if it partakes of Being, it must have being in every part and be infinitely multiple, thus not one. And further considerations only strengthen the conclusion that if the One partakes of any mode of being, it must be multiple and not one, but if the One is not, and there is consideration of the hypothesis that the One is not, then the meaning of the expression ‘If One is not’ is known. Furthermore, there is not only knowledge of the One which is not, but One which is not must be something if it can be considered, but, on the other hand, being cannot be attributed to the One, since it is not. As that which is not, the One must be different from the others which are, and it must be like itself, which is not. Following through the implications of various interpretations of the ambiguous claim that the One is not, Parmenides finally arrives at the conclusion that if the One is not, nothing is, and he concludes with the assertion: ‘Let this much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that whether One is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be’.

It is worth one’s while to attend closely to the logical reasoning at work here for it is tempting to discern within it logical facts being mistakenly taken for facts about the world, whereupon, supposing such analysis to be otiose, the earlier discussion regarding the Platonic Ideas accrues all the more significance by comparison. Plato and Socrates regarded sophistical skills as unimportant, and bad form, if I may so put it, in comparison with the practice of true philosophy, but at what point does dialectic become sophistical game playing? The second part of the dialogue consists of difficult and sophisticated (or sophistical) arguments, consisting of hypotheses and deductions thereupon. The first hypothesis: if it is one, and the deduction: if it is one the One cannot be made up of parts, because then the One would be made of many, nor can it be a whole in virtue of the fact that wholes are made of parts. Thus the One has no parts and is not a whole, it has not a beginning, a middle nor an end because these are parts, it is therefore unlimited, it has no shape because it is neither linear nor circular, a circle has parts all equidistant from the centre, but the One has no parts nor a centre. Nor is it a line in virtue of the fact that a line has a middle and two extremes, which the one cannot have, therefore the One has no shape. The One cannot be in anything nor in itself, for if it was in another it would be all surrounded and by what it is inside and would be touched at many parts by what contains it, but the One has no parts and thus cannot be inside something else. If it were in itself it would contain itself, but if it is contained then it is different from what contains it and thus the One would be two. The One cannot move because movement is change or change in position, and it cannot change because it has no parts to change. If it moves position it moves either circularly or linearly, and if it spins in place its outer part revolves around its middle but the One has neither, and if it moves its position it moves through something else, which it cannot be inside. Thus the One does not move, and the One must be itself and cannot be different from it, and the One does not take part in the flowing of time so it is by that very fact imperishable.

The second hypothesis: if the One is, and the deduction: the One is, it must be and it is part of being, that is, the One is part of being and vice versa, being is a part of the One, the One is a whole that is a group of sections. The One does not participate in being, so it must be a single part. Being is unlimited and is contained in everything, however big or small it is, therefore since the One is part of being it is divided into as many parts as being, therefore it is unfinished. The parts are themselves sections of a whole, the whole is delimited, confirming the presence of a beginning, a centre, and an end, therefore, since the centre is itself at the same distance from the beginning and the end, the One must have a form, linear, spherical, or mixed. If the whole is in some of its parts, it will be the plus into the minus, and different from itself. The One is also elsewhere, it is stationary and in movement at the same time. The hypothesis if the One is not is then adduced and the deduction if the One is not it participates in everything different from it, so everything is partially one. Similarity, dissimilarity, bigness, equality and smallness belong to it since the One is similar to itself but dissimilar to anything that is, but it can be big or small as regards dissimilarity and equal as concerns similarity. Therefore the One participates of non-being and also of being because you can think of it, therefore the One becomes and perishes and, since it participates of non-being, remains. The One removes from itself the contraries so that it is unnameable, not disputable, not knowable or sensible or showable. The other things appear one and many, limited and unlimited, similar and dissimilar, the same and completely different, in movement and stationary, and neither the first nor the latter thing since they are different from the One and other things. Eventually they are not, and therefore the One is not and being is not:

‘ … the One which is not, if it is to maintain itself, must have the being of not-being as the bond of not-being, just as being must have as a bond the not-being of not-being in order to perfect its own being: for the truest assertion of being of being and of the not-being of not-being is when being partakes of the being of being and not of the being of not-being, that is, the perfection of being; and when not-being does not partake of the not-being but of the being of not being, that is the perfection of not being’.

‘Most true’, remarks the guileless Aristoteles, uncritically, in response to this, (or perhaps he is being sarcastic, he was destined to become one of the Thirty Tyrants after all). And so the dialogue ends.

the dialogue ends.

Max Ernst, ‘Mirage’, 1966

Have we just witnessed a Platonic refutation of the Parmenidean doctrine of the One, or a Parmenidean assessment of the theory of Forms? Has Parmenidean monism just defeated Platonic pluralism? The discussion certainly deals with topics that are to assume great importance in many of Plato’s later dialogues, for instance, Being, Sameness, Difference, and Unity. Let us return to Hegel and para. 71 from the ‘Phenomenology’:

‘Since I hold that Science exists solely in the self-movement of the Notion, and since my view differs from, and is in fact wholly opposed to, current ideas regarding the nature and form of truth, both those referred to above and other peripheral aspects of them, it seems that any attempt to expound the system of Science from this point of view is unlikely to be favourably received. In the meantime, I can bear in mind that if at times the excellence of Plato’s philosophy has been held to be in his scientifically valueless myths, there have also been times, even called times of ecstatic dreaming, when Aristotle’s philosophy was esteemed for its speculative depth, and Plato’s Parmenides (surely the greatest artistic achievement of the ancient dialectic) was regarded as the true disclosure and positive expression of the divine life, and times when, despite the obscurity generated by ecstasy, this misunderstood ecstasy was in fact supposed to be nothing else than the pure Notion’.

Hegel is concerned with situating his own philosophical work, and his methodology, in relation to the demands of his time, and in relation to his predecessors in philosophy, for multiple perspectives may be placed upon the same thing and Hegel takes advantage of the opportunity of the historical moment that he occupies to bringing together various threads into a single co-ordinating and harmonizing system, and here he proleptically responds to his anticipated critics who he foresees will raise objections to his work for that is how they are, wedded to one perspective and unable to see what he is about. Science (Wissenschaft) in the Hegelian sense ‘exists solely in the self-movement of the Notion’, that is what it consists solely in. (The Notion, simply put, is the truth of Being and Essence which constitute the genesis of the Notion, a new Notion in contra-distinction to the relative, passing notions that have originated from past perception and are active in reflection. It is the result of a process of concentration or distillation, a bringing together of the disparate and separation out of the inessential). There may well be other things designated science that are scientific in a manner but are not fully aware of their own development, of their own relation to everything else, and this is problem that persists for some modern sciences. Psychology, for instance, or rather its various schools, if they are to be regarded as sciences. And Hegel’s view, as he points out, ‘differs from, and is in fact wholly opposed to, current ideas regarding the nature and form of truth’.

Consider other perspectives on the nature and form of truth. An analytical philosopher such as Bertrand Russell, (1872–1970), proposed an identity theory of truth, whereby a true proposition (truth is a property of propositions) is identical to a fact. A different perspective on truth was offered by the American pragmatists. Basically, truth is what works. For example, C. S. Peirce, (1839–1914), held the view that Truth is the end of inquiry, true beliefs will remain settled at the end of prolonged inquiry. William James, (1842–1910), held that Truth is satisfactory to believe, a principle informing us what practical value truth has. That is to say, for pragmatists true beliefs are guaranteed not to conflict with subsequent experience. And then there are epistemic theories of truth, attempts to analyze the notion of truth in terms of epistemic notions such as verification, favoured by logical positivists such as A. J. Ayer, (1910–1989). Verification is based upon verifying propositions (again, truth is a property of propositions), and the distinctive claim of Verificationism is that the result of such verifications is, by definition, truth, which is to say, truth is reducible to this process of verification. Indeed, this is a verifiability criterion of meaning itself, a philosophical doctrine that maintains that only statements that are empirically verifiable, which means of course verifiable through the senses, are cognitively meaningful, other than those that are truths of logic, that is, tautologies.

Hegel stands pretty much alone as far as the nature and form of Truth is concerned. As for his foreseeing that any attempt to expound the system of Science from his point of view is unlikely to be favourably received, as it happens his dialectical philosophy was taken up, though often at a superficial level, being considered to be a compelling and dynamic means of understanding reality. But much subsequent philosophy was indeed a rejection of or reaction against Hegelianism. The existentialists, for instance, or Marxists, dialectical materialism supposedly standing Hegel on his head. (See my articles The Visible Divinity, parts one to three).

‘The Flowers of the Abyss II’, c. 1928, Rene Magritte

Hegel, however, for all such gloomy forecasting gathers strength through a consideration of the existence of previous scientific philosophy neither as rich nor fully developed as his but nonetheless engaged upon similar things. He specifically refers to Plato and Aristotle, for although ‘there have been many who value Plato for his literary myths that have no scientific value’ nonetheless ‘there have been times when his Parmenides has been seen to be the supreme work of art of the ancient dialectic, and the positive expression of the divine life’. There have been times when the philosophy of Aristotle was valued for its speculative depth. (Indeed Hegelianism owes much to Aristotelianism. On the issue of causality, for instance, it is always possible to discover some reasoning process by which we can make sense of what otherwise appear to be merely random events, and from complex causality may also be extracted a notion of teleology that implicates in turn a notion of perfection, a movement towards some end or goal, organisms thereby viewed as a congeries of processes brought together under one unified and unifying being. And there have been times of ecstatic dreaming wherein the Notion has ebbed. (Enthusiasm, as it was called by the English Enlightenment though it has now lost its religious overtones. A religion of the heart rather than the head, associated with the extreme, millenarian sects on the fringes of established Protestantism).

But why does Hegel focus upon Plato’s ‘Parmenides’? Why not the ‘Republic’? Or the ‘Apology’? Or the ‘Symposium’? Because as we have just seen the ‘Parmenides’ shows dialectic at work and as an expression not so much of philosophy but of the ‘divine life’, that which is best, that which is greatest, that which is most real. As we are confronted with an array of differing viewpoints the modern world, any one of which we can pay attention to, or adopt as an area of interest and concern, why then choose one over the other? What might our motives be for doing so? It may just be a matter of what we consider to be common sense. Or it appeals to us at an emotional level. Or merely a matter of familiarity, what one is comfortable with. Or because it works, which may be thought to be the motive of a pragmatist, but in fact ‘what works’ can be taken to a much deeper level than pragmatists take it. And to a deeper level than simple technology, having a control over physical reality, but rather, how things truly are with one’s own self and personhood, society clarified and comprehended, sense made out of one’s own past, (one cannot change the past but one can change its significance), one’s present potential and possibilities understood, one’s future anticipated. Is it the case that philosophy is delivering something useful and that works in all of these cases? If it is so then it has a scientific grounding and can exert its influence in all those situations. And further, the proof of the ‘Phenomenology’ lies in the inner truth of its subject matter, as Hegel explains:

‘Furthermore, what really is excellent in the philosophy of our time takes its value to lie in its scientific quality, and even though others take a different view, it is in fact only in virtue of its scientific character that it exerts any influence. Hence, I may hope, too, that this attempt to vindicate Science for the Notion, and to expound it in this its proper element, will succeed in winning acceptance through the inner truth of the subject matter. We must hold to the conviction that it is the nature of truth to prevail when its time has come, and that it appears only when this time has come, and therefore never appears prematurely, nor finds a public not ripe to receive it; also we must accept that the individual needs that this should be so in order to verify what is as yet a matter for himself alone, and to experience the conviction, which in the first place belongs only to a particular individual, as something universally held’.

The truth of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and as we work through the analyses in ‘Phenomenology’ if we discover it answers nothing for us or indeed we see it as nonsensical then it has failed as science. The accounts of the development of consciousness and self-consciousness, for instance, to convince us that this is the right account from a scientific point of view, that is to say, at its basis is the self-development of the Notion, and the carrying out of phenomenology is not so much a matter of describing merely external experience but historical development thereby demonstrating that underlying all of its analyses is the self-development or self-movement of the Notion. But ‘we must hold to the conviction that it is the nature of truth to prevail when its time has come’. And what does that mean? ‘The truth can wait’, said Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788–186)), for it lives a long life’. Is not Truth eternal? Is not Truth always in existence? This is not relativism that Hegel is presenting however, nor is it historicism, the view that truth varies from era to era, from culture to culture,. What it means is that with regard to certain truths humanity is not yet ready for them, not as per Gnosticism whereby arcane Truths are known to the initiated only, rather certain times are not ready for certain truths. Hegel’s view of history may be relevant here. To describe the development of the consciousness of freedom, he divided world history into three major cultures or epochs, whereby in the tyrannical age, characterised by the pre-Greek Oriental world, people know that only one person, the ruler or despot, is free, then the Greeks and Romans know that some persons, the citizens, are free, then the Germanic peoples, Western Europe, through the influence of Christianity, know that all persons are free. The amount of freedom has not so much increased over the course of history, but rather the concept of freedom itself has fundamentally changed, and with the development in the concept of freedom, there will also have been a concomitant development in the nature of Spirit, for Spirit is characterised by freedom.

And the truth whose time has come and that Hegel articulates for us is that philosophy is a science, a dialectical development of the Notion knowing itself through time, a truth unavailable at the time of Parmenides, of Plato, of St. Augustine, of Descartes. And furthermore, one must ‘experience the conviction, which in the first place belongs only to a particular individual, as something universally held’, which is to say, there are no isolated misunderstood geniuses ahead of their time. It is Truth whose time has come. And the ‘Phenomenology’ furnishes the outlines for others to use and to go further, which indeed is true of all great philosophical works, like the ‘Parmenides’. New truths arrive upon the scene, we try them on to see if they fit, we live them to see if they work, and those of us so engaged are individuals fundamentally different from others in society including or perhaps especially its highest representatives, its monarchs, its presidents, its celebrities for whatever reason they have acquired their celebrity status. We are at odds with all such, we may not find many friends, or readers, or acceptors of what we are about in our own lifetimes, but we are nonetheless tending towards a universal community, each a vessel for world Spirit, a continuing and an ongoing developing dialectical discourse that is tending towards a community of inquiry, a community of Hegelians.

‘The Visceral Circle of the Cosmos’, 1974, Salvador Dali

There then follows a warning:

‘But in this connection the public must often be distinguished from those who pose as its representatives and spokesmen. In many respects the attitude of the public is quite different from, even contrary to, that of these spokesmen. In many respects the attitude of the public is quite different from, even contrary to, that of these spokesmen. Whereas the public is inclined good naturedly to blame itself when a philosophical work makes no appeal to it, these others, certain of their own competence, put all the blame on the author. The effect of such a work on the public is more noiseless than the action of these dead men when they bury their dead. The general level of insight now is altogether more educated, its curiosity more awake, and its judgement more swiftly reached, so that the feet of those who will carry you out are already at the door. But from this we must often distinguish the more gradual effect which corrects the attention extorted by imposing assurances and corrects, too, contemptuous censure, and gives some writers an audience only after a time, while others after a time have no audience left’.

And who are the representatives and spokespeople that are to be distinguished from the public? The cognoscenti, the intelligentsia, the political class, university academics, though some are given more exposure for no obvious reason than others, Jordan Peterson, (1962 -) , for instance, speakers at TED Conferences, (‘ideas worth spreading’ is the slogan, more appropriate than they realise, like bullsh*t is worth spreading), Guardian columnists, CNN journalists, those claiming to form public opinion, thought leaders, ‘public intellectuals’. None of whom have much idea what they are talking about any more than similar characters in Plato’s time. As Socrates said upon questioning someone on what they allegedly knew about: ‘When I left him, I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know’. And of his accusers he said: ‘If somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practice or teach? they do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they do not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretense of knowledge has been detected — which is the truth…’ Upon questioning his accusers were incapable of making any coherent response, and he was asking them the things they are supposed to know about. And today, Jordan Peterson presenting us with ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. What does he know? It is estimated that there are 227,000 homeless people in the UK. How are they supposed to clean up their rooms?

Hegel is not writing for such as them but for the public, and I have found myself from publishing on social media on Hegel that the public response to it is generally that they can see it must be important but they are not up to the task of understanding it, they have not the required background. Hegel is about placing the necessary tools in the public’s hands so that they may make their way through and appreciate an admittedly complex and difficult work, for they a certain sort of humility, a docility in a very good sense, (docile, from Latin docēre, meaning to teach). As for the public opinion representatives and spokespeople, we can teach them nothing, having their own particular point of view already staked out, for if they fail to understand a work, being certain of their own competence, they blame the author. ‘Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say’, said Richard Dawkins, (1941 — ), ‘but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content’. Why is he given so much exposure to discuss things he knows nothing about? If he doesn’t understand something or it makes no sense to him there is nothing there to understand or to make sense of. A special kind of foolishness indeed.

‘… from this we must often distinguish the more gradual effect which corrects the attention extorted by imposing assurances and corrects, too, contemptuous censure’. With ‘contemptuous censure’ Hegel could be talking about Steven Pinker, a defender in his own mind of Enlightenment values, and who asks why academics write so poorly: ‘It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation — an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-consciousness’. And yet by academics he means academics in the Humanities, while he is a cognitive psychologist. Has he ever read ‘Finnegans Wake’ I wonder. Could he write a decent essay about it?

The public therefore are who Hegel wrote for, and I follow him in that. According to Aristotle it is necessarily true that anything we know is either self-evident knowledge or else something derived from it, we cannot know anything unless we have self-evident knowledge. But that does not mean self evident to us, there is much work to be done to get there, and the more work that is done the more connections that we see. It is true that much work published in philosophy is read only by specialists, but with Hegel, though there is a high level of philosophical rigour, there is much in there that, as with the ‘Parmenides’, is a true disclosure and positive expression of the divine life’.

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Roto-relief’, 1936

--

--

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.