The pre-Socratic philosopher sparked an intellectual revolution that still echoes today. Yet for philosophy and science to continue to progress in the 21st century, we may need to embark on an entirely new cognitive journeyby Raymond Tallis / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Alfred North Whitehead famously described the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whether or not this is fair to the thinkers that followed Plato, it is a gross injustice to those that preceded him. Pre-eminent among these was Parmenides. Elizabeth Anscombe’s riposte that Plato might be regarded as “Parmenides’s footnote” is not as perverse as it seems. While Plato’s dialogues are among the supreme philosophical works of the western tradition, it was Parmenides who established the implicit framework of their debates.
Plato acknowledged that Parmenides had “magnificent depths.” But there is more to Parmenides than this: in his thought, human consciousness had a crucial encounter with itself. This was, I believe, a decisive moment in the long awakening of the human species to its own nature. From this self-encounter resulted the cognitive self-criticism, the profound critical sense that gave birth to the unfolding intellectual dramas of metaphysics and science that have in the last century or so approached an impasse.
Compared with Socrates, through whom Plato ventriloquised his own thoughts in a series of dramatised dialogues, Parmenides remains a shadowy figure. Pretty well all we know of him is that he was a handsome patrician, born in Elea in southern Italy “of a rich and honourable race” (in Hegel’s words), and that he flourished in the first part of the 5th century BC. It took another genius, Nietzsche, to make Parmenides live as a human being.
Nietzsche saw that Parmenides was the pivotal figure of the period between 600 and 400 BC, when the history of explicitly rational thought had its beginning. In his wonderful little book Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche imagined the “moment of purest, absolutely bloodless abstraction, unclouded by any reality” at which Parmenides arrived at his vision of the world. He admired Parmenides as one of those true thinkers who were prepared, as he put it in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “to feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge and for the sake of truth suffer hunger of the soul.” He attributes a prayer to him: “Grant me, ye gods… but one certainty [even] if it be but a log’s breadth on which to lie, on which to ride upon the sea of uncertainty. Take away everything that comes-to-be, everything lush, colourful, blossoming, illusory… Take all these for yourselves and grant me but the one and only, poor empty certainty.”