Tim's Reviews > Parmenides

Parmenides by Plato
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's review
Mar 19, 2008

it was amazing
Read in February, 2011

Maybe I should have just stuck with Green Eggs and Ham. I’m not really qualified to rate the book, and I didn’t try to struggle through many of the logic puzzles, though the Parmenides seems to be as much about ontology and to some extent language (or at least the verb “to be”) as it is about valid argument. And as is characteristic with Plato, it’s about considerably more, famously presenting serious and unresolved challenges to his Theory of Forms – part epistemology, part ontology, part everything else – after which it goes through a series of mazes about the One and the Many. Fun, fun, fun. Mary Louise Gill’s introduction is very good, but I have the nagging sense that she misses something. I sometimes wonder what Plato would have thought of Aristotle’s formal logic – certainly a great advance, and the Parmenides may be its most important forerunner, but Plato is almost Aristotle’s opposite in that he systematically avoids systematizing anything. In spite of his having a more mathematical mind than Aristotle, Plato seems so close to developing a formal logic here but refuses to do so. Maybe he’s unable to or just didn’t get there. But I tend to think he’s uninclined and not oriented towards formalizing logic as Aristotle does. Plato was also more of a mystic than Aristotle, which I think has some relevance to this question.

In Aristotle’s defense, his logic can be seen as serving his metaphysical vision about the essential comprehensibility of the cosmos, with man and his rationality being a product of that cosmos, and with man having an essential “desire to understand,” as he says at the beginning of his Metaphysics. Aristotle’s formal logic is both a means for investigating the comprehensible cosmos and a demonstration of the rationality of the cosmos. Whether he’s correct and whether (or to what extent) his logic succeeds are open questions. It seems Plato would have largely agreed with Aristotle’s metaphysical vision, at least as I’ve described it, but I suspect he might have considered Aristotle’s logic too reductive and exclusive. Our strengths are often also our weaknesses. One of Aristotle’s strengths is that he frequently doesn’t try to completely prove his point to the exclusion of all alternatives, but instead presents a case so compelling (he thinks) that he believes it will be thoroughly convincing, leaving alternatives to fend for themselves. Plato, on the other hand, sometimes tries to be comprehensive, but in those situations he’s typically too wise to try to be definitive using rational argument, relying on myth or analogy, or on the ambiguity that’s possible in the dialogue form, or leaving arguments incomplete or very likely knowing they have unresolved flaws. (Parmenides is the outstanding example of this, regarding the Theory of Forms. I don’t think Plato abandoned the theory as some have thought; it seems he honestly investigated it, exposed and analyzed difficulties, left problems open that he couldn’t solve, but continued holding to it. I believe his later works pretty strongly imply this.)

I suspect Plato would have been uncomfortable with an exclusive, definitive formal logic. It might not be possible for man to develop a perfect system of logic, and it seems to imply an unreal separation of the rational from other parts of the soul (as both Plato and Aristotle in general conceived the soul). And if this is unreal for the soul, it’s unreal for the cosmos (as Aristotle has the two intimately related and corresponding to one another). Can a statement about something that’s supposed to exist be dealt with properly using rationality alone? Can rationality alone ensure that a statement is valid, much less cogent? Are unqualified conclusions about validity and cogency legitimate? Is it appropriate and ultimately is it truly meaningful to isolate statements the way Aristotle does in his syllogisms? Do they accurately represent anything that exists? Formal logic is linear, pure, exact, reducible to very simple components, at times purportedly incontrovertible in its conclusions. Does this correspond with the human soul or the cosmos as they really are? Another possible problem is that Aristotle’s logic seems to operate contrary to Plato’s apparent conception of philosophy as necessarily and essentially dialectical – a search for truth involving two or more souls in an active relationship. (Whether this is a definite or complete doctrine of Plato’s is questionable; at a minimum he surely would have also included isolated individual contemplation. And though he clearly considers active dialectic to be very important, the late works seem to move away from this position.) Also, isn’t Aristotle’s metaphysical vision most fundamentally about an active and intimate relationship between man and the cosmos? I could be completely wrong suspecting Plato would have had serious reservations about Aristotle’s logic, though I can’t help thinking he would have at least sought to qualify it. Of course we’ll never hear Plato and Aristotle discuss the Parmenides and Aristotle’s logic, but wouldn’t it be fascinating? (Okay, maybe not for everybody.)
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Pete (new)

Pete You're digging pretty deep into the Dialogues, Tim. Far deeper than I ever did... so, unfortunately, I can't help you along that path. Have you heard the Teaching Company's course on "Plato, Socrates and the Dialogues" taught by Princeton's Michael Sugrue? Here's a link:

message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Well, I guess Plato's officially an obsession now, but I can’t shake it and there are worse things to be obsessed with. Thanks for the link – I haven’t heard of Sugrue, but I just might get the CDs or download after I’ve gotten through a couple currently-reading books (to which I’ve just added a couple – I seem to start new ones at a faster rate than I can finish the current ones. I’ve tried to discipline myself on this but I think it backfired. But again, there are worse things ….).

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