Lecture Eight: Dialectic 8.2

8.2 Overcoming differences

A fairly standard interpretation of the Parmenides goes as follows. Plato’s early dialogues (for instance, the Meno) introduce Socrates as an inquirer concerned with finding out genuine definitions for the concepts used by various interlocutors. Socrates himself does not defend a particular view. His aim is rather to cross-examine the views of those who pretend to know what they are talking about, in order to show that they actually turn out to be quite confused and even lack a solid grasp of the main object of their pretended wisdom. In this sense, Socrates operates mainly as a critical character. In the middle dialogues (like the Republic), Plato reshapes this earlier image of Socrates, and makes him a more assertive character. Now, Socrates sees that in order to genuinely know anything, it is necessary to postulate the existence of certain eternal and immutable essences, the ideas (or forms). Only ideas provide a reliable account of physical and changeable reality. However, Plato’s middle dialogues never offer a full-blown systematic account of what ideas are and how this theory would work. In the Parmenides (one of the most important late dialogues), Plato offers a cross-examination of his own theory of ideas and exposes several flaws in it. Here, it is Parmenides the character who is responsible for this critical investigation, and Socrates the one who turns out to be under inquisition.

Two important points needs to be added. First, in the Parmenides, Socrates presents the appeal to ideas as a way of accounting for the seemingly contradictory nature of reality. The same entity can possess different qualities, but this appears to Socrates contradictory if taken at face value. Consider a subject S, and qualities Q and F, where Q is not F (Q=not-F). If S is both Q and F, this means that S is both F and not-F, which looks contradictory. Socrates’s solution is to postulate that the same subject is sharing in multiple ideas, which in turn account for its different qualities. Hence, the subject is not identical with any of these ideas, but different ideas simply happen to be instantiated in the same subject.[1]

Second, each idea is conceived and exists in itself and by itself. In the introductory part of the dialogue, Socrates challenges Zeno, Parmenides’s disciple, to show that this might not be the case:

If someone first distinguishes as separate the forms, themselves by themselves, of the things I was talking about a moment ago […] and then shows that in themselves they can mix together and separate, I for my part, […] would be utterly amazed, Zeno. (129e, transl. Gill and Ryan 1996, 130)

Socrates presents this as a challenge to Zeno. Zeno has argued that assuming genuine multiplicity in reality entails problems, and Socrates agrees. But he further pushes Zeno to prove that there is genuine multiplicity within the ideas themselves, namely, that ideas are not defined in themselves and by themselves, but that they can also mix together. This challenge reveals an important assumption in Socrates’ view: ideas are something that exist in themselves and only in virtue of themselves; each idea is unique and self-standing, pure, unmixed with anything else. Hence, Socrates can challenge Zeno to show the contrary and regard this possibility as genuinely amazing and paradoxical. As it turns out, Parmenides steps into the debate and offers several arguments to show that Socrates’s account of ideas as separate entities is untenable. Nevertheless, Parmenides makes the following remark:

Yet on the other hand, Socrates […], if someone, having an eye on all the difficulties we have just brought up and others of the same sort, won’t allow that there are forms for things and won’t mark off a form for each one, he won’t have anywhere to turn his thought, since he doesn’t allow that for each thing there is a character that is always the same. In this way he will destroy the power of dialectic entirely. (135b-c, transl. Gill and Ryan 1996, 138)

Parmenides here suggests that positing ideas in the rigid way suggested by Socrates, as entirely self-standing and mutually independent beings, is untenable. And yet, abandoning ideas altogether is also problematic, since this ‘will destroy the power of dialectic entirely.’ Notice that Parmenides here is not talking about knowledge, but about dialectic. Parmenides is not saying that without ideas we could not know anything (a claim that Socrates would surely accept), but he is rather saying that without ideas we could not engage in dialectic. This point can be interpreted in various ways, but for now, we shall stick to the following: in Parmenides’s view (unlike in Socrates’s view), ideas are necessary tools needed for dialectic, but they are not the ultimate goal of philosophical research. What, then, is this goal? Socrates is confused at this point, and Parmenides remarks that this is due to his lack of training in dialectic:

Socrates, that’s because you are trying to mark off something beautiful, and just, and good, and each one of the forms, too soon […] before you have been properly trained. […] The impulse you bring to argument is noble and divine, make no mistake about it. But while you are still young, put your back into it and get more training through something people think useless—what the crowd call idle talk. Otherwise, the truth will escape you. […] If you want to be trained more thoroughly, you must not only hypothesize, if each thing is, and examine the consequences of that hypothesis; you must also hypothesize, if that same thing is not. (135c-136a, transl. Gill and Ryan 1996, 138-139)

Training in dialectic would entail the ability of advancing a hypothesis about a given entity, and derive what the consequences are, and then take the opposite hypothesis and again derive what the consequences would be. Parmenides quickly expands this scheme, by further adding that the same must be done both in relation to the hypothesized thing considered in itself, and then considered in relation to other things (136b-c). We can see why Parmenides stressed the necessity of not dismissing ideas, since they form the basis of the dialectical deduction. Ideas are stable and well-defined objects one can hypothesize; without them the method would have no fixed starting point. However, this does not commit Parmenides to claim that ideas are needed in order to know particular entities or sensible things. His point concerns method, not knowledge. We might surmise that Parmenides is after something else than just knowing this or that reality (even through ideas). As we shall see, he seems to envisage the goal of dialectic as reaching towards something beyond all ideas.

After this method has been announced, Socrates acknowledges its difficulty. Upon request, Parmenides thus illustrates how dialectic is supposed to work, and this illustration takes up the second and denser part of the dialogue. Here, Parmenides is assisted by a young body, named Aristotle (only a homonym of Plato’s later disciple), whose function is mostly that of helping Parmenides through his series of deductions, by offering an easy counterpoint and, as he says, ‘would allow me a breathing space’ (137b). Notice, then, that the sort of dialectic in which Parmenides is about to engage is not properly a dialogic discovery (as in the early Socratic dialogues) in which both parties share. Here, the interlocutor is just an attendant, who is supposed to provide some external support for Parmenides’s own solo performance.

At this point, Parmenides engages in a series of eight deductions. Scholars usually focus on the various arguments presented in them. For our purposes, we shall focus instead on two aspects: the general scheme that Parmenides applies in each case, and the overall experiential cumulative effect of the eight deductions. To appreciate these points, consider the salient aspect of each deduction.

The first deduction starts from the hypothesis: ‘if it is one,’ the positive assertion that ‘one’ is such that it is one. Having posited this idea, Parmenides derives a number of conclusions, including the fact that the one is neither a whole nor has parts; does not have beginning, middle, or end; is unlimited and without shape; has no location; is neither in motion nor at rest; and is neither the same as nor different from another or itself. Eventually, Parmenides concludes that the one cannot be in time, and hence it cannot be said to be. Notice this conclusion: if the one is (hypothesis), then the one is not (consequence).

The second deduction takes as starting its hypothesis again ‘if it is one,’ but this time it builds its consequences on the acknowledgement that the hypothesis entails that the one must partake in being. Parmenides deduces then pretty much the same list of consequences that constitute the first deduction, but this time all the consequences are asserted positively. Hence, for instance, this time Parmenides shows that the one is both a whole and has parts, is both limited and unlimited, is both in motion and at rest, is both the same as and different from the others and itself, and partakes in time.

Notice the paradoxical results that start building up at this point. From the first deduction, we learned that if we hypothesize that ‘the one is,’ then we have to conclude a whole list of negative consequences, including the fact that ‘the one is not.’ However, from the same hypothesis, it also follows that the same list of properties can be all asserted, even when they are clearly contradictory (like being both in motion and at rest). Hence, not only do the particular conclusions in the second deduction appear paradoxical, but deductions one and two are also in contradiction with one another.

Deductions three and four then expand on this same scheme but considering the consequences that follow for what is not-one, namely, for the others. In other words, if the one is, Parmenides deduces a set of consequences for the others (the not-one), and here again, the consequences both positively assert (third deduction) and negatively deny (fourth deduction) the same predicates to the same subject.

Deductions five, six, seven and eight then replicate this same scheme, now starting from the negative hypothesis: ‘if the one is not,’ and then deducing positive and negative consequences, both in relation to the one (deductions five and six), and in relation to the others (deductions seven and eight). Hence, the eight deductions are symmetrically structured and all mutually contradict each other. After having concluded, in the eighth deduction, that if one is not, nothing is, Parmenides then remarks:

Let us then say this [i.e. if one is not, nothing is]—and also that, as it seems, whether one is or is not, it and the others both are and are not, and both appear and do not appear all things in all ways, both in relation to themselves and in relation to each other. (166c, transl. Gill and Ryan 1996, 175)

This conclusion can be interpreted in two ways and both might be relevant for Plato’s own discussion. The most direct way is to acknowledge that none of the deductions actually establishes a positive result, and they all together exhaust the logical space entailed by the given hypothesis by preventing the establishing of any final conclusion. If we take this point seriously, then the last four deductions, in particular, strongly suggest that the world of experience is merely an appearance, dream, or illusion. Things seem to be there, but actually they are just shadows. Throughout his deductions, Parmenides always starts by positing a sharp hypothesis, which is assumed to stand in itself and by itself, namely, as distinct and different from its opposite. The cumulative effect of his dialectic method is that none of the hypotheses actually stands, and their conclusions are mutually contradictory. This means that having gone through the deductions in an exhaustive way, it is necessary to give up the idea of any ontological sharp difference. Differences themselves are just illusory, like the appearances of the many things that can be observed in the world: they both are and are not, are both many and one. The consequence is that difference is not a genuine constituent of reality, which in itself is beyond (or above, or behind) difference. In this way, Parmenides reaches a monist (and Parmenidean indeed!) conclusion. But this conclusion is not asserted itself as yet another hypothesis, because in order to do that, it would be necessary for him to state this as a claim and to sharply distinguish it from its opposite, which is precisely what the claim denies is possible. The only way of experiencing the illusory nature of all differences and thus to access the ultimate nature of reality beyond any differentiation is by intuitively jumping from the dialectical tangle that shows the unviability of asserting any form of difference into the ineffable nature of a non-differentiated reality. And, in doing so, Parmenides’s dialectic method is actually offering a discursive instance of anesthetic trance, not too far in practice from the neti neti approach encountered in the Upaniṣads.

However, one can also take a different reading, and argue that Parmenides’s deductions were meant to show to Socrates the fundamental flaw in his initial understanding of ideas. This option is well presented by Mary Louise Gill in her introduction to her translation of the Parmenides. She writes:

The key issue in the second part of the Parmenides is Socrates’ assumption in Part I that the one cannot be both one and many. This is the false assumption that ultimately leads to the conclusion in Deduction 8—and that conclusion is Parmenides’ final response to Socrates’ original challenge in Part I. Socrates’ assumption is false, and it must be false because there is a world to be explained. Our question is how to make sense of the idea that the one is both one and many. (in Plato’s Parmenides, transl. Gill and Ryan 1996, 107)

If one examines the actual content of Parmenides’s arguments in the various deductions, it turns out that we can distinguish two conflicting claims: (a) the multifarious world of phenomena is real; and (b) this world cannot be explained if we assume (as Socrates does in the first part of the dialogue) that the one has to be conceived in itself and by itself, independently from both the many, and from being as such. The reality of the world itself is more assumed than demonstrated in Gill’s reading, but this would square well enough with Plato’s own intuitions. Hence, we can use Gill’s suggestion to uncover the intention of the hidden character in the dialogue, which is Plato himself. Taken at face value, Parmenides’s deductions are a way of obliterating the world as nothing but appearances and thus setting up an intuitive insight into the intransitive nature of reality. Perhaps this is the sort of approach that the historical Parmenides could have defended and tried to convey in his poem. However, Plato exploits this strategy to present both the wrong and the potentially right way of avoiding Parmenides’s conclusion. The wrong way is positing ideas as given in themselves and by themselves, as in the relatively naïve account that Socrates explains in the first part of the dialogue. The potentially right way of escaping from Parmenides’s own view is to take stock of his dialectic tour the force as a refutation of the assumption that ideas must be conceived in isolation from one another or, more profoundly, that one and many, or one and being, should be conceived as separate ideas. Remember that Socrates challenged Zeno to show him that ideas can mix, that they are not entities that exist separately from one another. Parmenides’s performance can be interpreted as illustrating precisely this point, namely, that ideas should not be understood as self-standing unrelated units. Parmenides himself more likely wanted to use his performance to instead support the conclusion that multiplicity is ultimately unreal, and not that ideas should not be conceived in themselves. Plato realizes that neither the early naïve account attributed to Socrates, nor Parmenides’s interpretation of the results of his dialectic performance are tenable. They share a common assumption: ideas do not mix. To move away from both, Plato is going to develop explicitly the view that ideas, at a very fundamental level, always mix. This is the plan carried out in the Sophist, where it is clearly presented as a way of going beyond (the historical) Parmenides, while it also works as an amendment to Socrates’s (or Plato’s) early view of the nature of ideas.

However, before leaving the Parmenides, it might be worth reflecting on the reasons why Plato would find Parmenides’s denial of the reality of difference in need of correction. After all, in the myth of the cave (Republic 514a-520a), Plato himself defended the idea that our experience of the sensible world is nothing but a copy, an appearance, made on the basis of immutable entities, which we cannot perceive through the senses. If this is true, Plato would agree with Parmenides in considering the whole of sensory experience as ultimately illusory (a claim that also emerges as a point of agreement between Socrates and Zeno in the prologue of the Parmenides). But if Gill’s reading is correct, then it is precisely out of a concern for the reality of the world itself, that we should revise the theory of ideas. It would be question begging to say otherwise, since ideas are only postulated and not directly known, and they are postulated for the sake of explaining the phenomenal world, after all. And yet, if Plato would sympathize with the idea that the phenomenal world is somehow illusory in its appearance and surely not the ultimate reality, why would he be concerned with ‘saving the phenomena’?

Here is a possible answer: Plato realizes that Parmenides’s dialectic (anesthetic) method is self-defeating and cannot constitute the sort of access to an ultimate reality that it proclaims to achieve. Even if all diversity and multiplicity is nothing but appearance and illusion, the fact that there is appearance of diversity and multiplicity cannot as such be taken as an illusion. In other words, the fact that certain phenomena are judged to be illusory presupposes that those phenomena genuinely and really appear in the first place (otherwise they could not be objects of judgment). However, if there is the appearing of something, then a transitive form of experience must be taken as completely real and valid in its own right. Intransitive experience of the ineffable can then only be different from this transitive experience of something else, and at best they constitute two opposite domains of experience. But these domains are not asymmetric like absolute Being and absolute non-being in Parmenides’s own poem, since here they are both genuinely real (appearances are real as phenomena, unlike Parmenides’s absolute non-being, which cannot appear at all). Hence, the difference between these two domains must also be equally real and even be constitutive of the nature of both domains, since each of them can be defined and discerned in contrast with the other. If we really have these two genuinely distinct domains of reality (phenomenal appearance and intransitive experience), the experience of the ineffable cannot be said to constitute a privileged access to ultimate reality (since also the domain of appearances would be ultimate in its own right). More importantly, the experience of the ineffable cannot be absolute, as it pretends to be, since it stands in contrast with the experience of the other appearances, which are also equally real.

Perhaps it is possible to claim that the ineffable is the ground of all the other appearances. However, even before embarking on this discussion, it should be observed that the experience of the ineffable is entirely predicated on the overcoming of the experience of differences and the reduction of any difference to sheer illusion or appearance. But it turns out that one difference at least is as real and ultimate as the ineffable itself, namely, the difference between the ineffable and the domain of what appears to be something (else). Hence, it is experientially impossible to reach a genuine and pure contact with the ineffable, because it is experientially impossible to overcome the reality of differentiation, given that even the experience of the ineffable has to be based on its difference from the experience of what appears.

In other words, if the ineffable was not genuinely different from the domain of phenomenal appearance, how could one possibly know when the experience of the ineffable is reached? But if this difference between the two domains is real, then it is false (at the level of the interpretation of experience) that all differences are just illusory, since we just got this one difference that is required even by the experience of the absolute ineffable. And yet, if this difference is real, then the experience of the absolute ineffable cannot be absolute. One can have an episodic intransitive experience (among other experiences), but it is not possible to interpret this experience as one that reaches a domain of reality beyond all differentiation, a domain that would make all other domains unreal. This latter interpretative move is simply incoherent because it does not realize that it denies its own condition of possibility, namely, the reality of genuine difference between the intransitive experience of the ineffable and the experience of phenomenal appearances.

This point brings to the fore an internal flaw in the whole anesthetic approach towards absolute Transcendence. The method offers a potentially misleading interpretation of its own results, by presenting intransitive experience as the reaching of an ultimate reality, which in fact cannot be genuinely ultimate and absolute, given that intransitive experience is predicated on the reality of transitive experience from which it really differs. If transitive experience is dismissed as unreal, then also intransitive experience becomes unreal. But if transitive experience is real, then intransitive experience cannot be absolute, it cannot constitute an ultimate reality. Appreciating this internal problem is crucial and gives a whole new spectrum of meanings to Plato’s attempt at overcoming Parmenides. There is more to it than just savaging Socrates’s early theory of ideas. What is at stake is properly understanding the role of difference in the constitution of experience, and realizing that difference cannot be overcome by anesthetizing it. As we shall now see, Plato’s own solution is presented in the Sophist. It is a brilliant solution, except for the fact that it will make experience and thought inevitably bound with language and its limitations.


  1. This model of sharing can be seen as a philosophical refinement and abstraction of the communitarian model of agency we discussed in Lecture Three.

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