Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Site Map - History of Philosophy

Supplement to Ancient Greek Philosophy. It is an example of philosophizing in the old way, written in the old way, the way before Wittgenstein's logic of language, which makes no distinction between concepts and facts, between language and phenomena.

If reasoning shows that change is not real, then how can the appearances (phenomena as perceived by the senses) be saved (from its negation by reason)?

The One and the Many - Parmenides versus the Appearances

The question of Aristotle's metaphysics or First Philosophy is: What is real and ultimate? The following comparison is based mostly on W.K.C. Guthrie's The Greek Philosophers (1950), Chapter 3.

(the one)

Parmenides b. 515
Eleatic School

The birth of thinking in the abstract, i.e. without reference to the facts of common sense.

Parmenides: Reason about the words. To say of what is that it is, can only be to say that it exists. Now, the Milesians say that what is was one but became many. But become has no true meaning; for to say that what is becomes is to say that what is changes from being what is to what is not. But to say of what is that it is not, is to say something untrue. Therefore, what is did not become many.

Motion is also untrue. For that is to say that what is moves to where what-is is not. But where what-is is not, is not. Neither then is space true. For (empty) space is where what-is is not, which is untrue.

What is, is. What is not what-is is not.

What-is (reality) must, therefore, be an unchanging, motionless mass -- the One. And, so, the many which men sense is illusion; because reasoning proves that it is not what-is, which is supersensible.

Comment: It was a moment as momentous as any in human history when: Parmenides "made reason the standard": do not be governed by "an aimless eye, an echoing ear", but let reason decide (Diog. L. ix, 22). Like the paradoxes of his pupil Zeno of Elea, Parmenides' reasoning overturns the senses: what appears to be reality is not. Reasoning, even contrary to the evidence of sense perception, is the true path to knowledge. Plato and the whole history of transcendent metaphysics thus becomes possible.

(the many)

Empedocles b. 490,
Democritus b. 460

The revolt of common sense against thinking in the abstract -- in order to "save the appearances".

The Milesians are mistaken: there was not a primeval one that became many. The many is primeval.

Reject Parmenides premise that reality is substantially one; for what follows from that premise, monism, must be rejected if the appearances of common sense are to be saved -- i.e. if the phenomena, the many, are to be accounted real.

Empedocles: Reality is a variety of combinations of the four "roots" or elements -- earth, water, air, and fire -- in varying proportions. Nothing real changes, for the elements are the only reality. The changing appearances are merely chance combinations of the elements caused by their attraction or repulsion of one another.

Democritus: Reality is chance combinations of a multiplicity of elements; these elements are the ultimate existents, the only true realities. They are imperceptible particles of matter -- solid, hard, discrete, indestructible uncuttables or "atoms", differing only in size and shape as well as in relative position, motion, and distance from one another. These differences account for the differences we see in visible objects. The atoms move about in a boundless void, where up and down have no meaning. Empty space must be admitted if we are determined to account for apparent facts and not to be led astray by abstract argument or, in other words, if what is apparent to common sense is to be counted as real.

(Appearances = phenomena)

Plato who, despite his reverence for Parmenides, was not a monist, asked, If it cannot be said that what-is-not is, then what can be our meaning in saying it? (Sophist 237a) In answering this question Plato invents the notion of "logical form" in contrast to apparent form.

Defining Terms

Note that "common sense" and "thinking in the abstract" are Guthrie's terms, and their meaning in philosophy is often unclear.

By 'common sense' Guthrie appears to mean: 'the evidence of the senses and the consensus among mankind about the validity of that evidence'.

And by 'thinking in the abstract' Guthrie appears to mean: 'reasoning that prescinds from the evidence of the senses'. Plato's axiomatic method in Phaedo 99d-100a (tr. Jowett) is an example of this type of reasoning: "I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them ... [And so] this was the method which I adopted: I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest, and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this ... and that which disagreed I regarded as untrue."

A comparatively ancient account of Parmenides' thought

[Parmenides] divided his philosophy into two parts dealing the one with truth, the other with opinion ["the opinions of mortals in which there is no sure trust"].... He made reason the standard and pronounced sensations to be inexact. At all events his words are:

And let not long-practiced wont force thee to tread this path, to be governed by an aimless eye, an echoing ear and a tongue, but do thou with understanding bring the much-contested issue to decision.

He is believed ... to have been the first to use the argument known as "Achilles [and the Tortoise]" ...

From Diogenes Laertius (ca. 200-250 A.D.), Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, ix, 22-23, tr. R.D. Hicks.

Note.--The following are not the paradoxes as found in Aristotle, but instead only the second and third paradoxes retold using the argument of Zeno's first paradox (Aristotle, Physics 232a20). All four of Zeno's paradoxes prove that what we perceive to be reality is logically impossible, and therefore that sense perception is false. In the example below, our perception is that Achilles catches the tortoise, which, however, reasoning demonstrates is impossible.

Achilles and the Tortoise

In the race if the tortoise is given a head start, Achilles can never catch up with tortoise, because in order to catch up Achilles must pass through an infinity of spaces, for consider that once he has gone half the distance to the tortoise, he must then go the next half, then the next half, and the so on forever, because any space can be indefinitely divided in half.

Paradox of the Arrow (Zeno of Elea)

Likewise an arrow shot from a bow can never reach its target, because it must travel through an infinity of halves (half-way points) to arrive there.

The two proofs are mathematical (Any number may be divided in half) contra sense-perception, because the senses perceive that Achilles does catch up with the tortoise, and the arrow does reach its target, which has been proved to be impossible. The two contradictions are examples of reason ("understanding") disproving the evidence of the senses ("an aimless eye, an echoing ear and a tongue").

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 10 March 2018 : 2018-03-10 (Original version: 30 August 2008)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Site Search | Site Map