A Few Comments on Parmenides

From the newly founded city of Velia came Parmenides, who was probably born a generation after the founding of the city. His poem is probably the most philosophically significant presocratic text.

Charles Kahn points out that it is

“the earliest philosophic text which is preserved with sufficient completeness and continuity to permit us to follow a sustained line of argument” (143).

Typically, philosophers view the mythological content of the poem as something “added” to the argument- as an allegory or the process of enlightenment. Bowra argues that

“Parmenides is plainly allegorizing. The allegory may of course be based on something akin to a mystical experience, but it is nonetheless an allegory” (98).

Bowra argues the poem has two meanings:

“the superficial meaning which tells a story that the implied meaning which gives the essential message of the poet.”

When the mythological content of the poem is dismissed as “allegorical,” this content becomes of a secondary priority to the argument. Gilson, for instance, refers to the mythological content as “poetic fiction” (8) and invites us to go beyond it.

Viewpoints in this camp take Parmenides to fall among the traditions of poets, as well as that of philosophers. He certainly is greatly influenced by the former; Meurelatos points out that Parmenides’s use of hexameter places him in the tradition of epic poetry (264).

The are others, however, who place Parmenides in the tradition of mysticism. Kingsley is the foremost representative of this viewpoint, and archeological findings strengthen his position.

In Strabo’s Geography, we are given a description of the Charonium, a cave lying about the shrine of Pluto and Core near the city of Acharaca. There are healing centers in these caves. The diseased come to the priests who tell them the cures prescribed by the gods. These priests, on behalf of the sick,

“sleep in the cave and through dreams prescribe cures… And they often bring the sick into the cave and leave them there, to remain quiet, like animals in their lurking-holes, without food for many days” (Strabo, 14.1.44).

We know from Herodotus (I.164-8) that the Velians took their religious practices with them from Phocaea, and (according to Kingsley), these religious practices were Antonian in origin (APMM, 392). One of these Antonian religious practices was that described by Strabo: the incubation healing cults. In one of these cults- the cult of Apollo Oulious at Velia- a statue of Asclepius inscribed with the name of Parmenides was found.

A possible way of reading the inscription, ”Parmenides son of Pyres Ouliades Physikos” (DPW, 140), is to read “physikos” to meaning that Parmenides was a student of primordial reality. Another way this can be interpreted is that it indicates that Parmenides was a doctor or physician. Kingsley argues for both:

“the term physikos– or physicus in Latin- was only applied to doctors when they started taking an interest in that greater world behind the context of medicine. And this is how things stayed right through to the Middle Ages and beyond” (145).

Based off this evidence, Kingsley, in his In the Dark Places of Wisdom, interprets the elements of Parmenides’s poem as fitting into the context of a mystical tradition and argues that philosophy was initially mystical at heart.

The main problem facing this interpretation is Plato’s portrayal of Parmenides as a philosopher. Kingsley argues that this interpretation is false and is based off Plato’s ambition. Kingsley points to Plato’s Sophist, where Plato has the Eleatic Stranger remark that he is committing “patricide” of father Parmenides, and makes his contra-Plato from here. I, on the other hand, hold the view that Plato is not even attempting to represent Parmenides, but is merely pointing to the way in which the sophists misuse Parmenides’s thesis- basing this argument on Gorgia’s “On Nothing” and Plato’s overall project in the Sophist.

Whatever the case, I think it likely that Parmenides is being misrepresented by Plato. If the mystical interpretation of Parmenides is correct, it shows- not only that the Eleatic philosophers believed in their gods- but that the divine played a crucial role in philosophy itself. It also sheds light upon what Parmenides’s monism is and explains why he arrived at his conclusions. His view of the world as one, undivided, motionless “that which is” is an attempt to glimpse a hidden mystical reality behind the world, not an attempt to arrive at a conclusion of how the world must be.

Works Cited

Bowra, C. M. “The Proem of Parmenides.” Classical Philology, vol. 32. U of Chicago P, 1937. [web]

Herodotus. Histories. Sélincourt, Aubrey de. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003 [print]

Kahn, Charles. Essays on Being. Oxford U P, 2006. [print]

Gilson, Entienne. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005. [print]

Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Inverness: The Golden Sufi Center, 2008. [print]

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic. Oxford: Claredon P, 1996. [print]

Morrison, J.S. “Parmenides and Er” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 75, (1955), pp. 59-68 [web]

Strabo. Geography. Trans. Jones, Horace. London: Harvard UP, 1960. [print]

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On the Validity of Aristotelian Physics

Aristotelian physics says that things, in themselves, have a tendency towards a certain motion. Newtonian physics, on the contrary, explains motion through principles such as gravity. Newton’s explanation is a mathematical explanation and is distinct from what Aristotle means by a study of nature. Aristotle provides us with a provision for such interpretations.

The mathematician does busy himself about the things mentioned, but not insofar as each is a limit of a natural body, nor does he examine their properties insofar as they belong to them because they pertain to natural bodies. On account of this also he separates them. For in his thinking they are separated from motion, and it makes no difference, nor do they become false by being separated.

Aristotle, Physics II.2, 193b30.

The distinction is between calculating and a kind of primordial “grasping” of the thing itself. When we consider the natural disposition of a baseball to a certain motion, we are in touch with the baseball qua baseball. When we plug in F=MA, we are abstracting from the baseball to make a calculation. Problems arise, however, when we abstract gravity to the level of a causa efficens and slap the quality of existence on it. Then we have a magical force called “gravity,” existing in the netherworld and dragging things towards bigger objects. To stay true to the things themselves, gravity should be stated as an axiom expressing the tendency in things to be drawn to larger things. The primordial object in the relation is a matter of perspective and is only established when necessary to provide a framework for performing a calculation.

The study of physis for Aristotle is a study of the things in themselves as they reveal themselves in themselves. It should be distinguished from physics, in the post-Newtonian connotation of the word, which studies things in a calculus as they reveal themselves in a calculus.

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Remarks on the Poet

“Singing and thinking are the stems neighbor to poetry. They grow out of Being and reach into its truth.” -Martin Heidegger, (The Thinker as Poet).

Poetry must be passionate. To be able to write poetry at all, the poet must have an object he is passionate about to cast in to verse.

Poetry, when truly masterful, uses meter and rhyme- not as a framework in which meaning is contained- but as a source of meaning itself. We can sometimes say what this meaning contained in the framework is, but often this meaning remains unsayable.

Perhaps this is similar to what rappers call “flow.” “Flow” is when rhythm is not merely a container for poetry but is an essential element of the poetry itself.

The people the poet meets must must sift long- without replenished encounter- to be digested enough by memory to be done justice to in verse.

It is always of great difficulty for the poet to reflect on the immediate. Poetry is reflective. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

The poet is born a finite, temporal creature.

The great poet ascends his historicity to timelessness.

Mastery of language is the ability to make it show– a showing beyond merelysaying. The poet is a painter, but a painter who paints the eternal, immaterialεἶδος.

Language is a cage, as Wittgenstein pointed out. I probably should give him credit somewhere since I’ve commandeered his distinction between saying and showing and taken it for a spin on my own.

The philosopher and poet are guided by a kind of grasping which they try to show through saying.

“Then, perhaps, Nietzsche rightly said truth was like a woman. Women are won by poetry” [from my “Aphorisms on Wittgenstein, Language, and Poetry”].

“Can one “refer” to bravery itself? Poets can try.” [ibid.]

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On the Motions of the Soul

Recently, my attention has shifted from the way in which the language of poetry and philosophy show or reveal something beyond the text to the way in which language concerning psychological states acts as the condition for the possibility of the psychological states the language is about. This is a small preview of where my philosophical thoughts have been going.

Archaic terms- such as logos or “motions of the soul” are not “archaic” in the sense that newer, more scientific language has “replaced” them with new terminologies or in the sense that the new scientific language has any kind of correlation to what people used to mean by “motions of the soul.”

The archaic words show something phenomenologically different. The mistake is to think about them in a language game of empirical correspondence. “Motions of the soul” refers to something which plays a role in my way of being in the world. It does not refer to an object– but a mood: a way I feel sometimes. The archaic term “motions of the soul,” in fact, opens up this mood and its corresponding way of being to me. If I was not familiar with this way of speaking, I could never quite put my finger on that mood. It would likely seem to be a part of some other mood.

A good example closer to our times is the phrase “butterflies in the stomach.” There are not “butterfly entities” in your stomach. Also, we could not use neuroscience to tell us what “butterflies in the stomach” really is. Yes, we could describe the physical conditions which accompany “butterflies in the stomach,” but when we do so we are fundamentally guided by the phrase and its corresponding mood. The physical conditions are not the cause or the thing itself; rather, they are merely an occurrence alongside it.

Let’s say, for example, that I have goosebumps when I am scared. Does the physical fact in this case correspond to fear? Most certainly not. I am afraid and I have goosebumps.

Phenomenally, the mood is the cause of the physical state, when we are explaining things as we do in an everyday manner. By this, I mean that when I ask you why you have goosebumps, you tell me you’re scared of this or that.

So what I am arguing for sounds something like linguistic constructivism, but this label isn’t quite right for it. What I am emphasizing is that there is something about the way we talk about our moods in which the moods which come to presence are the ones we have the words for. In addition to this, theweltanschauung this language is tied to effects the way in which the moods are disclosed to us, are significant to us, etc.

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Plato’s Catharsis in the Sophist

The subject matter of the Sophist’s ontology could be roughly divided into the following three sections. The first section deals with Parmenides and the Presocratics. In this section, in interlocutors examine their past.[1] The second section is the GIGANTOMACHY, which deals with idealists and materialists. I am going to propose that this section examines the present.[2] The third section gives us Plato’s emendation of his previous ontology as a result of his examination of what people have said and currently say about being.[3]

Of course, the heart of the first section is Parmenides. Not only does the Eleatic Stranger give us access to Parmenides, he also holds him as his father- for he is the figurehead of the tradition the Eleatic Stranger comes from. The Eleatic Stranger’s close association to Parmenides makes the discussion of Parmenides the spirit of this section. Likewise, Plato’s association to the theory of the forms in the  GIGANTOMACHYmakes the critique of the idealists the heart of the  GIGANTOMACHY.

In this essay I wish to highlight the cathartic role of these first two sections. A good place to start, then, would perhaps be the sixth appearance of the Sophist: “he who cleanses the soul of beliefs that interfere with learning.”[4] In addition to definition, we are given both the purpose and method of purpose of catharsis.

Let us start with the method. The method of catharsis is for those who hold the “large, difficult type of ignorance marked off from the others and overshadowing all of them.”[5] This ignorance thinks that it knows, but in fact does not know. Plato describes it as the following: “They collect his opinions together during the discussion, put them side by side, and show that they conflict with each other at the same time on the same subjects in relations to the same things and in the same respects.”[6] We see Socrates doing this throughout Plato’s dialogues Even in the aporetic dialogues, Socrates is at least trying to purify (e.g.) Euthyphro’s conflicting beliefs.

As regards to its purpose, we are told the following:

 The people who cleanse the soul… likewise thing the soul, too, won’t get any advantage from any learning that’s offered to it until someone shames it by refuting it, removes  opinions that interfere with learning, and exhibits it cleansed, believe that it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more.[7]

From these two descriptions we have a notion of what catharsis looks like: it is a refutation of someone which shows their opinions to be contradictory, after which they are capable of learning. Who, then, is the catharsis performed on? I do not think the answer is straight-forward by any means. But certainly there is a kind of catharsis performed on the Eleatic Stranger? The problem with saying this is that the Eleatic Stranger could be “playing the Socrates” here.[8]The bigger problem is that saying such would imply that either Theaetetus or Plato is performing a purification of him. I am sure we hardly think Theaetetus to be capable of such and we could only guess at Plato’s role here. I think, if we are to say that any catharsis is performed upon the Eleatic Stranger, it is by himself on himself.

But what if we said the first section contained a catharsis of Parmenides and the second section contained Plato’s purification of his own doctrines?  I think this to be correct, but I am currently going to leave this point as an “assumption”  and move on to a different, more important, question.

Rather, I wish to pose the question of why.What is the connection here between catharsis and ontology?

Plato’s Sophist is an ontology- that is a λογος of being- in its purest form. We are taken from the results of past ontologies and ontologies taking place in Plato’s time on forward into a new ontology and its conclusions. The ontology contained within this dialogue has struck numerous thinkers with its complexity, density, and difficulty. Why should philosophy inquire into being? Some of philosophy’s contemporary interlocutors would find ontology trivial, while Thomists, Aristotelians, and Heideggerians see ontology as, in some respect, essential. We of course, are talking about the Sophist. But may we still not ask Plato the same question? Such a question could be turned into the basic question: why would one inquire into being at all?

Of course, asking the Thomases, John Stuart Mills, and Kants about being would involve an ontology completely different from that of Plato. We suffer from a Latinized ontology. We must Hellenize our ontological vocabulary.

We should first be clear upon what we English speakers mean by “being.” In particular, we think of this in terms of existence. Existence is, for us, a finite phenomenon. A Thomist today, for instance, would speak of eternal, infinite existence as a modification of existence (i.e. substantive being). Existence, for us, is also something bestowed upon something from outside of it, which is evident from the prefix “ex” which means “out” or “out of.” It is not a quality of the thing, but a non-qualitative statement about its reality- or at least so Kant says. Existence for us is “being the case,” but in a way that “that which is the case” is subject to change.

Greek ontology is built off of the word  ειηαι. Charles H. Kahn points out three connotations of ειηαι implicit in it. It is implicit that “that which is” exists for a infinite duration of time. This is to say, “that which is” is eternal. It is also implicit that “that which is” is true and that “that which is” is locatedsomewhere.

So now, we can see much clearer the importance of ontology for a Greek, since ontology here is an inquiry into eternal truths, while the study of existence studies the reality of things which are coming into and going out of being (which is not quite as exciting as eternal truths, honestly).

Now let us turn our attention to the catharsis in the dialogue itself. For the sake of brevity, I will focus most of my attention of the catharsis of Parmenides, since this is the core catharsis of the dialogue. What I mean by calling it the “core” relates to the fact that the main interlocutor has a close association with Parmenides.

 The dialogue begins with Theodorus introducing the Eleatic Stranger, who is part of the group which gathers around Parmendies and Zeno. Socrates at first fears that the Eleatic Stranger may be a “god of refutation;” that is, a proponent of the eristic style of argumentation which aims at refuting an opponent rather than aiming at truth (as dialectic does). This is clear from Theodorus’s use of the word “ερις.”[9]  Theodorus assures Socrates that the Eleatic Stranger is not this eristic kind of debtor. Theodorus assures us, in fact, that the Eleatic Stranger is “quite a philosopher.”[10]

Cornford remarks that this “graceful exchange of compliments” serves the purpose of establishing the precise philosophic standpoint of the stranger. “The description of the stranger makes it clear that he does not stand for this [“this” being eristic refutation] negative and destructive element in the Eleatic tradition.”[11]

I agree with Cornford that this point is made; I do not think that Plato isyet making this point. My justification for this point is Socrates’s discussion at 216c-217a, which points out that it is harder to distinguish a genuine philosophers from fake philosophers than it is to distinguish gods among men. Here, Socrates might be implying that Theodorus might have hastily concluded the Eleatic Stranger to be a genuine philosopher.

In addition to this, Socrates asks the Eleatic Stranger to tell us how “the people where he comes from”[12] use the names sophist, statesman, and philosopher. The people the Eleatic stranger comes from are the Eleans and the Eleatic school of thought.

Cornford also makes the point that the role of the Stranger in the dialogue is to stand “for the genuinely philosophic element in the Parmenidean tradition.”[13] Recalling that the Eleatic Stranger is answering Socrates for “the people where he comes from,” it becomes clear that Cornford is correct in saying that the Eleatic Stranger stands for the Parmenidean philosophic tradition. The point that he stands for the “genuinely philosophic element” is proved throughout the dialogue implicitly. This is because the catharsis of Parmenides vis-à-vis the Eleatic Stranger works.[14]

The “conflicting beliefs” are referred to as a “verbal conflict.” This first appears at the beginning of the ontology in the discussion of likeness making versus appearance making.

Likeness making replicates to scale, while appearance making takes into account the perspective of the viewer- making the thing appear to be a perfect representation of the thing when we view it from a limited, imperfect perspective.[15]

If it possible to make something which “appears” to be a perfect and true representation of the thing in question, but is in fact only something which “seems to be” but is not, then this poses a problem for the interlocutors. The reason this is significant for the conversation is because the interlocutors are proposing the sophist’s speech to be false- that is, “seeming” to be a perfect and true representation of reality, but not actually being true. The reason it poses a problem is because it leads to the possibility of “verbal conflict,” because in order to say “that which is not,” one must assume that “that which is not” is, otherwise falsity could not come into being. To say that “that which is not” is seems to be both a logical contradiction and a contraction of Parmenides, who wrote: “Never shall this force itself on us, that that which is not may be; while you search, keep your thought far away from this path.”[16]

To shed light on the role of Parmenidean logic in this dialogue, I also want to acknowledge another passage of Parmenides unquoted in the dialogue: “thinking and being are the same.”[17] This puts a perspective on the problem Parmenides presents the interlocutors will address in 239d-242b; namely, false belief. A certain reading of this passage (presumably the reading that the Eleatic Stranger is giving it) would utilize the statement to make the claim that both false belief and false speech are impossible, for that would require thinking “that which is not,” which is impossible because that which is not is not and cannot not be[18], and to think “that which is not” is to put it into being.

The resolution of this verbal conflict is the core philosophical task of the dialogue. The first attempt at resolution is made by asking the question “what should the name that which is not be applied to?”[19] The Stranger asks “why” it would be used and “for what purpose.” Also, he asks “in what connection? …And what would he indicate by it?”These are two separate questions.

One could be formulated as “how is that which is not used in our language?” The second could be formulated “and what kind of thing or beingcorresponds to that which is not as what is indicated by it?” Essentially, the first concerns the use, the second concerns the meaning.

The latter is an kind of representationalist[20] theory of language.[21]This “representationalism” is evident if we take Parmenides to be saying that the object of thought and being-an-entity are the same- or to make this more clear- that anything that can be thought has a kind of “entity like being.”

To justify this reading, I wish to turn first to Gorgias’s statement that “whatever is, is somewhere; what is nowhere is nothing.”[22] This Presocratic axiom, Charles H. Kahn points, out can be traced back to Zeno[23] and according to Aristotle can be found as early as Hesiod.[24]

The attempt to answer these two questions about “that which is not” begins with an inquiry into the meaning of “that which is not.” To find the meaning here is to find the corresponding “thing” indicated by “that which is not” so that we may have a kind of “signpost” to guide our usage.

The interlocutors are not looking for a “definition” to guide the usage. Rather they are looking for the being which is named. It is a kind of “form” or “idea,” but I do not me to suggest this in doctrinal Platonic sense. Rather, I wish to point out that this fits into what we characterized as the Greek idea of “doing ontology.”

I wish to highlight the parallel between this move and the classic Socratic move of asking for (e.g.) “piety itself” instead of asking for examples of piety.[25] This also ties into Plato’s doctrine that knowledge of the forms is required for proper knowledge of the particulars. This doctrine, which is contained in Republic VI and famously present in Raphael’s depiction of Plato, further illustrates the locutive tendency of Plato (and of Greek ontology as a whole) that Kahn points out, and also effectively shows the way in which the “form” effectively operates as a “signpost” to each particular participating in it.

The verbal conflict is between the idea of “false speech” and Parmenides thesis. The resolution is patricide: the dismissal of Parmenides thesis that “that which is” and “that which is not” are contraries.[26] Removing this, and providing a possibility for both false speech and false thoughts is the catharsis of Parmenides in the dialogue. Only after this is ontology as a search for truth possible.

My review of the Sophist’s catharsis of Plato’s earlier doctrine[27] will be much more brief. Essentially, Plato’s earlier theory of forms leads to skepticism. This is because “what is known has something done to it.”[28]Since this involves a change in that which is known (in that it “becomes” that which is known, previously unknown), this would mean that that knowledge would be unattainable.

The argument against Plato’s earlier doctrine is that it leads to skepticism,[29] and such a position would be an opinion of the soul that would interfere with learning. Thus, a catharsis of this doctrine is necessary. The conclusion of the catharsis leads the interlocutors to a position which Theaetetus calls truth.[30]

The philosopher- the person who values these things the most [truth, knowledge, etc.]- absolutely has to refuse to accept the claim that everything is at rest, either from defenders of the one or from friends of the many forms. In addition he has to refuse to listen to people who say that that which is changes in every way. He has to be like a child begging for “both,” and say that that which is– everything- is both the unchanging and that which changes.[31]

The point that this represents the conclusion of the catharsis is further backed by the Eleatic Stranger’s statement “Don’t you notice… that we’re now in extreme ignorance about that which is, though it appears to us that we’re saying something?”[32]

In summary, what I have provisionally referred to as the first two sections of the Sophist contain within them a catharsis of the position of Parmenides and Plato’s earlier theory of the forms. The purpose of this catharsis is to pave the way for an ontology. Greek ontology does not seek “existence” but “truth.” When Parmenides and the idealists are “cross examined,” they are shown to be in “verbal conflict.” The verbal conflict of Parmenides is really a verbal conflict of the Eleatic Stranger, who is a Parmenidean in tradition but also sees that false speech and false thinking are possible. The verbal conflict of the idealists is that the idealists make assertions but at the same time do away with knowledge, understanding and intelligence. When these are shown to be in verbal conflict, the catharsis is complete. The interlocutors, being in a state of ignorance, can begin their ontology again form a “pure” perspective.

Works Cited

Anscombe, G.E.M. “The New Theory of Forms.” The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe Vol. 1: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein. Minneapolis: I of Minnesota, P. 1981.

Cornford, Francis. Plato’s Theory of Knowledge. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1957.         [print]

Gilson, Etienne. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies,           2005.

Kahn, Charles H. “The Greek Verb ‘To Be’ and the Concept of Being.”Essays on Being. Oxford:            Oxford U P, 2009.

Plato. Sophist. Trans. White, Nicholas. The Complete Works. Ed. Cooper, John. Indianapolis: Hackett P   C, 1997. [print]

[1]I am including in this category the earlier discussions of Parmenides as well as the “dangerous λογος.”

[2]Whether or not Plato is referring to any actual materialists in his time, the main emphasis on “present” here is on Plato’s critique of himself as a critique of his present theory of forms.

[3]Cf. Anscombe, “Plato’s New Theory of the Forms.”





[8]Cornford remarks, “he understands dialectic as the search for truth, and, once the conversation is started, his manner is distinguished by no individual trait from that of the Platonic Socrates” (170). Though I think Cornford may be guilty of hyperbole here, their similarity is duly noted. It does seem that Socrates and the Stranger are different, in their unique character and unique tradition, in a way that significantly effects the way in which each interlocutor respectively proceeds. I wish to maintain that the Eleatic Stranger is a unique (and indeed, excellent) “voice” of Plato.

[9]Sophist, 216b

[10]Ibid. 216a

[11]Cornford, 169.

[12]Sophist, 216d.

[13]Cornford, 170.

1.                  [14]It also seems implicitly obvious that the Eleatic Stranger is a genuine philosopher, both from the context of the juxtaposition of eristic and dialectic with real and fake philosophers, and from the context of Plato’soeuvre as a whole.

[15]In context, I am reading kalos as “appear perfect.”

[16]Sophist 237a. (Parmenides, frg. 7, 11.1-2).

[17]Miller, Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, 13.



[20]I borrow this term from Rorty. See Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1.

[21]   Which should be kept in mind, as this same approach resurfaces in the “dangerous λογος” (242b-246a)

[22]Gorgias B. 3. 70. Trans. Kahn, Charles. “The Greek Verb ‘to be’ and the Concept of Being,” 32.

[23]Fragmente, 29 A 24; Aristotle, Physics 209a4.

[24]Physics, 208a20, 29b ff.

[25]As he does in Euthyphro 6d-e, for example.

[26] Sophist, 258 a-b

[27]Is this really Plato’s earlier doctrine, however? I do not know enough to say so, however I am lead to believe that at least both Anscombe and Gilson are of the opinion that this is the case.


[29]249b “And we need to use every argument we can to fight against anyone who does away with knowledge, understanding, and intelligence but at the same time asserts anything at all about anything.”

[30]Alethestata (excuse my possibly poor transliteration).




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Kant’s B Deduction

Thought I would drop this here so I always know where it is. Writing this reallyhelped me understand Kant. It’s not my most polished writing, as it is last year, but anyways. I think this one was the final draft.

A Commentary on Immanuel Kant’s ‘B’ Deduction

The ‘B’ Deduction is a difficult text. Kant gives many of his propositions in passing, leaving the reader to interpret what the significance of those propositions might be to the argument. The issue is not helped by the textual difficulties and Kantian jargon imposed upon the reader by the available commentaries on the first critique. In light of this, I decided that I would receive the most help towards understanding the ‘B’ Deduction by writing my own commentary on this portion of the critique. There is perhaps something Kantian about this, that there is indeed a value to using ones own understanding [coincidentally to understand a work on the understanding], as opposed to the using the understanding of a commentary to draw conclusions regarding any text.

I wish to divide my commentary into four sections. The first section will discuss what a transcendental deduction is (placing it into Kant’s “Copernican” thesis), explain the necessity of the transcendental deduction, and contrast the transcendental deduction with Descartes’ method of deduction. The second section will summarize and elucidate the transcendental deduction, which I have divided into two divisions: parts 15-19 [the topic of the second section] and parts 20-17 [the topic of the third section]. I will only deal with the first division in this commentary.

I. What a Transcendental Deduction Is

In the Introduction, Kant states that the purpose of the entire critique is to answer a single question: “how are a priori synthetic judgments possible?”1Kant’s thesis, his “Copernican turn,” is “that objects must conform to our knowledge” and that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to them being given.”2

In the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant provides us with the conditions under which all objects are given to us; however, he does not say anything about how our knowledge of these objects is given to us. This is clear from the division made at the beginning of the Transcendental Aesthetic.“Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts.”3 The Transcendental Aesthetic is itself a transcendental deduction of the concepts of space and time; however, space and time are ‘given’ concepts, not concepts under the understanding.

The understanding is the faculty of knowledge.4 Sensibility does not directly deal with proving the Copernican thesis, though it is indeed essential. The Copernican thesis specifically deals with knowledge acting upon objects, viz. the understanding and spontaneity.

The role of the deduction is to explain the manner in which concepts can relate to their objects.5 It is not a question of ‘that’ they relate to their objects (quid facti) but of ‘how’ they relate to their objects (quid juris). Thus, transcendental deduction is the direct answer to the ‘single question’ of the first critique.

At the same time, there is the transcendental deduction of the categories. It deals specifically with the understanding and how its concepts can relate to their objects. If we can interpret the word “knowledge” in Kant’s Copernican thesis to mean ‘that knowledge with which the understanding concerns itself,’ then it becomes clear that the transcendental deduction of the categories is the proof of the Copernican thesis.

Before turning to the ‘B’ Deduction itself, we should make sure we are clear on what a transcendental deduction exactly is. Kant’s philosophy is often said to be the synthesis of the rationalist and empiricist traditions. His relation to the empiricists is obvious enough, but it may provide some insight to look into the former. Accordingly, to simultaneously have a better view of what a transcendental deduction is and to understand Kant’s relation to the rationalist tradition, I will contrast Kant’s “transcendental deduction” with the Cartesian method of deduction.

In his quest for certainty, Descartes is looking for an answer to an ontological question rather than an epistemological question. Descartes problem is that his understanding of objects might not actually correspond to the objects themselves. Thus, he is operating in a mindset which has not taken Kant’s Copernican turn. This leads Descartes to look outside himself for the answer to the quid juris of the employment of the understanding. In the following passage, we see Descartes’ appeal from a ‘God’s eye view:’

…firmly rooted in my mind is the long-standing idea that there is an omnipotent God who made me the the kind of creature that I am. How do I not know that he has brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time assuring me that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now?6

Descartes is looking for an ontological answer to the question of the validity of his experience and his understanding. He is looking for the conditions for the possibility of true knowledge (of things-in-themselves).

Kant, on the other hand, is looking for the conditions for the possibility of having experience and understanding in the first place. From the a posteriorifact that we have experience, Kant argues that there are certain conditions under which all experience must conform, viz. the things we must already know in order to be able to have meaningful experience. Descartes, on the other hand, jumps from the fact of his experience of things into a deduction of what those things really are. He makes an a posteriori deduction from experience of objects to the existence of some other object.

II. A Summary and Elucidation of Parts 15-19 of the ‘B’ Deduction

The first part of this division concerns “The Possibility of Combination in General.” Kant begins the section:

The manifold of representations can be given in an intuition which is purely sensible, that is, nothing but receptivity; and the form of this intuition can lie a priori in our faculty of representation, without being anything more than the mode in which the subject is affected.7

The manifold of representations is the unprocessed data which is turned into intuition when filtered through the concepts of space and time. This manifold is to be distinguished from the “manifold of intuition” Kant speaks of later. If we recall the order of the division made in the Transcendental Aesthetic, this distinction is justified. The manifold of representations is that which is sensed but is not organized. To be organized, the manifold requires the concepts of space and time, after which it becomes the “manifold of intuition.” However, since this manifold of intuition is still only receptivity (sensibility being the way we receive it in the form of intuition), it (if we merely stared at it like zombies) need not be taken up under consideration within receptivity.

Mere receptivity, however, cannot bring forth combination, for we could just as easily choose not to focus on the manifold of intuition and (to borrow and modify one of Schopenhauer’s phrases) ‘have images march past us strange and meaningless.’ We must choose to give the manifold of intuitions our attention. Combination, then, is an act of spontaneity- it belongs to the understanding.

The act of combining itself is entitled “synthesis.” Kant marks this “as indicating that we cannot represent to ourselves anything as combined in the object which we have not ourselves previously combined, and that of all representations combination is the only one which cannot be given through objects.”8 The word “synthesis” provides us with the notion that combinations must be ‘made’ before they can be analyzed. If objects were given to us already combined in-themselves, that would imply that we could analyze the objects in their given combined form. Kant is saying that the objects themselves are products of a synthesis on the part of the subject. Therefore, synthesis proceeds analysis.

Combination must arrive out of the unity of the manifold. This is to say that there must be some way in which the manifold has some kind of unity in order for their to be combinations at all. This unity is necessarily something different than the manifold of representations for the same reason that combination is not.

An account of this unity is given in the next part: “The Original Synthetic Unity of Apperception.” If we refer back to the order given in the Transcendental Aesthetic, thought follows after sense and intuition. For Kant, for any representation it must be possible for what he calls the “I think” to accompany it. In other words, we have the ability to think of anything which is represented to us. There are many things that I am not paying attention to right now which are still represented to me; however, anything represented to me contains the possibility of becoming the object of my thoughts. For what could be represented to me that I could not think about? Such a thing is unthinkable.

1KRV B19

2Ibid. Bxvi

3Ibid B 33

4Ibid. B 137

5Ibid. B 117

6Meditations, AT 21

7KRV B129

8Ibid. B130

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Aphorisms on Wittgenstein, Language, and Poetry

  1. Can we imagine a world composed only of words? No other sense experience would be meaningful besides speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The world would be a book on tape playing in our heads- every author or speaker would be an interlocutor composing the sentences of the great dialectic that is all of history. All the rest of sense experience would be superfluous to this.
  2. Think of this book as the “manifold of representations.” There would be a scaffolding. We could imagine- something “transcendental” which governs how things could be said. We could imagine a kind of Kantian scaffolding, in which some kind of transcendental logical unity governed sense. In this imagined scaffolding, the sense of propositions would be relative to the way in which they are inter-connected with other propositions.
  3. But what of their significance? We mean this in the sense of Schopenhauer, who writes “that significance, otherwise merely felt, by virtue of which these pictures or images do not march past us strange and meaningless, as they would otherwise inevitably do, but speak to us directly, are understood, and acquire an interest that engrosses our whole nature.” Of course here, we are asking about the significance of words, not pictures or images.
  4. Here, we see that we cannot imagine a world consisting entirely of words because in such a world, significance would be lacking. If this world contained Plato’s Republic, it would strike us as no different from gibberish governed by the transcendental unity of sense: if p then q; p therefore q.
  5. If someone told us a story without significance, what would we make of it?
  6. Significance is often seeing, it is often understanding. It is clarity.
  7. If I ask “do you see the duck?” and you do not, then you are experiencing a lack of clarity.
  8. When you see it, all is clear and nothing more needs to be said.
  9. When I tell you to hand me a brick, and you do not, we are in confusion. If you do hand me the brick, then nothing more needs to be said.
  10. For anything else said, “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness,” as Samuel Beckett writes. After we climb the Tractatusladder, we can throw it away. We now “see” the world rightly.
  11. Can we then imagine a world consisting of only words and significance? This is the Hegelian move, I am just in doubt as to whether we can make it.
  12. The ontological argument is said, and now I behold God… until existence is said to be no longer a predicate. I see that this is correct. My error becomes elucidatory. Now, I realize that I that God is no longer atop Anselm’s ladder where I thought him to be. Where is the duck now? I am again without clarity- unable to behold God. That particularWeltanshauung is now closed. I must pick up my pen again. I must try to express what I see to my reader more clearly, so that they see God like I do. With my pen, I chase through my thoughts seeking to illuminate God.
  1. The difference between practical, everyday language and “language on a holiday” is that the former is resolved into action and the latter is resolved into what I am referring to as seeing or beholding.
  2. When we see the world as words and significance, we see a world entirely on holiday.
  3. But when Wittgenstein says “it’s a duck” and I say that I see it, how can Wittgenstein be sure he has expressed himself clearly? How can he be sure that I really do see a duck? If I do not see the duck and say that I do, then I am merely allowing myself to be tossed back and forth through a stormy current. When I do see it, my mind is peaceful and still. I behold the duck.
  4. But what if Wittgenstein had been mistaken and there was not really a duck there? I point out “Wittgenstein, you’re wrong! There’s not really a duck there because…” Then Wittgenstein would throw up his hands and exclaim “but that is not the point! What I want you to see is what an aspectis!” and storm out of the room.
  5. I would assume that, in order for me to understand Wittgenstein, I would have to know something of ducks and rabbits.
  6. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” If we were just focusing on theTractatus scaffolding, we would take “summer days are beautiful” and “she is beautiful” and think the comparison lies within some kind of sophisticated, cliche wordplay. It says nothing about the comparison- how she is like a summers day. We are blind to these aspects.
  7. Imagine I live as a poor farmer on the equator. I sweat and toil on the fields in the heat on summer days. If I wrote this, would I be calling her an object of sweat, toil, anxiety, or stress?
  8. But would I take this autobiographical prejudice into account when writing this?
  9. I certainly would not impose it upon a reading of Shakespeare, for to impose such would be to have the wrong idea of summer days in mind.
  10. But what if I had said, “damn it, woman! You’re like a summer’s day!” Then, it is clear I mean a summer’s day toil in the fields.
  11. But no. This woman is far more fair than a summer’s day, leading us towards the fairness of a pleasant summer’s day.
  12. Now, I have a certain idea of a fair summer day in mind, and I imagine the reader does, too. Stop. If the poet has done his job, we have arrived upon it. Nothing more can be said about it without staining its completeness, beauty, and eternality.
  13. Do you see that fairness in her? If you do not, then I would start to describe certain ways in which I behave towards a summer’s day and certain things about her and my behaviors towards her. I stop when you see it. There is rarely a “logos” here. “Oh yeah! I see what you mean,” you exclaim. You start to say correct things about summer days and her.
  14. What is “true” is what I have uncovered or revealed about her and summer days. Speech is correct when it is consistent with what has beenshown.
  15. When we each have the idea of beauty in mind, and my speech is consistent with the idea of beauty we both have, then it is correct speech. This is manifested in absence of incorrect speech. The speech is like a series of signposts which guide you towards recollecting this aspect which has been revealed to you. I say recollect because if the aspect has never dawned on you, maybe I can guide you towards its dawning- maybe we have just lived different lives and you have never seen it.
  16. Then, perhaps, Nietzsche rightly said truth was like a woman. Women are won by poetry.
  17. Can one “refer” to bravery itself? Poets can try. For the poet, however, language is not on a holiday. “Bravery itself”is put to use. Its use here isshowing. The poet puts holiday language to work.
  18. I am deeply engaged in a discussion of metaphysics. The room, the surroundings, my “being-in-the-world” fades out of my vision until there are but the spirits of the interlocutors hovering about their factico-bio-physico-selves. These “spirits” contain all that is intersubjectively and psychically significant to communication.
  19. This is a kind of seeing, but it is at the same time a real visual experience- like the duck rabbit. We never see the lines as “just lines” and then “infer” or “interpret” a duck or rabbit. We see either a duck or a rabbit.
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