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Plato's Reception of Parmenides

by John A. Palmer

Buy the book: John A. Palmer. Plato's Reception of Parmenides

Release Date: January, 2002

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: John A. Palmer. Plato's Reception of Parmenides

Fails to answer a skeptic's questions

Imagine a philosopher today who frequently uses Kantian concepts, but who never mentions Kant except on two occasions when he refers to him as a "professor of geography." Curious about this, we ask him why he doesn't refer to Kant as a professor of philosophy, and he responds, "I think Kant was a fraud." We then point out that he is always using Kantian concepts. He says, "Oh yes, but Kant used those concepts in such a pathetic way that I don't even think about his use of them."

Something like this may be going on concerning Plato and his predecessor Parmenides. For many years, Plato wrote dialogue after dialogue, passage after passage, sentence after sentence, without ever mentioning Parmenides. The only two mentions in his early and middle periods come in the "Symposium," where Parmenides' views on the goddess of love are mentioned. In many very important passages, such as the end of the "Cratylus," the end of "Republic" V, and much of the "Phaedo," Plato simply refuses to mention him. I take this strange behavior to be Plato's way of insulting Parmenides. Nor is it the only such insult I have found. Plato just seemed to have no respect for Parmenides in his early and middle periods. Everything changes in his late period, I admit. Suddenly, he is praising Parmenides, quoting from his Way of Truth, talking about how easy it is to misunderstand him, making him a very important character in a dialogue, making an unnamed follower a character, and so on. Obviously, Plato has great respect for Parmenides at this time, but that doesn't mean he had respect for him earlier.

But most scholars absolutely reject this line of thought, or rather they never even think of it. Palmer is one of these. For Palmer, the middle period contains oodles of Parmenidean parallels, which he reads as borrowings from Parmenides. But the problem with reading something into a dialogue is that someone else can read in the exact opposite. Where Palmer sees borrowings and respect, I see at best borrowings and no respect and at worst no borrowings at all, for Plato may have invented all these concepts on his own.

This book starts out reasonably enough. Palmer wants to avoid interpreting passages in Plato based upon an independent interpretation of Parmenides, because we have no way of knowing in advance how Plato interpreted the notoriously slippery Parmenides. But in order to APPLY this new method, one needs to be reasonably clear on which passages contain Parmenidean influence and which do not. And that is precisely what I am saying we don't have for much of the middle period. The best way to proceed would be to start with passages which are indisputably about Parmenides (those in which he is mentioned), proceed to passages which are probably about Parmenides (those in which he may be alluded to), and then go to passages which are possibly about Parmenides (those in which he is neither mentioned nor alluded to). Following such a procedure, a good passage to begin with would be "Sophist" 244b-245e. In that passage, it is clear that Parmenides is under discussion (for he is mentioned and quoted), that Plato offers two critiques of him, and that he regards Parmenides as an extreme monist. But Palmer goes in the exact opposite direction. He BEGINS with a passage that neither mentions nor alludes to Parmenides, the end of "Republic" V. By the time he gets around to discussing the "Sophist" passage, his interpretation is so skewed that he has to spend many pages explaining why that obvious passage isn't really saying what every undergraduate knows it is saying.

Actually, the best passage to use in the middle period to see how Plato thought of Parmenides is "Euthydemus" 286c, which Palmer himself acknowledges contains an allusion to Parmenides. What Palmer ignores, though, is that Socrates speaks disparagingly about Parmenides. This is another of the insults I have found and which Palmer resolutely refuses to see.

This book isn't worth reading. The author has decided in advance that Plato must have been influenced by Parmenides and then bends every piece of evidence to prove this. This is a bad procedure, and the view it supports leaves too many unanswered questions. For example, why isn't Parmenides' Way of Truth quoted from during the middle period? Why isn't Parmenides mentioned in "Republic" V or in the "Phaedo?" Why wasn't Parmenides made into a character during Plato's middle period? Why didn't Aristotle talk about the alleged Parmenidean influence on Parmenides? Why, given that Parmenides was supposed to be so influential for so long, didn't Aristophanes lampoon him? Why did people like Empedocles and Anaxagoras, who were supposed to be in his shadow, have such high opinions of themselves? Why would someone like Cratylus, who revived Heraclitus' views, get any attention at all from Plato, and why didn't Plato just mention Parmenides as a way of refuting him?

These are just a selection of the questions that can be posed but are never answered in this book.

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