This commentary examines the interpretation of Parmenides developed by Rose Cherubin in her paper, “Parmenides, Liars, and Mortal Incompleteness.” First, I discuss the tensions Cherubin identifies between the definitions and presuppositions of justice, necessity, fate, and the other requisites of inquiry. Second, I critically assess Cherubin’s attribution of a sort of liar paradox to Parmenides. Finally, I argue that Cherubin’s handling of the Doxa, the section of Parmenides’ poem that deals with mortal opinion and cosmology, is unsatisfactory. I suggest that her reading may contradict the text in denying that the Doxa contains truths.
The fragments of Parmenides have inspired many disparate interpretations.1 Most scholars have interpreted Parmenides as some sort of monist, be it numerical, predicational, generous, or material.2 All monist interpretations are alike insofar as they see Parmenides’ project as primarily oriented around describing reality, what-is. Moreover, such interpretations as a rule hold that Parmenides’ poem contains truths about what-is and that the goddess of the poem proffers these.
By contrast, Cherubin advances an interpretation of Parmenides that sees him primarily concerned with what the requisites of inquiry (δίζησις) in accordance with ἀλήθεια are. In Cherubin’s reading, Parmenides is the first philosopher for whom a certain type of meta-epistemic question arose. The question is not that of how to get from point A to point B, but rather of can one get from point A to point B, from our present epistemic state to ἀλήθεια. The first is a distinctly methodological question, whereas the latter concerns the very possibility of inquiry.
For comparison, in the Meno, the possibility of de novo inquiry is threatened by a paradox which the theory of recollection is meant to respond to. Subsequently, the question of how to actually go about obtaining knowledge (is virtue teachable?) is answered with the method of hypothesis.3
Cherubin’s Parmenides is concerned with the question of whether “mortal opinions [are] even such as to enable us to conceive and speak of what-is in a way that conduces to ἀλήθεια” (2018, 2). Can we mortals even conceptualize what-is in such a way that it is possible for us to engage in ἀλήθεια-yielding inquiry about it? Cherubin has Parmenides answer this question negatively, with certain caveats.
I want to examine three different aspects of Cherubin’s interpretation in these comments. First, I discuss the tensions between the definitions and presuppositions of δίκη, ἀνάγκη, μοῖρα, and the other requisites of inquiry. Second, I assess Cherubin’s attribution of a sort of liar paradox to Parmenides. Finally, I evaluate Cherubin’s handling of the Doxa, the section of Parmenides’ poem that deals with mortal opinion. I argue that it is unsatisfactory.
Cherubin defines a road of inquiry “as a series of oriented steps that one takes in inquiring” (2018, 4). It is necessary for being on such a road (that is, inquiring) that one be able to recognize what-is. To “seek salamanders, one needs to be able to identify which things are salamanders” (Cherubin 2018, 5).4 Recognizing that you have found the thing being searched after essentially involves distinction and differentiation. Other requisites of inquiry—those associated with δίκη, ἀνάγκη, and μοῖρα —conflict with requisites like distinction and change.
The roles of δίκη, ἀνάγκη, and μοῖρα are spelled out in B8.1–49. Justice (δίκη) holds what-is fast, necessity (ἀνάγκη) holds it bound in a limit, and fate (μοῖρα) binds it to be whole and unchanging (B8.14, 30, 37). δίκη is construed as a condition of regularity and order on what-is (Cherubin 2018, 5, 6). Methods of inquiry like process of elimination require that the subject being investigated have stable characteristics by which it may be identified. For Cherubin’s Parmenides, δίκη is a very stringent condition which is incompatible with the passage of time and change in the world.
Consider, also, the case of μοῖρα. This is understood as (enforcing) a requirement that the whole of what-is and its relations be continuous (Cherubin 2018, 5). In the absence of this requirement, there would be relational gaps which would in turn result in explanatory and causal gaps and thwart inquiry; being unable to identify things (since identity is partly discerned through such relations), Cherubin suggests that inquiry could not even begin (2018, 8). But while μοῖρα keeps what-is whole, the notion invokes the concepts of share, portion, and part. Indeed, the word is often translated as such.
Cherubin is not the first to note the array of tensions in this part of Parmenides’ poem, but the attention she gives to δίκη, ἀνάγκη, and μοῖρα in this respect is unusual and illuminating. Because Parmenides’ work is a poem, there is perhaps a natural tendency towards deflating various tensions that arise from the language used in the section on truth. We excuse Parmenides for saying, in the same breath, that what-is is ἀκίνητον and that becoming and perishing have strayed away (B8.26–28). Cherubin has sought to magnify these sorts of tensions and understand them not as poetic license, but as an integral part of what she takes Parmenides’ central project to be.
What does Cherubin take Parmenides’ project to be? The arguments Parmenides gives concerning what-is are underpinned by a conceptual scheme of distinction, difference, and change, a scheme which finds expression in Parmenides’ cosmology of Light and Night. That is, the coherence of the arguments—arguments which invoke the notions of change, difference, and negation—is predicated upon mortal opinions; and the arguments show those same mortal opinions to be flawed.
For Cherubin, this is not merely a reductio ad absurdum. Rather, it is a sort of liar paradox. As she puts it, “From the suppositions that make inquiry and inference possible, given my opinions as a mortal, it follows—I infer—that mortals’ opinions undermine inference” (2018, 13). The sorts of concepts which ground inquiry (distinction, etc.) are what Parmenides’ arguments concerning the requisites of inquiry show to be inconsistent with inquiry.
It bears emphasis that Cherubin is attributing a sort of liar paradox to Parmenides, rather than the liar paradox. She (at least initially) emphasizes that the argument reduces terms to absurdity (2018, 13). Since the heart of any liar paradox is a problem of truth, and this is a problem with the sense of terms, the attribution of a liar paradox would seem to be flawed. Perhaps more appositely, one can discern, as Owen famously did, certain figures of Wittgenstein’s (rather than of Epimenides’) in Parmenides.5
Cherubin’s paradox is different in form from the liar and “does not turn entirely on truth-values” (2018, 13). While she gestures at ways of casting the paradox, she does not give the form or explain in what precise sense it is a relative of the liar. Perhaps she holds that formalization would be pointless or impossible given the inexactness of the operative notion of ἀλήθεια.
Finally, I want to discuss Cherubin’s handling of the Doxa, the section of Parmenides’ poem concerning natural philosophy. Long the most neglected part of Parmenides’ work, it has recently become the subject of more serious scholarly attention, and deservedly so. It was, after all, most likely the longest part of Parmenides’ poem and made serious original contributions to science (Sisko and Weiss 2015, 43).
The goddess explicitly indicates that it contains truths, or in any case things that can be known (see especially B10). It is largely for this reason that I would argue that no interpretation of Parmenides will suffice which denies legitimacy to the Doxa. On these grounds, numerical monist readings of Parmenides must be rejected. So too must Cherubin’s interpretation. It will be profitable to explain why in some detail.
For Cherubin, the Light/Night scheme can play a role in articulating things that might be true or false—it provides a framework for articulating propositions and inquiring. Mortal opinion allows for “something that appears to work like explanation” (Cherubin 2018, 18). But Cherubin explicitly disavows that Parmenides’ discoveries result in ἀλήθεια; rather, they “are explanations that have a certain kind of predictive success, or at very least descriptive and explanatory success” (2018, 18).
As Cherubin recognizes, attributing some notion of predictive success to Parmenides runs the risk of anachronism. She clarifies that Parmenides’ scheme does not generate quantitative predictions or experimentally falsifiable hypotheses more generally (2018, 18). Nevertheless, Parmenides’ scheme affords some sort of descriptive success and prediction of a limited kind.6
Even if it is granted that Parmenides’ discussion of the opinions of mortals is oriented around giving an account which is predictively successful (broadly construed), a question remains about how to square this with his apparent (albeit qualified) attribution of veracity to his cosmology. If the κοῦρος is to come to know things about the cosmos, surely the goddess must be offering ἀλήθεια and not merely predictively useful falsities.
This objection can perhaps be sidestepped by arguing that ἀλήθεια is a stricter notion than truth. It is consistent for the goddess to offer knowledge without offering ἀλήθεια if knowledge that p does not entail that p is ἀληθής. Thus, mortals’ opinions could be accurate and true without giving ἀλήθεια (Cherubin 2018, 18n24). But then it must be argued that the goddess’s offers of knowledge about the cosmos are not also offers of ἀλήθεια.
I have been citing the goddess’s claims as evidence for there being ἀλήθεια in the Doxa. Cherubin, holding that the goddess is herself a sort of liar paradox,7 might hold that these knowledge claims are not to be taken seriously. But if the goddess does not mean to convey ἀλήθεια through the Doxa, why does the Doxa even exist? For Cherubin, it illustrates how to account for observable phenomena in a way that produces descriptive success using the tools of the Light/Night scheme (2018, 19). I do not find the textual support for this interpretation to be especially compelling.8
I want to conclude with a remark on the place of Parmenides in the history of philosophy. If something along the lines of what Cherubin has proposed were correct, Parmenides would be without philosophical precedent, but he would also have clear intellectual heirs. Cherubin has singled out Aristotle in her discussion, but I think Plato is more appropriate. A recurring theme in the dialogues is the difficulty, even the impossibility, of mortals obtaining knowledge (about virtue, about piety, etc.). Plato, unlike Parmenides, ultimately claims that mortals can obtain ἀλήθεια, and outlines dialectic as the method for doing so. Here, then, is yet another way in which Plato can be seen as responding to Parmenides.
This commentary was offered to the original version of “Parmenides, Liars, and Mortal Incompleteness” which has since been edited.
“His [Parmenides’] argument, to adopt an analogy of Sextus and Wittgenstein, is a ladder which must be thrown away when one has climbed it” (Owen 1960, 100).
More specifically, certain of Parmenides’ claims about Venus and the moon allow for limited sorts of prediction.
Incidentally, the most natural explanation for the predictive success of a theory is that the theory is approximately true. Thus, it must not only be argued that Parmenides is primarily concerned with predictive success in this section of the poem, but that he did not take predictive success to indicate truth (or, in any case, ἀλήθεια).