7 - The Road Less Traveled: Parmenides

Peter  discusses the "father of metaphysics," Parmenides, and his argument that all being is one.

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Further Reading: 

P. Curd, “Parmenidean monism.” Phronesis, 36 (1991), 241-64.

P. Curd, The Legacy of Parmenides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

M.M. MacKenzie, “Parmenides’ dilemma,” in Phronesis, 27 (1982), 1-12.

A.A. Long, “Parmenides on Thinking Being,” Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 12 (1996), 125-51.

G.E.L. Owen, “Eleatic questions.” Classical Quarterly, n.s. 10 (1960) 84-102. Reprinted with additions in R.E. Allen and D.J. Furley (eds.), Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, 2: Eleatics and Pluralist (London: Routledge, 1975), 48-81.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Parmenides

emiliano castro's picture

on Parmenides and his roads

Hi, first of all, I want to thank you for answering my question on Heraclitus on the McCabe podcast. The new interpretation on b.125 really changes the sense of the fragment and even its philosophical value. In another subject (appealing to Pico’s interpretation of Heraclitus considering that philosophy comes from conflict and discussion) I’d like to comment a thing or two on Parmenides, particularly on the subject of the roads of truth and opinion. I think that we have some good evidence that lead us to think that the cosmology on the road of opinion is a way to recover our basic intuitions on how tings appear to us in the day to day world. The fact that we have more than 100 testimonies that refer to Parmenides cosmology and natural philosophy suggests that this road is not to be taken as a sort of exoteric philosophy, opposed to the esoteric doctrine of the road of thud.
I think this is important because, under this interpretation, both roads on Parmenides poem can be taken as part of a complementary doctrine. To ways of dealing with reality: by pure reason and with the intervention of senses. Under this interpretation Parmenides is not to be taken as someone who ignores or denigrates senses, but as someone who integrates senses and reason on one doctrine. I think that there is one more thing that motivates this interpretation and it’s the interpretation of Sextus Empiricus in the first part of Parmenides Poem (S. E. Adversus Mathematicos VII, 111-114). In this passage, he interprets the first part of the poem as a metaphor of senses (eyes and ears particularly) guided by reason. I must admit that this testimony can carry a lot of free interpretation on its back but it can be taken as least as a provocative road for Parmenides interpretation.
I’ll be glad to know your opinion on this subject. Keep on with the good work. Me and some colleges hear in Mexico are following your podcasts and supporting your effort.

Peter Adamson's picture

The way of opinion

Hi Emliano,

This is a difficult topic, in fact for my money one of the harder issues with Parmenides is the question of how the first part of the poem (the "way of truth") relates to the second ("the way of opinion"). In fact I recently saw a thought-provoking paper on this by Andy Gregory who was saying that the second part is basically an internal critique of previous cosmological theories. I tend to interpret it broadly along the lines you suggest, so I would also take the cosmological part seriously given its extent and complexity. I suspect the idea is something like, "if you can't accept my theory of being, you should instead accept this cosmology," as being the best such theory possible (or in a tie for the best with several other possibilities, something Gregory pointed out in his paper). But this is not a topic one can have too much confidence about, I suspect.


melody_hill's picture

Peter, I've been working on a


I've been working on a project for school (NSNVA) concerning Plato's theory of Forms. I encountered Parmenides through reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on "Plato's Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology" and utilized this podcast as I tried to comprehend the material. A basic understanding of Parmenides is essential to understanding where Plato's theories may have come from (as far as the relevance of his work to my research is of concern). I've posed all of my notes for this project at http://cogitoetnoesis.blogspot.com/ for my content advisor to reference and monitor. I may have gotten a few things wrong or not specifically cited a concept or explanation particular to you. It's a rough draft at best and not close to the final research paper which is one of the end goals. I was a bit confused towards the end of this podcast, once you began exploring the question "what does Is refer to" or something like that. Anyways, I was wondering if you could *very* quickly glance over the few paragraphs I have written as notes on this podcast, to make sure I'm not sufficiently crediting your work and maybe if by reading my understanding of the material--you can explain the bits I need to know but don't understand?? I know this is a lot to ask, and really your podcasts as a whole have been extraordinarily comprehensive and useful for me. Needless to say, you're in no way obligated to respond to this comment, etc. And yes, I am aware that you additionally have an episode on Plato Parmenides, and the theory of forms--also quite useful.

Thank you,

Peter Adamson's picture


Hi Melody,

Is "NSNVA" the New School of Northern Virginia? Just curious. Anyway if it's just a few paragraphs, then sure. Perhaps you can email it to my work email address (peter.adamson@kcl.ac.uk) so you aren't broadcasting it to the whole internet!


Douglass Pinkard's picture

Parmenides' "Quantum Leap"

To begin with, thank you for this podcast. Moreover, I found myself thinking exactly of what a new day for philosophizing Parmenides' poem clearly represented not 30 seconds before you yourself refer to it as a "quantum leap," suggesting that my (very) late-in-the-day effort at catching up on a corner of my education shamefully neglected when I was in school shows every sign of getting through to my greying grey matter. With this installment it feels suddenly as if the story of the history of philosophy has become the podcast equivalent of a "page-turner." Again, thanks.

Peter Adamson's picture

Quantum leap

Thanks very much! For a long time in each episode I would always add the phrase "now I know what you're thinking" though I stopped doing that after a while, when I got to late antiquity (didn't want to annoy people). In this case, sounds like it was true!


Alexandra Lorenz's picture


Thank you so very much for these incredibly interesting and informative podcasts. I am hooked.

This may be a silly question but I find it hard to understand why Parmenides claims we are not able to think or speak of non-being and yet we ARE able to think and speak about the CONCEPT of non-being. If we are able to speak of non-being as a concept then doesn't it exist at least in some form, even if only a theoretical one?


Peter Adamson's picture

Talking about non-being

That's not a silly question, it's a really good question! One could sharpen it by saying that Parmenides is (arguably) committed to he claim "non-being does not exist" which looks like it might commit him to the reality of non-being twice over: once because it is non-being that does not exist, and second because "does not exist" sounds like non-being.

In fact the problem is more general for Parmenides: for instance he also rejects the possibility of change, yet here we are talking about change. It is tempting to say (as you're implying) that we have false concepts that do not represent reality as it is. But he seems to be committed to the claim that one can only think that which is. Thus this does seem to be a deep problem within his theory, and in fact it's the kind of objection Plato often makes to Presocratics (they can't state their own theories without contradicting themselves).

One possible solution is that when Parmenides says that we can only think what is, he means "we can only succeed in thinking, or think successfully, by thinking what is." So the critique of non-being would not be a case of "thinking proper" where we are grasping an object; it would just be a ground-clearing exercise after which you would go on to think adequately, i.e. think about being, and then discover that it is one, spherical, unchanging, etc.

Alexandra Lorenz's picture

That was helpful. Thank you

That was helpful. Thank you for the clarification!

TD's picture

How could Parmenides be wrong

So far my favorite philosopher as I make my way through these sessions.

All his claims seem to make rational sense. There must be just the One otherwise we could not exist and certainly the One is the precursor to intellection.

His thesis is likely the most important observation in mankind's history.

Man I love this series.

Arjuna's picture

yes, how could he be wrong?

Yes! the simplicity and the power of this is crushing.

The same argument, slightly rephrased was given on the other side of the world, in perhaps the most famous and important classical Indian philosophical text "The Bhagavad Gita": "That which is non-existant never comes into being, that which is existent never goes to non being" (chapter 2 verse 16)

AUbrey Richard Wanliss-Orlebar's picture

Aesthetics and logic

Lieber Herr Prof. Dr. Peter Adamson!

Why have you excluded aesthetics and logic from philosophy, since you do not list them in what you claim to be a comprehensive itemisation of its branches?

The exclusion of logic I would understand since it may reasonably be argued that at some time between 1879 and 1913, or strictly speaking in fact 1927, logic was annexed by mathematics, though as regards the period of philosophy preceding this, this point of view can only be maintained by insisting on limiting the extent to which one attempts to adopt the point of view of the past in a way strongly constrained by our present knowledge of what logic can be and presently is in its latest incarnation.

As for aesthetics, in which part of my own work takes place, I was not aware it was not pert of philosophy, nor presumably then are parts of philosophy: Plato's views on tragedy and poetry, Aristotle's Poetics, Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft, Hegel's Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, and so on. Of course I'm open to any point of view for which I find the arguments overwhelming or better than the arguments for any other point of view where it seems sufficiently paramount to have one, however I am not familiar with the arguments in favour of this thesis that conform to these characteristics.

May I know please either i) where your or the relevant writings showing aesthetics is not part of philosophy are, or ii) why you take the view that easthetics is not part of philosophy, or iii) why you asserted, together with logic, that they were not part of philosophy? Thankyou.

This is all very intriguing and as fas as I know revolutionary, though perhaps a few logical positivists would have agreed to exclude logic and aesthetics from philosophy, and indeed argued for this. In any case it is revolutionary to hold such views in 2014, including the views that from the modern standpoint, Kant's Logik and Hegel's Wisseschaft der Logik do not belong to philosophy. I will be continuing to listen to the whole series you are in part responsible for, but am very perplexed by these views of yours I confess, though simultaneously tantalised since the arguments in favour of such unorthodox assertions must be staggering.

Yrs. v. sincerely, gratefully and truthfully,
Aubrey Richard Wanliss-Orlebar

Peter Adamson's picture

Logic and aesthetics

Oh sure, I definitely see those as parts of philosophy. In fact both have been covered quite a lot in the podcast. For instance episode 95 is about late ancient aesthetics; you mention Plato's views on myth and poetry, and there is a whole episode on that (number 33). Also logic has been covered very extensively (in Aristotle and the Stoics, for instance, and in fact in a couple of weeks there will be a new episode on logic in the Islamic world).

I guess you are thinking of the bit at the start of this episode where I went through the "main areas" of philosophy, but that was certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list of philosophy's branches! I just meant something like, "the areas of philosophy that first leap to mind" or that get studied most frequently in universities.

Really the point that I was making in the passage you mention is that the branches of philosophy get their names from Greek, and of course that holds of aesthetics and logic too.