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Defining the Epistemological Boundaries of Language and Thought:

Parmenides as fore runner of Wittgenstein

Parmenides' thesis, expounded in the remnants of his poem On Nature, can be interpreted in a Wittgenstinian sense, in that it identifies the limits of language as a means of both understanding and expressing propositions about the world.

In terms of the intelligibility of language propositions, that is, whether a statement is meaningful and well formed as apart from being simply coherent, we usually have no difficulty in judging whether a proposition is intelligible. However, what can be made of the following propositions?

  1. If Reality ceased to exist then there would be Nothing
  2. If Reality ceased to exist then Nothing
  3. If Reality ceased to exist then __________
  4. If Reality ceased to exist __________

We could go on to posit other propositions that could try and describe the state of reality if all Being were to cease being. But these four are sufficient to illustrate the dilemma at hand, and the one that also confronted the Eleatics all those years ago.

With a little thought, it should be obvious that only proposition 4 is intelligible, or at least valid. Propositions 1, 2, and 3 masquerade as meaningful, well formed propositions but they are in fact non-starters and meaningless.

Proposition 1 is internally inconsistent and therefore meaningless since the copula “then there would be” cannot be applied to “nothingness”. To say that "there would be nothing" is incoherent. Nothingness - whatever it is - cannot have a being, a logically obvious truth pointed out by Parmenides.

Proposition 2 is slightly better, since it does not use “beingness” in relation to nothingness. However, it still fails, because it assumes to speak of "Nothing".

Proposition 3 is an attempt to eliminate all reference to the “state” of “reality” which would ensue if all objects in present Reality ceased to exist. It in fact does not say anything about that ensuing state. Except however, that it would follow on from the previous state (present Reality). Nevertheless, this is still somewhat a non-starter, because the proposition retains a concept of time in the use of “then”. There is no legitimate reason to use temporal references to any event, even hypothetical, whose outcome results in __________ (i.e. nothingness).

It would seem therefore, that the only proposition possible that could be considered to be well formed as well as a starter (that is, admissible in discourse), is of the type similar to proposition 4. Although this proposition is somewhat unhelpful, it is nevertheless well formed, though it is of course syntactically inelegant and incomplete and could rightly be rejected as inadmissible.

In fact, Proposition 4 should be rejected as inadmissible, but not on “superficial” grounds such as syntax or inelegance, but for the fact of the lack of semantic content, rendering the proposition utterly useless. The proposition is meaningless beyond the trivial fact that it highlights the fact that of "nothing" we cannot speak.

However, this is the whole point of the thesis of Parmenides, that anything that could be said, or any attempt that could be made to think or say anything concerning nothingness or Not-Being is, from the start, inadmissible.

Parmenides recognised that it was not only impossible to speak of Not-Being, but that it was also unthinkable.

Therefore Parmenides faced an insurmountable difficulty in trying to articulate what he thought - or couldn't think - regarding "nothingness". (Though he admirably and brilliantly addressed this difficulty).

His experience may have been similar to that of the ancient Hebraic tribes when they sought to speak of God, or Yahweh. To them, this entity was so unspeakably unspeakable that where its name should be written in texts, it was left blank _________.

Significantly however, in the case of the Hebraic tribes, the reason for omitting the name of this supernatural being was because it was held to be unspeakably sacred, and not because it was simply impossible to know or articulate anything about this entity. Indeed, the Hebrews had very much to say about this supernatural being, all of it unreliable due to its being pure doxa, one doctrine of which was that this being (God) is the cause and reason for the universe’s existence.

In contrast, in the case of Parmenides (who leaves questionable positions such as sacredness well alone, something which we could be sure he would also have classified as doxa), he considers only what can be thought to entail knowledge and truth, or simply alethea.

As a result Parmenides rightly declares “not-being” as an unthinkable state of reality. He does this not simply because it is physically impossible that reality could cease to exist (or equally, that reality could come from “not-being”), but unthinkable in the sense that no language predicates of any description can be attached to the state that would "immediately follow" once all existent objects in the universe ceased to exist.

In other words statements such as:

“Not-Being is…” or "Not-Being would be..."

cannot be completed, and will forever remain with just a “subject” (Not-Being) and a copula (is), but no predicate. Indeed, how is it possible to predicate Not-Being?

It is therefore not possible to speak of Not-Being.  It is unspeakable, literally, except perhaps to identify it as an imperfectly formed pseudo concept that would form itself coherently in our thought if it were possible, but the true fact is that it is both unthinkable and unspeakable.

In fact we commit a fallacy when we attempt to speak of Not-Being precisely because it is not possible to speak of it, and what ever it is that we do in fact speak of when we use the term “Not-Being", it cannot refer to __________.

Parmenides recognises this, that both conceptually and linguistically any thought or proposition that concerns “Not-Being” is imperfect and not well-formed, and is in fact a non-starter - including the present sentence.

In this sense of “articulating” the unspeakable, or rather articulating the impossibility of articulating the unspeakable, Parmenides is seen to have stated once and for all an eternal truth. He recognises, in a fundamental and rather overwhelming manner (but emphatically without mystical connotation, as Nestor Cordero explains in his book By Being, It Is) that it is impossible to articulate the central thought that would, if it were otherwise possible, form itself with regard to the question of existence and that it therefore lies outside of language.

Parmenides’ inquiry is in fact a “Wittgnestinian” type statement on the epistemological bounds to knowledge - 2500 years before Ludwig Wittgenstein, that other great, though somewhat confused, thinker.

As Wittgenstein states (in the only intelligible sentence) in his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”.

I think it is not uncharitable to Wittgenstein to say that he was in fact pipped a the post (pre-empted) on this colossal truth by Parmenides, in his realisation that “of not-being we cannot think or speak”.


The Parmenideum 2007
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