Michael Hansen and Dr. Daniel Graham, Philosophy Department
Parmenides is the most popular Presocratic philosopher among modern interpreters. His difficult poem has inspired volumes of interpretive work from scholars intent on understanding him. These authors have exhibited surprising industry and ingenuity to produce a large and diverse set of Parmenides interpretations for today’s reader to enjoy.
The modal reading is new and innovative, and the academic community hasn’t yet pushed it to its due conclusions. Where other interpretations ail from redundancy and an excess of responses, the modal reading requires conversation and further definition.
In the past it has been popular to read the poem as an argument for monism. On this reading, Parmenides is the archetypal monist. Without distinguishing targets or ways to count existing objects, he flatly proposes that there is only the One. This is the case because when we think, we can think of either What Is or What Is Not. We may eliminate the latter because What Is Not can’t actually be thought (all thoughts are ultimately of something), leaving only thoughts about What Is. Moreover, What Is does not admit to differentiation in space or time, since it would require the concept of What Is Not to make such a distinction. Hence, reality is thoroughly monistic. This is all overly simple, but there are many more careful accounts that construe Parmenides as a strict monist, holding that there exists exactly one thing. In my research, I organized these interpretations by using four points about Parmenides’s argument: that it springs from the impossibility of negative thought and speech, that it reacts to Milesian material monists, that it posits a uniform material universe, and that it denies that the cosmology obtains in reality.
However, these readings seem to neglect an important aspect of Parmenides’s argument involving the concept of possibility. From the first time I read Parmenides’s poem, I remember being interested in the modal qualifiers that Parmenides adds to his ways of inquiry in fragment B2: “which are the only ways of inquiry for thinking: the one: that it is and that it is not possible not to be . . . the other: that it is not and that it is right it should not be” (B2, translation in Graham 213, emphasis added). From these descriptions, it appears that Parmenides considers it a critical point that the first way is somehow necessary while the other way is somehow impossible.
In a recent book, John Palmer has offered a reading that treats modality in Parmenides’s poem. As part of my research, I evaluated Palmer’s arguments for a modal reading of the poem. In this report, I can relate only a small selection of the results of my research involving the tenability of the modal reading.
First, what is a way of inquiry? I consider it strange that Parmenides uses the name “way of inquiry” to refer to the paths of his poem. Most authors are content with pursuing some interpretation of Parmenides’s definitional verses for the ways of inquiry—“it is and it is not possible not to be” and “it is not and that it is right it should not be” (B2.3 and B2.5)—that squares with the rest of the poem without commenting on this confusing issue, and it often remains unclear how either of these statements could constitute a literal way of inquiry. These verses don’t seem to comment about methods for asking useful questions, and they are certainly not questions themselves—they are ways of inquiry. There must be some reason why Parmenides would chose to labor under the metaphor of paths of inquiry to structure his poem. Does he mean to outline a method of questioning that will result in truth? If he does, it fails to show up prominently in the definition he gives of each path. These verses can hardly amount to some prescription about how to ask a good question, one that will result in a sure answer. As they appear in the poem, these statements look more like incomplete descriptions for the qualities of some subject (probably dealing with its existence) than they do an actual formula for asking questions or even for achieving understanding in general. They look more like premises than instructions.
However, while other interpretations are forced to ignore Parmenides’s strange appellations and opt to focus on the predicational nature of the statements, I believe a modal interpretation can produce a more interesting reason for Parmenides’s word choice than a rhetorical devotion to the Proem’s imagery. Suppose that instead of questions, or a method of questioning, that the ways of inquiry can be understood as permissible answers. This is a useful change of emphasis, for under the modal interpretation these ways represent modes of being with unspecified grammatical subjects. Given some object, one can ask, what is its mode of being? If the answer is that it exists necessarily (that it is and it is not possible not to be), then it is an object compliant with the first path of inquiry. If the answer is that it could not possibly exist (that it is not and that it is right it should not be), then it belongs on the second path of inquiry. This fits nicely with Palmer’s position that these verses serve primarily to demarcate separate modes of being, and that Parmenides is to pursue the qualities that an object must possess because of its mode later in the poem. If these verses do focus on these modal distinctions as Palmer holds, then the ways of inquiry set up appropriate answers to inquiries along Parmenides’s most pressing point.
Second, although the modal reading does allow Parmenides to be what Palmer calls a generous monist (i.e., he holds that there is one necessary being, and a variety of contingent beings), the Way of Truth is not very useful. A major challenge for most of Parmenides’s interpretations includes wringing out a meaningful application for whatever Parmenides is pushing along the first path. While Palmer can attribute two kinds of apprehension to Parmenides’s poem, and a foundational ontological distinction, these are small prizes when one realizes that certain apprehension of necessary being yields knowledge only of an everlasting material blob. The modal reading successfully minimalizes the argument for the first path, and in so doing, confines it to inconsequential results. On this interpretation, like so many others, Parmenides still has nowhere else to go. His third path produces no actual knowledge and it can endure only as long as the capricious objects of the contingent realm persist in their own being. Hence, the generous monist on the modal interpretation has little wealth to share.
Despite some concerns, I concluded that the modal reading allows for a legitimate and genuine cosmology and presents the Way of Truth free of fallacies regarding negative existentials or inferring actuality from possibility. These are not small achievements for interpreting such a stubborn text. In writing my research, I made clear some benefits and trade-offs of a modal reading of Parmenides’s brilliant poem in an internal context.