Parmenides- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (5)


Parmenides was born, it is thought, around 515 BCE in Elea. It was believed that an old Parmenides actually taught a young Socrates, although this is debated. In this article, we will look at his attempt to explain permanence in nature, and be introduced to an early problem in the philosophy of language.


The first real search for permanence was to be found with the endeavours of Parmenides. It is true that Pythagoras looked for that which was unchanging in cosmic order and the realm of metaphysics, but Parmenides was concerned with permanence in this realm, and he in fact believed that there was no change at all, the exact opposite of Heraclitus.

Parmenides rejected Heraclitus’ doctrine of opposites too. Rather than believing that opposites contain each other, he believed that an opposite simply describes a privation of the thing against which a word is offset against. For example, ‘dark’ doesn’t contain the word ‘light’ as a natural opposite, it simply states that there is less or no light.

He believed that there could be no opposites because the only truth was ‘the one’, which can roughly be understood as the entirety of reality. ‘The one’ was whole and indivisible, so couldn’t contain opposites, which he thought to be individuating. Saying ‘dark’ is a privation of light, on Parmenides view, simply describes a temporal perspectival condition of ‘the one’.

What we talk about when we talk about the world

He asserted that we can’t talk of what there isn’t in the world because as soon as we talk about something, it exists. This argument is an early example of the view that what the world is depends on how we talk about it. If we mention something, it exists, he says, because in order to mention or discuss something, you need to reference an object in the world. Parmenides also believed that because there is no change, everything we talk about is permanently unchanging.

Russell’s rebuttal

Russell says that we do inherently talk about something when we’re talking about the world. When I talk about a horse, it is because I have seen one for real, and can use language to say ‘there is a horse’, or ‘shire horses are my favourite kind of horse’. However, we don’t have to be talking about an object, we can be talking about a word. If I say ‘it would be marvellous to have a unicorn’, I don’t need to assert that unicorns exist, merely that there is a word ‘unicorn’, and one of the things I can do with the word ‘unicorn’ is place it meaningfully in a sentence.

This means, however, that something of the unicorn must exist. This is a problem which philosophers sometimes still get wrapped around today. We can assert that whatever meaning we have of a unicorn is a product of our imagination, and that we are using language to describe the contents of our imagination. This shows that the meaning of an unreal word is in the head of the person using the word.

The meaning of real words also must exist in the heads of those using the words though. Each word we use has a personal meaning to us. When George Washington used his name, he had a different understanding of his name from his mother, and a different understanding of it from each of his friends. What something means to us depends on how we are connected to, or removed from, the original word.

  1. When somebody saw George Washington in person, they knew him and discussed him by perception. They drew reference to him in the same way as I do to my coffee table right now.
  2. The next generation who discussed George Washington would have done so through old memories of him.
  3. We discuss and have meaning of George Washington by the faculty of imagination. Pictures, biographies, and so forth, aid us in constituting individual ideas of who he was.

The fact that words mean different things doesn’t change the truth or character of propositions. The sentence ‘George Washington had horses, but not unicorns’ has the same meaning from person to person, whether the character of the proposition is the same or not.

There is a sense in which we can reconcile Parmenides against Russell’s rebuttal in that when we talk of a horse, the word horse means the same thing; likewise, ‘George Washington’ will always mean the same thing too- the first president of America.

We learn from a study of Parmenides that we are wont to derive metaphysical conclusions from language, not from logic. Russell’s solution of this is to push our study of language further, particularly regarding specificity of reference. In seeking permanence in the world, Parmenides had started a metaphysic derived from logic.

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To read the other articles in this series, click HERE

Tomorrow we will discuss Empedocles, who represented the highest point of Greek science.

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