Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Ways that Can Be Known

After the goddess greets Parmenides, she tells him there are only two paths that are available for questioning: either things are and are not for non being, or things are not, and of necessity must not be. In other words, things either have being or they don't, either being or nothingness. Of the two, she says, only the first is truly thinkable. The second path has no report. There is nothing that can be really said about nothing.

The first path is persuasive, because it attends upon alethea, Heidegger's favorite word. Coxon translates it as "reality." If there is a fault with Coxon's excellent translation, it is that he has a tendency to too easily gloss ancient words into modern concepts. Heidegger's attempts to "think the Greek in the Greek way" may go to torturous extremes, but it would reassuring to see Coxon wrestle a bit more with the ancient terms. The Greek philosophers were at the beginning, struggling to find a language for their new concepts. To translate them into modern philosophical concepts ignores the struggle and loses some of the dynamism of their attempts.

Alethea, truth, is the unconcealed, the remembered, that which has opened itself to presence. As such, it cannot possibly be nothing. Only something can be, and to be it must be something.

That said, though, a few words about nothing. We cannot, in fact, imagine nothingness. Nothingness has no properties. Imagine a cave with no light. There is a stalagtite dripping into a black pool. Ripples run from the drop to the edges of the pool. Despite the lack of light, you image the shape of the stalagmite, the black pearl of a drop. The ripples have a slight gleam on the crest. Try harder. Even if you concentrate very hard, you will still be left with your own mind hovering over the darkness, like God over the waters. Even the empty space of the physist is not empty. It is a sea of overlapping waves of energy generating a random foam of particles and anti particles that bust into being and then are annihilated. 

Yet nothingness haunts us. The idea of not existing is the source of our deepest anxieties. We cannot truly imagine a world without us. Even when we try we imagine ourselves observing a world without us.

The goddess in Parmenides' poem is correct, that pursuing nothingness will give you nothing in return. Yet, I think, as the Buddhists have long known, there are spiritual aspects and benefits in meditating on nothingness, even if it is not something we can ever fully grasp.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Talking About Being

For the most part, it is wrong to think that a particular word has a given meaning. Dictionaries tend to perpetuate this myth, though if you look you will notice, even there, a word constitutes a cluster of associated meanings. 

Take even the simplest word like "dog." We say things like: "collies are my favorite breed of dog," "it was a dog of a day," "I am dog tired," "he was a good dog," " I worked like a dog today,"  "you're nothing but a hound dog," "don't dog me," etc.. All these phrases relate to some, essentially undefined, dogness. (One shouldn't forget, by the way, that though seemingly simple, dog is an extremely abstract word. It includes at least hundreds of breeds and billions of individuals under it single syllable designation.)

I came across this argument in Heidegger's lectures on Aristotle's Metaphysics where he (Heidegger) is discussing Aristotle's statement that being can be spoken of in many ways. He compares it to Aristotle,s dismissal of Plato's idea of "the Good." He (Aristotle) says that the good can be spoken of in many ways, but that does not imply that there is some absolute idea of the good that has a separate existence on some ideal plane. Rather, the good exists as a cluster of analogous meanings that cannot be reduced to a single meaning.

A similar argument holds for being.

An interesting aside: this is essentially the whole technique of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigation. He asserts that philosophers are too often mislead by taking abstract words as realities. He looks at how words really work, by looking at how we actually use words, not as meaning something, but as analogous to some cluster of related meanings.

Parmenedes comes into Heidegger's discussion of Aristotle because Heidegger asserts that Aristotle is reaffirming Parmenides against Plato, asserting, in fact, that being is one, though we speak of it in many ways. We cannot give it precise definition, but it is the commonality behind every statement of existence. 

This would imply that Being can only be approached by analogy, through individual beings. 

But that is the subject of Being and Time, and I am going to continue focus on Parmenides for the time being, so to speak.