SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Philosophy began, according to Hermann, with something of a bang. Traditionally, the gods had access to all knowledge; Xenophanes cast doubt on any access to knowledge; Parmenides answered him by introducing the principle of non-contradiction – and so philosophy began. This is rather naive: I think that the beginnings of what we might recognize as philosophical thinking were conditioned by about a dozen factors, societal as well as intellectual, that developed for dozens of years. But Hermann assumes that philosophy begins with wondering how we know that we know, rather than, say, with reductionism (in which case it would have started about fifty years earlier, with the Milesians).

This, roughly, is the plan of the book as adumbrated in the introduction. Philosophy, then, is seen as logic, or at least as a systematic pursuit. Parmenides began it because he discovered a powerful logical tool which seemed to offer a way of achieving certainty, pace Xenophanes.

It is immediately unclear what part Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans are to play in the book. Hermann seems to want to locate the start of philosophy in southern Italy, where both Parmenides and Pythagoras lived, and where the Pythagoreans briefly flourished as a political school. But from the perspective of the purpose of the book, the first three chapters (19–134), on Pythagoreanism, seem redundant. They are a good, occasionally entertaining account of what we can know about pre-Platonic Pythagoreanism, but since Hermann concludes, rightly, that we can know hardly anything about Pythagoras himself (except a little musicology, perhaps, and the doctrine of metempsychosis), they can contribute little to the main thesis, except perhaps that number was for them the ‘perfect premise’ (21) – a solid foundation on which to rest speculation, such as Parmenides also provided with the principle of non-contradiction. But Hermann himself sets the Pythagoreans apart from philosophy: they were dogmatists, whereas philosophy proceeds by falsifiability. And he rejects accounts of Parmenides' association with the Pythagoreans (141).

Chapter 5, the first on Parmenides, recounts what little is known of his life, and then explains what Hermann sees as his reaction to Xenophanes, and the birth of philosophy. Hermann stresses that Parmenides was (might have been) a lawmaker, and finds traces of legal argumentation in Parmenides' invention of logic (see also 216 ff.). Chapter 6 is largely taken up with a complete translation of the fragments of Parmenides' poem, while Chapter 7 continues with interpretation of the poem. He rejects any mystical interpretation of the proem and concentrates on the logic of the main fragments. He sees the mysterious esti as simply the ‘fact of being’ of any existing thing, which is something that can be grasped only intellectually, not by the senses (193–4). If this sounds like a Platonic Form, or some aspect of it, Hermann makes no comment – but explicitly espouses just such an interpretation in his published commentary (2010) on Plato's Parmenides. This, being a minority view, is where scholars' eyebrows will begin to raise. Hermann is aware of other views, but it is not his purpose in this book to engage with other interpretations.

He prevaricates between seeing Parmenides as a true metaphysical monist and a serial monist (as on Patricia Curd's interpretation), but saves all such discussion over for another book, focusing here on Parmenides as a logician, as trying to ensure the reliability of discourse. Hence, in Chapter 8, he outlines twelve conditions that reliable discourse should meet, that he claims are deductions or inferences from Parmenides' text. Chapter 9 applies these criteria, and explores the logical methods employed in the poem, such as the principle of like to like, the principle of sufficient reason, and the law of non-contradiction. He ends by outlining (252–3) what he sees as ‘the three essential Parmenidean lessons’: contradiction, falsifiability, and the contrast between reason and the senses.

Chapter 10 returns to the Pythagoreans and recounts the allegedly dramatic effect the discovery of incommensurables had on the school. The point of the chapter seems to be to demonstrate that after Parmenides thinkers reached for logic to try to solve problems. Chapter 11 is a summary of what we've read about Parmenides, with some thoughts on its relevance today.

This is a nicely presented book, with every page containing colour reproductions of artwork and artefacts, ancient and modern. (I haven't seen the non-illustrated version of the book, but it appears to sell for the same price as the illustrated version, making the illustrated version a bit of a bargain. But the non-illustrated version seems to have an appendix that this one lacks, and more notes.) A lot of the illustrations seem symbolic rather than directly relevant – personal favourites, perhaps. I don't think the book will attract very much academic attention, but it's a good read, because one is constantly in the presence of a mind that thinks clearly and has spent years pondering Parmenidean issues. In an academic context, the use of the book might be to get a student interested in Parmenides or the Presocratics in general. Hermann's engaged and leisurely style could do that, and then the student could deepen her studies later.