Parmenides and the History of Dialectic: Three Essays. By Scott Austin


Pp. xiii, 98 , Las Vegas , Parmenides Publishing , 2007 , $28.00 .

This is not as slight a book as it might seem. The three essays occupy only 72 pages of actual text, but they form a kind of a whole, and they contain some good and radical ideas. The brevity of the book is due, as much as anything, to the fact that Austin assumes pretty intimate knowledge of Parmenides' poem and relevant works of Plato.

In the first essay, Austin finds a pattern in Parmenides' eighth fragment of affirmation and denial, and of his use of modal metaphors, such that it adumbrates all the kinds of things that can be said and denied of the intelligible world. He then finds the same pattern – the same order – in the second half of Plato's Parmenides. So Plato maybe shares a similar conception of argument or justification (p. 21), but more importantly ‘The method in both cases involves the exhaustion of all those possibilities for affirmation and denial that are permitted by the ontology in question’ (p. 22) – a different ontology, obviously, for Parmenides and for Plato. The method, then, is usable for different purposes, and Austin hints at its use in Zeno and Aristotle too. The essay appears geeky in the lists Austin draws up, but the lists are supposed to display all the possible modes of the logic of reality (p. 32), so the results are not insubstantial.

The second essay builds on the first, developing more substantial ideas (though there is still a certain formality about it, since Austin refuses to commit to a meaning of estin, preferring to work back to fr. 2 from fr. 8). The first important result is that, despite Parmenides' denial of ouk estin in fr. 2, and despite what Plato says in Sophist about the limitations of Parmenides' work, Parmenides does and can make and put to use negative statements and privatives that are equivalent to negative statements. If Plato tackles the problems of negative statements all over again, he does so for his own purposes, and it does not mean that Austin's interpretation of Parmenides is wrong. Second, Austin find Parmenides committed to the truth of his monadic ontology as the referent even of false statements: this follows simply from the idea that being is all there is, but it is worth stating. But if being is all there is, what do we make of the obvious fact of appearance? It is an illusion: Austin's Parmenides is a fully fledged mystic as well as a proto-logician.

The third essay attempts to trace some of the influence of Parmenidean method in later philosophy: on Plato (again, as in the first essay), the via negativa of Dionysius the Areopagite, Aquinas, and Hegel. The method is characterized as ‘to pair up all members of a plurality … in all possible ways … and to rule out the entrance of relationally contrary terms in any of those ways’ (58), and as essentially ‘trinitarian’: affirmation, denial, and then re-affirmation by means of double negatives; or undertermination, overdetermination and resolution. This seems to me to be the least successful of the three essays: it is not clear to me that if Hegel, for instance, argues in an essentially trinitarian way, he is doing so under the influence of Parmenides, or of his own accord, or even just because human intelligence is structured in such a way that this is a natural way to argue. The most we can say is that Parmenidean dialectic is in some sense the ancestor of Hegelian dialectic – and indeed that is all Austin wants to say. It seems a small reward for the longest essay of the book.

There's interesting stuff here, but I can't see any special reason to publish the essays as a book. (Still the publishers, also called Parmenides, are doing an excellent job of printing and reprinting books on ancient philosophy.) Only the second essay has not been substantially published before: the third has been published in its entirety, and the first in an abbreviated form. Most of the book's target audience should, then, already have come across the work. However, since the publications involved were a relatively inaccessible Irish periodical and a Festschrift, perhaps that is sufficient justification for putting it all together in a single volume.