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This paper explores and defends Aristotle's criticisms of Parmenides' conception of change. Parmenides was a pre-Socratic philosopher whose conception of change was widely accepted until Plato and Aristotle refuted him. Parmenides's position was that change never happens in our physical world. Parmenides was first challenged by Plato in the Sophist. I contend that Plato's challenge is inadequate because it is limited to politics. Thus, it is Aristotle's refutation of Parmenides in Physics that is most adequate since it extends beyond politics.
The Parmenides Problem
According to Parmenides, it is folly to rely on intuitions based on sense experience as proof that the world around us is constantly changing. In his view, change never occurs in the natural world because of his belief that the term "change" denotes the process of being coming into existence (Wolfe, 2014). He contends that this process of "coming into being (or being)" can only happen if the object of a philosophical inquiry had prior existence. To Parmenides, the question becomes "What is this prior existence?." Trying to answer this fundamental question creates the Parmenides problem. Either:
- 1. "Being comes from being." or:
- 2. Being comes from non-being.
If the first presumption is taken to be correct, no change happens since a thing exists in the same way always (Wolfe, 2014). If the second proposition is taken to be true, claiming change is always happening in the natural world is reductio ad absurdum. It would mean accepting that, for instance, a human being comes from nothing. The import from the Parmenides problem is that his first proposition completely rules out change while the second one shows that since a nonbeing can never exist, change can never happen because (1) there is no division into separate individual beings; (2) that go on to interact and change.
The Parmenides problem was seized on by Sophists to justify moral relativism (Wolfe, 2014). For instance, Protagoras claims that everybody is "the measure of all things" hence what is good for one person is not necessarily good for another. This moral relativism is, therefore, the basis for Protagoras advancing the argument that it is impossible to have an objective standard for "goodness" based on interpretations of human nature since it cannot exist separated from a being. Echoing the Parmenidean position that only being can exist, Protagoras proposes that reality is an illusion because it is subjective (Wolfe, 2014). Parmenides' argument bore political fruit when his theory was adopted by Protagoras, an unscrupulous teacher of law and persuasion. Protagoras' brand of philosophy is the basis for excusing unethical or bad conduct.
Just like the Sophists, Aristotle recognized that the Parmenidean school of thought raises serious philosophical questions. In chapter 8 of Book I, Aristotle rejected the Parmenidean perspective on change and similarly, the moral relativism of Protagoras (Wolfe, 2014). To Aristotle, the Parmenidean take on things creates the situations in which empirical evidence cannot be used to explain reality. This, in turn, accommodates the Protagoran "moral relativity" argument that makes weak arguments stronger.
In Physics, Aristotle tackles the twin concepts of form and privation in Book I, by saying that "[n]othing that exists is naturally such as to act or be affected in any old way by the agency of just any old thing" (Wolfe, 2014). A rational understanding of this phrase is that (1) a thing is not created by a random thing; (2) nor does a thing change (or disappear) in a random way. The term "form" alludes to "what something is" while "privation" means "what that thing is not" (Wolfe, 2014). Hence, if the form of something is that it has the color white, its privation is the potential not to have the color white. Aristotle distinguishes himself from Parmenides with his concept of privation. To Parmenides, a piano can only be defined as a musical thing. It can never be defined in a non-musical way.
My interpretation of Physics is that the Parmenides problem is that its explanations of change exclude accounts of the opposite state of existence. For instance, if we were to use the example of a musical thing, it is by definition, musical in nature(X) and its privation is being non-musical(Y). But in the Parmenides' explanation of the change, there is no correlation between being musical and non-musical. Hence, from the purely Parmenidian school of thought, there is no rational explanation for how a non-musical man can acquire the status of being a musical man by learning to read or play music.
All empirical data in our daily lives point to the fact that things come into existence from other things. To Aristotle, this is evidence that a subject is the privation of a thing under philosophical inquiry. He, therefore, concludes that everything that "comes to be or perishes does so from one contrary into the other or from or into the intermediate" (Wolfe,2014). My interpretation of this passage in Chapter 8 of Physics I is that an "intermediate" thing is when a thing is in the process of transitioning into something else. E.g. The non-man in alluded to earlier after taking several lessons on music and is between the stages of being non-musical and musical. Hence, from the foregoing, Aristotle successfully shows that "[I]n every case [of coming to be] there must be some subject that comes to be something" (Wolfe 2014).
After doing the job of explaining what subject, form, and privation are, he distinguishes the process of ordinary change from that of generation (or creation). To him, the ordinary change would be an unmusical man (X) becoming a musical man(Y). On the other hand, his idea of the process of "generation" is that it means the process that must precede the creation of something. For instance, a pizza has to be made before one can say that they are eating or have eaten a pizza. In his view, only substances can't be assigned unique characteristics through generation. Hence they are the only things that do not have to be made. Aristotle believes that even though they are different, both the process of ordinary change and generation have one thing in common. They both must account for subject, privation, and form.
According to the Aristotelian view, when considering the thought experiment of the unmusical man(X) becoming musical(Y), the man is the subject while the X (unmusical man) is the privation that contradicts their current status of Y(being a musical man). The sentiment is can be extended to a marble statue (an inanimate object) as an example. The marble from which it is carved from by a sculptor is the subject while the block of marble before it is carved into a statute is the privation.
In my view, Aristotle correctly interprets the Parmenidean view as an assertion that change never happens since,(1) what "is" already exists and hence ; (2) what "is not" will never exist. Aristotle then challenges it under his schema of "simple" and "compound" processes of coming into being. He concludes that Parmenides had restricted himself to the simple approach that can only have the assumption that X changes to Y. The pillars of this assumption are twofold. X can survive, and to use the example of the unmusical man, the phrase becomes, "X (Man) comes to be Y (Musical)". The alternative is to accept that X does not survive and hence, "X (Not Musical) becomes Y (Musical)".
This Aristotelian approach shows that the weakness of the simple approach to the question of change is that it excludes the idea of a thing being a subject. This is why the Parmenidean approach, in my opinion, is an inaccurate way to evaluate the process of change when compared to Aristotle's compound approach. This compound method of the analysis incorporates both form and privation. Hence it speaks about a thing as a subject. Thus, from the Aristotelian perspective, when examining change, the unmusical man example would read: "X (Not Musical Man) becomes Y (Musical Man)".
Aristotle's refutation of Parmenides in Physics that is most adequate since it extends beyond politics. Aristotle succeeds that the process of coming into existance can either be simple or compound and the error of the Parmenidean approach to change is that it limits itself to the simple process of change. This Aristotelian approach shows that the weakness of the simple approach to the question of change is that it excludes the idea of a thing being a subject. This is why the Parmenidean approach, in my opinion, is an inaccurate way to evaluate the process of change when compared to Aristotle's compound approach. This compound method of the analysis incorporates both form and privation. Hence it speaks about a thing as a subject. Thus, from the Aristotelian perspective, when examining change, the unmusical man example would read: "X (Not Musical Man) becomes Y (Musical Man)".
Wolfe, C.J. (2014).Plato's and Aristotle's answers to the Parmenides problem. Retrieved from https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Plato%27s+and+Aristotle%27s+answers+to+the+Parmenides+problem.-a0297715317
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