In his remarks on Parmenides in his Critical History of Philosophy, W.T.Stace, considers whether he should be regarded, in the history of philosophy, as an idealist or a materialist. He suggests that the texts from Parmenides suggest both, though, to tell the truth, there is no mention of minds or concepts in those texts, only of the material reality and its physical shape, which is why Burnet opts for materialist. But, he thinks, it follows from what Parmenides said (though Parmenides does not draw the conclusion) that the fundamental reality is the concept (though Parmenides would not have understood such a claim, he says, because the “theory of concepts” had not yet been developed), not its object, and the reasoning he uses to get there he supposes to be implicit in Parmenides’s thought. He allows that in fact Parmenides is “the father of” both materialism and idealism, that is, that later philosophers following his line of thought became explicitly idealist (Plato) and materialist (Empedocles). So it wasn’t clear to thinkers at the time what the tendency of his thought was. Was not Plato simply reading his own conclusions back into Parmenides, then, he asks? It is the function of history, he says, to to avoid reading back into the past, and so it seems we should say he was a materialist, or else neither. But it is the function of philosophical insight to do something else (and presumably the study of an historical philosophical figure should involve philosophical insight into that figure’s thought), namely to try to seize on the germs of a higher thought in the confused thought of Parmenides, to see what he was groping for, what he saw only vaguely and dimly, to make explicit what is only implicit in his thought, to exhibit the “true inwardness” of his teaching. He began by holding that Being is what is, and the only thing that can be known, and that is to be counted a foreshadowing of Idealism, since Being is a concept (?!). So what his belief is is a vague, dim insight that Idealism is true. Why do we count it as such? because Idealism would later, in a natural philosophical development, arise from his thought in Plato. Presumably the development in Empedocles and the Atomists is an unnatural development, or more likely, a less insightful development. It did not mark the growth and clarification of his insight, but rather kept it just as muddy (or if not as muddy, since the thought was developed in more detail, just as obtuse), as before. So he provides a sensuous image for his Being, not seeing the true tendency of his own thought, and remains mixed up in materialism. Empedocles and the Atomists build on his “dimness of vision” while Plato builds upon his insight.
I am much impressed by the clarity with which he formulates this, and with which he recognizes the crucial historical objections to his view. It seems clear from his expressions, which I have tried to reproduce fairly exactly here, that he has a theory of philosophical development, perhaps to be compared to a theory of scientific development that might be held by a historian of chemistry, or a theory of literary development that might be held by a student of the history of literature, that leads to his view. The theory, once stated as such, is pretty clearly one that admits of alternatives, and is, one might say, an Idealist (or at least Hegelian theory. It seems to go thus: Philosophy begins with an insight into the truth, which admits of varying degrees of precision and clarity (like the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes). It is (if we are allowed to provide a sensory image of it) like vision, in which we might see a moose, at a distance, in the fog, more or less clearly. There is, then, something that consists in improving our insight, or perception of the moose, and something else that consists in making it even worse, fuzzier, more misleading, or whatever. What these changes are will depend on the nature of insight, or vision, which has built within it a certain teleological drive toward clarity and accuracy. So we naturally trust our vision more as the fog burns off, or we get closer to the moose, or recover a bit from our hangover, whatever. Vision has a natural functioning, and the idea is to make it as effective in its natural function as we can. The same applies to insight. Only, of course, in insight it is not so clear what its natural functioning is like, and what we need to do to clarify it and make it more accurate. Perhaps we need to make it simply conceptually more precise and detailed, but that, as Stace observes, could take it toward materialism just as much as it might take it toward idealism, for the Atomists make it more precise and detailed in their way. Of course, they make the misleading part more precise, not the insightful part. So what we need to focus on is the direct perceptual contact with the truth. That needs to be make clearer and more precise, just as the direct perceptual contact with the moose needs to make the visual perception better. The point of the investigations of philosophy, of course, is to turn our inchoate insights into detailed, accurate theories over time, and so to sharpen those insights. That’s progress in philosophy. And if we just get more confused, our insight into the truth weaker, that is the opposite of progress. Now the history of philosophy should be like the natural history of, say, a pigeon. There we need to get an understanding how a pigeon develops naturally, of its natural life course, focusing on what realizes, completes or improves its ability to function as a pigeon, not on disease processes, which, however natural in some sense (typical and even peculiar to pigeons, say), does not realize the “truth of the pigeon.”
It should be no surprise if we need to know the truth in the field in order to appreciate the history of the field properly. The same would be true in chemistry. We would regard the observations and experiments of early chemists as events that they only partially grasped, that they often misinterpreted, and we would say “what he really observed was combustion, of course, not the stripping of phlogiston from the stuff.” The series of theoretical and experimental developments that led to the development of the correct theory, and its application in detail to the phenomena observed, so that we come to understand those phenomena. (Note that the “phenomena” here are, it seems, not the appearances, but the realities behind them—at least that is what we come to understand—or perhaps we come to understand how the realities produced the possibly false appearances to our historical subjects, and only then do we see what really happened. He saw something—what did he see? That’s what we want to know as historians. Perhaps we could say, this is how we come to understand “the text.”)
So, if he is right about the truth of Idealism, perhaps his remarks about history and Parmenides are right, too. But there is still something troublesome. Are we to take it that the insight or observation made by Parmenides is to count as evidence that he saw the truth of idealism (however vaguely)? Say I’m working from an eye witness account of a battle, which I reasonably take to be an honest, if mistaken, report. Of course, in doing history it is essential for me to consider the history of the text, and in particular, what actual events might have led my witness to say the things he did. Perhaps I’m pretty sure, with good reason, that he got certain things wrong. Then I can use those mistakes to make plausible guesses at what really happened, by asking what real events might have appeared to him in that way. (This sort of thing cannot be disentangled from historical investigation. There are no “theory-independent observations” here any more than there are in any other field of study.)
This leaves some room to disagree with Stace, then. Perhaps there was a moose there, all right, but Parmenides didn’t really see it. Perhaps he would have seen it had he been a better informed philosopher than he was. Then he did not have the insight. But Stace thinks that the development of the insight was an internal development–all Plato did was to see the concept of Being more clearly, after he had inherited that vision from Parmenides, by some internal philosophical process, without drawing on sensory observations, hypothesis testing, or whatever. Just got a better focus on it, which explains his more detailed theory, and might incidentally have led to confirmation through the removal of apparent contradictions, a richer development of testable consequences and survival of the new tests, and so on. What happened was not guesswork, which we might understand well enough (I know what it is to make the same guess another person does, or to make a guess like his in certain ways), but the development of a vision of the reality, which is passed (how?) from one person to another, and sharpened by that second person.
Now whether it was guesswork (empiricism) or a developing insight (rationalism) seems to depend on the truth of Idealism, among other things. Here are some puzzles with the insight view: (1) how is it the same insight in Plato and Parmenides? is it the same insight, further developed? but if that is it, where and how did this development within the insight take place? in the mind of Plato, alone? how did the implicit content get over to Plato as well as the explicit content of the insight? The concept apparently has a life of its own! At least the sort of account of sameness of concepts that we get, for instance, from a sensible fellow like Paul Horwich is not going to help us at all with these questions. (2) By what mechanism does this reliable detection of the truth occur? There is a mechanism to be found out (though I suppose we need to be Functionalist about it) in the case of vision, the business of reflected light rays carrying information to the eye and so on. How is it that Plato acquires the same concept that Parmenides had (but more clearly)? It had better involve a good deal more than listening to Parmenides and reading his work, but, this being philosophy, it is not at all clear that it does. To get the concept of being is not to perform a feat of psychological investigation, but rather to see what Parmenides saw, that reality, with the Mind. (3) We might say that the eventual working out of the truth, until we reach the point of reasonable certainty at an appropriate level (plus actually being right, of course), is needed before we can understand what Parmenides saw. But can this really be a matter of the simple evolution of something implicit in Parmenides’s vision all along? Surely it is a matter, instead, of coming to understand a lot of stuff quite external to Parmenides’s vision, which nonetheless has a bearing on questions about what he was really seeing. I might not be able to tell at all if you saw a moose, if I must work from what is internal to that vision. The implicit stuff that I uncover is, most of it, actually external, and has to do with the way in which the vision was produced, what was out there producing it.
Now one might object at this point that I am arguing from an Empiricist (or, any way, an anti-Idealist) point of view, just as Stace argued from the Idealist point of view. So we are on a par. (That’s still a concession, but one, I suspect, Stace might make.) But it is more than that, I am arguing for such an anti-Idealist point of view, by pointing out how, in various ways, the Idealist (Rationalist) point of view fails to explain things (while pretending to succeed), and fails in such a way that it is hard to see how any further developments on this line would succeed, while pointing out, of course, that the anti-Rationalist point of view seems to have the resources to succeed where Rationalism fails.
Reading over this, it strikes me that the key thing is for the reader to take Stace’s metaphors seriously, that is, as metaphors. What is it that he is trying to express metaphorically? Are we are really not supposed to take “he saw Being only dimly” as a metaphor? OK, then take that seriously. what ontology is being introduced here? intellectual acts parallel to “perceptual” acts? Eyes of the mind? It is easy to lose track of the point of what I’m trying to say if one insists on taking Stace sensibly as speaking metaphorically, without following up with an attempt to understand the metaphors. Perhaps we can’t translate the metaphors, but they only direct us to consider things (like vision) that have some sort of connection to what he wants to say. OK, let’s use a sophisticated theory of metaphors, but we still get to ask what that connection is. If it is just that it reminds me somehow of vision, this hitting on the right theory business, and this clarifying our thought business, that is fine, but I want to know what it is about vision that reminds me of this other stuff. If he allows his answer to descend (ascend?) to poetry, or to resort to common expressions (poetry that has lost its poetic function?), then he is no longer doing philosophy at all, for there is no theory here, not even one that is somehow being referred to metaphorically. He has to keep moving from one position to another, always one step ahead of us, and if we can agree that he is speaking symbolically, or some such thing, that is a vague enough expression to give him the room he needs to keep moving. We no longer worry about what he is saying, but about the nature of his speech, and now we have to clarify ourselves, and he can shift to the offensive. If we pin him down in one place, any one place, the sense of what he is trying to say becomes absurd, or vanishes entirely. It is not that he has some deep way of speaking that analytic thinkers have not imagined, but that he has found a way of imputing his own confusion to others who take note of it by hinting that he does.