The Eleatics -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Eleatics

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In the past it was thought that Heraclitus’ philosophy was a reaction against the views of Parmenides (c. 540-470 B.C.). The prevailing opinion now is that, on the contrary, the Eleatic school represented a reaction against Heraclitus. The Eleatics attempted to disprove the idea that "everything flows" by asserting the direct opposite: that nothing changes, that movement is an illusion. This is a good example of the dialectical character of the evolution of human thought in general, and the history of philosophy in particular. It does not unfold in a straight line, but develops through contradiction, where one theory is put forward, is challenged by its opposite, until this, in turn, is overturned by a new theory, which frequently appears to signify a return to the starting point. However, this apparent return to old ideas does not mean that intellectual development is merely a closed circle. On the contrary, the dialectical process never repeats itself in exactly the same way, since the very process of scientific controversy, discussion, constant re-examination of positions, backed up by observation and experiment, leads to a deepening of our understanding and a closer approximation to the truth.

Elia (or Velia) was a Greek colony in southern Italy founded about 540 B.C. by emigrants fleeing from the Persian invasion of Ionia. According to tradition, the Eleatic school was founded by Xenophones. However, his connection with the school is unclear, and his contribution was overshadowed by its most prominent representatives, Parmenides and Zeno (born 460 B.C.). Whereas the Pythagoreans abstracted from matter all determinate qualities except number, the Eleatics went one step further, taking the process to an extreme, arriving at a totally abstract conception of being, stripped of all concrete manifestations, except bare existence. "Only being is; non being (becoming) is not at all." Pure, unlimited, unchanging, featureless being—this is the essence of the Eleatic thought.

This view of the universe is designed to eliminate all contradictions, all mutability and motion. It is a very consistent philosophy, within its own frame of reference. There is only one snag. It is directly contradicted by the whole of human experience. Not that this worried Parmenides. If human understanding cannot grasp this idea, so much the worse for understanding! Zeno elaborated a famous series of paradoxes designed to prove the impossibility of movement. According to legend, Diogenes the Cynic disproved Zeno’s argument by simply walking up and down the room! However, as generations of logicians have found to their cost, Zeno’s arguments are not so easy to dispose of in theoretical terms.

Hegel points out that the real intention of Zeno was not to deny the reality of motion, but to bring out the contradiction present in movement, and the way it is reflected in thought. In this sense, the Eleatics were, paradoxically, also dialectical philosophers. Defending Zeno against Aristotle’s criticism that he denied the existence of motion, he explains:

"The point is not that there is movement and that this phenomenon exists; the fact that there is movement is as sensually certain as that there are elephants; it is not in this sense that Zeno meant to deny movement. The point in question concerns its truth. Movement, however, is held to be untrue, because the conception of it involves a contradiction; by that he meant to say that no true Being can be predicated in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 266.)

In order to disprove Zeno’s argument, it is not enough to demonstrate that movement exists, as Diogenes did, just by walking around. It is necessary to proceed from his own premises, to exhaust his own analysis of motion, and carry it to its limits, to the point where it turns into its opposite. That is the real method of dialectical argument, not merely asserting the opposite, still less resorting to ridicule. And, in fact, there is a rational basis for Zeno’s paradoxes, which cannot be resolved by the method of formal logic, but only dialectically.

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