Kennt ihr eine Anekdote von Parmenides?

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THE MYSTERY OF PLATO'S PARMENIDES by Kelsey Wood

There is an old joke that many philosophers must have heard: If metaphysics tries to understand existence as Existence, and the theory of knowledge tries to understand knowing as Knowing, then metaphilosophy is the effort to understand a as A.
What should we understand by "metaphilosophy"? One way to put it is that metaphilosophy questions our ability to understand anything as it is in itself, apart from particular examples of that thing in particular situations. In other words, metaphilosophy is philosophy as the critique of philosophy itself. Critical philosophy, or metaphilosophy, tries to understand our ability to comprehend truth as such; in short, metaphilosophy probes the boundaries of philosophy.

And this is why Plato's Parmenides has been something of a mystery for scholars for centuries. Scores of interpretations have been published by commentators who cannot seem to come to agreement about the meaning of this dialogue. The Parmenides dialogue remains a mystery because both traditional Plato scholars as well as hostile critics of so-called 'Platonism' have been misreading the dialogue at least since Aristotle. My argument (set out more fully in a book, Troubling Play (SUNY Press, 2005) is that both Platonists and hostile critics of Platonism have missed the full significance of Plato's dialogues all along. Plato's Parmenides is neither metaphysics nor yet epistemology; it is metaphilosophy; a critique of philosophy. It is not a theory of reality or a theory of knowledge. In the Parmenides, Plato is asking the question, "What is philosophy really capable of?" He is not simply dealing with how we know, or what we mean when we say that something exists. More fundamentally, he is asking "How does truth happen; how is truth at all possible?"

Parmenides is not the only Platonic dialogue that questions the very nature of philosophy and of thinking as such: in fact, this "metaphilosophical" question is one of Plato's primary themes, a theme addressed in many other of his dialogues, including Meno, Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras, and Republic, among others.

This long-standing tendency of scholars to misread Plato's Parmenides is why the dialogue remains controversial to this day. But why does the Parmenides remain so fascinating to readers of Plato? The fascination is due, in part, to the fact that this dialogue represents the initiation into philosophy of Plato's teacher Socrates by the legendary Parmenides of Elea. In addition, Parmenides is one of Plato's most carefully-crafted works, and yet it seems to be thoroughly contradictory. Significantly, in this dialogue Plato undermines the (allegedly) Platonic metaphysics, or theory of reality: the so-called "theory" of Forms. This is why I argue that both hostile critics of Plato and traditional Platonists have been misinterpreting Plato for centuries, because Plato himself insists in his later dialogues - such as Parmenides - that there is no "theory" of forms. Plato's Parmenides demonstrates decisively that if the Idea or Form existed separately, apart from human experience, then both sense perceptions and Ideas would be utterly unintelligible.

Now, it is true that from early on in Plato's thinking, the notion of Form indicates the sameness - the identity - that gives a variety of things in our experience their intelligibility. This means that it is by the Idea or Form of humanity we recognise any person we see to be a human being, in spite of variations in appearance between newborns, adults, the very old, or people with disfiguring diseases, etc. In other words, Plato's term 'Idea' or 'Form' refers to the understandability of experience.

But it is important to realise that Plato wrote conversations - dialogues that question our assumptions and biases - not treatises that provide answers. It is of vital importance to recognise too that Plato's dialogues - especially later works like Parmenides - when examined closely, do not contain any consistent and comprehensive theory. Instead, what dialogues like Parmenides do is precisely the opposite of this: they show why there cannot be any consistent and comprehensive account or theory of truth or knowing or existence. Plato's Parmenides shows why any philosophy, any theory, any political science, or any ideology, is inherently and irreducibly incomplete and inconsistent. In short, this dialogue is metaphilosophy: it is thinking as the testing, criticism of, and often rejection of a remarkable variety of hypotheses and theories.

Plato's dialogues are conversations that raise questions and then transform these questions into better questions. Plato's figure of Parmenides teaches Socrates the art of questioning some of our most fundamental assumptions. We participate fully in this activity only when we are shaken by some vital question to the point that we realise, like Socrates, that paradoxically, there is a sense in which we really know nothing. The Platonic

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