returning to the Parmenidean moment


Alfred North Whitehead famously described the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whether or not this is fair to the thinkers that followed Plato, it is a gross injustice to those that preceded him. Pre-eminent among these was Parmenides. Elizabeth Anscombe’s riposte that Plato might be regarded as “Parmenides’s footnote” is not as perverse as it seems. While Plato’s dialogues are among the supreme philosophical works of the western tradition, it was Parmenides who established the implicit framework of their debates.

Plato acknowledged that Parmenides had “magnificent depths.” But there is more to Parmenides than this: in his thought, human consciousness had a crucial encounter with itself. This was, I believe, a decisive moment in the long awakening of the human species to its own nature. From this self-encounter resulted the cognitive self-criticism, the profound critical sense that gave birth to the unfolding intellectual dramas of metaphysics and science that have in the last century or so approached an impasse.

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