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Parmenides and the Doctrine of Permanence

Parmenides and the Doctrine of Permanence

Author: Sophia Media

Identify central principles of Parmenides' metaphysics.

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Hello and welcome to this tutorial on Parmenides and the Doctrine of Permanence. Today we will be discussing the less controversial aspects of Parmenides' philosophy, including the need for metaphysics, his doctorate, and that the universe is one unchanging entity, and some difficulties with motion raised by a student, Zeno.

So let's get started by considering Parmenides and what led him to turn to metaphysics. Parmenides was deeply influenced by Xenophanes. And, in fact, Parmenides may have been his student. If you will recall, Xenophanes strove for secularized knowledge of the world, criticizing the pre philosophical practice of invoking divine activity whenever they needed an explanation.

Xenophanes therefore held that there was a strict division between mortal and divine knowledge, and this division simply cannot be overcome. Parmenides also seemed to maintain this distinction, but went even further than Xenophanes by adding that the opinions of mortals are universally unreliable.

But now we come to the problem. Only the gods are reliable, but mortals do not have access to divinity. How, then, can mortals get past their flawed opinions and achieve any genuine concept of what is real? Parmenides' answer is that there are signs we can follow. Signs that point towards genuine being. That is, we can turn to metaphysics.

Recall that metaphysics, which is one of our key terms in this tutorial, is the branch of philosophy that seeks to uncover and describe the ultimate nature of reality. For Parmenides, this meant to look behind the mortal world, the world of the senses, the world of unreliable opinion, and instead perceive reality as it truly is.

Metaphysics, then, is the answer to how I, as a mere mortal, can have a god's eye view and determine the nature of the world as it really is. Now that we know why Parmenides turned to metaphysics, let's consider some important tenets of his metaphysical worldview.

An important component of Parmenides' metaphysics is his view of substancemonism. This is the view that the whole of reality consists of one single, eternal entity. One united object, what Parmenides calls the what is.

This is a slippery notion, but you might think of it as the sum total of the way things are, or, if you like, the True, with a capital T. Opposite this, Parmenides uses the notion of what is not. Once more a tricky notion, you can think of what is not as the False, capital F.

Everything that is not the case, creating a duality in Parmenides and metaphysics between the true and the false, the what is and the what is not. Parmenides, however, sees logical ramifications in this dichotomy. For him, what is not only is, but must be. Similarly, what is not cannot be.

His reason for holding this view comes from posing a basic question. Where would what is not come from? How would it come into being? How would what is not come from what is? The false cannot come from the true. Non-being cannot come from being. Non-existence cannot come from existence.

But nor can it come from nothing, since nothing cannot produce anything. The universe cannot change from what is to what is not. If the true is true, it simply cannot become the false. But nor can what is ceased to be, as going from being to not being would likewise be a metaphysical impossibility for Parmenides.

From this, it follows that what is must also be eternal and unchanging. This is because any change would be a shift from what exists to something different. That is, from what is into what is not. But given what we just discussed, this is impossible.

This seemingly radical conclusion is where Parmenides' metaphysical analysis leads him, a depiction of the universe as a single, eternal, unchanging entity. But this is not the world we encounter. The world we know, our world, is changing and impermanent. Hence, Parmenides recognizes a duality between the genuine, unchanging realm of the world as it really is, and the changing world of mere appearance.

Parmenides' way of truth focuses on the former, but the way of opinion focuses on the latter, not realizing this transient world of change is illusory. Here, Parmenides' insights can offer some advantages. Think of how an assumed permanence contributes to knowledge.

For instance, assuming a certain consistency in human anatomy is crucial to the advance and practice of medicine, whereas saying everyone is different would simply kill progress. Whether or not his doctrine of permanence is useful, Parmenides' claim that all change is illusory does seem to run counter to common sense.

In fact, it may be tempting to dismiss Parmenides' view for this very reason alone, because it runs deeply counter to what we experience every day. But we should always be wary of this type of dismissal. Think of all the things we know are true, but that go against common sense.

In fact, it might be worthwhile to pause the video and to think of some of the truly bizarre things that we have very good reason to believe are, in fact, true. Some trivial examples might come to mind. For instance, did you know that Pope John Paul II was made an honorary Harlem Globetrotter in 2000?

But try to think beyond trivia and to think of some of the really big picture strangenesses that exist. For example, did you know that there is no such thing as triangles, that all Euclidean geometry and trigonometry simply does not apply to the real world?

We know this conclusively, because Euclidean geometry requires space to be linear. But space itself curves, something we've been able to observe in astronomy. To dismiss conclusive research confirmed by observation by saying, it just doesn't seem right to me, is wholly inappropriate here.

Or, for another example, the mathematician Georg Cantor proved that, as surely as 2 plus 2 is 4, there are, in fact, different sizes of infinity. These examples suffice to show that strange cannot be equated with false. But this is especially true when you are forced to choose between two options, both of which are very strange.

For instance, when you start thinking of the origin of the universe, you seemingly must choose between a big bang, in which all of the matter in the universe comes randomly into being, or saying that a creator sat around for an infinity of time before deciding to create the cosmos 13 billion years ago.

In either side of this debate, one side calling the other's view strange, is the pot calling the kettle black and does not represent a significant challenge to the view. When considering the really big questions, sometimes things just get weird.

Parmenides' famous student Zeno of Elea used a similar maneuver to show that, while his master's view might seem peculiar, so does the alternative, when we stop and think about it. To this end, Zeno wrote a short book of paradoxes that seems to level the playing field for his master.

His goal was to show that believing there is, in fact, motion, was at least as strange and counter to common sense as the belief in the Parmenides in one. So rejecting Parmenides' doctrine because motion was so obvious and apparent was an illegitimate maneuver.

It might prove useful to provide a working definition of paradox for these purposes. A paradox arises when seemingly reasonable assumptions leads to either a contradiction or an absurdity. To get us into the ballpark, consider if someone made the claim, everything I say is a lie.

This sentence seems reasonable. It has the exact same structure as many other claims we wish to make. But think about it. If the sentence is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then it is, in fact, true. An out and out contradiction.

Before getting into Zeno's paradoxes, we should note that there are actually many kinds of paradoxes, largely due to how slippery the notion of absurdity is. For instance, is fighting for peace an absurdity? Opinions vary. Or consider traveling back in time to change something, anything.

If you succeed, then, since the necessary change has been made, there would, in fact, be no need to go back in time in the first place. But if there was no need to go back in time, you would not, in fact, go back in time to fix it, which means the problem wasn't fixed, which means you would need to go back in time to fix it. And so on and so on and so on.

Hence, paradox covers a large family of logical and metaphysical oddities. The slipperiness in attempting to define paradox makes a useful point that we'll circle back around to in later lectures. For philosophers like Socrates and Plato, finding precise definitions for very important words like justice, craft, and piety is tricky, but crucial.

According to their way of thinking, having precise definitions was the key to knowing what we're talking about, literally. With these points about paradoxes and the importance of precision out of the way, we are finally ready to turn to Zeno's paradoxes. Thankfully, the oddities that Zeno uncovered are relatively straightforward, if you can say such a thing.

Zeno explained many paradoxes, though only a few are preserved. But his paradoxes regarding motion fell into two broad categories, those drawing out the difficulties in positing time as a continuum, and those bringing about the difficulties and instead saying that time is composed of discrete moments.

Against a continuum, Zeno raises considerations like the following. How can we ever get from one place to another? In order to get from point A to point B, we must first have the distance, then halve it again, then halve it again, and so on and so on. That is, we must complete an infinite task somehow finitely. Confused yet? If you're not, you haven't really thought about it.

If the paradoxical nature of this hasn't sunk in, imagine an additional feature. Suppose there is a photographer present to capture the event. She wants to take a picture when you cross the finish line, that is, point B. But to pass the time, she takes a picture every time you halve the distance to point B. This means that she would need to take an infinite number of pictures before you get to B.

But Zeno also raises challenges to the notion of time composed as discrete moments. For instance, imagine a single arrow being fired, then freeze it in midair. That is, consider one single point or moment in time. Call it T1. At T1, the arrow will be in a specific position, call it P1.

But then move to the very next moment, T2. At this time, the arrow will have moved to a new position, call it P2. When did this motion occur? Between moments? There is no such thing, if time is discrete. The arrow, then, didn't move. It somehow just teleported from P1 to P2, but this is also absurd.

All right, so let's recap. In this tutorial, we learned that Parmenides appealed to metaphysics as a way to transcend opinion and see the world as it really is. But reasoning told him that the real world must be unchanging, unified, and eternal.

But since this world does not match the world of our senses, the world of appearances, the latter must be an illusion. Zeno, however, takes the teeth out of such an extreme claim by pointing out that it would be strange to call the changing world real. Thanks for watching, and we hope to see you next time.

Terms to Know

The branch of philosophy that seeks to uncover and describe the ultimate nature of reality


When seemingly reasonable assumptions lead to either a contradiction or an absurdity