Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Excluding Parmenides

This is an extract from J.G. Frazer and The Platonic Theory of Being, published April 4, 2016. The extract is presented here without footnotes.

Section Fourteen

14.1. So far, this essay has consisted of the argument that both the Frazerian account of Plato's theory of Being and the Frazerian theory of Magic were developed in the light of the idea that man has progressed from an initial set of mistaken notions of the world, and that this was only possible by Frazer misreading key sources of evidence. Misrepresentation of the evidence by Frazer has not been a mainstay of my case thus far: however, the next section concerns a curious exclusion of materials relevant to his enquiry.

14.2. In Frazer's early essay, Plato's Parmenides is scarcely discussed at all. This is particularly surprising, for the Parmenides contains criticism of Plato's doctrine by Plato himself; criticisms not adequately answered either in that dialogue or elsewhere in the canon. The chronological position of this dialogue is thus immensely important if we consider the work of Plato as a development. Of it he says*[103] "the contents of the Parmenides, especially its searching criticism of the Ideal theory, makes the lateness of its composition almost unquestionable". But in discussing the relative priority of the Theaetetus and the Parmenides he says that the question of the date " after all unimportant"*[104] . On p93 he says that he fully agrees with Strumpell that "the Parmenides was composed at a time of Plato's life when he had become sensible of the difficulties and contradictions attaching to his doctrine of self-existent Forms or Ideas, and when he was looking about for some way of extrication from them". In discussing the relative order of the late dialogues on p104 he then argues that "there are in the ParmenidesSophist and Philebus very similar passages on the popular difficulties about One and Many... but since these passages probably refer directly to the discussions of the day, nothing can be inferred from them as to the respective dates of the dialogues in which they occur".

14.3. Clearly there is a problem with the Parmenides and its significance which should be attended to. Yet Frazer merely describes the dialogue and declines to discuss the second of its two parts on the grounds that he had "not studied it sufficiently (having read it only once and that some years ago) to be able to pronounce an opinion upon it".

14.4. This is at best a puzzling dereliction by Frazer. The Parmenides must be the most important of all the Platonic dialogues for an argument of this kind. Yet Frazer writes off the second part of the dialogue (with some visible unease) saying that he "formerly concurred" with Grote that there was "no other purpose in these demonstrations [dialectical deductions from the proposition "the One is"] than that of dialectical exercise"*[105] . "...but a better acquaintance with Plato leads me now to doubt seriously of its truth"*[106] . Surely then the second part should be considered? But he writes that he intends to confine himself "to the first part of the dialogue, the exposition and criticism of the Ideal theory"*[107]

14.5. The Parmenides contains a powerful and destructive criticism of Plato's theory of Being, and considers the possibility that the nature of Reality does not arise from the assumptions which our epistemology might suggest; rather that it might be altogether beyond a discursive understanding. It is not disputed to be by Plato. And, given that it destroys what has been traditionally understood to be the Platonic Theory of Being, it might be that it is rather a pointer to a wholly different ontology; an indicator that the essentially negative result of the dialectical exercises of some of the dialogues did not represent the collapse of a philosophical model of reality, but the attainment of its goal. Perhaps at some level Frazer suspected something of the kind, and decided to give the text as wide a berth as possible in the circumstances.

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