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2.2 Parmenides

In order to understand the Greek philosophers it is necessary to make a preliminary observation on their way of reasoning. Let’s think for a moment about the attributes that each object has, for example the color. We can see that attributes never exist alone, but are always applied to some object. For example, there is no white color alone: there are only objects that have this color. However, the observation of the attributes, in this case of the colors, has the advantage of allowing an advance knowledge of things. For example, with experience I can learn that white objects are seen in the dark better than black ones. What is interesting is that it will be possible to foresee this effect without having to know all the white and black objects of the world: it will be enough to learn that this is a typical characteristic of the white color. Therefore, the reflection on abstraction (abstracting means pulling out from an object its qualities) allows us to guess to a certain extent what we do not yet know and even the future; I can guess that, if an object is white, it will be more visible in the dark, even though I’ve never seen that object. This work of reflection on attributes gives a feeling of mastery over reality; the philosopher who learned this method is tempted to feel almost like one who has discovered the formula for dominating all the things of this world. The temptation is consequent: if so, then let’s throw ourselves to reflect on the attributes and we will have conquered the world. This plunging headlong onto a very promising strategy makes us think to Americans, who make interesting discoveries and throw themselves blindly to their exploitation on a large scale, exept then discover many times, often too late, that the new discovery creates more problems than it solves (Wile Coyote cartoons are nice about this).
At this point in the reflection, for the Greeks it became logical to ask what are the attributes on which it would be most fruitful to reflect. We have seen the example of the white color; another attribute that does not exist by itself is, for example, the number: we all know that if we learn a little bit about mathematics it will be possible to acquire a great mastery of many aspects of the world and of life, for example of economy. The philosopher Pythagoras was interested in the numbers, but is there an attribute that is the most basic of all, whose reflection could allow us a basic cognitive mastery of the entire universe? According to the philosopher Parmenides and others, also of the present, this attribute exists and it is being. The white color, for example, is not a very useful attribute to think about, because it is not possessed by all objects, but being does: all the objects of this world “are”; the verb “they are” may possibly be accompanied by some other word, for example “they are here” or “they are there”, “they are white”, or even by no word, in the sense that “they exist”: if I say that four-legged horses “are”, but green horses “are not”, I am saying that four-legged horses “exist”, but green horses “do not exist”. In any case, with or without other words of accompaniment, it can be said that all things of this world “are”. Then Parmenides and many others after him devoted themselves to reflect on the “being” considered for itself, that is abstract from the single objects, in the same way as it is possible to abstractly reflect on numbers or on the white color, without taking into consideration the objects to which these qualities can be applied. This reflection on being was called and still today is called “ontology”, because in Greek “of being” was said “ontos”, while reflection, speech, was called “logos”. Thus from ontos + logos the term ontology was born. By reflecting on being, Parmenides thought he could identify as its essential characteristic what was then called the “principle of non-contradiction”: being is, not being is not. Even today, many people believe that this principle is the essential basis of all those who want to use the mind to reflect. However, many years passed; with Parmenides and Pythagoras we are between the fifth and sixth centuries BC; many philosophers now believe that considering ourselves masters of every reflection, just because we know the principle of non-contradiction, is an unjustified claim. In fact, when we make a speech, who can guarantee that we have not fallen into any contradiction? Therefore, if today we want to continue doing ontology, we will have to understand being no longer as the abstract attribute understood by Parmenides, but rather as our human existence; moreover, if we really want to reflect, we must not limit ourselves to thinking about abstract attributes, but we must have the patience to take into consideration even individual particular objects. But these are only anticipations of today’s philosophy; for the point where we are, we still have to continue on the path of the beginnings.

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