Monday, October 19, 2015


Mehmet Tabak, Plato's Parmenides Reconsidered. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. ix, 229. ISBN 9781137515353. $95.00.

Reviewed by Howard Peacock, James Allen's Girls' School, London (

Version at BMCR home site


Mehmet Tabak's bold re-reading of the Parmenides is a welcome attempt to revive the 'unitarian' position that sees no substantial change in Plato's views on the Forms between 'middle' and 'late' dialogues: its main business is to argue that the Parmenides offers 'no positive Platonic lesson' (p. 2), and that 'no new Platonic TF [theory of Forms] issues from part II' of the dialogue (p. 125). To support this reading, Tabak argues that the criticisms of the Forms found in the first part of the dialogue are 'obviously invalid' (p. 2) and so could not have been taken seriously by Plato or his audience; he also proposes a novel way of supporting the familiar (but currently unfashionable) view that the labyrinthine dialectic of Part II serves primarily to satirize the methods of Plato's opponents – not only Parmenides himself, but also Zeno, Protagoras, and the 'Eleatic-sophist method' in general (p. 125). Each of the eight 'deductions' is identified with a different way of understanding the obscure doctrine of the 'One': while the first deduction is genuinely Parmenidean in its conclusions, the third develops an interpretation consistent with the mid-period TF's view of the Form of Unity, to 'show how Parmenides' method is also capable of proving the very thing that Parmenides found implausible' (p. 101). The exercise as a whole shows that Parmenides' method 'is capable of justifying everything, however contradictory it may be' (p. 107). Thus, while the first part of the dialogue runs through spurious objections to the Forms, the second part shows how Eleatic dialectical exercises have 'failed to deliver the truth' (p. 124). On Tabak's reading, the dialectic leaves Plato's own views untouched: Parmenides' dialectical authority lies in tatters while the Theory of Forms emerges unscathed. This reading of the Parmenides itself is bookended by chapters which establish connections and parallels between it and Plato's middle-period and 'later' dialogues.

The book has several impressive features. Most noticeably, Tabak's attacks on the largely unsupported assumptions behind many recent treatments of the dialogue are cogent: as he says, to interpret Part I by assuming that Plato thought the objections it contains to be valid, and then adduce whatever background assumptions are needed to support them, is to 'take for granted what needs to be proven in the first place' (p. 28). Moreover, he builds a convincing case for the view that Plato's oft-cited 'admiration' for Parmenides is in fact bitterly sarcastic, surveying evidence from a range of dialogues and drawing attention to the under-appreciated biographical detail that the interlocutor Aristoteles later went on to be one of the 'Thirty' tyrants who exercised a brief reign of terror in late fifth-century Athens. Another strength is Tabak's ability to identify connections with other dialogues: the content of the 'deductions' is skilfully correlated with discussions in the Theaetetus and Sophist, as well as with Parmenides' own poem, and indeed with Protagoras' view on truth, while the Euthydemus is employed to support claims that the reasoning in Part I contains 'known sophisms' that Plato's audience could not have failed to spot. Tabak also demonstrates a commanding grasp of secondary literature: he is able to locate his interpretation within the parameters of both well-worn texts (Cornford, Allen), and more recent pretenders (Scolnicov, Gill, Rickless). The decision to reserve discussion of these divergent views to endnotes, which take up 47 pages of the book's total length, has resulted in a very readable text, accessible to the non-specialist; of particular use to beginning students will be the extended notes at the start of Chapter 3 outlining the history of the interpretation of Part II and its reception in the 20th century.

One intriguing aspect of Tabak's presentation is his account of the dialectical purpose of Part II. His claim is that Plato 'satirizes' the doctrines of his Eleatic opponents by 'embellishing them . . . with rampant fallacies and absurdities' (p. 60). However, Tabak does not think that all the reasoning employed by Parmenides in Part II is fallacious: the second deduction is a 'brief but sound demonstration of the TF' (p. 101), and he finds it plausible that the eighth deduction is 'a direct refutation of argument 7', and that some of its conclusions are 'Platonic in nature' (p. 124). Thus it seems that not all of the reasoning put into Parmenides' mouth is genuinely 'sophistical'. Rather, Plato's aim is to undermine Parmenides' 'Eleatic-Sophist method' by showing it can be used to prove anything: the method is faulty because it delivers indiscriminate truth and falsehood, and Parmenides is shown up as a charlatan precisely because he accepts whatever follows from his dialectic, even when this contradicts a position established through earlier reasoning. This account raises further questions. In particular, we lack an explicit account of what it is that is distinctively 'Eleatic-Sophist' about the method: is it simply that, by Parmenides' lights, there is no such thing as an absurd conclusion? That would put him at odds with Zeno's view that 'laughable' consequences could genuinely follow from someone's philosophical position (128d). Or is the problem that Parmenides himself is shown up as incapable of telling the difference between fallacious and valid reasoning? Or (as some of Tabak's comments suggest), is it simply that Parmenides' prohibition on saying 'what is not' drives him into the Protagorean position that nothing can be false so long as it is perceived as true, and so prevents him from making the necessary distinction between valid and invalid arguments? If so, we need an account of how Parmenides, in his own poem, was able to include a section detailing the (presumably false) beliefs of the 'Way of Opinion' as well as the accurate monism of the 'Way of Truth'; moreover, there is room for scepticism as to whether it would really be possible for Plato to roll together the diverse interests of the sophists, the monistic metaphysics of the Eleatics, and Protagorean relativism in such a way as to present a recognizable unified target for his ridicule of the kind Tabak supposes.

One area that requires close reading is Tabak's response to the two 'Third Man' regress arguments. To support his overall interpretation that the criticisms of Part 1 are obviously fallacious, and were not felt by Plato be genuine threats to the TF, Tabak needs to show that the Third Man regresses can be blocked easily using resources available to participants in the dialogue. Indeed, his presentation is consistent with the view that easy solutions are available: the first, 'largeness' regress (132a1-b2) is dispensed with in one paragraph (p. 44), while the second, 'likeness' regress (132d1-133a6) gets a little under two pages (pp. 46-8). Tabak alleges that the first regress depends on 'treating Forms as if they were ordinary things': the reason Parmenides' argument is 'fallacious' is that it ignores Socrates' 'distinction' between Forms and the things that participate in them, and 'thus treats the Form of Largeness as if it were an ordinary large thing'. Evidence for the existence of such a 'distinction' is adduced from 130b2-3, where we are told that Forms are 'separate' (χωρίς) from particulars. But it is not clear without further argument that this 'separateness' of Forms and particulars can do the work it needs to. There are really two questions here: one about ontological distinctness (whether the Form is an ordinary 'thing' or as a sui generis entity), and one about self-predication (is the Form of largeness itself large?). Plausibly, the Form of largeness could be an ontologically different kind of entity (not an 'ordinary thing') and yet still be self- predicationally large. But then the ontological distinctness of the Form will not block the regress, since what the disputants agree is that a Form of largeness is needed, not when some ordinary things are large, but rather 'whenever some many [entities?] seem to you to be large' (ὅταν πόλλ' ἄττα μεγάλα σοι δόξῃ εἶναι, 132a2). Unlike some English translations, the text of the Greek does not support the view that this principle is restricted to producing a new Form only if the large entities are all 'ordinary things', since the neuter plural πόλλ' ἄττα could apply to any entity whatsoever; here we need more argument to convince us that the restriction Tabak supposes would have been an obvious move for Plato and his audience.

An alternative reconstruction of Tabak's solution, of course, is that he means Plato to reject the notorious 'Self- Predication' assumption, relying not on the ontological distinctness of Form and particular, but rather on the realisation that the Form of F is not itself F. Indeed, in a note Tabak points out that Socrates in the dialogue 'does not make' the assumption that Forms self-predicate (p. 48 n. 33). But then, given that other authors (from Vlastos on) have exhaustively catalogued the instances of Plato's commitment to self-predication in middle-period dialogues, we could rightly demand an account of why self-predication is not, after all, an essential feature of the Forms as Plato conceives them, and why its rejection does not constitute a significant departure from the middle-period Theory of Forms of the kind Tabak (qua unitarian) is keen to deny.

Tabak's account of the second regress raises similar interpretative difficulties. Here we are told that Parmenides 'equates Forms and their like instances' because he is 'ready to identify the like character of two things with the Form corresponding to that character' (p. 47). According to Tabak, Plato's theory is that the 'characteristic of a thing that is made in the likeness of a Form' is not the Form itself; rather, this 'characteristic' is a 'likeness' of the Form (p. 47). Parmenides' error, on this reading, is to suppose that the 'like characters' of sensible things are the same as the Form. But it is hard to see how this reconstruction applies to the original text: we have to accept that things have individual 'characters' or 'attributes' that resemble the Forms but are not identical to them. But there is no word in the Greek that could serve as counterpart to Tabak's 'character' or 'characteristic' – indeed, when translators use 'character' in this passage they are merely offering a variant translation of the same word (εἶδος) which others translate as 'Form'. In any case, so long as these 'like characters' resemble the Form set over them, there will be an instance of resemblance (between 'character' and Form) for which a further Form is needed, allowing the regress to be restarted. Again, the attentive reader would need to see further development of the idea to be sure that the solution could make good sense of the original text.

The difficulty of following Tabak's reconstruction at this point highlights another noticeable feature of the book: it is almost entirely Greekless, with direct quotes from the original in only a handful of locations. This will – of course – be a great relief to the newcomer or student with little Greek, as it vastly speeds up our engagement with Tabak's argument. However, it generates difficulties for the attentive reader. Tabak relies in large part on the widely reprinted late Victorian translation of Benjamin Jowett, which he quotes extensively, and where translators disagree Tabak prefers to offer a variety of English renderings rather than engage directly with the Greek. But given the difficulty this engenders in relating his reading back to Plato's own text, and the possibility that what seems to be an 'obvious fallacy' in Jowett's 19th-century English may have seemed rather more persuasive in Plato's own vocabulary, it would have been preferable if Tabak could have applied his obvious skills in close reading of text with at least one eye to the vocabulary and syntax of the original.

Tabak's book is provocative and exciting. He does a good job of cutting through long-winded analysis to arrive at a persuasive overall interpretation, and in many places his judgements are obviously sound. It would be over-optimistic to hope that he has provided the last word on the subject; nevertheless, the 'Tabak interpretation' will be without doubt a welcome addition to the range of views in relation to which philosophers working on the Parmenides must position themselves.

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