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The wellsprings of European philosophy include the pre-Socratic philosophers Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Democritus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Leucippus, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes, and Zenon of Elea. To them, we owe the first foundations of ontology, cosmology, and materialism, just as we owe idealism and metaphysics to Plato and Aristotle. In the present era, the pre-Socratics were brought back into focus by Martin Heidegger, who, accusing occidental philosophy of “forgetfulness of being” (Seinsvergessenheit) substituted fundamental ontology in place of metaphysics. One quotation from Parmenides remains particularly controversial to this day. It is Fragment 3 of his now lost didactic poem on cosmology (ca. 500 BCE): “For thinking and being are the same.” (Thanassas, Parmenides, Cosmos, and Being, 2007, p. 92) Fragment 8.34 states that “Thinking and [Being as] the cause of thought are the same.” (ibid., p. 95)

These passages are often read as a declaration of the identity of thinking and being – including by Heidegger: “Parmenides’ language is the language of a thinking; it is that thinking itself.” (Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 1976, p. 186) Another quotation from Parmenides, in a different rendering, asserts the identity of knowledge and existence, of truth and being: “For, what can be known is the same as what can be existing.” (Popper, The World of Parmenides, 2012, p. 134)

As the medium of truth is language, it can thus be inferred deductively that language and being are also one. In the wake of Heidegger, this epistemology also stands at the center of Vilém Flusser’s concept of communication and culture. The relationship of knowledge to existence, of language to being, of thinking to being, of thinking to language, of truth to being, is claimed to be “the same” – that is, asserted as identical – and ultimately ontologically justified.

Since the emergence of mathematical logic in the nineteenth century, however, finer distinctions have been drawn between thinking and being. From Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Gottlob Frege, a German idealism based on conceptual, rational thinking was continually being refined. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit or Phenomenology of Mind (German original 1807), Hegel argued for “work on concepts,” through which alone truth and the absolute could be understood: “The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists.” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 2003, p. 3) Frege developed a formal language with formal proofs in his 1879 book Begriffsschrift, eine der arithmetischen nachgebildete Formelsprache des reinen Denken [Concept Notation: A Formula Language of Pure Thought, Modeled upon That of Arithmetic]. Since then, theories of truth have been not ontology, but proof theory. And ever since Erwin Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s cat; see: Erwin Schrödinger, “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics,” in: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 124, 1980; German original 1935), Kurt Gödel (Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; see Gödel, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I,” in: Collected Works, vol. I, 1986; German original 1931), AlanTuring (the Entscheidungsproblem; see: “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” in: Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, vol. 42, no. 2, 1937), and others, we have known that not all true sentences can be proved.

With his pluriversal conception of language, Flusser was able to follow this with: The sameness of what can be thought and what can be does not exist. Instead of identity politics, there is incompleteness and undecidability. More exists than we can say, and we think more than we can say (formalize). Truth and knowledge are not identical to language and being. Interpretations of Parmenides up to now have remained metaphysical interpretations, although their ontological champions have claimed the opposite. Only Karl Popper, as a member of the Vienna Circle and thus well versed in formal theories of truth, wrote: “Parmenides was not an ontologist […] Parmenides was not really concerned with a verbal argument about being, but with the problem of change. And the problem of change is, clearly, not an ontological problem but a cosmological problem.” (Popper, The World of Parmenides, pp. 130–131) Popper views Parmenides as an epistemologist. The pre-Socratics are, indeed, the origin of European thought in all its variety.

Original article by Peter Weibel

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pre-socratics.txt · Last modified: 2021/11/05 17:47 by