THE BEGINNINGS OF REASON IN ANCIENT GREECE
This may be a popular version of History of Philosophy but here it is:
Reason, I have read, was synonymous in ancient Greece with Logic, with Argument, with Thought and with Philosophy, and that it hasn’t always been with us. That seems glaringly obvious by now. The Classicists tell us that the pre-Socratic philosophers started it, for the Western world, in about 580 BC.
But, think I, pretty obviously, surely primitive Man was already using Reason in his hunting and in his sheltering round the fire in the cave?
But, as has been written: ‘Of course there was knowledge and…techniques for achieving results…But, Thornton notes… ” [the Greeks] invented an explicit theoretical and abstract view of nature”.’ I suppose this means that the Greek philosophers started using Reason for explaining things in the world, rather than just for figuring out what best to do in a practical situation.
We are told it was Thales who first offered a ‘natural explanation’ — which means an explanation from within nature — for some fact or happening in the universe. Until then, people accepted that everything in the universe was alive, in that it was activated by spirits. These gods and goddesses cavorted around the heavens doing things like murder and incest, just like human beings did. These were the myths, inspired by the gods, dramatized by the poets, and filling the minds of the audiences with the truth of how things and happenings in the world had really come about.
It was a living world in which gods and goddesses were the causes of everything; a world in which human beings were incorrigibly wicked, and the gods and goddesses were too.
The thought comes to me: Weren’t Philosophy and Science a going backwards to some degree in human sophistication, and depth of understanding, and Sensibility to human life, in deserting this world of untrue myth (see previous post)?
To return to Thales: it seems he issued his natural explanations as mere statements without argument. Perhaps he justified them in the old-fashioned way by saying that he had received them from the gods.
Parmenides, slightly later, did provide argument (i.e. logic and reason) as justification for his natural explanations But he also said in the old-fashioned way that these logical explanations had come to him because steeds of the goddess-muse had pulled his chariot of thought along, axles blazing in their sockets (from here).
Anyway, however it arrived in the minds of Thales and Parmenides, this was Philosophy. It was new. It was the use of Logic, at least partly, to reach the Truth.
Henri Frankfort wrote a famous book about this transition from Myth to Thought, called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Here is something of what Jurgis Brakas, a modern philosopher, said of it: ” we see ….. how the pre-philosophic mind saw the world….: The world is a living being, or a collection of living beings; one comes to ‘know’ it the way one comes to ‘know’ another person, by living with him and getting a feel for who he is and what he will do …. It is to the lasting glory of the Greeks that they forever liberated the human mind from these shackles.”
That last enthusiastic sentence shows that Brakis really did have a modern mind.
All of the above may be too neat a story of the birth of theoretical Reason but it allows me a misty vision that Logic and Reason were not inherent in Man, but had to be invented. The term ‘the Greek enlightenment’ has been used for the birth of philosophy in the ancient Greek world (from here), just as ‘Enlightenment’ on its own is used for the further leap of Reason in public estimation 2000 years later.
To get back to Parmenides, he also invented Ontology (this site), the first of the divisions of Metaphysics and another major beginning in philosophers’ logicking which took Western intellectuals further from ‘sensibility to the wholeness of human life’.
So what exactly is Ontology? It is talk about Being, about what is, about Being as Being, about what it is to exist or not exist. (You see?)
Parmenides thought that if you can think something, then it is; and conversely that not-being cannot be thought. To put it another way: Thought corresponds to being; and Not-Being cannot be thought. Parmenides also wrote that argument or persuasion is the way of Thought. Parmenides re-words all of this over and over again.
Furthermore he argued that something that is always did so, because it couldn’t arise from something that wasn’t, because the latter couldn’t exist. And he further argued that a thing must either completely be or not be. Presumably he meant it can’t half-be. (You see?)
Apparently (according to this same site) this argument about always existing is an argument from “sufficient reason”: According to Leibniz, in an empty eternity there would be no reason why Being would come into being at one time rather than another. (I don’t understand any of that but include it to show it was still exercising a philosopher’s mind in about 1700 AD, and perhaps still exercising those of modern philosophers.)
So, to summarize Parmenides’ ontology: He worried whether not-being actually is something, and concluded that no, it isn’t. Not-being is not being, and is also unthinkable. And also that if something is, it is impossible for it not to have been, and not to continue to be. Heidegger in the 20th century said something to the effect that Parmenides invented Thought!
To my mind, Parmenides is leading himself up the garden path with the logicking pottiness of words. Words have evolved through the ages for practical purposes by people hunting on the savannahs or dawdling in the market-place between the stalls. Words are rough approximations to their experiences, and logicking with them up, up, up, or down, down, down, into abstractions, is just a case of being misled. But it seems to be the essential part of a philosopher’s mind, to the detriment of Sensibility to human life (see previous post).
I’m all in favour of rationality, realism, logic. . But this stuff of philosophers isn’t rational.
put this in somewhere,also in Philosophy2: As I remember and as I have put into another post, many thinkers since Ancient Greece saw the role of literature as merely to put across in lively form the great truths of Philosophy or of Religion Dilthey in the 1880s reached deeper in saying that, while science deals in causes, the humanities provide understanding of what motivates individual human selves. Leavis’s views on ‘sensibility to human life’ take one closer to understanding what is wrong with Philosophy.