A Reader Submission
The Ancient Greek Concept of Non Being
The Eleatic School and the Atomists.
by Michael Bakaoukas M.Sc., Ph.D. University of Piraeus, Greece
The ancient Greek philosophers - The Eleatic School and the Atomists
|An Atomist's Black Hole?
The Atomists and members of the Eleatic School argued about whether "that which is not" is really a void.
Ancient Greek philosophers exhibit an interest in non-being. Parmenides from Elea (5th c B.C) insisted that what-is-not cannot be and thus cannot be investigated (Denyer, 24-26). He maintained that attempts to show that something is not would fail (Diels-Kranz, fr. 28B6.9; 2.7-8). His disciple, Melissus, asserted that what-is-not is nothing but empty or void. The Atomists reduced not-being to void. Calling void "not-being" is clearly provocative, as Parmenides had banned what-is-not and Melissus had used the notion of void. The Atomists, Leukippus and Democritus did not agree with the Eleatic claim that void does not exist. The philosophical debate of the Eleatics and the Atomists over (the existence of) non-being is verified by Aristotle's De Generatione (324b32-325a12; 325a23-32) according to which the Eleatics and the Atomists had, if not contradictory, at least opposite arguments about being and non-being (Furley, 1993; Curd, 1998, 181-2; Pyle, 1997, 41-52).
According to Mourelatos (1970, 88), the eleatic problem of not-being has nothing to do with meaningfulness of references to nonexistent entities (chimeras, pegasus, hippogriffs). On Furley's account, "what is not - the void is still only the negation of whatever properties belong to what is" (Furley, 1987, 122). That is, void is not non-existent; but while it exists, it has no positive properties and can be known only indirectly, by negating the properties of what-is. According to Curd, there are difficulties in Furley's further account of void. In claiming that void is to be characterized completely negatively -- as "the negation of whatever properties belong to what is," Furley saddles the Atomists with exactly what he says they want to avoid: the claim that what-is-not is neither knowable nor sayable. For if void is just the negation of everything that is, then we are immediately faced with the problem of how to know what is nothing at all. If no properties or nature can be attributed to void, it is difficult to grasp what it is about void that makes it knowable and sayable. Because it lacks a nature, it just is unknowable and unsayable (Curd, 1998, 194). On the contrary, Sedley's account of void treats it as a material element in the Atomist system (Sedley, 1982, 175-179; Curd, 1998, 203-4).
Being thought about doesn't mean that something actually exists.
In the 5th century B.C. Gorgias claims that "non-being exists." He seems to say that my claim to non-being is as good as anyone's because non-being may be thought about (phroneisthai
). But, as Gorgias says, being thought about is no criterion of being. Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Malhetnaticos
7.80, mentions the chimera in a paraphrase of Gorgias' On the Non-Being. He also mentions the Scylla and "chariots running over the sea." The flying chariots occur in our other source for that work, viz. Ps.-Aristotle's De Melisso
, Xenophane, Gorgia
[979a-980b in Bekker's edition of Aristotle; Cassin (1980), 610-643, at p. 641 = Bekker 980a
]. According to Newiger (1973: 144 ff)
, the only genuine Gorgianic examples of "unrealities that can be thought" are 'the chariots running over the sea.' 'Scylla,' 'Chimaera' and 'the flying man' are sceptical examples of Sextus who misunderstood the MXG Gorgianic text and treated it in a sceptical way. Nevertheless, as Guthrie points out (1975: 706)
, we should not take this assumption for granted.
Only through knowledge can we think about that which is.
In the 4th. century B.C. philosophers, thanks to Plato and Parmenides, throw all non-being into the waste-bin with the remark that "it shall never be established that things which are not, are" (Diels-Kranz, Parmenides fr. 7)
. In the Republic
478b5 Plato says that when one has a belief, one thinks things, but different things from those that one thinks when one has knowledge. What one thinks when one has knowledge is "what is." That is to say, the things which one thinks when one has belief fall under the heading "what is not." In his argument that "all judgements are true" and in the relevant argument "from knowing and not-knowing", Plato says that "judging a falsehood is the same as touching a unicorn; for judging what is false means judging what is not, which is not judging at all" (Theaetetus
187d1, 187d-189b) [Denyer, 52-53, 110].
People can have opinions about non-being, but that doesn't mean that there is any such thing as non-being.
Aristotle once stated as a simple matter of fact that people do say "the non-being is non-being" (Metaphysics 4. 2 1003b10)
. But contrary to Gorgias, he would not accept an unqualified 'the non-being is.' Thus he said that it does not follow that the non-being is because it is an-object-of-belief (doksaston = 'opinable'), "for it is not the same to be something and to be simpliciter though the similarity of expression makes it seem so" (Sophistici Elenchi 5 167a1-6)
. He also explained that "there is belief about the non-being not because it is but because it is not" [De Interpretatione 11 21a32-33]
. Whichever interpretation is correct, he wanted to say that the very point of saying 'the non-being is opinable' is to make it clear that one will never say 'the non-being is'. The fact that "the non-being is opinable" does not imply that "the non-being is" (De Interpretatione 11 21a25 sqq)
. Other remarks of Aristotle's include, "Not-man is not a name [.] Let us call it an infinite name since it holds indifferently of anything, whether being or non-being" (De Interpretatione 2 16a30-33 and 3 16bl2-15)
. Also, he said that "of that which is not, no one knows what it is, only what the account or the name signifies when I say 'goat-stag,' but it is impossible to know what a goat-stag is" [Analytica Posteriora 2.7 92b5-8] (Ebbesen, 1986)
Lucretius believed that atoms cannot combine so freely as to create creatures of mixed species.
The Epicurean Lucretius gives chimeras a physical existence, thinking that the atomic pictures thrown off by the animals of which chimeras are composed may get mixed up so as to produce monstrous pictures which men may perceive. But he will not give us physical existence as sources of those pictures. The freedom of atoms to combine is not so great, he holds, that beings consisting of parts belonging to different natural species can arise [Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.700-717, 4.722-748, 5.878-924
]. In case non-beings do not have a physical or perceptual origin, they may have a conceptual existence. That is they are concepts which are formed either directly on the basis of things met with in nature, or through creative work (Ebbesen, 1981a, 1: 191 and 1986)
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