GK 390 • Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Melissus
7:00 PM-10:00 PM
After a rapid survey, during the first two weeks of the seminar, of the whole of pre-Socratic philosophy, we shall concentrate on just three figures: Xenophanes (6th century BCE), Parmenides (early to middle fifth-century), and Melissus (mid-fifth century). Along with Zeno of Elea, these philosophers are often grouped as the "Eleatics" even though the association with Elea, in southern Italy, is secure only in the case of Parmenides and Zeno. We shall study in detail both the preserved fragments of their writings and the reports of their philosophy (testimonia) in ancient sources. Going slightly against the historical sequence, we shall first take up Parmenides, whose famous deduction of the defining properties of "being" or "the real" was enormously influential on his successors, including Plato and Aristotle, and even beyond. The republication this year, in a revised and expanded edition, of The Route of Parmenides (see below for particulars) and the resurgence of interest that is evinced by recent published studies and conferences devoted, in whole or part, to this founder and pioneer of ontology will provide the framework and the context for our discussions. Our next topic, Xenophanes of Colophon, has wrongly, in the instructor's judgment been assimilated to Parmenides both in the ancient tradition and in modern accounts. He has, accordingly, been viewed as the "founder" of the Eleatic School. Historically more plausible, and philosophically more interesting, is to interpret him as representing the culmination of Ionian physiologia, "natural philosophy," and as a worthy exponent of the "Greek Enlightenment" inasmuch as the scope of his work spans cosmology, theology, culture-critique, and epistemology. There are, nonetheless, important logical-conceptual affinities between the thought of Xenophanes and that of other "Eleatics" that we shall seek to identify and to explore. Melissus of Samos, who offers the most abstract version of an ontology akin to that of Parmenides, is often bypassed in histories of philosophy, or treated merely as an imitator of Parmenides. We will seek to identify both affinities with and differences from Parmenides, and also to articulate the logic of Melissus' extraordinary explicit thesis, that there is only a single really existing entity: an all-encompassing and infinite "One." Against the background of our analysis of Xenophanes and Parmenides, we shall seek to elicit the true and hidden unity of the "Eleatic" grouping. A significant part of the course will involve use of the manuscript materials of the Gregory Vlastos Archive at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (Vlastos' study notes, his lecture notes for classes on the pre-Socratics, manuscripts of his Oxford lectures, annotated articles and books, correspondence). In seminar sessions, Greek sources will be discussed in translation. For students taking the class under the PHL381 number, knowledge of Greek will not be presupposed. For students taking the class under the GK390 number, there will be special reading assignments and "satellite" sessions for translation and philological analysis (with compensatory modifications in requirements). Special note for non-philosophy graduate students: Given that the seminar thematically starts at the beginnings of the Western philosophical tradition, it can serve as a high-level introduction to the whole of the history of philosophy.
Evaluation of students: on the basis of term paper, seminar reports, special projects, contributions to discussion, and attendance. Details and relative weights will be furnished in the course syllabus.
BOOKS REQUIRED: Richard D. McKirahan, Jr. Philosophy Before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary (Hackett). For GK 390 students: course packet of the relevant ancient texts. BOOKS RECOMMENDED A. P. D. Mourelatos, The Route of Parmenides: Revised and Expanded Edition (Parmenides Publishing, 2008). A. A. Long, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge University Press).