Rejecting traditional cosmological and metaphysical interpretations of Parmenides' Way of Truth, Arnold Hermann offers an original and challenging epistemological reading which locates Parmenides in his historical context, foregrounding the importance of his legislative activity and examining pre-Parmenidean views on the sources of knowledge and the possibility of acquiring it, and arguing that Parmenides developed a method to attain certainty.
Early Pythagorean thought had lacked the defining feature of philosophy: proof by thinking. The earliest Pythagoreans were concerned with the transmigration of the soul, the afterlife, asceticism, supernatural abilities and magic. They asserted their theories in an epistemological vacuum, without any conception of demonstration, verification, evidence, or testing.
The later mathematikoi came closer to philosophy with their interest in mathematical harmonics, geometry, and number theory, but they too failed since their number theory degenerated to numerology and the unit, which they claimed to be a precise basis for arithmetic, geometry, and physical reality, could not provide certain and error-free results. Lacking a reliable, unassailable foundation for their speculations, their speculations remained on the level of conjecture and belief. Xenophanes, moreover, had cast doubt on the possibility of humans achieving certainty, though he asserted that we can attain better and better approximations of the truth.
This philosophical background together with his experience as a legislator impelled Parmenides to develop intellectual methods that bring certainty. His problem was to reconcile the mortal demand for an absolute criterion with the inherent relativity of all human knowledge, and this meant identifying dependable criteria by which reason can test its assumptions. Through the use of such principles as the principle of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle, the principle of sufficient reason, and the principle of like to like, and through such argumentative techniques as indirect proof and infinite regress, Parmenides developed methods of both proof and disproof, that is, methods to establish "what is" and "what is not." Further, by considering nothing as proved unless alternative possibilities are disproved, he demanded that reason be rigorously reliable.
Still, Parmenides did not eliminate the reality of the universe or of change, motion, and plurality. He granted a limited degree of reliability to the world of sense-experience, despite its inability to be rid of error. Our accounts of it must remain at best approximative of the truth -- plausible, yet ultimately untrustworthy. Parmenides' recognition of the incompatibility or incommensurability between the norms demanded by thinking and the universe was his great contribution, which amounts to the invention of philosophy. To Think Like God is a highly ambitious book based on a thorough knowledge of the scholarly bibliography. A companion volume, The Naked Is, will offer a more detailed analysis of Parmenides' poem. Hermann's approach deserves to be taken seriously as an alternative to standard interpretations.
Richard D. McKirahan Jr.,