Idealism and Realism in the early philosophy

A discussion on Parmenides’ arche as One.

It’s known the the origin of the philosophical history dealt with the searching of an ultimate element which could explain the Universe coming up: even if philosophers maybe thought the Universe itself as eternal, it might be something which explicates why Reality is like you notice around you. This fundamental element of Cosmos is called arche. Thus means Universe became from that principle and it is because of philosophers’ reference to the arche that we can argue the philosophy, at its origin, was already characterized by some scientific attitude. With the introduction of the arche in the history of thought, they passed from Myth to logos,  a concept dealing with a rationalist principle, a discursive attitude of speculation: we don’t trust the verity of mythology, because we want to be scientists, who proceed thorough a rigorous method to explicate the Nature. And Nature, the physis, can be sought as something which doesn’t change and remains equal to itself.  In spite of becoming of things, in spite of change, physis doesn’t modify its characteristics, and so philosophers should ask themeselves why that happens.

The permanency of physis in the movement of all things you perceive by sensation leads to the idea of a covert principle which investigation must uncover. Investigation is something rationalist, a scientific approach to comprehension of Reality, which can be processed by words, by discourse, not by legends and myth. The arche is what lingers while everything moves and changes. In that sense, the arche is an abstract, not a concrete element, because the Reason determines its centrality in justifying the world. Words permit to spread out the world: this is a revolutionary path in the mankind’s history. Reason gets get results more impressive and thus real than the simple evidence of perception.

You might notice that physis is something natural and materialistic, so it appears a contradictory arguing the principle of reality is abstract, ideal, idealistic. You are right, indeed. Abstraction is a gradual process, which has some obstacles in the incipient philosophy. For instance, some persistence of animism in Thales‘ thought is a proof of a linger-on of an ancient and irrationalist way of conceive natural phenomena, and thus gives the idea of the survival of ancestral approaches: Thales’ arche being water, the concreteness of the rational principle is manifest. But the effort to get an explication out of perception and the materialism is what fundamental in the right direction of science development.

Rafael's School of Athens

In a certain way, it’s strange to witness some urgency in Copleston’s essay on philosophy (Capleston, 1993), in remarking, in reference to Parmenides, a specific relation between Idealism and Materialism: of course, we agree with the statement saying that if change and movement are phenomena which appear to the senses, Parmenides is rejecting the way of sense-appearance. But Copleston noted that “in Parmenides’ eyes the One is sensual and not material”, so it’s not real probable the ancient philosopher believed in an object materialism. It is, indeed, in the Platonic philosophy that the distinction between Reason and Sense, Truth and Apperance (Copleston, 1993: 48 – 49) became of such importance that it turned into the main tenet of  Idealism.

My opinion is that a nut of Idealism is actual when philosophy starts its investigation, that means when thinkers first tried to explain world through the word: this explication is the real aim of philosophy! Idealism and Realism can both exist, at the same time, and a position can drawn in the other!

In Parmenides there is one principle which can have the same position of arche in Ionian philosophy: the One. One is what exists, the Real at all: it exist, it is. Nothing can derive from nothing and what exists can’t transform into nothing: nothing doesn’t exists, nothing deals with void, with a zero-dimension. If we think better, we can conclude that zero, from a mathematic viewpoint, is not a real number: it’s, indeed, the number who negates all numbers. If something is equal to zero, it disappears, it goes towards death, it dies. On the other hand, if you add zero to every number, the results doesn’t change, but if you multiply it to zero, you obtain zero! If you compare and mix life and death, real and unreal, Truth and Appearance, you’ll get the Finish of Reality.

Thus implies a great consequence: we must negate every strong materialism in Parmenides and probably in quite lots of the early philosophers. Animism is connected, of course, to some heritage of materialistic viewpoint, which lingers on, and really you meet lot of materialistic positions in the History of philosophy. Maybe, the only statement we can pronounce is that, in the incipient times of thought, we don’t find out neither a real materialistic conception nor an idealistic one. If materialism and idealism, indeed, co-exists in the same thinkers, these positions aren’t strong-founded as we aspect.

Copleston stated that Parmenides asserted a Monastic Materialism, “in which change and movement are dismissed as illusory. Only Reason can apprehend Reality, but the Reality which Reason apprehends is material”. This arguments wants to demonstrate that the One, the Being is coincident to Nature, to physis, even now we face with the problem about the deep essence of physis itself.


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