Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Are Thinking and Being Identical?

Arendt renders the third fragment of Parmenides (τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι) as "To be and to think are the same" (Life of the Mind p. 136). The Burnett translation gives us "For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be." The Elpenor translation is "The same is thinking and being." Professor Cherubin at George Mason offers "for the same thing is to conceive (be aware) [of] and to be." Although it would be presumptious to say exactly what Parmenides was getting at in this fragment of a line, the equation of being (estin) with thinking (noein) nevertheless invites meditation on the nature of thinking and being.

If thinking is dimly understood, a vague concept at best encompassing a great variety of conscious experiences, the concept of being is downright mysterious. What does it mean finally to say that something is a being or has being? Is a rock a being? Can I deny the being of a rock without denying the reality of a rock? The rock may appear to me as a mere transitional form, something between a boulder and a grain of sand. It is part of a rock cycle. When it doesn't appear to me as a pragma, something that might be useful to some purpose, then I wonder what significance to attach to its present form. I imagine its beginning and its end. I imagine its intimacy with water. In this aspect, I can see the reality of the rock as schematic or ideal. Is being required for the rock to hold this place in reality? Perhaps, but in this case its being would be mediated by consciousness. I wouldn't need to accept the being of the rock outside the realm of the phenomenal in order to acknowledge its reality as a rock.

What about a house plant? A philodendron? Like a rock, the philodendron exists within the earth's great cycles. It photosynthesizes, transpires, consumes nitrogen and so on. Yet the philodendron appears to me more than the rock as being rather uniquely its own thing. The shape of its leaves has adaptive significance, I assume, but I also know that other shapes would also be adaptive, and yet the philodendron produces only philodendron leaves. It seems to be a more refined creature of its history than the rock is. Could that be an illusion due to the vast differences in time scales between the rock cycle and the more superficial cycles the plant is sensitive to? Could it be an effect of syntropy? Why do I want to ascribe some sort of ontic quality to the plant that I am willing to let slide in the case of the rock? Is it because I love the philodendron? Does this cloud my judgement? Do I project an awareness of my own thinking as a living entity onto other objects that also live? I'm not sure that's the case. I may have an awareness of other lives that is not merely a projection of my own awareness of being alive. That would be most evident in the matter of relations with other people, but it may be a way of relating to plants too.

On the flip side, there is the materialist view that would deny the isness of thinking. I don't have any rebuttal against that view, except to say that I'm certain that anybody who can think thoughts don't exist surely does exist. A nuanced materialist critique that would differentiate between the isness of material objects and the (presumably diminished) isness of thinking would strike me as both reasonable and not altogether satisfying.

In sum, although the Burnett translation of Parmenides' third fragment is the odd man out, it appears to have some truth in it, although I'm not convinced it holds up when we examine other lives. By the same token, I'm much more willing to ascribe to being to nonsentient living organisms than I should be if thinking and being were truly identical.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:35 AM.


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