ElAnt v2n2 - REVIEWS - Parmenides, Plato and the Semantics of Non-Being and N. Denyer,Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy

Volume 2, Number 2
August 1994

Pelletier, Francis Jeffry, Parmenides, Plato and the Semantics of Non-Being , Chicago, U.C.P., 1990.

Denyer, Nicholas, Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy , New York, Routledge, 1991.

Review by:
Scott Rubarth, 
Dept. of Philosophy, 
University of Toronto,
e-mail: c/o inwood@epas.utoronto.ca

In 1990 Francis Jeffry Pelletier published Parmenides, Plato and the Semantics of Non-Being . The following year Nicholas Denyer published his book Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy . Both works deal with roughly the same philosophical problem and texts, yet it is difficult to imagine two works more different in form, content, methodology and conclusions. The fact that both of these works were produced independently of each other and more or less simultaneously invites a comparative analysis.

Before examining these two treatments it is necessary to clarify the nature of the problem with which both works deal. At first, it appears that Denyer and Pelletier disagree as to what is the problem which Plato attempts to solve in the Sophist . Denyer calls it 'the problem of falsehood' whereas Pelletier identifies it as 'the problem of negation'. Both Denyer and Pelletier acknowledge that these two problems are not identical and declare that Plato's solution to the problem of falsehood is dependent upon first resolving how it is possible to make meaningful, negative statements. Once negation is granted, additional steps are required to solve the problem of falsehood (Denyer, p. 146). That Pelletier identifies the problem of the Sophist as the problem of negation is likely due to the fact that in his treatment of the problem negation does most of the work. Denyer, on the other hand, is looking at the broader issue and is relating it to a series of similar arguments and challenges to falsehood outside of Plato. Nevertheless, both see that the solution and key to unraveling the Sophist lies in understanding what Plato means by 'the interweaving of the forms with one another'.

What is problematic about negation and falsehood? The problem of negation may be formulated in many ways. Two cases are of particular interest: the problem of negative existential statements and the problem of negated predicative statements. The former asks how is it possible for a statement such as 'Santa Claus does not exist' to be meaningful? If Santa in fact does not exist, then we are talking about nothing. But 'Santa' is meaningful reference, otherwise we would be able to replace 'Santa' with a meaningless combination of letters such as 'xweysr' and not change the meaning of the statement. One might reply that by 'Santa' we mean simply a fictional concept or idea. This does not solve the problem; I am not claiming that the notion of Santa does not exist when I make the statement. I mean exactly what I say: Santa himself does not exist.

Negated predicative statements face a similar problem. Consider the statement 'Socrates is not handsome'. This statement appears to be saying that Socrates' handsomeness does not exist. If so, we are back to the problem of negative existentials: if Socrates' handsomeness does not exist, how is it we are talking about it?

On the other hand, the problem of falsehood addresses statements (often affirmative) that 'are not the case'. Consider the statement 'Socrates is handsome'. Assuming this statement is false, when I make the statement, I must be talking about something, namely the subject matter of the statement, that is, the state of affairs of Socrates being handsome. Therefore the subject matter 'Socrates' handsomeness' must exist, otherwise I would be saying nothing. If the subject matter exists, it must be true. Therefore, every utterance is true since it names its subject matter.

The relation between these two problems should be evident. If we can resolve how it is possible to speak of negated or non-existent referents, then problem of falsehood should become manageable. With this in mind, let us turn to Pelletier's and Denyer's treatment of the problems.

Pelletier begins by looking at the question why the problem of negation in the Sophist should be of interest to both the modern philosopher and the historian of philosophy. He argues that an understanding of Plato's treatment of this problem can shed light on current discussions in semantics and cognitive science. The solution to the problem of negation lies in the correct understanding of how forms mix and how it is possible to have meaningful, negative statements without postulating negative facts. Though few moderns would accept Plato's forms as a basis for the solution, Pelletier argues that Plato's semantic realism is 'isomorphic to semantic representationalism' (p. XV). In other words, Plato's solution is translatable into a concept-based semantics. Plato avoids the problem of negative existentials which have troubled both modern and ancient philosophers by constructing a 'philosopher's language' that describes the negative statement as a positive fact.

Chapter 1 drives the rest of the book. Here Pelletier establishes his methodology and sets down interpretative criteria that will be used in the subsequent chapters. Three general approaches to the treatment of ancient philosophy are distinguished. The first is the 'literal approach' which is controlled by the question: 'What did the object of our study actually say?' The second is the 'historical approach' which is governed by the question: 'What was the orthodoxy of the time and in what ways did the object of our study challenge it?' And finally the 'eternal-questions approach', (which Pelletier considers to be 'almost the orthodox approach to ancient philosophy') asks: 'To what modern questions could the object of our study be reasonably taken to be addressing himself?' Pelletier rejects the historical approach because it requires an understanding of previous thinkers and philosophical context which are equally or more uncertain than the object of the investigation. He also rejects the eternal-questions approach because there is no way to confirm that the problems which we assign to the ancients are in fact the problems which they recognized. Therefore the literal approach appears to be the victor. However the literal approach also has problems.

Pelletier undermines the literal approach by invoking an 'indeterminacy position'. He reminds the reader of the questionable reliability of the textual tradition and the fact that 'there have been no native speakers of classical Greek for over two millennia, and linguists have for years warned us that even gross linguistic judgments are often made incorrectly by non-native speakers, however fluent they may be' (p. 3). Consequently, he is skeptical of claims that assert that the Greek will not permit such- and-such interpretation or that such-and-such is the normal reading in the Greek. The indeterminacy position allows him to give methodological priority to philosophical plausibility over a literal reading of the text. He however relaxes this indeterminacy position when it suits his agenda. In chapter 4 when Pelletier needs to justify a counter-example to his position, he argues that a genitive form is 'really' a dative and supports this claim by a 'well-known tendency of the Greek' (p.114).

The indeterminacy position also allows him to focus the investigation on the philosopher's meaning instead of the actual content. He states, 'what a philosopher said is only an indirect guide to what he meant. And clearly this is what is of interest in the history of philosophy' (p. 3). Pelletier seems to believe that his methodology, which is a modified literal approach, can get to the ancient philosopher's intended meaning, even if we can not be certain what was said or clearly grasp the normative use of the Greek language. Pelletier sets down nine guidelines, which he calls the principle of 'generosity of interpretation' and uses these to govern the subsequent investigation. In general the criterion is based on the assumption that among competing interpretations preference should be given to the interpretation which constitutes the most interesting, plausible, relevant and logically valid argument.

Pelletier argues that Plato never articulates the precise problem of the Sophist 237-264, though in several places the problem is identified as Parmenidean. The second chapter is devoted to isolating the exact problem by analyzing the declared solution. In the Sophist 259e5-6, the Eleatic Stranger states: 'Any discourse we can have owes its existence to the interweaving of forms with one another'. Pelletier infers from this and other texts that the central problem of the Sophist is the Parmenidean challenge that discourse is not possible. Pelletier takes for granted that the Parmenidean position in the Sophist is identical to or at least consistent with 'standard interpretation' of the historical Parmenides as exemplified in Mourelatos ( 1 ) and Furth ( 2 ). Nevertheless, Pelletier decides not to examine the Parmenidean fragments external to the Sophist because they 'themselves are very opaque, indeed perhaps more so than the Sophist , and have been given a number of interpretations' (p.10). Parmenides' problem is pinned down as the ontological problem of predicating non-being.

Pelletier describes the problem in the following fashion: Imagine someone trying to compose a list of things which do not exist. When something is put down as non-existing, Parmenides challenges the entry saying that the word must either refer to something and so exist or refer to nothing. If it refers to nothing it is meaningless; if it refers to something it must exist. There is no third ontological category for Parmenides. Continued application of this principle will result in the conclusion that all statements mean the same thing; for if two statements have different meanings we will be forced to say that the predicate of one does not also exist in the case of the other, which is impossible. Pelletier reduces Parmenides' problem to the following argument:

1.For any declarative sentence, either it is true or its negation is true, but not both.

2a.The meaning of a sentence is the fact to which it refers

2b.The meaning of a singular term (or a predicate) is the object(s) to which it refers.

3. Whatever ('really') is, can meaningfully be stated by true sentences.

4. There are no negative facts.

5. (Therefore) all true, meaningful sentences mean the same thing.

The final three chapters examine Plato's solution to Parmenides' problem of not-being. Chapter three explains why Parmenides' problem becomes Plato's problem. Pelletier begins by making a distinction between the problem of negation and the problem of falsity. He then undertakes a cursory examination of four texts ( Republic 478b-c, Euthydemus 283e-84d, Cratylus 429d- 30a, Theaetetus 188d-89b) relevant to the problem of falsehood and denies that the 'doctrines, "solutions," and general strategies or motivations behind these arguments' are the same as those in the Sophist (p. 23). Denyer, we shall see, uses these same texts to show that the problem of falsehood is an ongoing problem for Plato; one which Plato does not (is unable to?) solve until the Sophist .

Pelletier's treatment of the Republic passage is careless. He incorrectly claims that Plato makes a twofold distinction between knowledge and its object 'what is' and belief and it's object 'what is not'. This of course is not Plato's distinction. Plato clearly argues that 'what is not' is the object of ignorance and that the object of belief is an intermediate between 'what is' and 'what is not' (478C).

Next, Pelletier briefly examines five arguments in the Sophist and identifies the solution to Parmenides' problem as the construction of a philosopher's language which 'wears it ontological commitments on its sleeve' and which allows no purely negative statements.

Chapter 4 is in many ways the most valuable part of the book. It consists of a survey and evaluation of nearly all the prominent English interpretations on the subject from 1935 (Cornford) to 1986 (Brown). The chapter is therefore of substantial value to a scholar interested in jumping into the 'current debate'. Pelletier divides the various modern treatments of the problem into 'the non-starters', 'correspondence theorists', 'backdrop theorists', and 'mixed theorists'. The non-starter theories are not examined because they do not acknowledge the problem in the Sophist to be a response to Parmenides (or at least to Pelletier's understanding of Parmenides' problem). The correspondence theorists claim that for every sentence of natural language there corresponds a sentence in the philosopher's language that clearly manifests its ontological commitments. Pelletier identifies thirteen types of correspondence interpretations and analyzes each. This position however does not fully account for the strong sense of 'interweaving of forms', therefore an alternative is proposed by the backdrop theorists. This latter view argues that the interweaving of forms is the basis for language without admitting that language must mirror one-to-one the behind the scene ontology. Likewise backdrop theory alone does not adequately answer Parmenides' problem. Pelletier concludes that a 'mixed theory', a correspondence theory 'tacked on' to a backdrop theory, best answers the problem and still remains consistent with the text. He finds such a theory in Ackrill's interpretation ( 3 ).

In the final chapter, Pelletier attempts to work out a predication theory able to support his 'mixed theory'. He argues that most previous attempts to explain Plato's use of predication and the mixing metaphors in the Sophist fail either because they do not distinguish between types of predication or because they only differentiate a two-fold distinction of predication. Pelletier distinguishes three kinds of predication entitled 'DK' (direct-kind) predication, 'UNIO' (universally necessary, indirect, object) predication, and 'ENIO' (existentially necessary, indirect, object) predication. He argues that these kinds of predications can be identified not only by context but also by the grammatical case of the object of the predication. Blending or participation language occurs in four kinds of contexts, but Pelletier is primarily concerned with cases in which a form is said to be blended with an object. He examines 47 passages in which he believes the language implies participation or blending of a form and object. Of these he argues that cases of DK predication and UNIO predication have their object in the genitive case, and the ENIO predication takes a dative object. Of these, there are four case in which the object of the predication is dual, and thus he is unable to distinguish the genitive form from the dative, and there are two counter-examples. His explanations of the counter-examples are not convincing.

Pelletier's does not argue for a single, correct interpretation of the Sophist . He does however propose that any plausible interpretation of the Sophist must adequately answer Parmenides' problem through the interweaving forms and remain consistent (not incompatible) with a possible reading of the text. This sort of interpretation will be a mixed theory in which Plato constructs a philosopher's language which corresponds and reveals its ontological commitments (the interweaving of forms). This language is constructed out of form-terms, blending metaphors, and grammatically distinguished predications.


Nicholas Denyer, in his Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy , asks why it is that modern philosophers tend to find truth problematic and falsity incidental, whereas the philosophers of Plato's day tended to focus on the problem of falsehood? Denyer answers his own question by proposing that the problem of falsity has been solved 'once and for all' by Plato in the Sophist and it is now the truth which needs to be explained. If Denyer is correct, Plato offers us a rare opportunity to observe a genuine philosophical problem being solved. In addition, an examination of the problem of falsehood and Plato's response to it will allow us to see the beginnings of the fall of naive semantics.

Denyer's treatment of the problem of falsehood and negation is broader than Pelletier's as the respective titles suggest. Denyer begins his journey in Plato's Euthydemus 283e7-284c6 where we find a paradigmatic version of the problem. The conclusion to Euthydemus' argument is that it is impossible to state a falsehood. To both modern and ancient ears this claim sounds preposterous. However certain sophistic arguments had become popular in Plato's day which seemed to necessitate this conclusion. The argument in the Euthydemus can be summarized thus: When I make a statement, I am stating something, namely the subject matter of the statement. Now the subject matter qua subject matter must exist, otherwise I would be saying nothing. Since the subject matter exists, it must be true. Therefore, every utterance is true since it names its subject matter.

The problem of falsehood has many faces and has been entertained by several thinker of the time. A good part of Denyer's book is an analysis of these different versions and articulations of the problem of falsehood. In addition to examining the problem itself, Denyer also analyzes the assumptions on which the problem rests, particularly the naive theory of language and the ontology of speech which produces the difficulty. The presupposition which is most vital to producing the odd conclusion is that a statement names a fact. Unless Plato can somehow explain how a 'negative fact' can exist, he seems to be committed to accepting Euthydemus' conclusion. In the last half of the book, Denyer outlines Plato's progressive attempts and final, definitive solution to the problem.

After outlining the basic problem, Denyer devotes the third chapter to other versions of the problem found in the fragments and doxographical reports of several of Plato's contemporaries and near contemporaries. One of the enigmas of the book is the lack of attention paid to Parmenides as the father of the problem. Denyer devotes less than two pages to Parmenides' argument that one cannot think or speak of what is not, though there seems to be little doubt that Parmenides' poem and the Eleatic school were the inspiration if not the source of the subsequent problem of falsehood.

After the cursory treatment of Parmenides, Denyer examines the problem of falsehood as it appears in the teachings of Prodicus, Antisthenes, Stilpo and Menedemus. Prodicus challenged the possibility of contradiction. He is reported to have argued that since an utterance asserts something different from its contradictory, we can say that there is no real contradiction. Each utterance has a different subject matter. Antisthenes (according to Aristotle) based a similar argument on the premise that every statement has its own logos, and that each logos names a particular fact. Stilpo and Menedemus are reported to have denied the possibility of meaningful predication. If the subject and the predicate of a statement have different definitions or are naming different facts, how is it ever legitimate to say A is B? Though this is a different problem than that of falsehood, it rests on the same naive assumption about language: that every meaningful statement names a fact (or subject matter).

In chapter 4 we return to Plato and examine his attempt to deal with the problem of falsehood in the Republic . Denyer correctly identifies the threefold distinction between knowledge, belief and ignorance (see Pelletier's mishandling of the text above) and attempts to correlate these with ontological distinctions. If the problem of falsehood rests on an either/or ontology, the subject matter of a statement either exists or it does not exist. If it exists, it is true. If the subject matter does not exist, a statement has not been made since to speak is to speak of something. Plato introduces the concept of degrees of being and degrees of knowledge as an attempt to derail this argument. The object of truth is 'what is'. The object of ignorance is 'what wholly is not'. And the bulk of our thinking is in between, in the realm of belief. Unfortunately, the nature of this mixed state, 'what is and what is not' seems suspect if not contradictory. Plato abandons this approach in subsequent treatments of the problem.

In the Cratylus , the problem of falsehood reappears as the consequent of both sides of the correctness of names debate. Plato offers three attempts to explain falsehood, none of which succeeds. Assumptions that names are true to the degree that they resemble their referent, that names themselves are bearers of truth or falsity, and that a true statement is composed of all true parts, preclude a satisfactory solution to the problem of falsehood.

In the Theaetetus , Plato engages Protagoras' version of the problem of falsehood. Protagoras argues that truth is 'truth for' someone. If you put your hand in a pool and state that the water is warm, and I put my hand in the water and state that it is cold, according to Protagoras' 'man is the measure' doctrine, both statements can be true. It is true for you that the water is warm and true for me that it is cold. Falsity is simply not understanding that the truth of a claim is relative to the belief states of the person making the claim. This is different attack on falsity than we have seen in the previous texts and Denyer believes a more serious attack. Denyer reject the conclusion that the position is easily refuted by self-contradiction. Even if you force Protagoras to admit that you deny the 'man is the measure' thesis, he can still grant that your denial is in fact true . . . for you. 'Man is the measure' happens to be true for him. Denyer examines Plato's refutation of Protagoras' 'Secret Doctrine', but notes that Plato is still unable to give a satisfactory account of what constitutes knowledge and what constitutes a true and false statement.

In chapters 8 and 9 Denyer finally outlines Plato's correct solution to the problem of falsehood and Plato's rejection of naive semantics. The solution rests on the distinction between names, verbs, and statements (logoi) which Plato calls 'interweaving'. However before he can give a positive account of a true and false statement, he must show how a negative statement is possible. This is done through the doctrine of the five greatest kinds. In particular, 'otherness' provides an explanation of negation without having to posit a negative fact. Denyer states, 'When we negate a term by prefixing it with "not" we thereby produce a new term, a term that is other than what the original term was a term for' (p. 137). Therefore there is no need for 'not-being'.

Solving the problem of negation does not automatically solve the problem of falsehood. We must first uproot the idea that a false statement 'names' a non-existent fact. Plato does this by making a distinction between a name (onoma), a verb (rhema), and a statement (logos). A statement alone bears a truth or falsity but does not name or anything. It does not name or express a fact. Only names name. A verb or verbal expression is true of its subject but is not the name of the action of the subject (as demonstrated by the 'Replacement test'). Therefore the correct relationship between names and verbs creates the possibility of meaningful language and falsehood. What then is a falsehood if it is not a negative fact? It is a statement in which the verbal expression is not true of the subject. In Plato's language, it is a logos in which the name and verb are not correctly interwoven. The criteria for correctness in interweaving appears to be whether the grammatical structure of the statement corresponds to the structure of reality. Denyer concludes the work with a chapter on Aristotle's acceptance of Plato's solution and the origin of Aristotelian epistemological optimism.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept when reading this book is Denyer's strong claim that Plato solved the problem of falsehood 'once and for all' and that 'Plato's solution is definitive' (p. 5). Plato's solution to the problem of falsehood rests on a certain understanding of negation and a correspondence theory of knowledge, neither of which have so far been accepted as 'definitive solutions'. There is no shortage on modern discussions on negation, negative existentials or falsity. Denyer's argument that he can find few books with the word 'falsehood' in the title is weak at best. It is, however, true that Plato has made an immense contribution to our understanding of the problem by helping philosophy rid itself of elements of naive semantics and by helping us understand the importance of the relation of syntax to both truth and falsity claims.

Denyer's book is well argued, coherent, and full of interesting observations; but it leaves many unanswered questions. What kind of theory of forms or 'kinds' is required to support his argument? If a statement does not name or express a fact, what then is the relation between facts and statements? Many of the issues which Pelletier struggles over never get a hearing in Denyer. However in all fairness, Denyer and Pelletier are not writing to the same audience. Denyer's book has something of interest to both the undergraduate and the serious scholar, to the philosopher of language and to the classicist; Pelletier's work would most likely be tedious to anyone except the specialist. Denyer's work is well written but offers few notes and no separate bibliography. Pelletier offers both a useful 'Works Cited' of mostly English sources and an 'Index Locorum' but the work is seriously marred by excessive typographical errors.


(1) Mourelatos, A. 1979. 'Some Alternatives in Interpreting Parmenides', Monist 62:3-14.

(2) Furth, M. 1968. 'Elements of Eleatic Ontology', Journal of the History of Philosophy 6:111-32.

(3) Ackrill, J., 1955. 'Sumploke eidon,' Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London 2:31-35; 1957. 'Plato and the Copula,' Sophist 251-259', Journal of Hellenic Studies 77:1-6.

Scott Rubarth
c/o inwood@epas.utoronto.ca

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 2 - August 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606