My translation of Plato’s Parmenides two years ago was a failure. It has thus joined the ranks of every other translation of this dialogue that has preceded it. Initial self-doubts had been focused on passage 132c6-7 which reads:
Εἶτα οὐκ εἶδος ἔσται τοῦτο τὸ νοούμενον ἓν εἶναι, ἀεὶ ὂν τὸ αὐτὸ ἐπὶ πᾶσιν;
This I translated at the time into:
Thus, wouldn’t eidos be this very object that is thought to be one, always the same over all?
Note that the passage contains the six most crucial words that have borne the full weight of Western civilization’s meaning-discovering function over the millennia: εἶδος (eidos), ἓν (one), ὂν (being), τὸ αὐτὸ (same) and the verbs νοεῖν/(νοούμενον) (to think) and εἶναι/(ἔσται) (to be).
Plato in this dialogue portrays Parmenides as proposing to Socrates the above-cited passage as a conclusion to an argument showing that eidos cannot be a thought (noema, νόημα), contrary to what Socrates had suggested earlier. Socrates agrees: eidos cannot be a thought. This is the same Parmenides that was famous, as Plato well knew, for having said “τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι” usually translated as “to think and to be is the same”.
Obviously, translating the Greek verb νοεῖν into the English “to think” – as every translator of this dialogue has done – needs to be looked into more closely. What νοεῖν means in Greek moves further and further away from the meaning of the English “to think” the closer one examines its use in the surviving archaic and classical Greek texts from Homer to Plato.
The verb νοεῖν denotes the action of an entity called νόος (νοῦς), a very ancient Greek word of unknown etymology whose existence is first attested almost a thousand years before Homer in Linear B tablets as part of the proper name of male persons (Ἰφί-νοος, Αἰγί-νοος). This νόος is usually translated as Mind or Intellect on the untested presumption that the ancient Greeks meant by νόος the same thing that we moderns (and post-Moderns) call Mind or Intellect or Consciousness or Reason or Vernunft.
The set of problems that arise from this modern presumption of the meaning of the ancient Greek νοῦς multiply further once we begin to consider the profound disagreements over Mind and Consciousness engulfing modern cognitive science and its predecessor philosophical epistemologies.
At any rate, the verb νοεῖν expresses the action of νοῦς; νοεῖν is what this controversial νοῦς does.Continue reading