The translation problem of Parmenides 132c6-7

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.

Our first encounter with the verb νοεῖν is in Homer’s two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey where, in its various forms, it appears 142 times. These 142 instances have been translated in a bewildering variety of ways.

An English translator has employed 20 different English verbs and 6 different circumlocutions. A German translator used 28 verbs and 7 circumlocutions; French translators 19 verbs and 13 circumlocutions; two Neohellenic translators 22 verbs and 10 circumlocutions. A Latin translator employed 21 verbs and 3 circumlocutions; two Italian translators used 24 verbs and 6 circumlocutions; a Spanish translator used 25 verbs and 11 circumlocutions. The verbal forms of νοεῖν in the relevant Homeric passages and their translations in these seven languages can be found here.

The English-language meanings of the verbs used by these seven languages in the cited translations range from acknowledge, to advise, deliberate, discern, decree, decide, see, feel, mean, intend, perceive, suspect, understand, think, want ,intuit, etc. – some 70 distinct verbal meanings plus 52 different circumlocutions, for a sum total of 122 different non-Greek expressions attempting to translate the single Greek verb νοεῖν. But if Homer wanted to express any of these 122 meanings that translators assign to νοεῖν, he had at his disposal suitable verbs other than νοεῖν to do so. If, for example, Homer meant acknowledge he could have said ἀναγιγνώσκω and not νοεῖν;  if he meant advise or deliberate he could choose νουθετῶ or παρεναίω or  βουλεύω and not νοεῖν; for decide he could choose to say κρίνω; for decree, ἐθέλω; for see, ὀρῶ; for feel, ἀΐω; for mean, σημαίνω; for think he could choose φρονέω, δοκέω or οἴομαι; for intend he could choose μενοινάω. Homer had no shortage of verbs to express the meanings that his modern translators believe they should impute to his text. But Homer chose his singular νοεῖν and not the translators’ proposed alternatives. The list of the different meanings by which the translators of  these seven languages attempted to render the Homeric νοεῖν and the equivalent Greek verbs available to but not used by Homer can be found here.

It is most likely the case, in both pre-literal archaic and in classical Greek after the introduction of writing, that the verb νοεῖν was employed to express the full seamless spectrum of cognitive, deliberative and volitional aspects of the acts by means of which human beings relate to their circumstance, i.e., the actionable meaning-to-them of the objects, events and situations of the world that surrounds them.

Intuiting an object or a situation is never an isolated exsanguinated “cerebral” cognitive event. The intuition is an inseparable aspect of the single act of relating, of establishing a relation with the object or event or situation in question. Two other aspects of this single act of relating are evaluating the object or event or situation (what does it mean to me?) and priming our volition to initiate action with respect to the object or event or situation (what to do or not do about it). Intuition-evaluation-action are the three aspects of the human subject’s single act relating to objects, events and situations of the real world. That single act is νοεῖν, an act of the νοῦς.

Like the three sides of the triangle, they cannot exist, qua sides, apart from the triangle: νοεῖν is the triangle and intuition, evaluation, and willed action are its sides. They come into being by the act of νοεῖν.  This explains the rich polysemy, the multiplicity of meanings of νοεῖν. There are many kinds and degrees of intuitive grasping, many degrees and modes of evaluating, from the most tentative to the most assertive, and many ways of disposing our volition toward action – from repulsion to flight to evasion to caution to tentative engagement to full “erotic” involvement. And there are as many verbs and circumlocutions to express these – at least 70 and 52, respectively, that we counted in our sample, above, of translations from seven languages.

The surviving literary evidence suggests that the audiences of speakers from Homer to Plato understood the verb νοεῖν in all these meanings inclusively – they understood the entire seamless spectrum of meaning, not any particular segment (wavelength band) of the spectrum. This implies an entirely different mode of thinking conveyed by ancient Greek speech that is strange to speakers of modern languages.

In ancient Greek there are very many other such words, different from synonyms but akin though not identical with what modern linguists call polysemes, i.e., words of simultaneously present multiple meanings like νοεῖν which create similar troubles for modern translators. Some familiar ones are:

  • λόγος (logos) ≥ collection, ratio, definition, speech, discourse, etc.;
  • ἀρχή (arche) ≥ origin, beginning, principle, authority, sovereignty, empire, magistracy, etc.;
  • τέλος (telos) ≥ end, achievement, completion, goal, purpose, cessation, accomplishment, consummation, coming to pass, fulfillment, performance, execution of office, tax, etc.;
  • νόμος (nomos) ≥ habit, custom, convention, law, melody statute, ordinance, order etc.;
  • χρῆμα (chrema) ≥ need, needful things, property, money, treasure, things, stuff, matter, things that must be done, business, etc.;
  • στοιχεῖον (stoicheion) ≥ element, component, simple sound, letter, irreducible ultimate component of matter, number, etc.;
  • ξένος (xenos) ≥ guest, friend, visitor, stranger, wanderer, alien, foreigner, unfamiliar, unusual, strange, hireling etc.;
  • and of course, there is οὐσία (ousia) and ὂν (on) – beingthe legendary polyseme of Greek philosophy which, as Aristotle famously observed[i], is a word that is used in many senses, but always in reference to one single thing;
  • finally there is the ἕν (hen, the one) whose perplexing multiplicity of meanings is explored in our dialogue, the Parmenides.

It is in this context of pervasive polysemy of ancient Greek speech, so strange and uncomfortably disturbing to modern practice, that the semantic problem of the verb νοεῖν and its enactor, νοῦς, is best viewed.

During this period (from Homer to Plato) νοῦς was considered to be a faculty, a power, similar to the five bodily senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling – and νοεῖν. Aristotle famously attests that “the ancients” considered νοεῖν to be something corporeal like sensing[ii]. This corporeal understanding of νοεῖν was evident in the usage of the verb from Homer to Theognis[iii] to Anaxagoras[iv] and probably also to Parmenides[v].

Socrates is the first to view νοεῖν as the incorporeal act of an incorporeal faculty, νοῦς, strictly analogous to the corporeal acts of the corporeal five senses. The senses and sensing differ from νοῦς and νοεῖν in the objects they are designed to address: the objects of senses are corporeal sensible things, visions, sounds, smells, tastes and textures; the objects of νοῦς are incorporeal mental things. Otherwise, both νοῦς and bodily senses operate identically by intuiting/evaluating/action-disposing their respective objects. 

A simple example of how intuiting-evaluating-acting are the inseparable aspects of a single act can be drawn from the bodily senses: when the olfactory sense intuits a foul odor, the evaluation that it is foul and the flight from it occur seamlessly and simultaneously with the intuition; when it intuits a pleasant scent, the evaluation that it is pleasant and the lusty inhalation of it occur seamlessly and simultaneously with the intuition. The same happens with the other bodily senses: the intuition of the visible, audible, palpable or gustatory object occurs seamlessly and simultaneously with their evaluation and our disposition toward them. This occurs so seamlessly, in fact, that we are often unsure whether our disposition toward them preceded or caused our evaluation or even our intuition of them.

The fact is that we don’t just intuit, we don’t merely see or hear or touch or taste or smell things. We see them or hear them evaluatively, judgmentally, i.e., qua good or bad or indifferent, insofar as they attract us, repel us or leave us indifferent to varying degrees. Evaluation and re-action are inseparable from sensory intuition: intuiting objects of the senses is placing a value on them, i.e., feeling them, with feelings that are e-motions, i.e., springboards for motion, for action.

The action of the Socratic νοῦς, the Socratic νοεῖν retains this judgmental, evaluative and motivating feature that we observe in the action of the bodily sensing. In the Phaedo[vi] for example, Socrates argues that νοῦς is the cause for his acting in pursuit of what is best; and further, in the Philebus[vii] he expands this claim beyond his own personal case and argues that every sentient being (πᾶν τὸ γιγνῶσκον)  is on the prowl (θηρεύει) driven to capture the good and make it its own. In this scheme, the action indicated by the verb νοεῖν is not merely the simple intuiting of a mental object, event or situation by some Kantian Pure Reason: it is intuiting the mental object while evaluating it, assigning values ranging from good to bad, including every intermediate degree of mediocrity, while seamlessly and simultaneously adopting a posture of degrees of attraction, repulsion and in-between indifference suitable to it.

Obviously, translating the verb νοεῖν in the above cited passage of the Parmenides with the English “to think” as every translator has done, including myself, does not convey the intended meaning of the Greek original.

The verbs think, cogito and their cognates in modern languages convey a range of meanings none of which corresponds to νοεῖν. The differences are numerous: the modern verbs tend to carefully segregate perception, judgment and motivation, to view them as distinct and separate acts, and to add to them other mental acts such as imagining, reasoning, calculating, meditating, doubting, etc., assigning to all of them indiscriminately the verb think.

In the Cartesian scheme (and in the more evolved Kantian scheme), which is still the prevalent working model of our (western) languages, every mental event, conception, judgment, reasoning, ordering, doubting, musing, fantasizing, hallucinating etc.,  is a cogitatio, a thought clearly distinct and separate from every other such mental event. The verb “to think” merely means to undergo any one of these mental events. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum was originally formulated by him as dubito ergo sum, given that Descartes views doubt as a distinct variety of thought.  He might as well have argued alicunor ergo sum, “I hallucinate therefore I am”, with the same probative force.

In our modern languages, to think means to conceive or judge or reason or order or doubt or muse or imagine or hallucinate etc., and in grammatical form it can be transitive or intransitive and self-reflexive. For example, per the Oxford English Dictionary, in its transitive form “to think” means to form in the mind, conceive (a thought, etc.); to have in the mind a notion, an idea, etc.; to do in the way of mental action; to meditate on, turn over in the mind, ponder over, consider. In its intransitive form, “to think” means to exercise the mind, esp. the understanding, in any active way; to form connected ideas of any kind; to have or make a train of ideas pass through the mind; to meditate, cogitate.

None of these usages of the verb “to think” is suitable for translating the νοεῖν of our passage. In contrast to these usages of the verb “to think”, νοεῖν means to intuit-and-evaluate-and-dispose as a single indivisible transitive act of relating the subject νοῦς to its corresponding external object, where both subject and object act and are acted upon each other.

Using “to think” for purposes of translating νοεῖν infects the translating effort with a fatal virus. The perennial failure to understand Plato’s Parmenides dialogue and its perpetual relegation to the dubious status of “puzzling”, “controversial”, etc., originates in the use of “to think” and its cognates in Western languages for translating νοεῖν.

Perhaps what is needed is the construction by society of a linguistic practice habituated in and comfortable with the extensive use of polyseme words that prevailed in archaic and classical Greek speech from Homer to Plato. The translator’s problem is not the choice of words with corresponding meanings. It is a problem of attempting to revive a long lost mode of relating with the surrounding world and its objects. Archaic and classical Greek speech patterns indicate a confident belief that man possesses a public faculty – νοῦς – designed to interact with a certain class of external object: the νοητά (noeta=intelligibles), which themselves are by their nature designed to interact with the νοῦς faculty, just as the five public faculties of our bodily senses were designed to interact with certain classes of external objects, i.e., the αἰσθητά (aestheta=sensibles), which themselves by their nature were also designed to interact with the bodily senses.

These faculties are public in the sense that their acts are clearly evident to all, manifested in the external world. Historical developments in our Western civilization over time evolved a view of mind as a private rather than a public faculty, and invested this private mind with an unearned dignity by claiming for it an equal status to the classical Greek νοῦς. But a closer inspection of the speech practices of archaic and classical Greece will show that mind and νοῦς are two very different things. In the same sense, thought and νοεῖν are two very different things also.

The attitude of detached, “objective”, disembodied and exsanguinated “thinking” of the private mind as intellectuals of Cartesian modernity understand it has no equivalence with Socratic νοεῖν or even with pre-Socratic νοεῖν of the public νοῦς of archaic and classical Greek speech. Albeit incorporeal, Socratic νοεῖν is judgmental, emotive, goal-seeking and action-oriented intuiting: whatever noetic object it intuits, it does so by judging it to be “good” or its opposite, in order to embrace it or to shun it. In this respect it retains the character of the pre-Socratic usage of the word, which enables the lyrical poetry of Sappho[viii] to describe her feeling toward her “lovelies” as her “noema”, the work of her νοῦς.

[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics IV 1003a33-34: “τὸ δὲ ὂν λέγεται μὲν πολλαχῶς, ἀλλὰ πρὸς ἓν καὶ μίαν τινὰ φύσιν, καὶ οὐχ ὁμωνύμως, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ …”

[ii] Aristotle, de anima III.427a27: “πάντες γὰρ οὖτοι (οἱ ἀρχαῖοι) τὸ νοεῖν σωματικὸν ὥσπερ τὶ αἰσθαίνεσθαι ὑπολαμβάνουσιν”

[iii] Greek Elegiac Poetry (Loeb Classical Library #258) , Theognis 1163-4: “ὀφθαλμοὶ καὶ γλῶσσα καὶ οὔατα καὶ νόος ἀνδρῶν ἐν μέσσῳ στήθεων ἐν συνετοῖς φύεται”

[iv] Anaxagoras, Fragment DK B12 describes nous as the finest and purest and mightiest of corporeal things, but a corporeal thing nevertheless: “ἔστι γὰρ λεπτότατον τε πάντων χρημάτων καὶ καθαρώτατον καὶ γνώμην γε περὶ παντὸς πᾶσαν ἴσχει καὶ ἰσχύει μέγιστον”

[v] Parmenides, Fragment DK B16: «ὡς γὰρ ἑκάστοτ’ ἔχει κρᾶσιν μελέων πολυπλάγκτων, τὼς νόος ἐνθρώποισι παρίσταται»

[vi] Plato, Phaedo 99a8-b2: “ὡς μέντοι διὰ ταῦτα ποιῶ ἃ ποιῶ, καὶ ταῦτα νῷ πράττων, ἀλλ’ οὐ τῇ τοῦ βελτίστου αἱρέσει, πολλὴ ἂν καὶ μακρὰ ῥᾳθυμία εἴη τοῦ λόγου”

[vii] Plato, Philebus 20d7-10: “τόδε γε μήν, ὡς οἶμαι, περὶ αὐτοῦ ἀναγκαιότατον εἶναι λέγειν, ὡς πᾶν τὸ γιγνῶσκον αὐτὸ [i.e., τὸ ἀγαθόν] θηρεύει καὶ ἐφίεται βουλόμενον ἑλεῖν καὶ περὶ αὑτὸ κτήσασθαι, καὶ τῶν ἄλλων οὐδὲν φροντίζει πλὴν τῶν ἀποτελουμένων ἅμα ἀγαθοῖς”

[viii] Greek Lyric (Loeb Classical Library #142), Sappho 41: “ταὶς κάλαισ’ ὔμμιν <τὸ> νόημμα τὦμον οὐ διάμειπτον”

2 thoughts on “The translation problem of Parmenides 132c6-7

  1. […] [vii] Πλάτων, Φίληβος 20d7-10: “τόδε γε μήν, ὡς οἶμαι, περὶ αὐτοῦ ἀναγκαιότατον εἶναι λέγειν, ὡς πᾶν τὸ γιγνῶσκον αὐτὸ [i.e., τὸ ἀγαθόν] θηρεύει καὶ ἐφίεται βουλόμενον ἑλεῖν καὶ περὶ αὑτὸ κτήσασθαι, καὶ τῶν ἄλλων οὐδὲν φροντίζει πλὴν τῶν ἀποτελουμένων ἅμα ἀγαθοῖς” […]


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