My Attempt to Take Up Parmenides’ Gauntlet

Collyn Dixon
8 min readJan 12, 2022

Conceptualizing Nothing. An attempt I took my junior year of undergraduate studies. I certainly had a huge passion to write over this subject when I came across it. I argued for “nothing” against the ancient Greek philosopher Paramenides.

Source: Reeve, C. D. C. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, 2nd ed. Indianapolis, Hacket Publishing Company, 2015. pp. 14–17.

That which “is not” must not “be;” that which “is not” is not. Taking this concept of nothingness, it is best to just dance around the fire and inspect it rather than to jump whole heartedly into the flames and become burned. Nothingness is a concept taken by Parmenides to be not a subject of being in any shape or form. Nothingness cannot “be,” but that is the evidence that is needed to provide that nothingness truly is nothing. Nothingness can be detectable but not defined in the sense that it does exist in some manner because nothingness is imperceptible, non-materialistic, non-metaphysical, non-understandable. Through these negative attribute’s nothingness cannot be seen but rather detected by not having defined characteristics; not seeing anything through the attributes is the purpose of the attributes. The argument of nothingness “being” does not need a specific place in space, in time, or able to be thought about by human logic. Nothingness can only be defined by that which is not.

The Eleatic Monist, Parmenides, writes his poetry as being inducted by a goddess in order to learn the right and true path of truth and the opinion of men. Within his poetry, Parmenides is being shown (arguing) that “what-is” is real and tangible in some sense and that which “is not” (i.e. nothingness) is not tangible or grasped by any consciousness (Parmenides 15). He then claims that it is false that nothingness can be “right” in the sense that it is there, graspable and tangible by the thought of human minds (15–16). It is false because thinking and being are the same thing, which follows that thinking can only be grasped by that “which-is”: the mental and the physical (16). Only that “which-is” can be grasped and that which “is not” is never capable of being grasped because it never is. The result of this argument is that because nothingness cannot “be” there is only “what-is” (16). He is taking away generatives (things that generate from nothing) and perishables (things that perish into nothing) by this argument and only leaving that “which-is” (17). Thusly, that “which-is” implies that it is ungenerated and imperishable leaving only that “which-is” to be the source of everything. That which-is tangible, graspable, and perceivable is all that there is, nothing more or less. There is one thing, that is it.

The argument that Parmenides lies out has a strong conclusion from what follows if nothing is nothing, which leaves a monism that is heavily backed but could be refuted if nothingness can possibly be proven to be true. The goal is to make possible that nothingness is indeed detectable through negative descriptors of things that are not (e.g. what metaphysics are not). By this goal, the idea or possibility of nothingness should be at least conceptualized to the extent that it is not in actuality truly nothing.

Imperceptibility by any of the six senses that a human being has is the first step in providing evidence that nothingness is not a being. Because nothingness cannot be perceived by human persons, it is understood that nothing is there (16). This negative statement is showing, relatively, that human beings do have some area that is not perceptible in which there is imperceptibility. Since nothingness cannot be any-thing, it should only be understood by the human person to be only that which is not. For it to not have anything is keeping true to Parmenides because that which “is not” is not (15). Following, that which “is not” is understood to be, in a broad sense, a claim of the nothing. It is reasonable to begin to narrow down the things that Parmenides is claiming in the broad sense to a more understandable well-defined answer as to what specific things are not. Nothingness, therefore, cannot be perceivable by any of the senses that human beings carry with them. Nothing can be felt, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen. It is non-perceivable to any human person.

When there is no materialistic thing that can be conceived there is, simply put, nothing there. Nothingness having any physical properties would break even the layman’s definition of nothing: Any-thing being within the general vicinity of an item or person. Any-thing (being an item within vicinity) means that something is physically there in some sense. Even if it were not perceptible by the human person or animal, it would still have a place in time and space of some type of physicality. Whatever it may be, it would still be there. If it is there in space and time (materialistically) then it would be existent and compiled into what Parmenides calls the “what-is.” The non-materialistic is absent from the human perception, which is what the lay-man could even understand as acceptable.

Thusly, no metaphysical properties in being ascribed to nothingness in which it could accomplish a purpose, play a role in understanding, or have any part within abstract concepts, including generation and perishability defeats what is not there in nothingness. The distinction of thinking and being (physicality and properties) taking part as to be the same holds weight to it (16). Parmenides’ claim on this makes it to where, in this understanding, understanding and being are inseparable from one another. He states this because that “which-is” will always be. Though thinking of some-thing as “absent” is still adhering to the metaphysics of that property’s absence as being a thing, not the specific thing’s absence (16). Metaphysics cannot play a role in nothingness, for nothing to not be anything means that it cannot have a metaphysical property. It truly “is not” in this sense that it cannot be understood in such a metaphysical sense. Metaphysics must be absent from being a property of nothingness in itself.

Ultimately, it should follow that nothingness cannot be understood in human sensibility by human thought processes. Attempting to understand nothingness “as it is in itself” means that it is an attempt to understand something, as if something is actually there rather than not actually being there. This is where Parmenides makes a mistake in his reasoning in trying to find out that nothingness is not anything. In trying to disclose the outcome that nothingness is not anything, he is still thinking of the something, because that which-is constantly adheres to that which-is (16). In doing so, nothingness is being defined, comprehended, and understood. Nothingness cannot conceptually be defined as nothing because it is being stated as a something. If it is comprehended or understood, metaphysically, there is something there to understand or comprehend. This does not leave much breathing room for Parmenides because if nothing is defined, comprehended, or understood as nothing it is something, and if it is portrayed as not being something then that nothing is a being.

The problem with the detectability of nothingness should mean that something is there that it is to be found, hence refuting the argument to Parmenides claim that which [“is not” is not] fails. If this is true, then Parmenides argument goes much further than the detectability of nothingness. The problem is not defining what nothing is but rather to what it isn’t. Nothing not being defined could possibly be taken as being defined in some manner, whether that manner is realized or not is not the issue. The issue is that it is defined, however, understanding what a thing is not is understanding not the metaphysics of the “item” being spoken of but the understanding of the “notness” described. Nothingness cannot be things that are in some way of having a metaphysic or physic to themselves. It is the attributes of the things that are not presently described which are to never be there in the first place. The idea of describing “notness” of certain things and compiling them together are to be used in the manner like that of a besiegement of a great city. The “notness” of things are used to surround and trap nothing in the sense only to detect.

The problem with not being able to describe nothing is not using the word “it” when the human language uses nouns to identify things consistently. Therefore, nothingness can only be conceptualized by human thoughts and never fully realized. Only the conception of nothingness can somewhat be glimpsed upon why the actuality of nothingness must be beyond the grasp of human intellect. Parmenides describes that the goddess (which is symbolic of an induction of thought) shows him that it is her who is keeping him back from venturing any further in the exploration of nothing (16). It is like going to the zoo and looking through the glass at the monkey’s; they can never be touched or played with, only seen. Only, this idea of nothingness is a dare to walk up to the boundary of human logic to only not see anything staring back at them. The ability to know if there is anything beyond human logic is not; it would need to be revealed that nothing, defined as it, is not really there. No human being can conceptually prove that, to a human’s standard then it objectively is not.

Nothingness can only be detectable to the human mind by negatively and specifically pointing out what some things are not, to then help with the understanding that nothingness can only be conceptualized. Parmenides argument is gruesomely difficult to comprehend and even greater of a challenge to even touch the gauntlet that he has thrown down. All in all, nothingness could possibly be a conceptual thought that could never be realized by the human person, or that which “is not” never could be that “which-is” (15). The biggest risk to make nothingness a possibility is to never write anything down at all and never know the specifics or thoughts about anything that this paper has offered.



Collyn Dixon

Student at New Orleans Theological Seminary. Philosophy, Theology, Christianity, and Phenomenology.