Generic Science, 4

Leucippus, Democritus, Diogenes, Gorgias

2021-06-10

As in the previous entry on generic science, this fourth and final piece in the series will engage with a set of post-Parmenidean thinkers in a direct and radical way, taking its que from the generic program articulated by Heraclitus. This essay will consider Leucippus of Abdera, Democritus of Abdera, Diogenes of Apollonia, and Gorgias of Leontini.

Before doing so, a brief aside. I have been influenced, for some time, by Terence Blake’s use of the “metaphysical research programme” (drawing from Karl Popper) as an organizing framework for addressing the work of different philosophers. Furthermore, I have been influenced by Blake’s interest in pluralist metaphysical research programs, which we can “describe, analyse, and evaluate” according to a “loose partially overlapping set of criteria” (drawing from Paul Feyerabend): openness, pluralism, testability, realism, diachronicity, apophaticism, and democracy.1 This is a potent generic set of criteria for philosophical research and development, which helps us to adopt the standpoint Alexander Galloway describes (drawing from François Laruelle). Galloway writes:

For Laruelle, philosophy means roughly “the thing that is transcendental vis-à-vis the real.” Taken in this sense philosophy is always representational, reflective, or mediated. Philosophy reveals the conditions of possibility of things (but not those things themselves). By contrast, generic science means roughly “the thing that is immanent vis-à- vis the real.” Science is always direct or radical, not reflective or mediated. Science reveals things immediately, unilaterally, and unconditionally. Thus when Laruelle refers to non-philosophy as a science of philosophy he means simply that it focuses on philosophy’s radical or irreflective immanence, not its penchant for the transcendental.2

If we imbricate Galloway’s conception of a “generic science” with Blake’s set of criteria for the analysis of metaphysical research programs, it becomes clear how we can continue to persist in direct and radical analysis without falling into the naivety of some supposed common sense.3 Open and democratic, pluralist and realist, diachronic and apophatic, and above all, testable—this is the sort of framework for science that I have been probing throughout this series.

This framework is what allows us to read Parmenides’s poem as making statements about the real, which consequently allows us to test the veracity of his claims, to evaluate the metaphysical research program that is his fortress of being, and to weigh it against other such programs, encountering fruitful conjunctions and disjunctions of thought therein. As such, we can do away with the mystical masters handing down knowledge from on high, and instead step into the mud together with our teachers. It is for this reason that Heraclitus directs his followers to “listen” to the principle of being, to the logos, themselves, and not to listen only to him.4 Likewise, Empedocles, though self-styled as a mystical figure, nevertheless directs his followers to “use whatever it takes to make things clear to the mind.”5 In this way, we can even genericize Laruelle’s generic program, and treat of him in open and democratic dialogue with his predecessors, his peers, and his successors. It is precisely this sort of work that we have been doing with respect to Parmenides, and to which we now return.


Leucippus and Democritus

If we recall, the eighth fragment of Parmenides provides us with the key terms for his research program: being is unborn, imperishable, entire, alone of its kind, unshaken, complete, all together, single, continuous, indivisible, homogeneous, coherent, changeless, and equal to itself.6 It is this description of being that I have named the “Parmenidean fortress of being,” and it is this description to which most of the thinkers who followed Parmenides respond in their own descriptions of being.

This is indeed the case with the Atomists, Leucippus of Abdera and Democritus of Abdera. Aristotle writes of Leucippus:

Some of the thinkers of old had decided that what-is is single and unmoving, on the grounds that void is non-existent, and that there could be no movement without a separately existing void, nor even a plurality of things without the existence of something to keep them apart … Leucippus, however, thought that he had come up with explanations which conformed with the evidence of the senses in that they would not do away with generation or destruction or movement, or with the plurality of existing things.7

Parmenides is precisely the “thinker of old” to whom Aristotle is referring in this testimonial, and what we see here is Leucippus taking the direct and radical stance of a generic science toward Parmenides’s program. Unlike Zeno who, as we have seen previously, accepted the terms of Parmenides’s framework without question, entered into its depths, and then set about trying to prove the framework to be true with his paradoxes, Leucippus takes this framework on its surface and sets about testing it, with both intellection and observation. Aristotle continues:

[Leucippus] agreed with the monists that there could be no movement without void, that the void is non-existent, and that nothing about what-is can not be. For what really and truly is, he said, is a plenum. Nevertheless, he said, this is not single, but there are numerically infinite existents which are imperceptible because of their minute size. These things are in motion in the void (for the void exists), and their coming together constitutes generation, while their dissolution constitutes destruction.8

With Leucippus, Parmenides’s intellectual belief that being is single and continuous is nuanced by the application of observational data. Parmenides’s being is certainly a plenum—entire, complete, all together, continuous, indivisible, homogeneous: in sum, a fullness—but it takes on the speculative appearance of a marble, hard and smooth, unchangeable and impermeable. Leucippus, on the other hand, presents a very different image of being—not a marble, but a “spherical body [that] billows out like a membrane and encloses within itself all kinds of atoms.”9 To choose another real-world object for a contrasting term, where Parmenides’s being is a marble, Leucippus’s is something closer to a water balloon.

Where Leucippus’s philosophical program becomes even more remarkable, however, is in his ascription of reality to the void. The passage from Aristotle is somewhat confusing on this point: the void is “non-existent,” and “nothing about what-is can not be,” but the void “exists.”10 How is this possible? Thankfully, Aristotle clarifies elsewhere, writing of Leucippus and Democritus that their “elements are the full and the void, by which they mean what-is and what-is-not.”11 Their “first principle” is, significantly, dual.12 For the Atomists, “what is full and solid” is what-is, and “what is void and rarefied” is what-is-not.13 So, “they say that what-is has no more existence than what-is-not, because void exists just as much as solidity.”14 Void is not simply the absence of the full; it is another principle. What-is and what-is-not are equiprimordial “material causes” irreducible to each other.15 This is why “nothing about what-is can not be”—the full cannot be destroyed, made void, only separated. Likewise, the void is “non-existent” because it does not exist in the manner of what-is, cannot be made to be—and yet, it nevertheless exists, in a manner of its own.16

If we take a generic stance with respect to Leucippus and Democritus in turn, we can bring to bear the efforts of modern physics to help us understand how the non-existent might be said to exist. Looking into space, we see celestial bodies scattered in the void, accretions of matter and energy adrift in the black. The vacuum of space is the great, material nothingness of the modern era. And yet, this nothing is not mere absence. This nothing is expanding. We can observe celestial bodies receding from us, but it would be incorrect to imagine this movement as that of an arrow loosed from a bow, flying from point a to point b. It is the to itself that is expanding, an expansion of distance as such, which results in pushing points a and b further apart, causing the appearance of the recession of point b from point a. The void is not an absence; it is an “element,” a “material cause,” a “first principle.”17

Another example, to solidify our understanding. The void of space appears to be utterly empty, a vacuum, and yet the vacuum is. Karen Barad has discusses this fact in their What is the Measure of Nothingness?:

From the point of view of classical physics, the vacuum has no matter and no energy. But the quantum principle of ontological indeterminacy calls the existence of such a zero-energy, zero-matter state into question, or rather, makes it into a question with no decidable answer. Not a settled matter, or rather, no matter. And if the energy of the vacuum is not determinately zero, it isn’t determinately empty. In fact, this indeterminacy is responsible not only for the void not being nothing (while not being something), but it may in fact be the source of all that is, a womb that births existence … According to QFT, the vacuum can’t be determinately nothing because the indeterminacy principle allows for fluctuations of the quantum vacuum.18

The vacuum is not an absence but a “field,” emphasizes Barad, “something that has a physical quantity associated with every point in spacetime.”19 Because of the indeterminacy principle, this field is never totally inert or empty, but rather hovers around its zero point, “virtual particles” flitting in and out of existence.20 Barad continues:

Virtual particles are not in the void but of the void. They are on the razor edge of non/being. The void is a lively tension, a desiring orientation toward being/becoming. The vacuum is flush with yearning, bursting with innumerable imaginings of what could be … Nothingness is not absence, but the infinite plentitude of openness.21

Such is how Democritus can call the void by the names of “no-thing” and “infinite” at the same time.22 “There is no more reason for thing to exist than for no-thing to exist,” writes Democritus, no reason to affirm the full and deny the void.23 Indeed, these are equally necessary principles, a fact the Atomists discover through their direct and radical inquiry.


Diogenes

Theophrastus writes of Diogenes of Apollonia that he “was more or less the last of those who made a study of natural science.”24 Primarily influenced by Anaxagoras (a Parmenidean) and Leucippus (an Atomist), Diogenes also reaches back to Anaximenes (a Milesian) to state “that air is that from which everything else comes into existence.”25 Theophrastus describes Diogenes’s book as “cobbled together,” and yet, if we situate Diogenes in our paradigm of generic science, or apply the Blake/Feyerabend criteria to his research program, this cobbling together presents itself in a different light: pluralist, realist, democratic.26 Furthermore, in his own words, Diogenes maintains that “at the start of any book a writer ought to make his starting-point indisputable, and his methodology straightforward and authoritative.”27 This is not a mystical project, but a project to be tested. If his starting point or methodology can be disputed, then they should be disputed. This is the challenge Diogenes poses, and the engagement that he invites.

Diogenes’s ontology permits only of qualitative difference and diversity: “all existent things are modifications of the same thing and are the same thing … they become differently qualified at different times and return back to the same thing”—that thing being air.28 Like Anaximenes, Diogenes’s thought is poorer for its loss of the Milesian dual, being and motion, but writing as he is at a later date, he ends up being more interesting for his epistemology. Because air for Diogenes is also “soul and intelligence,” he is led to reproduce Heraclitus’s materialist theory of cognition, a grounding of air, as it were. Heraclitus links intelligence and the common—being, the logos—with a pun: “with intelligence” is xun noōi and the common is xunōi.29 The “mind-in-us” exists in a state of “natural union with what surrounds us” because it is what surrounds us: it is a “fraction of what surrounds us” that is “in exile in our bodies.”30 Diogenes, then, is very much espousing a Heraclitean point of view when he writes: “it is by means of the same one thing that all living creatures live and see and hear, and the rest of their intelligence too stems from the same one thing”—again, that thing being air.31 By taking this position, Diogenes present his research program as open and testable, allowing us to plainly see the various strands of thought running through it, and to describe, analyse, and evaluate the arguments he makes on that basis. Though his ontology is, as a whole, less interesting than other Presocratic philosophers, Diogenes is, nevertheless, worth reading to witness a generic research program at work.


Gorgias

With Gorgias of Leontini, we at last cross over from the Presocratics to the Sophists. One of the elder Sophists—like Protagoras, an early adopter of the 100 mina fee32—Gorgias has an entire Platonic dialogue dedicated to the criticism of his ideas. However, if we situate Gorgias in our paradigm of generic science like we did with Diogenes, we are able to detach Gorgias’s arguments from the Platonic paradigm, and so treat of him as a philosopher legitimately attempting to address the Parmenidean fortress of being as a testable hypothesis.

The testimonial of Sextus Empiricus to Gorgias’s work On What Is Not or On Nature (echoing Parmenides’s poem) does an excellent job presenting the logical core of Gorgias’s argument. Like Melissus, Gorgias recognizes that Parmenides’s ascription of the properties unborn and imperishable to being entails that being is “infinite.”33 Just as we do today when considering the physical universe to be infinite, Gorgias follows the logic of the statement: “since it is infinite, it is nowhere, because if it is somewhere, then that in which it is is different from it, and so something with being will no longer be infinite, given that it is contained within something.”34 Thus, two of Parmenides’s terms—unborn and imperishable—entails a third—infinite—and for these three terms to hold, so too must the terms entire, alone, and complete. Gorgias continues to follow the logic:

For the container is greater than the contained, but there is nothing greater than what is infinite, which means that something infinite cannot be anywhere. But neither is it contained within itself. For if this is so, the container and the contained will be identical, and the thing with being will become two, both place and body (the container being place and the contained being body). But this is absurd, and therefore something with being is not within itself either.35

If being is unborn, imperishable, and infinite, it must necessarily be entire, alone, and complete. If it is entire, alone, and complete, it must also necessarily be all together, single, continuous, indivisible, homogeneous, and coherent. By exploring the implications of being as infinite, Gorgias is able, therefore, to simultaneously demonstrate the necessity of the majority of Parmenides’s terms, while also revealing the paradox of the place of the universe: the universe is the sum of all possible places, spacetime itself, but where is the universe? Far from what we might describe with the pejorative use of “sophistic,” this question that Gorgias raises is a legitimate one.

Above, we noted that the universe is expanding. But this raises the question, what is the universe expanding into? Much like Archytas of Tarentum who asked of Parmenides’s fortress, what is beyond the edge?, our everyday, observational understanding of space leads us to ask similar questions. And because we are limited in what we can directly observe in the universe, we must use our intellection to consider a variety of models for that which lies beyond observation, and then test our models with whatever means are at hand. This is the basic work of science, with potential answers that are mind-bending and exhilarating, and which raise more questions the further we try to go.36

Given the conclusion that being is nowhere, Gorgias argues that the “outcome of all this is that if something with being is eternal, it is infinite, and if it is infinite, it is nowhere, and if its nowhere, it has no being. And so, if something with being is eternal, it has no being at all.”37 From here, Gorgias goes on to conclude that that which has no being cannot be known, and even if it could be known that knowledge could not be communicated. It is here that some of the rhetorical trickery for which Gorgias is known appears to comes into play. If, however, we approach Gorgias’s arguments in the generic mode, these arguments should not be dismissed as examples of mere rhetoric, but taken on as actual attempts at philosophical research and development. Specifically, the logical slide from nowhere to non-being is worth interrogating, precisely because it reveals a flaw in Gorgias’s speculative model of the real, a flaw that can be remedied precisely through the work of generic analysis that we have been pursuing across the four entries in this series, and the broader series on the first philosophers in general. So, to begin to read Gorgias in the generic mode, in a direct and radical way, we must ask: how can being be nowhere and yet have being? We take questions of philosophy as questions to be answered, not because we fear the unknown, but because this is precisely the posture that the unknown solicits—as Barad writes, it is the “jubilation of emptiness.”38

And it is with the jubilation of emptiness, with more questions for which we do not have the answers, that we conclude our series on generic science, which I hope has proved a fruitful cobbling together of thoughts on ancient philosophy. Next time, the conclusion to this series on the first philosophers as a whole with an essay on Protagoras and the prospects of sophistry today.


Notes

  1. Terence Blake, “Pluralist Metaphysical Research Programmes: Feyerabend, Deleuze, Laruelle, Zizek, Serres, Stiegler, Badiou, Latour,” Agent Swarm, November 17, 2016, https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/pluralist-metaphysical-research-programmes-feyerabend-deleuze-laruelle-zizek-serres-stiegler-badiou-latour/

  2. Alexander Galloway, “Superpositions,” Culture and Communication, October 11, 2014, http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/superpositions

  3. Indeed, there is an interesting project to be pursued in the analysis of the mediation within scientific revealing that allows science to reveal what is “immediately, unilaterally, and unconditionally.” For instance, we might use Don Ihde’s inquiry into the history and phenomenology of optical instruments in Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1990), but adopt a Laruellian non-standard approach to this inquiry, rather than a poststructural or differential approach—which would result, I believe, in an altogether different set of conclusions… 

  4. Heraclitus, F10, in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2000), 39. 

  5. Empedocles, F7, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 143. 

  6. Parmenides, F8, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 59-60. 

  7. Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction, 324b35-325b5, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 171. 

  8. Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction, 324b35-325b5, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 171-172. 

  9. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 183. 

  10. Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction, 324b35-325b5, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 172. 

  11. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 985b4-20, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 172. 

  12. Aristotle, On Generation and Destruction, 324b35-325b5, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 171. 

  13. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 985b4-20, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 173. 

  14. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 985b4-20, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 173. 

  15. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 985b4-20, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 173. 

  16. Insists? Consists? 

  17. For an accessible overview, see Corey S. Powell, “Fate of the Universe,” Aeon, January 7, 2020, https://aeon.co/essays/how-they-pinned-a-single-momentous-number-on-the-universe

  18. Karen Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice (Ostfildem, DE: Hatje Cantz, 2012), 8-9. 

  19. Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness?, 10. 

  20. Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness?, 11. 

  21. Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness?, 13, 16. 

  22. Aristotle in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 173. 

  23. Democritus, F1, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 174. 

  24. Theophrastus in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 196. 

  25. Theophrastus in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 196. 

  26. Theophrastus in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 196. 

  27. Diogenes, F1, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 196. 

  28. Diogenes, F2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 196. 

  29. Heraclitus, F12, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39. 

  30. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 44-45. 

  31. Diogenes, F5, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 198. 

  32. Diodorus of Sicily, Universal History, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 225. 

  33. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 233. 

  34. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 233. 

  35. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 233. 

  36. Two accessible examples: Jesse Emspak, “Does the Universe Have an Edge?,” Live Science, April 2, 2016, https://www.livescience.com/33646-universe-edge.html, and Stephanie Pappas, “What happened before the Big Bang?,” Live Science, April 17, 2019, https://www.livescience.com/65254-what-happened-before-big-big.html. As the above article from Powell demonstrates, such questions have driven much research in modern physics, and continue to pose challenges to scientists today. 

  37. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 233. 

  38. Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness?, 13.