Gorgias: "Nothing Is"

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Gorgias the Sophist produced a hilarious piece of bad reasoning that seems to be a parody of Parmenides. It's possible that he was simply trying to demonstrate how easy it is to put together a seemingly-convincing argument for a crazy thesis, to show that his skills as a rhetor as simply that good. He did hire his services out as a speech-writer. (In those days, you couldn't hire a lawyer to represent you in court. You had to do all the speaking yourself if someone had a complaint against you. But you could memorize a speech written by someone else, and the Sophists received pay both for teaching rhetorical skills and for simply writing speeches for people.) On the other hand, he may simply have thought Parmenides' style of argument and crazy thesis were worth making fun of.

The general structure of his argument is as follows:

1. If anything is, it is (a) what is or (b) what is not or (c) both what is and what is not.
2. It's not (a) what is.
3. It's not (b) what is not.
4. It's not (c) what is and what is not.
5. So nothing is.

His support for 3:

If what is is also what is not, then:

Problem 1: If what is not also is, then it is not, and it can't both be and not be.

Problem 2: If what is is not, then what is not is, and that's equally absurd, because
they're opposites. They can't both have the same properties of being and not being, or what would distinguish them from each other?

So (b) is false, and (3) is true.

His support for 2:

If what is is, then it's (d) everlasting or (e) generated or (f) everlasting and generated.

If (d), then it has no beginning. If it has no beginning, it's limitless. If it's limitless, then it is nowhere, because if it's anywhere then the place it's in is different from it, which would mean it's not limitless. So if it's everlasting, then it's nowhere. If it's nowhere, then it's not. So (d) is not an option.

If (e), then it either came into being (g) from something that is or (h) from something that's not. It couldn't be (g), because if it came from something that is then it hasn't come into being but already existed. It couldn't be (h), because something that doesn't exist can't make something exist. So it can't be generated, and (e) is not an option.

It can't be (f). For one thing, those are contradictory. Also, both were ruled out already, so how can both be true if they're both false? So (f) is not an option.

Therefore, it's not everlasting, generated, or both. By our premise, if it is, then it's one of these three. Therefore, it's not.

His support for 4:

Pretty much the same reasoning for why it can't be (f) above.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: where does this argument go wrong and why? I can think of at last two problems.


He's right to support 3, but this hardly follows from his reasons. Substitute 'is x' for 'is' and 'is y' for 'is not'. Problem 1 is then “If what is y is also x, then it is y.” Just a bit superfluous. It's y simply because it's y, x has nothing to do with that. Problem 2: “If what is x is y, then what is y is x.” He's equivocating here. The first time, x is a subcategory of y whereas, the second time, x is synonymous with y.

On 2, if something has no beginning, it only follows from this that it is limitless in that particular way. It can't even be argued that this temporal limitlessness applies in the other direction, and Gorgias is trying to apply it to space. But let's go with the argument anyway and say that the something is omnipresent. The fact that the place it is in is different than the thing itself does not imply a limitation on the number of places it can be in. In both cases, he ignores the point that being limitless in some ways does not mean being limitless in every possible way. There are limits.

In his argument against generation, the something that is is a different kind of cause than the something that is not. The first is material cause, so he's able to base this argument on that against something that is everlasting since 'generation' is simply the transmutation of an everlasting substance. For the second, the missing cause is not material but sufficient. The possibility of creation ex nihilo is completely overlooked by slipping in the argument, valid in itself, against creation ex creator.

His Problem 1 may be a direct parody of Parmenides, who uses the same faulty reasoning to eliminate change, which involves being X but later being not-X. He treats that as a contradiction. I hadn't noticed that before. It was the other two problems that I was thinking of. But now that you point it out, the connection is obvious to me, and I wonder if the same might be true of all of them.

The argument is false because C is a contradiction (by rule the law of excluded middle) and the first premise is itself a contradiction. If something is, then it can not be B because B= is not. If something is, it can not be "is not" because it is.

David, that's not actually a problem. The structure of the argument is ok. A disjunction is true even if one of the disjuncts is false. Gorgias explains why (c) is impossible, for the very reason you give. It's a contradiction. But that doesn't make that first premise false. A or B or c is still true even if c is false.

Yes, true. But it does invalidate the conclusion correct?

No, it doesn't. Here is the structure of the argument:

The only options for existent things are A, B, and C.
A won't work, for X reason.
B won't work, for Y reason.
C won't work, because C is contradictory.

That means none of the options are available, so there are no existent things.

It's certainly true that C is contradictory, but that's the point Gorgias is relying on to eliminate that option. I'm not sure how it would harm his argument.

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