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25 October: Ethan Meanor (McMaster University)

“Nietzsche and Gorgias on Non-Being”

ABSTRACT: The rejection of the concept of “being” is one of Nietzsche’s central philosophical commitments, and he makes much of the affinity between himself and Heraclitus on this point. He seems, however, to have overlooked the fact that this rejection has another important precursor in Gorgias of Leontini (c. 483-375 B.C.), who argued in his lost work On Non-Being that there is no being, and that even if there is, it cannot be known. Despite the striking similarities between many of their arguments, almost no scholarly attention has been paid to the affinity between Nietzsche and Gorgias. I show not only that they both reject the concept of “being” as incoherent, but that they further deny the capacity of concepts to adequately represent reality. I go on to consider the different ways in which Gorgias and Nietzsche respond to these conclusions: the former by renouncing philosophy because it can never arrive at the truth about being, the latter by attempting to conceive of philosophy as aiming not at the attainment of such a truth, but at the most comprehensive interpretation of reality that is possible within the limits of human thought. I suggest that Nietzsche makes an innovation insofar as he is able to see a way forward for philosophy even in the face of skepticism about being, which Gorgias apparently was not. But, this difference notwithstanding, their arguments against being belong together in the history of ideas. It is only unfortunate that, in tracing his philosophical lineage back to Heraclitus, Nietzsche overlooked another important ancestor. I hope that this study goes some way toward correcting that oversight.