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Study information

Being and Not-Being in Greek Philosophy: from Parmenides to Aristotle

Module titleBeing and Not-Being in Greek Philosophy: from Parmenides to Aristotle
Module codeCLA3263
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Gabriele Galluzzo (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

What is being and what is not-being? What does it mean for something to be and what does it mean for it not to be? What is the relationship between things that are and things that are not? These and related questions have always fascinated philosophers and continue to attract the attention of contemporary thinkers working in the area of metaphysics.

The ancient Greek contribution to the investigation into being and not-being can hardly be overestimated. From the end of the 6th century to the second half of the 4th century BC Greek philosophers have long discussed the notion of being and not-being and come up with a series of fascinating philosophical theories. Three phases are clearly recognisable: (1) Parmenides’ understanding of being and not-being as two opposed and irreconcilable notions (what is is and what is not is not); (2) Plato’s attempt to show that being and not-being are not exclusive and can be combined; (3) Aristotle’s indifference to the notion of not-being in favour of a richer and wider notion of being.

We will explore the different phases of the Greek reflection on being and not-being in the 6th-4th centuries BC by reading and commenting a wide range of texts from Parmenides, Democritus, Plato and Aristotle.

The module presupposes some basic acquaintance either with ancient philosophy or with philosophy in general.

Module aims - intentions of the module

  • To acquaint you with the early phases of the discipline that we nowadays call ‘metaphysics’ by illustrating the way in which Greek philosophers started to investigate into being and not-being. Through an analysis of a wide range of texts you will be in a position to critically evaluate philosophical argument and to place them in their appropriate historical and theoretical context.
  • Furthermore, the module aims to enable you to understand the differences between the contemporary conception of being and not-being (which mainly focuses on the notion of existence) and the specifically Greek conception (which centres, by contrast, on a plurality of intuitions that are not simply confined to the notion of existence).
  • Finally, the module will enable you to get acquainted with a variety of notions (existence and non-existence, predication, truth etc.) that can fruitfully be applied to different moments of human thought and even to contexts outside the philosophical arena.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. To demonstrate knowledge of a wide range of topics connected with the notions of being and not-being
  • 2. To demonstrate awareness of the specific way in which being and not-being were understood in the different phases of Classical Greek thought

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. To demonstrate appreciation of both the historical and the philosophical issues raised by ancient philosophical texts
  • 4. To develop critical skills that can be applied to the analysis of every text on metaphysics

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Through the preparation for and the composition of essays, to demonstrate the ability to think critically and independently on a range of crucial issues and to construct an interesting and consistent argument
  • 6. Through the delivery of oral presentation to demonstrate the ability to speak clearly, engage in public debate and respond critically to observations and objections

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • To be or not to be? Being and not-being in ancient and contemporary philosophy
  • The verb ‘to be’ in Greek language and philosophy
  • Parmenides’ revolution: the birth of metaphysics
  • Parmenides on being
  • Parmenides on not-being
  • A physical understanding of being and not-being: the Atomists
  • Plato on being and becoming: the theory of Forms
  • The notion of true being in Republic V-VII
  • Beyond Parmenides: not-being as different in the Sophist
  • Aristotle’s first reaction to Plato: the theory of the ten categories
  • Aristotle on the multivocity of ‘being’: focal meaning in Metaphysics, IV 1-2
  • Conclusion and revision: the Greeks on being and not-being

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching221 x 2 hour seminar per week: 1 hour presentation by lecturer and 1 hour presentations by students
Guided independent study128Independent study

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Oral discussion/debate1-6Oral feedback from lecturer

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Research exercises (bibliography and plan)10No fixed length1-5Mark, written comments and individual feedback from lecturer
In-class presentation2020 minutes2-4, 6Mark, oral comments and feedback from lecturer and peers. Written comments and individual feedback from lecturer
Essay704000 words1-5Mark, written comments and individual feedback from lecturer

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Research exercisesResearch exercises1-5Referral/Deferral period
In-class presentation (20 minutes)Recorded presentation (e.g. PowerPoint with voiceover) - 20 minutes2-4, 6Referral/Deferral period
Essay (4000 words)Essay (4000 words)1-5Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Primary sources:

  • Parmenides, in R. Waterfield (ed.), The First Philosophers. The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford 2000.
  • The Atomists, in R. Waterfield (ed.), The First Philosophers. The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford 2000.
  • Plato, Republic V-VII.
  • Plato, the Sophist.
  • Aristotle, Categories, Chs. 1-5.
  • Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV.1-3.

Secondary sources:

  • Brown, L., “The Verb ‘To Be’ in Greek Philosophy” in Everson, S. (ed.), Language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994.
  • Crivelly, P., Plato’s Account of Falsehood. A Study of the Sophist, Cambridge University Press, Cambirdge 2012.
  • Ferejohn, M.T., “Aristotle on Focal Meaning and the Unity of Science”, Phronesis 25 (1980), 117-128.
  • Kahn, Ch., Essays on Being, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006.
  • Kung, J., “Aristotle on ‘Being is Said in Many Ways’.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 3 (1986), 3-18.
  • Mann, W.-R., The Discovery of Things: Aristotle’s Categories and Their Context, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2000.
  • Matthen, M., “Greek Ontology and the “Is” of Truth”, Phronesis 28 (1983), pp. 113-35.
  • Sedley, D., “Two Conceptions of Vacuum”, Phronesis 27 (1982), pp. 175-193.
  • Sedley, D., “Parmenides and Melissus”, in Long, A. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 113-133.
  • Warren, J., Presocratics, Acumen, Stocksfield 2007.
  • Waterfield, R., The First Philosophers. The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000.
  • White, N., Plato on Knowledge and Reality, Hackett, Indianapolis 1976.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Being, Not-being, existence, predication, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

Either Greek or Roman Philosophy, or any Philosophy module.

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date