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The Pre-socratic Philosophers

Updated on August 19, 2014
Thales
Thales
Anaximander
Anaximander
Pythagoras
Pythagoras
Xenophanes
Xenophanes
Heraclitus
Heraclitus
Parmenides
Parmenides
Zeno
Zeno
Empedocles
Empedocles
Democritus
Democritus

The Presocratics

It was Hermann Diel, a preeminent classicist of the 19th century, who lumped together the less known thinkers of classical antiquity under the misleading term "presocratic." Some of those included may not have produced philosophic work; some were contemporaries of Plato, which means that they lived after Socrates; and it is not to be surmised - or taken as implied - that the philosophers among the presocratics are necessarily inferior or engaged in altogether different activities from those pursued by Plato and, later, by Aristotle. It is testimony to the status Socrates enjoyed in modern western education that those before him would be lumped together unceremoniously. But there is an additional shortcoming: the work of the so-called Presocratics has been lost to posterity. Some of them were known in antiquity to have produced output sufficient to fill the libraries of the time. The information about the Presocratics, systematically collected by Diels and Kranz (DK-Fragments) relies inevitably on later testimony. In DK, the A-fragments are passages in which information about Presocratics is given while the B-fragments are the passages in which, it is assumed, an attempt is made to quote the ancient thinker directly. (There are also C-fragments, which cite imitators of the Presocratics.) The whole collection is so arranged that each eminent Presocratic is given a chapter. Given that the habits of antiquity inclined toward misprepresentation and deliberate misquotation in the context of heated rhetorical debates, we could despair of trusting that we have authentic access to the Presocratic texts but methodical cross-examination and matching of sundry reports and presumed citations of texts have been used to establish the fragments of the Presocratics. It is to be understood that some of the celebrities from classical antiquity - Plato and Aristotle themselves - refer to their predecessors with Aristotle especially serving as a valuable source. Other key sources for extracting Presocratic philosophy come from later - Hellenistic and Roman antiquity - with Diogenes Laertius and Cicero being the two most seminal sources.

Aristotle's Metaphysics, I, has an extensive treatment of those we call Presocratics today; presenting it as a prehistory to his own crowning achievement, Aristotle forces the Presocratics into a framework that is distinctly Aristotelian - constructed as a typology or classification of the kinds of causes there are. The Aristotelian text is reproduced at the bottom of this page.

The Presocratics flourished within that glorious context of classical antiquity - some of them antedating the so-called Golden Age. It is noticeable that the Presocratics were mostly from the coastline of Asia Minor; the Persian invasions forced many prominent citizens to leave those parts, and, later, the hub of intellectual activity is Athens. Some of the Presocratics are from the Greek colonies of Magna Grecia (today Southern Italy.) There are several theories as to why this remarkably explosive progress in all areas of human activity took place in the Greek-speaking world of that era. Astonishingly, the Greek city-states were just emerging from a preliterate condition: a written language was relatively recent and Homer's famous epics had been orally transmitted before an Athenian ruler, Peisistratus, commissioned their recording for posterity. Hostility toward writing and what it might do to the human mind's ability to remember and discern are to be found even in Plato's dialogues. Nevertheless, the Presocratics themselves, it appears, wrote essays as well as creative works like poetry. Yet, the distinction between the two - creative writing and philosophic essay - was emerging, even if variably understood by the Presocratics. The appearance of aphorismatic wisdom we gain from reading the Presocratics' text may be due to the sad state of fragmentary form. Nevertheless, some of the Presocratics were certainly fond of writing in obscure and elliptic fashion and this was notorious and remarked upon even in antiquity.

Early modern wester philosophy did not have wide access to the Presocratics. The systematic collection of the fragments culminated in the work of Diels in the 19th century. Students and writers of philosophy in earlier eras - throughout the milennia, including the Middle Ages and the Islamic Enlightenment periods - were dominated by the work of Aristotle. Plato's dialogues were also known - beginning with the Renaissance in the west. Because of Plato's disdain for some of the Presocratics, and given also Aristotle's boast that he pushed thinking forward beyond where the earlier thinkers had left it, the Presocratics actually received short shrift in the development of western thought up to the point of publication of the Fragments (above mentioned, abbreviated as DK.) After the work of the Presocratics became available, many famous western thinkers are known to have become drawn, variably, to their favorite Presocratic thinker. What is called Continental Philosophy, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, is populated with many celebrated - and maligned - philosophic thinkers who clearly, and admittedly, received their inspiration from some Presocratic or other. The two most famous, or notorious, cases are those of Nietzsche and Heidegger in Germany. In fact, the claim raised by both of them is that it was disastrous for the development of ideas in the west (and, hence, for western history as such) that Plato's assault on Presocratic views, and the later onslaught of the Aristotelian system, foisted a faulty view of fundamentals. The Presocratics (or some of them, at least) had got it right or they were getting there but everything was thrown into disarray because of Plato's standards-oriented rationalism (with its strict Correspondence or Correctness Theory of truth enforced across the board, even in Ethics). Heidegger makes this claim, famously, but Nietzsche had already launched a less detailed, and fittingly psychological, assault on the pathology of rationalism he detected in Socratic thinking. Instead, Presocratics like Heraclitus and Empedocles are advanced as the true forerunners of ultimate philosophic insight.

Regardless as to whether one agrees with this particular assessment or not, it becomes quite clear on studying their texts that the Presocratics are preoccupied with the same problems and puzzles that have dominated philosophic inquiry throughout the ages. Least we scoff at the inconsequential luxury of such speculation, it should be pointed out that the drive to get to the roots of things by using reason and to answer the riddles that emerge underpins the origin and development of sciencde as well. It is known, and it makes sense, that the Presocratics have also been called "the first natural scientists". The reason science has followed its own path has to do with the development of apparatus - the discovery of the differential calculus is a prime example. Presocratics like Pythagoras are clearly interested in mathematics - although the interest seems mainly metaphysical, and even mystical, rather than oriented toward practical applications. This is a general trend: there is a bias in favor of abstract speculation and against practical applicability - which is antipodal to the ethos we find in a figure like Benjamin Franklin whose natural intellectual curiosity still does not suffice to ever chill his passion for practical applications. The Greek hostility to practice remains even after the Presocratic period - it may reflect class prejudice but the proponents have certain arguments in favor of this position.

Another marked characteristic of the Presocratic corpus is the variety of views and the wide range of interests among the various writers. Schools of philosophy that have emerged throughout history are clearly anticipated in the Presocratics. Parmenides is a Monist, Heraclitus comes across as a proto-Empiricist, Xenophanes is a deflationist philosophic critique of religious tradition, and the Sophists seem to be advancing certain modern-sounding views about the relationship between nature and convention and about language. The problems that interest the Presocratics are enduring: truth and paradoxes associated with it, the nature of discovery and criteria for what constitutes knowledge, the rational assessment of religious claims, the nature of reality, the origins and operations of the universe, the nature of causation, necessity and contingency, first principles and the standards for what coutns as a complete explanation, free choice and determinism, the sources of moral truths, paradoxes that are generated with respect to space and time... Few problems of philosophy seem to be missing: there is speculation about the person being a "soul" - going back to Egypt, in Pythagoras and already hinted at in Heraclitus before Plato - and this prevents perhaps engagement with the problem today known as "personal identity." The key role language turns out to be playing in meaning, in post-Wittgenstein philosophy, seems missing - but one can only study Sophistical fragments to dispel even this notion.

The modern school of philosophy known as "Analytic Philosophy" has a negative view of metaphysical discussions in general. On this view - simplified - the source of metaphysical inquiry is almost always abuse or misuse of language (incdluding errors about the operations of the logical grammar of a language.) The work of Parmenides - witness its influence on Heidegger in the 20th century - is a prime example of how this view can be applied: Parmenides muses over the existential status of "nothing" - how we can talk about "nothing" as if it were something that can be talked about - and also about the apparently privileged status of "being" which seems to be shared by everything we can ever talk about. What is remarkable, though, is the engagement Parmenides enters into with such philosophic subjects that remain controversial even today.

The obvious foil against which we are to assess the importance of the Presocratics, and their claim to being philosophers, has to do with the magical or religious thinking of their tribes. The tribe magician is not a philosopher even though he has all kinds of stories to tell and transmit about issues of profound human concern. Philosophy inquires fundamentals by using conceptual unpacking, interrogation and rational analysis of views and theories; philosophy requires arguments for persuasion and, unlike rhetoric (public relations fluff, propaganda, or advertisement in our times) philosophy has an interest in the logical structure of claims, theories and supporting arguments. This is definitional. Wine is not beer. In a cultural tradition that is far away from classical Greece, in Hinduism, the Buddha is not a philosopher but the sages who argue about whether there are more than one kinds of true and false are philosophers. Jesus is not engaged in philosophy, as depicted in the relevant texts, but some of the early Apologists of the Christian religion (for instance, Augustine) are engaged in philosophic discourse. There is a question about some of the Presocratics - and about some of the writings of some of the Presocratics - with respect to their philosophic credentials. Given the definition of philosophy, it should be straightforward to judge whether a specific piece is philosophy or not. Notice, though, that a text could be written as poem - as in Parmenides - and still be philosophy, if the criteria mentioned above are met. Of course, there is bound to be vagueness, as usual. It may also be questioned if there are other views of what philosophy is - but this can be hiding a confusion: "one person's beer may be another person's wine" is not meaningless but it is not about the lexical definitions of "beer" and "wine." In language, we have a term about "philosophy" that is relevant here. The word "philosophy" has other meanings too, of course "Two drunk bar patrons were philosophizing into the wee hours of the night." This is a perfectly legitimate sentence of English but the sense of the word "philosophize" in this sentence is not the relevant one. What made Socrates a philosopher is not that he would drink and "philosophize" all night (which he is reported to have done too, by the way.) It will not help to trace the Greek word "philosophia" in the early texts because its connotations are also variable across time. Etymologically, the word means "love of wisdom" and the Presocratics themselves are often - at least some of them - referred to as sages. Rather, turn to what the Presocratics do:

-- they seek rationally supported, full and consistent explanations of phenomena; hence, they seek causes, and they seek to understand the nature of causality and how a variety of phenomena arises out of "first principles" (archai;)

-- they produce and assess arguments by means of which they try to prove and disprove; it is not authority that guides but rational investigation;

-- they delve into fundamentals, including criteria about what has authority when it comes to explaining phenomena;

-- they discover and try to dispose of problems, riddles, paradoxes that arise when one turns to the roots of subjects that have to do with truth, the nature of reality, the totality of things and its relationship to particulars, the question of the origin of everything, the relationship between perception and reality, the relationship between what we say and the things about which we speak, the influence of numbers and other mathematical entities on the construction of reality, etc....

-- they dethrone naive or magical traditional narratives and tribal religious and ancestral explanations of phenomena (hence, Homer and Hesiod are not included in the charmed circle of philosophers, if you ever wonder about it), and trust in thinking - even if broadly defined - to be the guide toward discovering fundamental principles that are at work in nature;

-- they are, to various degrees, interested in the various branches of possible learning (including the subject of the possibility of knowledge itself) and in the foundations or warrants for knoweldge (what makes knowledge possible given the obstacles that are evident in the discordant formation of opinions or beliefs about things.)


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