Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Pre-Socratic Philosophers

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The Pre-Socratic Philosophers are defined as the Greek thinkers who developed independent and original schools of thought from the time of Thales of Miletus (l. 546 BCE) to that of Socrates of Athens (470/469-399 BCE). They are known as Pre-Socratics because they pre-date Socrates.

Thales of Miletus initiated the intellectual movement that produced the works now known as ancient Greek philosophy by inquiring into the First Cause of existence, the matter from which all else came, which was also the causative factor in its becoming. He concluded that water was the First Cause because it could assume different forms (steam when heated, ice when frozen) and seemed to inform all living things.

This conclusion was rejected by later philosophers beginning with Anaximander (l. 610 - c. 546 BCE) who argued that the First Cause was beyond matter and was, in fact, a cosmic force of creative energy constantly making, destroying, and remaking the observable world. The philosophers who followed these two all established their own schools of thought with their own concepts of a First Cause, steadily building on the accomplishments of predecessors until philosophy found full expression and depth in the works of Plato (l. 428/427-348/347 BCE), who attributed his own ideas to the figure of Socrates.

Most Pre-Socratic philosophers criticized the earlier works of others even as they used them to develop their own concepts.

The philosophy of the Pre-Socratic philosophers is by no means uniform. No two of the men supported exactly the same ideas (except for Parmenides and Zeno of Elea), and most criticized the earlier works of others even as they used them to develop their own concepts. Plato, finally, is critical of almost all of them, but it is apparent from his work that their schools of thought informed and influenced his own, notably the philosophic-religious vision of Pythagoras.

The works of Plato and his student Aristotle (l. 384-322 BCE) would go on to inform the three great monotheistic religions of the present day – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – as well as Western civilization overall, and these would not have been possible if not for the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Pre-Socratics & Their Contributions

There are over 90 Pre-Socratic philosophers, all of whom contributed something to world knowledge, but scholar Forrest E. Baird has pared that number down to a more manageable 15 major thinkers whose contributions directly or indirectly influenced Greek culture and the later works of Plato and Aristotle:

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  • Thales of Miletus – l. 585 BCE
  • Anaximander – l. 546 BCE
  • Anaximenes – l. 546 BCE
  • Pythagoras – l. 571 - c. 497 BCE
  • Xenophanes of Colophon – l. 570 - c. 478 BCE
  • Heraclitus of Ephesus – l. 500 BCE
  • Parmenides – l. 485 BCE
  • Zeno of Elea – l. 465 BCE
  • Empedocles – l. 484-424 BCE
  • Anaxagoras – l. 500 - c. 428 BCE
  • Democritus – l. 460 - c. 370 BCE
  • Leucippus – l. 5th century BCE
  • Protagoras – l. 485-415 BCE
  • Gorgias – l. 427 BCE
  • Critias - c. 460-403 BCE

Thales: According to Aristotle, Thales was the first to ask, "What is the basic 'stuff' of the universe?" (Baird, 8) as in, what was the First Cause of existence, from what element or force did everything else proceed? Thales claimed it was water because whatever the First Cause was had to be a part of everything that followed. When water was heated it became air (vapor), when it was cooled it became a solid (ice), added to earth, it became mud and, once dried, it became solid again, under pressure, it could move rocks, while at rest, it provided a habitat for other living things and was essential to human life. It seemed clear to Thales, then, that the underlying element of creation had to be water.

Anaximander: It was not clear to Anaximander, however, who expanded the definition of the First Cause with his higher concept of the apeiron – “the unlimited, boundless, infinite, or indefinite” (Baird, 10) – which was an eternal creative force bringing things into existence according to a natural, set pattern, destroying them and recreating them in new forms. No natural element could be the First Cause, he claimed, because all natural elements must have originated from an earlier source. Once created, he claimed, creatures then evolved to adapt to their environment and so he first suggested the Theory of Evolution over 2,000 years before Darwin.

Anaximenes: Anaximenes, thought to be Anaximander's student, claimed air as the First Cause. Baird comments:

Anaximenes proposed air as the basic world principle. While at first his thesis may seem a step backwards from the more comprehensive (like Anaximander's unlimited) to the less comprehensive particular (like Thales' water), Anaximenes added an important point. He explained a process by which the underlying one (air) becomes the observable many: By rarefaction, air becomes fire, and, by condensation, air becomes, successively, wind, water, and earth. Observable qualitative differences (fire, wind, water, earth) are the result of quantitative changes, that is, of how densely packed is the basic principle. This view is still held by scientists. (12)

Anaximenes' definition of “air” and its mutations suggested a First Cause which defined life as a constant state of flux, of change. As air became rarefied or condensed or so on, it changed in form; therefore, change was an important element of the First Cause.

Pythagoras' concepts – including his famous Pythagorean Theorem – were developed from Egyptian ideas but he reworked these to make them distinctly his own.

Pythagoras: This concept was developed further by Pythagoras who claimed number – mathematics - as the underlying principle of Truth. In the same way that number has no beginning or ending, neither does creation. The concept of transformation is central to the Pythagorean vision; the human soul, Pythagoras claimed, is immortal, passing through many different incarnations, life after life, as it acquires new knowledge of the world as experienced in different forms. Pythagoras' concepts – including his famous Pythagorean Theorem – were definitely developed from Egyptian ideas, but he reworked these to make them distinctly his own. He wrote nothing down and so much of his thought has been lost, but from what is known, it is clear his concept of the Transmigration of Souls (reincarnation) greatly influenced Plato's belief regarding immortality.

Xenophanes: The concept of an eternal soul suggested some governing force which created it and to which that soul would one day return after death. Pythagoras included this concept in his teachings which focused on personal salvation through spiritual discipline but does not define what that force is. Xenophanes would later fill in this blank with his concept of a single God. He writes:

There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or in mind. He sees as a whole, thinks as a whole, and hears as a whole. But without toil, he sets everything in motion by the thought of his mind. (DK 23-25, Freeman, 23)

Xenophanes denied the validity of the anthropomorphic gods of Greece in arguing for a single spiritual entity which had created all things and set them in motion. Once in motion, human beings continued on a course until death at which time, he seems to suggest, their souls reunite with the creative force. Xenophanes' monotheism was not met with any antagonism from the religious authorities of his time because he couched his claims in poetry and alluded to a single god among others, who could have been interpreted as Zeus.

Heraclitus: His younger contemporary, Heraclitus, rejected this view and replaced “God” with “Change”. He is best known for the phrase Panta Rhei (“everything changes” or “life is flux”) and the adage that “one can never step into the same river twice” alluding to the fact that everything, always, is in motion and the water of the river changes moment to moment, as does life. To Heraclitus, existence was brought into being and sustained through a clash of opposites which continually encouraged transformation – day and night, the seasons, etc. – so that everything was always in continual motion and a state of perpetual change. Strife and war, to Heraclitus, were necessary aspects of life in that they embodied the concept of transformative change. To resist this change meant resisting life; accepting change encouraged a peaceful and untroubled life.

Parmenides: Parmenides rejected this view of life as change in his Eleatic School of thought which taught Monism, the belief that all of observable reality is of one single substance, uncreated, and indestructible. Change is an illusion; appearances change, but not the essence of reality which is shared by every human being. That which one experiences and fears as “change” is illusory because all living things share in the same essential essence. One cannot trust the senses to interpret a reality which suggests change, he said, because the senses are unreliable. One must, instead, recognize that “there is a way which is and a way which is not” (a way of fact and a way of opinion) and recognize the essential Oneness of material existence which does not differentiate: humans grow and develop and die just as animals and plants do. What people see as “differences” between themselves and others are only minor details.

Zeno of Elea: Parmenides' thought was defended and defined by his pupil Zeno of Elea who created a series of logical paradoxes proving that plurality was an illusion of the senses and reality was uniform. There was actually no such thing as change, Zeno showed, only the illusion of change. He proved this through 40 paradoxes of which only a handful have survived. The most famous of these is known as the Race Course, which stipulates that between Point A and Point Z on a course, one must first run halfway. Between Point A and that halfway mark is another halfway mark and between Point A and that other halfway mark is still another and then another. One can never reach Point Z because one cannot, logically, reach that point without first reaching the halfway mark which one cannot reach because of the many “halfway marks” which precede it. Movement, then, is an illusion and so, therefore, is change because, in order for anything to change, it would have to alter the nature of reality – it would have to remove all “halfway marks” – and this is a logical absurdity. Through this paradox, and his many others, Zeno proved, mathematically, that Parmenides' claims were true.

Empedocles: Empedocles completely rejected the claim that change was an illusion and believed that plurality was the essential nature of existence. All things were differentiated in their own unique way, and by the meeting of opposites, creative energies were released, which led to transformation. Baird writes:

Empedocles sought to reconcile Heraclitus' insistence on the reality of change with the Eleatic claim that generation and destruction are unthinkable. Going back to the Greeks' traditional belief in the four elements, he found a place for Thales' water, Anaximenes' air, and Heraclitus' fire, and he added earth as the fourth. In addition to these four elements, which Aristotle would later call “material causes”, Empedocles postulated two “efficient causes”: strife and love. (31-32)

Strife, to Empedocles, differentiated the things of the world and defined them; love brought them together and joined them. The opposing forces of strife and love, then, worked together toward a unity of design and wholeness, which, Empedocles believed, was what the Eleatic school of Parmenides was trying, but failed, to say.

Anaxagoras: Anaxagoras took this idea of opposites and definition and developed his concept of like-and-not-like and “seeds”. Nothing can come from what it is not like and everything must come from something; this “something” is particles (“seeds”) which constitute the nature of that particular thing. Hair, for example, cannot grow from stone but only from the particles conducive to hair growth. All things proceeded from natural causes, he said, even if those causes are not clear to people. He publicly refuted the concept of the Greek gods and rejected religious explanations, ascribing phenomena to natural causes, and he is the first philosopher to be condemned by a legal body (the court of Athens) for his beliefs. He was saved from execution by the statesman Pericles (l. 495-429 BCE) and lived the rest of his life in exile at Lampsacus.

Leucippus and Democritus: His ”seed” theory would influence the development of the concept of the atom by Leucippus and his student Democritus who claimed that the entire universe is made up of “un-cutables” known as atamos. Atoms come together to form the observable world, taking now the form of a chair, now of a tree, now of a human being, but the atoms themselves are of one substance, unchanging, and indestructible; when one form they take is destroyed, they simply assume another. The theory of the atomic universe encouraged Leucippus' philosophy on the supremacy of fate over free will.

Leucippus is best known for the one line which can be authoritatively attributed to him: “Nothing happens at random; everything happens out of reason and by necessity” (Baird, 39). Since the universe is composed of atoms, and atoms are indestructible and continually change form, and human beings are part of this process, the life of an individual is driven by forces outside of one's control – one cannot stop the process of atoms changing form – and so one's fate was preordained and free will was illusory. What one could change through one's will could in no way prevent one's inevitable dissolution.

The Sophists, Socrates, & Plato

As Greek intellectual thought developed, it gave rise to the profession of the Sophist, teachers of rhetoric who taught the sons of the upper class the philosophies of the Pre-Socratics and, through their concepts, the art of persuasion and how to win any argument. Ancient Greece, especially Athens, was highly litigious, and lawsuits were a daily occurrence; knowing how to sway a jury to one's side was considered as valuable a skill at that time as it is today, and Sophists were highly paid.

There were many famous Sophists, such as Thrasymachus (l. 459 - c. 400 BCE), best known as Socrates' antagonist in Book I of Plato's Republic and Hippias of Elis (l. 5th century BCE), another contemporary of Socrates and one of the highest-paid Sophists of the time. The three most famous, however, are Protagoras, Gorgias, and Critias whose central arguments would later be developed by other Western philosophers to support the claims of relativism, skepticism, and atheism.

Protagoras: Protagoras of Abdera is best known for the claim which is most commonly given as “man is the measure of all things” meaning that everything is relative to individual interpretation. To one person, who is used to warm climates, a room will feel cold while to another, used to cold climates, it will be warm; neither, according to Protagoras is objectively “right” or objectively “wrong” but are both right according to their experiences and interpretation. Protagoras never denied the existence of the gods but claimed no human being could say anything about them definitively because there was simply no way one could have such knowledge. The existence of the gods and whatever their will might be, like everything else in life, was up to each individual to decide and, whatever they decided, that was the truth for them.

Gorgias: Gorgias claimed that there is no such thing as “knowledge” and that what passed for “knowledge” was only opinion. Actual knowledge was incomprehensible and incommunicable. Gorgias laid out his claim in detail to show that what people called Being could not really exist because anything that “is” must have a beginning and what people called Being had no known First Cause – only people's opinions on what might be a First Cause – and therefore Being could not logically exist. What people perceived as “reality” was neither Being nor Not-Being but simply What-is, but what exactly What-is constituted was unknowable and, if one should know it, could not be communicated to others because they would not be able to understand.

Critias: Critias was related to Plato (his mother's cousin) and an early follower of Socrates. He was one of the Thirty Tyrants who overthrew the Athenian democracy, and the fact he had been Socrates' student is thought to have gone against the latter at his trial for impiety in 399 BCE. Critias is best known for his argument that religion was created by strong and clever men to control others. In a long poem, he describes a time of lawlessness when reasonable men tried to impose order but could not. They decided to create a fiction in which supernatural entities existed who could see into the hearts of men and judge them, sending untold punishments upon those who defied order. In time, this fiction became ritualized as religion but, in reality, there were no such things as gods, no afterlife, and no meaning to religious ritual.

Plato would address the claims of most of the Pre-Socratics, in whole or in part, throughout his works. Pythagoras' thought, especially, had a significant impact on the development of Plato's theory of the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, and memory as recollection from a past life. Protagoras' relativism, the antithesis of Plato's idealism, inspired and encouraged many of his dialogues. It could be argued, in fact, that all of Plato's work is a direct refutation of Protagoras but the concepts of all of the Pre-Socratics inform Plato's work to varying degrees and, in so doing, contributed the underlying foundation for the development of Western philosophy.

Pre-Socratic Philosophers - History

Pre-Socratic Atomists: Pioneers of Modern Science

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The pre-Socratic Atomists were a group of ancient thinkers who proposed a materialistic theory of the cosmos. Among the first to propose a mechanistic view of the universe, the Atomists argued that the world was composed of atoms. Their work was crucial in the development of ancient philosophy and modern science.

The Origins of pre-Socratic Atomists

Bust of Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides of Elea was a pre-Socratic philosopher from what is now Southern Italy. Possibly the first monist (monism posits that all things derive from oneness), Parmenides argued everything was part of a single, unchanging mass. His denial of change greatly influenced the first Atomists.

Leucippus is regarded as the first true Atomist. Living in 5 th century BC, Leucippus was likely born in Miletus, which is located in modern-day Turkey, and later moved to Abdera, a wealthy Greek city on the Thracian coast. Many, including Aristotle, claimed the Leucippus was the most important Atomist.

Democritus was born in the city of Abdera in about 470 BC into a wealthy family. He was very well travelled, and may even have even visited Babylon. When Democritus returned to the Greek settlement in Thrace, he conducted numerous scientific experiments and wrote several works on the theory of atoms.

Democritus was a polymath and in ancient sources was portrayed as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because he was always mocking the stupidity of his fellow citizens. Despite this, he was hugely respected in his home city and is credited with the founding of the influential School of Abdera.

The Theory of Atomism

The pre-Socratic Atomists, especially Democritus, held that the world was made of atoms — defined as the smallest elements in the universe. Atoms had several characteristics: they were invisible to the naked eye, indivisible and eternal. It was believed that atoms could come together and form complex structures, making them the building blocks of the entire world.

For the Atomists, the world consisted of matter which followed specific patterns and laws. Democritus argued that the atoms moved in a void and that all change was a result of them coming together and breaking apart. There were a variety of different atoms that explained the variety and dynamism observed in the natural world. Atoms thus explained natural events and phenomenon. Democritus and his followers believed that the world came about as a result of a collision of atoms.

For the Atomists, there were only naturalistic explanations of reality. This has been likened to 19 th -century scientific ideas about the world, and for this reason many see the atomists as the forerunners of modern science. The Atomists were very interested in observing nature and may have developed early scientific theories. For instance, Democritus developed the theory of epistemology, which held that all knowledge derived from sensory experiences. In this way, he can be regarded as a forerunner of the empiricists.

Democritus among the Abderitans, by François-André Vincent

For Democritus, the faculty of reason existed to interpret sensory data, creating true knowledge of the world. Interestingly, the philosopher also believed that humans had a soul, but that this too was made out of atoms. He held that many cultural institutions were the result only of our mental cognitions and had no basis in reality. As a result, cultural institutions and beliefs could be changed for the benefit of humanity. Because of this, many scholars have seen Democritus and members of his school as early humanists. Indeed, Democritus and his followers believed that the ancient gods were a human invention.

The Atomists believed that humans originally lived like animals but developed societies and technology in order to survive. Sadly, there is much we do not know about the pre-Socratic philosophers, as nearly all their works have been lost.

The Influence of Atomism

The pre-Socratic Atomists had a huge influence on later philosophy, especially in the Classical World. Aristotle was very familiar with the works of Democritus, but he opposed the Atomists. However, the School of Abdera influenced the Epicureans, who held that only rational pleasure was the only virtue. Their materialism and metaphysics are based on Atomist teachings.

Many Christian scholars believed that Democritus and his followers were atheists. Historians believe that the School of Abdera contributed to the widespread doubts among the elite and intellectuals about the existence of the gods.

The Atomists also appear to have influenced the Sophists. The great Sophist Protagoras came from Abdera and his relativist philosophy was possibly based on Democritus’ epistemology. Another school influenced by the Atomists were the Sceptics. Anaxarchus, another citizen of Abdera, was a philosopher who accompanied Alexander the Great on his conquests. Anaxarchus’ unique interpretation of Atomism led him to doubt the reliability of knowledge. This is regarded as an important influence on Pyrrhonism and its teachings of philosophical skepticism. During the 17 th century in Europe, many scientists were inspired by the Atomists and revived their teachings.

The pre-Socratic Atomists were revolutionary thinkers. Among the first in history to propose a materialistic and mechanistic theory of the universe, their theory of atoms promoted a scientific and rational view of the world. Many feared them, but they were very influential. They not only inspired later philosophers such as the Epicureans, but they may also have laid the foundation for modern science.

Russell, Bertrand (1987). History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.

The scientific origins of natural theology (2 of 3)

In the last post we saw that reasoning from effects to causes, which is at the heart of scientific investigation, together with the revolutionary conviction that the world we experience is a unified, intelligible whole, led the pre-Socratic thinkers to engage in natural theology, which is the search for ultimate explanations for why things exist and have the form they do. But these two factors do not explain why the pre-Socratics were led to postulate a single arche with divine attributes as the ultimate explanation of the universe, especially since they had no prior religious motivation to do so.

First of all, why should the pre-Socratics have come to the conclusion that there was just one arche, when the mythology of the time postulated a great number of gods and the pre-Socratics themselves were under no scriptural compulsion to arrive at the ‘right’ answer to this question? (p. 7) Gerson suggests that there was a tendency towards simplification at work: if you postulate numerous ‘archai’ to explain various phenomena, their differences from each other imply that they are quite complex, and it is natural to wonder, especially given a commitment to the unified intelligibility of the world, if there is some further arche that explains the differences between them. Or perhaps the reasoning was that, “as the posited arche is made more simple and posited to explain a greater diversity of data, the tendency towards a reduction in their number is obvious.” (p. 8) This is especially so given that what the arche is needed to explain is not any particular phenomenon, but broad classes of phenomena. For example, an arche may be postulated to explain, not a particular change, but change itself. In sum, “the principle that the world is a kosmos, which is merely one version of the principle of universality in science, along with the principle of what an arche is, together guide the thought of the scientist along a path of reduction in the number of causes or explanations.” (ibid.)

Second, why should the ultimate arche be conceived as divine? Why couldn’t the arche be something material? In fact, there was a minority of pre-Socratic thinkers, the atomists, who did conceive of the arche as material. According to Leucippus, Democritus and others what was ultimately real was atoms in motion in the void (note that the atomists thus move away from positing a single, ultimate arche, as each atom would be an irreducible arche in and of itself). But the majority of those thinkers gave the arche divine attributes. The reason lies in the principle that an arche, as an ultimate explanation, “must be somehow different from that which it serves to explain.” (p. 7)

A couple of everyday examples can illustrate this principle. A chandelier is held up by a cable which is itself held up by the ceiling, which is held up by walls, which are held up by the foundation of the house. The foundation is held up by the ground, so we can say that the ground is the ultimate explanation for the chandelier being held up. But the ground does not itself need to be held up, it just is compact earth. And if it did need to be held up, it would not be the ultimate explanation for the chandelier being held up. Similarly, picture the caboose of a train and imagine asking what is pulling it forward. The immediate explanation is the car in front of it, but that car is also being pulled by the car in front of it. The ultimate explanation of the cars’ motion is a car very unlike the others in that it has a source of energy, the engine.

When we apply this principle to the arche of the entire universe, we quickly realize that if this arche is to explain change in general, it cannot itself be something that is changing. If it is to explain the existence of all finite, material things it cannot itself be something whose existence requires explanation. In other words, it must be a necessary being, which also implies that it exists eternally (if it did not exist eternally, something outside of it would have to explain how it came into existence). And if nothing outside of it causes it to exist or to change, in order for it to be the source of the existence and changing of all finite material objects, it must be, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “more like a mind than it is like anything else we know.” (Mere Christianity, p. 29), because that is the only analogy we have for internally initiated actions. It is likely that this reasoning led Xenophanes to make the earliest explicit statement of monotheism: “One god greatest among gods and men,
not at all like mortals in body or in thought.” (see pp. 17-20)

We can now begin to see the reasoning behind Gerson’s claim that the pre-Socratic thinkers engaged in natural theology because their scientific investigations lead them to do so. This is clearly a very provocative claim that fundamentally contradicts the secular mythology of brave, skeptical proto-scientists challenging the superstitions of the poets and priests. In fact the pre-Socratics did challenge them, but not in the service of atheism, but rather in the service of a scientific understanding of divinity. In the last post in this series we will consider some of Gerson’s responses to common misconceptions about the emergence of theology and its scientific character.

Pre-Socratic philosophy

The Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were active before Socrates. The popular usage of the term come from Hermann Diels' work Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics, 1903). Ώ]

Most of what we know about the pre-Socractic philosophers come from quotations by later philosophers and historians. While most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts have survived in complete form.

The standard reference works in English are:

  • Gompertz, Theodor 1901. The Greek thinkers: a history of ancient philosophy. Volume 1: the beginnings. London: Murray.
  • Guthrie W.K. 1962. A history of Greek philosophy. Volume 1: The earlier presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Cambridge University Press.

The fundamental idea which motivated most of the presocratics (as they are called) is naturalism. This is the idea that questions about life and the world can be answered without using myths, and that "the natural world is the whole of reality". ΐ]

With the Greeks we see rational thought and scientific reasoning emerge from the mists and myths of a pre-scientific age, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually. Α]

The Six Best Books on Presocratic Philosophy

From beginner-friendly introductions to comprehensive textbooks on Presocratic philosophy, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book the Presocratics. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading.

It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on Presocratic philosophy in no particular order.

Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 168 pages | Published: 2004

Publishers description: Generations of philosophers, both ancient and modern, have traced their inspiration back to the Presocratics. Part of the fascination stems from the fact that little of what they wrote survives. Here Osborne invites her readers to dip their toes into the fragmentary remains of thinkers from Thales to Pythagoras, Heraclitus to Protagoras, and to try to reconstruct the moves that they were making, to support stories that Western philosophers and historians of philosophy like to tell about their past.

This book covers the invention of western philosophy: introducing to us the first thinkers to explore ideas about the nature of reality, time, and the origin of the universe.

The Presocratic Philosophers – Jonathan Barnes

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 728 pages | Published: 1983

Publishers description: The Presocratics were the founding fathers of the Western philosophical tradition, and the first masters of rational thought. This volume provides a comprehensive and precise exposition of their arguments, and offers a rigorous assessment of their contribution to philosophical thought.

Philosophy Before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary – Richard D. McKirahan

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 512 pages | Published: 2011 (2 ed.)

Publishers description: Since its publication in 1994, Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates has become the standard sourcebook in Presocratic philosophy. It provides a wide survey of Greek science, metaphysics, and moral and political philosophy, from their roots in myth to the philosophers and Sophists of the fifth century. A comprehensive selection of fragments and testimonia, translated by the author, is presented in the context of a thorough and accessible discussion. An introductory chapter deals with the sources of Presocratic and Sophistic texts and the special problems of interpretation they present.

In its second edition, this work has been updated and expanded to reflect important new discoveries and the most recent scholarship. Changes and additions have been made throughout, the most significant of which are found in the chapters on the Pythagoreans, Parmenides, Zeno, Anaxagoras, and Empedocles, and the new chapter on Philolaus. The translations of some passages have been revised, as have some interpretations and discussions. A new Appendix provides translations of three Hippocratic writings and the Derveni papyrus.

The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy – P. Curd & D. W. Graham

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 608 pages | Published: 2011

Publishers description: In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. a new kind of thinker appeared in Greek city-states, dedicated to finding the origins of the world and everything in it, using observation and reason rather than tradition and myth. We call these thinkers Presocratic philosophers, and recognize them as the first philosophers of the Western tradition, as well as the originators of scientific thinking. New textual discoveries and new approaches make a reconsideration of the Presocratics at the beginning of the twenty-first century especially timely.

This handbook brings together leading international scholars to study the diverse figures, movements, and approaches that constitute Presocratic philosophy. More than a survey of scholarship, this study presents new interpretations and evaluations of the Presocratics’ accomplishments, from Thales to the sophists, from theology to science, and from pre-philosophical background to their influence on later thinkers. Many positions presented here challenge accepted wisdom and offer alternative accounts of Presocratic theories.

The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts – G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 518 pages | Published: 1984

Publishers description: Beginning with a long and extensively rewritten introduction surveying the predecessors of the Presocratics, this book traces the intellectual revolution initiated by Thales in the sixth century BC to its culmination in the metaphysics of Parmenides and the complex physical theories of Anaxagoras and the Atomists in the fifth century it is based on a selection of some six hundred texts, in Greek and a close English translation which in this edition is given more prominence. These provide the basis for a detailed critical study of the principal individual thinkers of the time. Besides serving as an essential text for undergraduate and graduate courses in Greek philosophy and in the history of science, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers with interests in philosophy, theology, the history of ideas and of the ancient world, and indeed to anyone who wants an authoritative account of the Presocratics.

The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy – Daniel W. Graham

Category: Anthology | Length: 1040 pages | Published: 2010

Publishers description: This two-part sourcebook gives the reader easy access to the language and thought of the Presocratic thinkers, making it possible either to read the texts continuously or to study them one by one along with commentary. It contains the complete fragments and a generous selection of testimonies for twenty major Presocratic thinkers including cosmologists, ontologists, and sophists, setting translations opposite Greek and Latin texts on facing pages to allow easy comparison. The texts are grouped in chapters by author in a mainly chronological order, each preceded by a brief introduction and an up-to-date bibliography, and followed by a brief commentary. Significant variant readings are noted. This edition contains new fragments and testimonies not included in the authoritative but now outdated Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. It is the first and only complete bilingual edition of the works of the Presocratic philosophers for English-speakers.

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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson

Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019

Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.


Western philosophy began in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. The Presocratics were mostly from the eastern or western fringes of the Greek world. Their efforts were directed to the investigation of the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. [ 5 ] They sought the material principle (archê) of things, and the method of their origin and disappearance. [ 5 ] As the first philosophers, they emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological explanations of the world. Only fragments of the original writings of the presocratics survive. The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts of later philosophical writers (especially Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus and Simplicius), and some early theologians (especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome). The Presocratic thinkers present a discourse concerned with key areas of philosophical inquiry such as being and the cosmos, the primary stuff of the universe, the structure and function of the human soul, and the underlying principles governing perceptible phenomena, human knowledge and morality.

Milesian school

The first Presocratic philosophers were from Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia. Thales (624-546 BCE) is reputedly the father of Greek philosophy he declared water to be the basis of all things. [ 5 ] Next came Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy. He assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance without qualities, out of which the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. [ 5 ] His younger contemporary, Anaximenes (585-525 BCE), took for his principle air, conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth. [ 5 ]


The practical side of philosophy was introduced by Pythagoras of Samos (582-496 BCE). Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on number, he aimed at inducing humankind likewise to lead a harmonious life. His doctrine was adopted and extended by a large following of Pythagoreans who gathered at his school in south Italy in the town of Croton. [ 5 ] His followers included Philolaus (470-380 BCE), Alcmaeon of Croton, and Archytas (428-347 BCE).

Ephesian school

Heraclitus of Ephesus on the western coast of Anatolia in modern Turkey (535-475 BCE) posited that all things in nature are in a state of perpetual flux, connected by logical structure or pattern, which he termed Logos. To Heraclitus, fire, one of the four classical elements, motivates and substantiates this eternal pattern. From fire all things originate, and return to it again in a process of eternal cycles.

Eleatic school

The Eleatic School, called after the town of Elea (modern name Velia in south Italy), emphasized the doctrine of the One. Xenophanes of Colophon (570-470 BCE) declared God to be the eternal unity, permeating the universe, and governing it by his thought. [ 5 ] Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE) affirmed the one unchanging existence to be alone true and capable of being conceived, and multitude and change to be an appearance without reality. [ 5 ] This doctrine was defended by his younger countryman Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE) in a polemic against the common opinion which sees in things multitude, becoming, and change. Zeno propounded a number of celebrated paradoxes, much debated by later philosophers, which try to show that supposing that there is any change or multiplicity leads to contradictions. [ 5 ] Melissus of Samos (born c. 470 BCE) was another eminent member of this school.

Pluralist school

Empedocles of Agrigentum (490-430 BCE) was from the ancient Greek city of Akragas (Ἀκράγας), Agrigentum in Latin, modern Agrigento, in Sicily. He appears to have been partly in agreement with the Eleatic School, partly in opposition to it. On the one hand, he maintained the unchangeable nature of substance on the other, he supposes a plurality of such substances - i.e. four classical elements, earth, water, air, and fire. Of these the world is built up, by the agency of two ideal motive forces - love as the cause of union, strife as the cause of separation. [ 5 ] Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BCE) in Asia Minor also maintained the existence of an ordering principle as well as a material substance, and while regarding the latter as an infinite multitude of imperishable primary elements, he conceived divine reason or Mind (nous) as ordering them. He referred all generation and disappearance to mixture and resolution respectively. To him belongs the credit of first establishing philosophy at Athens. [ 5 ]

Atomist school

The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by Leucippus (5th century BCE) and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BCE) from Thrace. This was the doctrine of atoms - small primary bodies infinite in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and arrangement, of the atoms which compose them. [ 5 ]


The last of the Presocratic natural philosophers was Diogenes of Apollonia from Thrace (born c. 460 BCE). He was an eclectic philosopher who adopted many principles of the Milesian school, especially the single material principle, which he identified as air. He explained natural processes in reference to the rarefactions and condensations of this primary substance. He also adopted Anaxagoras' cosmic thought.


The Sophists held that all thought rests solely on the apprehensions of the senses and on subjective impression, and that therefore we have no other standards of action than convention for the individual. [ 5 ] Specializing in rhetoric, the Sophists were more professional educators than philosophers. They flourished as a result of a special need at that time for Greek education. Prominent Sophists include Protagoras (490-420 BCE) from Abdera in Thrace, Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Leontini in Sicily, Hippias (485-415 BCE) from Elis in the Peloponnesos, and Prodicus (465-390 BCE) from the island of Ceos.

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή) is a concept in ancient Greek thought that, in its most basic sense, refers to “excellence” of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

In Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, Aristotle claims that to discover the human good we must identify the function of a human being. He argues that the human function is rational activity. Our good is therefore rational activity performed well, which Aristotle takes to mean in accordance with virtue.

Pre-Socratics 1

I probably do not grant the Pre-Socratic philosophers their full due. I tend to view them as a brief, curious prelude to the grander work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The Pre-Socratics present the problem that most of their writings have been lost. We are left with limited fragments of their work plus usually brief secondary sources. So it takes an elaborate scholarly reconstruction to recapture their thought in any depth and the reconstructions can be limited in scope and cogency or can provoke controversy―because there is such a small base of data to work with. Accordingly, for myself, I prefer to settle for a basic understanding of the ideas and to recognize the philosophical significance of each of the major Pre-Socratics. But I save my most extensive and best efforts in understanding Ancient Western Philosophy for the work that begins with Socrates. The treatment of the Pre-Socratic philosophers here reflects my limited interests.

Yet I cannot deny that the Pre-Socratics introduce fundamental ideas that constantly recur in the history of western philosophy or that they provide nourishing seeds for the philosophical work of Plato and Aristotle. Numerous philosophers (and scientists) have drawn inspiration from their ideas. And I grant that the reconstruction of their philosophical positions presents interesting scholarly puzzles and solutions―which evoke my admiration for the scholars who pursue them.

We might expect to find the origins of Ancient Western Philosophy in Athens, the cultural center of the Greek world. It happens however that the origins lie elsewhere, in Greek colonies in Asia Minor and Italy. A map of the ancient Greek world is available. Eventually, philosophers gravitated toward Athens and Socrates as well as Plato were native Athenians. In search of origins though, we begin with Thales of Miletus.

Thales was renowned for his wisdom. He had knowledge of astronomy and geometry, where he acquired considerable fame for predicting an eclipse. He also could be a shrewd business man, having once acquired a monopoly in olive oil futures when he expected a particularly good olive harvest. He left no writings.

Major Doctrines

b. Nature is a living process.

2. Basic Stuff in Nature

Thales concluded that the basic stuff in nature was Water, which is also interpretable more generally as the liquid or the moist. This may seem to be a weird conclusion nowadays. But the twentieth century British philosopher, R. G. Collingwood, in his The Idea of Nature, offered several possible justifications for Thales' conclusion:

a. Water is necessary for all life.

b. Water is extremely important in a dry climate.

c. Water is the only substance commonly found in three forms—solid, liquid, and gas.

d. Water was basic to the important phenomena of evaporation and rainfall.

e. Rivers such as the Nile produced the sedimentation that made land fertile for growing crops.

f. The earth was thought to be floating on water.

Philosophical Significance

a. Thales appealed to nature rather than myth or religion to understand existence―thereby generally getting credit for initiating western philosophy.

b. He sought a unifying principle, or basic stuff, to explain difference and change in nature.

Anaximander was a student of Thales. He wrote one book (now lost) that was still extant in the generation after Aristotle.

Major Doctrines

1. Argument Against Thales' Position

Water (what is cold and wet) has an opposite, fire (what is hot and dry) But a substance cannot generate its opposite and still be primary. Hence there must be something more basic from which the two opposites arise.

2. Basic Stuff in Nature

Anaximander fixed upon The Boundless (apeiron, Indeterminate, Infinite, Eternal) as the basic stuff in nature. He held that:

a. Everything develops from The Boundless and returns to it.

b. Vortices (rotatory motions) arise in The Boundless to bring about change.

c. The Boundless is capable of producing innumerable worlds.

Scientific Views

1. Shape of the Earth

The earth was cylindrical (like a tamborine) and floating in air.

2. Crude Theory of Evolution

Since human beings require lengthy suckling when young, they could not have survived if they were always as they are now. Hence human beings first arose from the inside of fishes.

a. Qualifications: Anaximander seems to suggest that human beings were in the fish. And he apparently did not think all animals evolved from sea life.

Philosophical Significance

Anaximander recognized that the basic stuff must be more fundamental than any determinate substance in nature.

Anaximenes had a higher reputation than Anaximander in the ancient world. He had one book that was widely read.

Basic Doctrines

1. Basic Stuff in Nature

Anaximenes argued that Air (which he treated like a substance) was the basic stuff in nature. Everything that exists can be explained in terms of condensation and rarefaction of air―for example, a solid body is due to heavy condensation. He held that:

a. Condensation and rarefaction can be investigated quantitatively.

b. Air provided a way of resolving the difficulty raised by Anaximander against Thales—that is, by viewing air as an underlying stuff that takes on opposites.

c. Air as the basic stuff avoided the vague concept of The Boundless.

d. Breath/human beings = wind/world

e. Temperature can be associated with condensation (lower) and rarefaction (higher).

f. Cold and heat, moisture and motion make air visible.

2. Scientific View

He envisioned a flat earth suspended in air.

Philosophical Significance

a. He suggested there was a quantitative basis for qualitative properties.

b. He took a step in distinguishing substance from quality (for example, cold and heat make air visible).

Reading the Pre-Socratics

For the most part, we have only fragments of the actual writings of Pre-Socratic philosophers. Much of our understanding of their work comes from the accounts of others—for example, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus (a major pupil of Aristotle), and Diogenes Laertius. The German scholar Hermann Diels (late nineteenth century) developed what has come to be the standard collection of fragments—in his Die Fragmente der Vorsocratiker (1903). Later presentations of fragments produce some variations on Diels’ work.

Collections of Pre-Socratic Writings

The readings I include for the Pre-Socratics website here are taken from Charles M. Bakewell’s Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.) His Sourcebook contains older translations but it also resides in the public domain and presents no copyright problems.

There are some other works with a fuller selection of fragments than Bakewell:

John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Company, 1930), 4th edition.

G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

John Mansley Robinson, An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968).

For my own understanding of the Pre-Socratics, I relied heavily on the following over the years:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1925), 2 vols.

I must admit that I often turn to Diogenes Laertius for comic relief as he recounts amazing tales of the lives of ancient philosophers. I especially enjoy bizarre stories about their deaths. More needs to be said though. D.L. is an ancient source (having lived perhaps in the third century, C.E.) who also includes worthwhile, often reliable information about the philosophical views of ancient philosophers. In some cases, he is our best ancient source for some philosophers―for example, the views of Aristippus and the writings of Epicurus.

John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (mentioned above).

This was my usual starting point for the fragmented writings of the Pre-Socratics.

W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962 - 1969), Vols. I-III.

Guthrie's excellent, thorough volumes were my deeper source for a scholarly reconstruction of Pre-Socratic philosophy.

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Volume I, Greece and Rome (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1946).

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960)

I found an enlightening explanation of many of the Pre-Socratics in the first fifty-five pages of Collingwood's book (first published in 1945).

Other Sources

A. A. Long, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

This collection of essays takes into account more recent scholarship and the book has an extensive bibliography.

Edward Hussey, The Pre-Socratics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972).

Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, ed., The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1974).

The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance

What's in a name? Would Presocratic philosophy by any other name be as profound and important? André Laks, a leading scholar of Presocratic philosophy, addresses this question is a slender volume, newly translated from the French, [1] about the scholarly understanding of the first philosophers. How do we classify early Greek philosophy, and what difference does it make?

The term 'Presocratic,' as our author points out, is a modern invention, coined by Johann August Eberhard (in the German version 'vorsokratische Philosophie') in a book on the history of philosophy published in 1788. But the question of how philosophy originated goes back to the Greeks themselves. Laks distinguishes a Socratic-Ciceronian tradition which sees Socrates as the watershed figure who turned philosophy from the study of nature to the study of man, and a Platonic-Aristotelian tradition in which Socrates is seen "pass[ing] from a philosophy of things to a philosophy of the concept" (1). The former tradition views the divide between the pre-Socratic and the Socratic as a change of content, the latter as a change in method to a "second-order kind of thought" dealing with "epistemological questions" (12-13). Indeed, in Aristotle's version of the story, "there is an unbroken continuity from Thales to Plato" in which Socrates is "an intermediary rather than . . . an initiator" in focusing on definitions and formal causes (16). Six centuries later, Diogenes Laertius tells the story of philosophy as a contest between an Ionian and an Italian tradition, in which the Presocratics play a role but do not emerge as a distinct group. Thus far chapter 1 (Ancient Antecedents).

In chapter 2 (Presocratics: The Modern Constellation), Laks deals with the reception of Presocratic philosophy, mainly in the nineteenth century when the contours of our present historiography of philosophy were emerging. W. T. Krug's history of philosophy (1815) identified Plato as the turning point of ancient philosophy but Friedrich Schleiermacher defended Socrates as the true watershed. G. W. F. Hegel saw the Sophists as marking the first major turning point, but the author of the most detailed and successful (and most often revised and reprinted) history of ancient philosophy, Eduard Zeller, restored Socrates to the central role. Laks follows the complex development of Friedrich Nietzsche's views on early Greek philosophy he notes that Nietzsche moved from speaking of the early philosophers as Preplatonics to speaking of them as Presocratics. The great philologist and philosopher Hermann Diels followed the lead of Zeller in collecting the Greek and Latin texts of the early philosophers and translating them into German in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (in 1 volume, 1903 expanded in later editions and edited by Walther Kranz up to the 6 th edn., 3 vols., 1951), which became the bible of Presocratic studies and made the term 'Presocratic,' in whatever language, canonical. [2] 'Presocratic,' Laks observes, "has the advantage of being a linguistically convenient term" that groups together the early thinkers who were not influenced by Socrates (32). Yet the morpheme 'pre-' in the word seems to suggest that the early philosophers were fated to be surpassed and rendered obsolete by more sophisticated successors (29). And, more fundamentally, it implies that all the philosophers designated by the term lived earlier than Socrates, when some, like Democritus, were his contemporaries, while other thinkers included in Diels' collection lived up to several generations after Socrates' death.

Having discussed in what sense the Presocratic philosophers were pre-Socratic, Laks goes on (chapter 3) to consider in what sense they were philosophers. He points out that Aristotle identifies them as the first philosophers, but that raises the question, in what sense philosophy was distinguishable from other intellectual endeavors. The much studied development from muthos to logos is more complex than originally recognized. It is also difficult, Laks observes, to distinguish philosophy from science in the early stages of both disciplines. This leads to a broader discussion of rationality (chapter 4), in which Laks looks at the theory of Jean-Pierre Vernant, in The Origins of Greek Thought, which finds the roots of Greek philosophy in the structures and life of the polis. Laks balances Vernant's ideas with those of Max Weber, but in the end finds that these sociological approaches cannot account for the heterogeneity of Greek thought.

Laks goes on to discuss the notion of origins (chapter 5), and the question of how fraught with theory are terms like 'origin' and 'beginning.' And to what extent can we demarcate the epochs that we think mark stages of intellectual development? In chapter 6, "What Is at Stake," Laks deals with the philosophical reception of Presocratic thought in the twentieth century. Here Laks focuses on two continental figures who embody, respectively, the Socratic-Ciceronian and the Platonic-Aristotelian traditions, namely Ernst Cassirer and Hans-Georg Gadamer the former approach stresses the discontinuity between the Presocratics and Socrates, the latter the continuity between the Presocratics and their Greek successors. (Laks hints that "Anglo-Saxon historiography" embodies the same debate, though without naming names, 79 one major continental figure notable by his absence is Martin Heidegger, referred to only in passing.) Gadamer sees the Presocratics as "speak[ing] with a single voice" in a very un-historicist way (83). Laks goes on to expound the interpretation of Cassirer, who seems to Laks to point the way to a more comprehensive history of philosophy (95).

The present study offers a helpful survey of the concept of Presocratic philosophy and how it was treated in classical antiquity and then developed from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Readers can gain an appreciation of the vicissitudes of historiography of the earliest philosophers. One thing, however, that seems to be missing is attention to the Presocratic philosophers themselves. Among the numerous quotations in the book, I have noted only one actual citation from a Presocratic text, and that is used only to reflect on methodology. To be sure, there is some value in taking Presocratic philosophy as a given and seeing how later thinkers respond to it. The focus on the reception of ancient texts, perhaps to the exclusion of those texts, is built in to the project. But I think part of the story must be how the discovery of early Greek philosophy is a two-way process: on the one hand, Presocratic thought provides the origin and inspiration for the discipline of philosophy on the other hand, an evolving discipline of philosophy helps each generation of thinkers reconceive Presocratic philosophy. And one of the essential ingredients in latter process must be how philological scholarship and philosophical reconstruction provide an evolving understanding of ancient thought.

Our understanding of the Presocratics has come a long way since 1788: papyri with new fragments have been recovered, meanings of Greek terms have been clarified, the nature and sources of ancient doxography have been illuminated, arguments have been reconstructed, influences among thinkers elucidated, ancient historiographical methods expounded, and so on. Most of the hard work of building a picture of the Presocratics, however, was done not by great philosophers, sociologists, and culture critics--that is, not by the non-specialists featured in most of the pages of Laks' study—but by specialist scholars and commentators who sifted through the strata, figuratively speaking, of the archaic world. Unfortunately, we don't hear much about the latter group and their significant and sometimes groundbreaking contributions to the concept of Presocratic philosophy.

One of the major landmarks in our contemporary understanding of Presocratic philosophy is the role Parmenides played in criticizing early Ionian philosophy and insisting that what-is, or being, has changeless properties. Parmenides is now seen as the major watershed within Presocratic philosophy, as Socrates is between pre-Socratic and post-Socratic philosophy. Yet this conception is not found in nineteenth-century historiography of philosophy, nor does it have any place in ancient portrayals. It arose in the twentieth century, in the scholarly debates of specialists in the field. Another important and controversial early philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, was originally portrayed as both a material monist (everything is fire) and a philosopher of flux (everything is always changing). Yet until relatively recently, no one seemed to notice how these two characterizations were fundamentally incompatible: if everything is really fire, nothing is really changing on the other hand, if everything is always changing, nothing is any real thing. Scholars of the twentieth century have offered reappraisals of Heraclitus that show him to be a thinker with a coherent theory. The evolving assessment of key figures such as Parmenides and Heraclitus is largely invisible in Laks' study of the reception of Presocratic philosophy. The best way, in retrospect, to investigate whether Presocratic "philosophy" is genuine philosophy may be to study its own theoretical debates in their own historical context, as reconstructed by specialist scholars.

In his discussion of scientific discovery, Aristotle observes, "As often as we have accidental knowledge that the thing [the phenomenon we are investigating] exists, we must be in a wholly negative state as regards its essential nature for we have not got genuine knowledge even of its existence . . . " (Posterior Analytics II. 8, 93a24-26, Oxford trans.). As we investigate, however, we discover the nature and properties of the practice. At this point our initial characterization may be seen as inadequate and the term used to describe it obsolete. Thus, the term eclipse as applied to the sun originally implied the abandonment of the sun's place in the sky. When we determine that the phenomenon is caused by the moon's blocking the sun's light, the term becomes obsolete -- but we still use it, and it acquires a new sense.

We might apply this insight to Presocratic philosophy scholars start with an incidental characterization of the phenomenon: it took place before (or without the influence of) Socrates. As we explore the phenomenon, we find the term 'Presocratic' misleading and tendentious. But the name is now emblazoned on the banner of the earliest Greek philosophers, and its meaning in practice is determined by the membership and activities of that group. In Fregean terms, the sense of the word is fixed by its reference, as determined by Diels and his successors. Laks accepts the term in this book but in the important new Loeb edition of early philosophical texts, Early Greek Philosophy (9 vols.), which Laks has edited and translated together with the translator of the present volume, Glenn W. Most, Laks and Most "avoid [the term Presocratic] as far as possible because of its undesirable connotations" (vol. 1, p. 6). Indeed, Laks and Most include testimonies of Socrates in the collection (vol. 8, ch. 33). There is, no doubt, some advantage in breaking down the barrier between Socrates and his intellectual contemporaries. But if we wish to distinguish Socrates from his contemporaries and forerunners, we shall be hard put to find another term than 'Presocratic.'

André Laks has given us a stimulating discussion of the concept of Presocratic philosophy as it has been understood from ancient Greek times to the present. His book offers the reader a chance to consider the historians and philosophers who have shaped our conception of the origins and to rethink the place of Presocratic philosophy in the development of the discipline and in relation to contemporary issues. The concept occupies an important place in the canon of the history of philosophy, but it is still evolving along with the tools we use to study the past, with our readings of historic texts, and indeed with our conception of philosophy itself.

[1] Introduction à la «philosophie présocratique», Presses Universitaires de France, 2006. I read the French original when it came out.

[2] Laks says, “Zeller and Diels are just as much ‘inventors of the Presocratics’ as is Nietzsche” (21) this, however, seems to me to grant Nietzsche too much influence in the historiography of philosophy, in a field in which he was relatively unknown until long after his death.

Heraclitus’ Doctrines on Change and the Unity of Opposites

This self-medication not only failed to cure Heraclitus, but may have actually resulted in his death. However, it has been said that this anecdote of Heraclitus’ death is probably an invention based on the philosopher’s own writings.

In one of his fragments, it is written that “it is death for souls to become water.” In another fragment, Heraclitus expounds his doctrine of exhalations or evaporations, in which fire turns into water and vice versa . These fragments are said to be the bases for the story of Heraclitus’ death.

One of Heraclitus’ best-known doctrines is that things are always changing (universal flux), characterized, for instance, in the second fragment mentioned in the previous paragraph. Heraclitus wrote that “The turnings of fire: first, sea and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…. Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio ( logos) it was before it became earth.”

In other words, water from the sea changes into both fire (by means of a fiery waterspout, which is a hurricane funnel illuminated by lightning) and earth.

Crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. ( Public Domain ) Some believe that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. This perception led to him being known as the "weeping philosopher," as opposed to Democritus, who is known as the "laughing philosopher.”

Another well-known Heraclitean doctrine is that of the unity of opposites. This doctrine may be separated into several groups. One group speaks of objects that have contradictory properties from different points of view. For example, in one fragment, it is written that “The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive.”

Another group deals with opposites which, while being in opposition to each other, are each necessary for the recognition of the other. For instance, “Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger [does the same for] satiety, weariness [for] rest.”

Yet another group deals with opposite qualities that occur successively. For example, “Cold things grow hot, a hot thing cold, a moist thing withers, a parched thing is wetted.”

These doctrines along with his cryptic statement that "all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos" (literally, "word", "reason", or "account") have been the subject of numerous interpretations over the years. Thus, the (in)famy of the Pre-Socratic “Riddler” continues.

Top Image: A 17th century painting of Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse. Source: Public Domain

Watch the video: The Pre-Socratic Philosophers