The Presocratics

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edit classify history index The Presocratics

The history of Philosophy in the west begins with the Greeks, and particularly with a group of philosophers commonly called the “pre-Socratics”, so named because they appeared before Socrates brought dramatic_change to philosophy. This is not to say that there were not other pre-philosophical rumblings in Egyptian, Semitic, and Babylonian cultures. Certainly there were great thinkers and writers in each of these cultures, and there is evidence that some of the earliest Greek philosophers may have had contact with at least some of the products of Egyptian and Babylonian thought. However, the early Greek thinkers add at least one element which differentiates their thought from all those who came before them. For the first time in history, we discover in their writings something more than dogmatic assertions about the way the world is ordered -- we find reasoned arguments for various beliefs about the world.

Bold Questions

As it turns out, nearly all of the various cosmologies proposed by the early Greek philosophers are profoundly and demonstrably false, but this does not diminish their importance. For, even if later ancient_philosophers summarily rejected the answers they provided, they could not escape their questions.

  • Where does everything come from?
  • What is it really made out of?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • Why are we able to describe them with a singular mathematics?

As important as the questions they asked was the method they followed in forming and transmitting their answers. The pre-Socratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations for the phenomenon they saw around them in favor of more rational explanations. In other words they depended on reason and observation to illuminate the true nature of the world around them, and they used rational argument to advance their views to others. And though there has been a great deal of argument about the relative weights that reason and observation should have, philosophers for over two thousand years have been basically united in the use of the very method first used by the pre-Socratics.

Pre-Socratic philosophers are often very hard to pin down, and it is sometimes very difficult to determine the actual line of argument they used in supporting their particular views. This problem arises not from some defect in the men themselves or in their ideas, but is simply the result of their separation from us in history. While most of these men produced significant texts, we have no complete versions of any of those texts. All we have is quotations by later philosophers, historians, and the occasional textual fragment.

Presocratic Schools

The various schools of thought are generally said to begin in the Greek cities of western Asia Minor (Ionia) with Thales of Miletus, who was active around 585 B.C. and left us the opaque dictum, “All is water.” His most noted students were Anaximenes of Miletus and Anaximander (“All is air”).

Other thinkers and schools appeared throughout Greece over the next couple of centuries. Among the most important were: Heraclitus, who stressed the transitory and chaotic nature of all things (“All is fire”; “We cannot step into the same river twice”). Anaxagoras, who conversely asserted that reality was so ordered that it must be in all respects governed by Mind.

The Pluralists and Atomists (Empedocles, Democritus) who tried to understand the world as composite of innumerable interacting parts; and the Eleatics Parmenides and Zeno who both insisted that All is One and change is impossible. Parmenides and his school emphasized the numerical, mathematical character of the world and of truth.

The Sophists, traveling professional teachers of varied philosophical affinity, became known (perhaps unjustly) for claiming that truth was no more than opinion and for teaching people to argue fallaciously to prove whatever conclusions they wished. The movement gradually became more concentrated in Athens, which had become the dominant city-state in Greece.

There is considerable discussion about why Athenian culture encouraged philosophy, but one popular theory says that it occurred because Athens had a direct democracy. It’s known from Plato’s writings that many sophists maintained schools of debate, were respected members of society, and well paid by their students. It’s also well known that orators had tremendous influence on Athenian history, possibly even causing its failure (See Battle of Miletus). The theory fills in the blanks by saying that the Sophists’ students wanted to acquire the skills of an orator in order to influence the Athenian Assembly, and thereby grow wealthy and respected. Since winning debates led to wealth, the subjects and methods of debate became highly developed. Note that Western and American culture maintain this trait. Culturally, Westerners are very Greek.

Presocratic Philosophers

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article “The_Presocratics” under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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