For the most part, Pre-Socratic thought has been refuted both by prevalent philosophies and scientific findings grounded on empirical data. This does not mean, however, that the ideas comprising it should be readily dismissed. This paper is an attempt to establish the fact that there are pre-Socratic concepts – such as Sophistic skepticism and Zeno’s paradoxes – that are embedded in, and are partly responsible for, the way we perceive the world around us. Pre-Socratic philosophy at the onset was geared towards explaining natural phenomena without invoking mythological gods.
Thales, for example, is best known for his assertion that everything is made up of water; Anaximander followed suit, but instead of water, he purported that everything originated from the “boundless”. For a period of time the questions being answered all revolved around the composition of the outside world – leading Aristotle to dub the thinkers concerned with the physical world “inquirers into nature” – until the dawn of the Sophists. The rather negative image of the Sophists can be credited to their prominence in Plato’s Dialogues, where their role is always the antagonist (e. g. Callicles, Protagoras) to the protagonist Socrates.
Although it can be said that the bleak picture painted of them may be warranted, no one can deny the fact that they ushered in a new era in pre-Socratic thought. Modern literature on the Sophists suggests that the scope of their inquiry was in fact broader than previously accounted for. Most of them did venture out of the quasi-scientific explanations of the physical world preceding thinkers have confined themselves in; the diversity of the subjects they took upon themselves to explore ranged from the familiar – explanation of phenomena – to what was then uncharted territory, such as ethics and politics.
This act of branching out, so to speak, paved the way for inquiries that transcended, and even engulfed, the general flavor of pre-Socratic thought. The range of issues covered by the Sophists may be large, but until now they are best known for giving birth to the concepts of relativism and skepticism in respect to gaining knowledge of the world around us. Delving into an examination of sense data, Protagoras – perhaps the most famous Sophist – maintained that there can only be subjective interpretations of “reality”.
Such an assertion is of course tied closely to his famous statement: “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are in so far as they are, and those that are not in so far as they are not. ” This elucidation clearly manifests his position that what is real – i. e. , what is perceived – is relative to the perceiver. From this argument, Gorgias (another famous Sophist) was able to make the leap from relativism to skepticism: if reality is relative to the one experiencing it, then objectivism with regard to reality cannot be achieved, because one person’s sense impressions are different from anybody else’s.
Gorgias’ statement “nothing exists” takes the above deduction to its logical extreme: It can be argued that nothing exists because if something does exist, it cannot be known. We are bound by the impressions perceived by our senses – impressions that can never be affirmed as real. Skepticism is still very much alive today. From the Sophists, it has been addressed by countless other philosophers, most notably in the field of Epistemology. This alone attests to the relevance of skepticism.
Despite the fact that the brand of skepticism Gorgias maintained has been dismissed as irrelevant due to its radical nature, it cannot be doubted that his perspective, however extreme, gave rise to questions that laid the foundation for the establishment of modern epistemology. Indirectly, then, skepticism is responsible for cultivating in man the desire to determine the source, validity, and truth of what he considers his “knowledge”. And ultimately, our questions about our beliefs – Are they based on truth?
On knowledge? – came into fruition and are being addressed today because of the emergence of the perspective of skepticism. Zeno is said to be a student of Parmenides, and his numerous paradoxes were purported to be aimed at countering the arguments of his teacher’s detractors. Whatever his intentions were at that time, however, are of little importance. The paradoxes he established, although now reduced to being reductio ad absurdo statements, have earned him a place as one of the more prominent pre-Socratic thinkers.
In a nutshell, his paradoxes centered on the contrast between sense data and logical argument – culminating in the controversial assertion that movement is in fact, impossible, despite the impression given by our senses that we are in constant motion. Aside from movement, Zeno’s paradoxes likewise “proved” that plurality of a thing is impossible, as well as the possession of any one thing of parts, by showing that allowing such results to contradiction. There have been a number of attempts to solve the paradoxes presented by Zeno, most notably by the famous philosophers Kant, Hegel, and Hume.
Their attempts have proven to be fodder for discussion, but were later on proven to be unacceptable. Contemporary literature on Zeno shows that a solution to the paradoxes consists of revisions on the concepts of time, motion, and space adopted by Zeno in his construction of the statements under scrutiny to adhere to modern theories in math and science. It has been said that the paradoxes constructed by Zeno are meant to challenge what has been termed as a “common-sense view of the world” – a view that still persists today.
Although in the end his statements were declared as nonsensical, the very fact that he was able to formulate single-handedly a new method of countering a particular assumption (or a point of view, in his case) – by breaking down assumptions into reduction ad absurdo statements – is laudable. Zeno’s paradoxes are a testament to the power of the human mind. Despite the fact that his statements have been reduced to absurdity by virtue of their being based on false assumptions, the main point here is the power Zeno’s play on words had. Some credit is due to someone whose assertions withstood the likes of Immanuel Kant and David Hume, certainly.
His paradoxes are relevant today to the extent that they serve as a reminder of the heights the human mind can achieve. Ironically, Zeno is likewise a reminder of the limits of the mind. Underneath the proposed solution to his paradoxes is the realization that the mind’s capacity to think can only go so far – until the ideas generated become mere gibberish. Translating this statement to our perspective of the world and our place in it, Zeno’s paradoxes ground us, make us realize that not everything we conjure in our minds is right, and that there is a limit to everything, even man’s capacity to think.