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Presocratic Philosophy

Categories: PhilosophyPythagoras

Introduction As early Greek civilization grew more complex (c. 500 b. c. e. ), mythology and religion began to develop into philosophy (and later into science). As part of this development, a new kind of thinker emerged known as a sophos, from the Greek word for “wise. ” These “wise men,” and they were almost exclusively men, asked increasingly sophisticated questions about all sorts of things, especially natural processes and the origins and essence of life.

Although mythology and religion continued to play important roles in the lives of people for centuries to come, these first philosophers were noted for their attempts to use reason and observation to figure out how the world works.

Instead of living a “normal life,” the sophos devoted himself to asking questions that so-called normal people thought had already been answered (by religion and mythology) or were unanswerable (and thus a waste of time).

In respect to public perceptions, it didn’t help that the sophos lived and spoke in ways that were interpreted as showing disregard and possibly disrespect for conventional values, and that set him or (infrequently) her apart from “regular folks” living “normal” lives.

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It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the earliest popular images of philosophers is the stereotype of an odd, “absent-minded,” starry-eyed dreamer and asker of silly questions. The very first Western thinkers identified as philosophers were initially concerned with questions about the nature of nature (physis) and of the “world order” (kosmos).

Presocratic Rational Discourse The earliest Western philosophers are referred to as the Presocratics because they appeared prior to Socrates, the first major figure in the Western philosophical tradition.

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Some of the Presocratic philosophers are described as proto-scientists because they initiated the transformation of mythology into rational inquiry about nature and the cosmos. A very general characterization of the development of Presocratic philosophy is helpful for placing subsequent philosophical issues and disagreements in context.

Of most interest for our purposes is the Presocratic philosophers’ struggle to offer rational, “objective” arguments and explanations for their views. These concerns played a major role in the origins and historical development of Western philosophy. The first philosophers’ intense interest in explanations shaped the development of reason by triggering questions of logical consistency and standards of knowledge that went beyond the sorts of evidence that a craftsman could offer to back up his claims to expertise.

The Presocratic Philosophers Thales Thales (c. 624–545 b. c. e.), traditionally said to be the first Western philosopher, seems to have believed that water is in some way central to our understanding of things. This concept was probably based upon a belief that the earth floated on water, and that all things originate with water. Current opinion holds that Thales believed that whatever is real is in some significant sense ‘‘alive. ’’ According to Aristotle, Thales ‘‘thought that all things are full of gods,’’ and as evidence of such powers even in apparently inanimate nature he points to the remarkable properties of what was referred to as the ‘‘Magnesian stone’’.

Although Aristotle’s statement is too slight to serve as a sure foundation for judgment, it seems more likely that Thales was arguing for the broader presence of life forces in the world than most people imagined, rather than that the real in its totality is alive. Anaximander Thales’ younger contemporary from Miletus, Anaximander, born toward the end of the seventh century B. C. E. , found the explanatory principle of things in what he called ‘‘the apeiron,’’ a word that might be translated as ‘‘the indefinite,’’ ‘‘the boundless,’’ or both.

This opens up the possibility that the apeiron is both immeasurably large in its temporal and physical extent and also qualitatively indefinite in that it is without measurable inner boundaries. The apeiron is further described, according to Aristotle, as being ‘‘without beginning,’’ ‘‘surrounding all things,’’ ‘‘steering all things,’’ ‘‘divine,’’ ‘‘immortal,’’ and ‘‘indestructible. ’’ Some have inferred that Anaximander’s barely concealed purpose was Western philosophy’s first attempt at demythologization.

Equally striking is Anaximander’s description of the universe as a closed, concentric system, the outer spheres of which, by their everlasting motion, account for the stability of our earth, a drum-shaped body held everlastingly in a state of equipoise at the center. Whatever the inadequacy in certain details (the stars are placed nearer to the earth than the moon), with Anaximander the science of cosmological speculation took a giant step forward. As far as life on earth is concerned, Anaximander offered another striking hypothesis.

The first living things, according to him, were ‘‘born in moisture, enclosed in thorny barks’’ (like sea urchins), and ‘‘as their age increased, they came forth onto the drier part’’ (as phrased by Aetius [first to second century C. E. ]). Pythagoras Although we know that Pythagoras was a historical figure, it is difficult to determine exactly what Pythagoras himself taught. He wrote nothing, and the ideas of other members of the community were attributed to him as a sign of respect and as a way of lending weight to the ideas.

Plato and Aristotle rarely assign ideas to Pythagoras himself, although Pythagorean ideas seem to have influenced Plato’s philosophy. Pythagoreans asserted that number is the first principle of all things. They were the first systematic developers of mathematics in the West and discovered that natural events could be described in mathematical terms, especially as ratios. To the Pythagoreans, the “principle of number” accounted for everything. Number was a real thing. Somehow, numbers existed in space, not just as mental constructs.

According to Pythagorean doctrine, the entire universe is an ordered whole consisting of harmonies of contrasting elements. The Greek for “ordered whole” is cosmos. The Pythagoreans were the first philosophers to use the term cosmos to refer to the universe in this way. The “celestial music of the spheres” is the hauntingly beautiful phrase the Pythagoreans coined to describe the sound of the heavens as they rotate according to cosmic number and harmony.

Xenophanes A fourth Ionian philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon, born around 580 B. C. E. ,is the first we know of to overtly attack the anthropomorphism of popular religious belief, in a series of brilliant reductio ad absurdum arguments. His own view has been understood, ever since Aristotle, as pantheistic. Xenophanes was also the first philosopher we know of to ask what degree of knowledge is attainable. In B34 we read: ‘‘the clear and certain truth no man has seen, nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. ’’ Several ancient critics took this to be an indication of Xenophanes’ total scepticism.

On this basis of moderate empiricism and scepticism, Xenophanes offered a number of opinions of varying plausibility about the natural world, one of which—a strong, evolutionary interpretation of the discovery on various islands of fossils of marine animals—is enough to constitute a major claim to fame in natural philosophy and ranks with his other significant steps in epistemology (the theory of knowledge dealing with what we know, how we know it, and how reliable our knowledge is), logic (the study of rational inquiry and argumentation), and natural theology (the attempt to understand God from natural knowledge).

Heraclitus One of the most important and enigmatic of the Presocratics, Heraclitus (fl . 500 b. c. e. , d. 510–480 b. c. e. ), said that ignorance is bound to result when we try to understand the cosmos when we do not even comprehend the basic structure of the human psyche (soul) and its relationship to the Logos. The complex Greek word logos is intriguing.

It could and at times did mean all of the following: “intelligence,” “speech,” “discourse,” “thought,” “reason,” “word,” “meaning,” “study of,” “the record of,” “the science of,” “the fundamental principles of,” “the basic principles and procedures of a particular discipline,” “those features of a thing that make it intelligible to us,” and “the rationale for a thing. ” The Heraclitean capital L Logos is like God, only without the anthropomorphizing (humanizing) of the earlier philosophers and poets who attributed human qualities to the gods.

According to Heraclitus’s impersonal view of God, the Logos is a process, not an entity. As such, the Logos is unconcerned with individuals and human affairs, in much the same way that gravity affects us but is unconcerned with us. More radically yet, Heraclitus asserted that even though things appear to remain the same, “Change alone is unchanging. ” Traditionally, it has been held that Heraclitus went so far as to claim that everything is always changing all the time. But whether he really meant that everything is always changing, or that individual things are held together by energy (change), remains unclear.

Anaximenes Anaximander’s younger contemporary, Anaximenes, who lived during the sixth century B. C. E. appears to revert to a prior and less sophisticated vision in claiming that the earth, far from being a drum-shaped body held in equipoise at the center, is flat and ‘‘rides on,’’ supported by air. The same might be said of his contention that the basic, ‘‘divine’’ principle of things was not some indefinite entity but something very much part of our experience; namely, air.

Anaximenes’ view would also no doubt have seemed to be corroborated by the fact that the universe, commonly understood as a living thing and hence needing a soul to vivify it, possessed in air that very ‘‘breath’’ that for most Greeks constituted the essence of such a soul. Parmenides Parmenides of Elea (fift h century b. c. e. ) radically transformed the early philosophers’ interest in cosmology, the study of the universe as a rationally ordered system (cosmos), into ontology, the study of being. By common agreement he was the giant among the pre-Socratics.

According to Parmenides, none of his predecessors adequately accounted for the process by which the one basic stuff of the cosmos changes into the many individual things we experience every day. In his search for a solution to the problem of “the one and the many,” Parmenides turned to a reasoned analysis of the process of change itself. According to Parmenides, all sensations occur in the realm of appearance. This means that reality cannot be apprehended by the senses. Change and variety (the many) are only appearances; they are not real. If this is true, then our most commonly held beliefs about reality are mere opinions.

The senses cannot recognize “what is,” much less can they discover—observe—it, ever. In other words, whatever we see, touch, taste, hear, or smell is not real, does not exist. Perhaps most unsettling of all, Parmenides “solved” the problem of the appearance of change by concluding—in direct opposition to Heraclitus’s insistence that everything is always changing—that the very concept of change is self-contradictory. What we think of as change is merely an illusion. The logic runs as follows: “Change” equals transformation into something else.

When a thing becomes “something else,” it becomes what it is not. But since it is impossible for “nothing” (what is not) to exist, there is no “nothing” into which the old thing can disappear. (There is no “no place” for the thing to go into. ) Therefore, change cannot occur. Empedocles posited, against Parmenides, change and plurality as features of reality, but affirmed the eternality of anything that is real; the sphere-like nature of the real when looked at as a totality and the fact that the real is a plenum, containing no ‘‘nothingness’’ or ‘‘emptiness’’.

Anaxagoras likewise posited change, plurality, and divisibility as features of reality, yet also affirmed the eternality of the real (understood by him as an eternally existent ‘‘mixture’’ of the ‘‘seeds’’ of the things currently constituting the world, rather than the eternal combinings and recombinings, according to certain ratios of admixture, of four eternally existent ‘‘roots’’ or elemental masses). Leucippus Leucippus of Miletus (c. fi ft h century b. c. e. ) and Democritus of Abdera (c. 460–370 b.c. e. ) argued that reality consists entirely of empty space and ultimately simple entities that combine to form objects.

T is materialistic view is known as atomism. Leucippus is credited with being the originator of atomism and Democritus with developing it. Rather than reject Parmenides’ assertion that change is an illusion, Leucippus argued that reality consists of many discrete “ones,” or beings. Zeno Zeno, who was born early in the fifth century B. C. E. , was a friend and pupil of Parmenides.

In his famous paradoxes he attempted to show by a series of reductio ad absurdum arguments, of which the best known is perhaps that of Achilles and the tortoise, the self-contradictory consequences of maintaining that there is a real plurality of things or that motion or place are real. The prima facie brilliance of many of the arguments continues to impress people, though it soon becomes clear that the paradoxes turn largely on the failure or unwillingness of Zeno, like so many Pythagoreans of the day, to distinguish between the concepts of physical and geometrical space.

Zeno’s way of constructing the problem makes it seem that his primary object is to defame pluralists by attacking the logical possibility of explaining how there can be motion in the world. Gorgias Gorgias has achieved fame for the stress he laid upon the art of persuasion (‘‘rhetoric’’), although whether he wrote the baffling On What Is Not as a serious piece of persuasive reasoning or as some sort of spoof of the Eleatic philosophy of Parmenides and others remains disputed.

Its basic, and remarkable, claim is prima facie, that nothing in fact is (exists /is the case [esti] or is knowable or conceivable. Any exiguous plausibility that the arguments supporting this claim possess turns on our overlooking Gorgias’s failure, witting or unwitting, to distinguish carefully between knowing and thinking, along with his various uses of the verb ‘‘to be. ’’ If the failure was witting, the document can be seen as a skillful device for the spotting of fallacies as part of training in rhetoric and basic reasoning.

If it was unwitting, Gorgias still emerges as what he was claimed to be—a deft rhetorical wordsmith on any topic proposed to him. Protagoras Perhaps the greatest of the Sophists was Protagoras of Abdera (481– 411 b. c. e. ). Protagoras was an archetypal Sophist: an active traveler and first-rate observer of other cultures who noted that although there are a variety of customs and beliefs, each culture believes unquestioningly that its own ways are right—and roundly condemns (or at least criticizes) views that differ from its own.

Based on his observations and travels, Protagoras concluded that morals are nothing more than the social traditions, or mores, of a society or group. The details of Protagoras’s beliefs remain disputed. When he said, for example, that ‘‘anthropos [humanity] is a/the measure for all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not,’’ it is unclear whether he is talking about one person or the sum total of persons; about ‘‘a’’ measure or ‘‘the’’ measure (there is no definite article in Greek); or about existence or states of affairs or both.

The Platonic reading in the Theaetetus, which takes ‘‘anthropos’’ as generic and ‘‘measure’’ as exclusive, led to the assertion that the logical consequence was total (and absurd) relativism. ______________________________ References: The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. Richard H. Popkin. Columbia University Press. 1999. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 7th ed. Douglas J. Soccio. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2010.

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Presocratic Philosophy. (2016, Oct 28). Retrieved from

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