Abstract and Keywords
This article is concerned with the first philosophers and scientists in the Western tradition. It studies the Presocratic philosophers. One can approach early Greek philosophy through either particular figures of the period or thematic studies that cover broader time periods. If the term “Presocratic philosopher” is a conventional designation established by scholars, it marks out a set of figures who do seem to merit special attention. So as long as there is a tribe of philosophers in the West, they will look back to the first antecedents of their profession. And it seems that the Presocratics are the obvious candidates for founders of the movement.
1. About This Volume
This volume is concerned with the first philosophers and scientists in the Western tradition. Why what we call philosophy and science first emerged in the West in Greece during the sixth century bce is a question that intrigued even the classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle makes some suggestions), but it is one that we cannot answer. The figures who are studied in this book, the Presocratic philosophers, would not have recognized themselves under either of those names. Certainly, they would not think of themselves as waiting for or prefiguring Socrates; and it is fairly clear that philosophy, as a name for the intellectual activity in which they were engaged, did not begin to be in common use until the time of Plato and Isocrates, after the period that concerns us. Why, then, is this a handbook of Presocratic philosophy? The name Presocratic philosophers serves as a useful label for picking out a group of thinkers in the Greek‐speaking world of the sixth and fifth centuries bce. Such labels are common in the history of philosophy—Augustine and Anselm certainly did not think of themselves as medievals, and neither Aquinas nor Hume would have claimed that they studied epistemology, although both certainly were concerned with what knowledge is and how and what human beings can know. In our case, the figures in this study were engaged with a range of problems and theories that later philosophers (who identified themselves as such) recognized as similar to their own, and as significant (though perhaps mistaken) forerunners of their own (presumably correct) views. Yet, for all that, the term “philosophy” can be misleading in the study of the Presocratics, for it can artificially narrow our perception of the range of topics and problems that occupied these men. They studied many things that are now outside the scope of academic philosophical inquiry. They studied the phenomena of the heavens and the earth. They had views about the nature of the cosmos (and whether there could be more than one cosmos), the stars, the weather, human thought and perception, disease and health, (p. 4) the natures of plants and animals (and their activities), respiration, the circulation of the blood, embryology, gods and piety, cities and individuals, and the possibilities and limits of human thought. They thought about motion and change, patterns of change and stability, mortality and immortality, ignorance and understanding.
This volume collects essays on the Presocratics that are aimed at both specialists and upper‐level students of the field of Greek philosophy. One can approach early Greek philosophy through either particular figures of the period or thematic studies that cover broader time periods. Introductory texts, by necessity, must be fairly neutral and detached in their treatment of contentious issues. Our hope is that in this volume the reader will find evidence of the exciting field that is Presocratic studies: the editors have asked writers to take account of recent controversies and new interpretations of the Presocratics. We have encouraged the contributors to branch out and make new contributions to the field, to argue for their own views; thus the reader will find disagreements between authors and arguments both for and against certain interpretations. It is through the rigorous examination of new and provocative views that our understanding of these important philosophers will advance. It is hoped that in these essays, a reader can find some of the best and latest work on Presocratic thought, giving a picture of the state of Presocratic studies today and also setting problems for future scholarly work.
If the term “Presocratic philosopher” is a conventional designation established by scholars, it marks out a set of figures who do seem to merit special attention. So long as there is a tribe of philosophers in the West, they will look back to the first antecedents of their profession. And it seems that the Presocratics are the obvious candidates for founders of the movement. Rhetoricians have always recognized the subclass of sophists as the founders of their movement; in light of common interests sophists shared with the natural philosophers, they seem to merit inclusion in the larger group of Presocratic philosophers. In the same period, there were other gifted intellectuals who shared some interests with the Presocratics—historians such as Herodotus, playwrights such as Euripides, and politicians such as Pericles. Physicians, notably the Hippocratic writers, were especially influenced by Presocratic theories. Yet these were not in the same way theorists of nature, or of being, or of human society. In the Presocratics we find an intellectual movement with distinctive aims and methods, one that had a continuing influence on philosophical and scientific discussions in antiquity, and even in the modern world. Their achievement has always inspired awe among their students, and we still have much to learn from them.
Part of the difficulty of working with Presocratic material is the problem of our texts and the sources for them. No Presocratic text has survived complete and intact. We are almost entirely dependent on the vagaries of later ancient writers for what we know of these thinkers and their work. David Runia provides a short critical history of this, and discusses the latest developments in the study of the (p. 5) sources for the Presocratics. It is certain that they drew on the myths and traditions of the Greek world as well as Eastern myths and astronomical records. Walter Burkert's contribution shows just how complicated that influence was, yet the novelty of the early Greek mode of inquiry seems clear. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes of Miletus proposed startlingly different explanations of the world around them, including complex theories to explain the phenomena of the heavens. A standard way of characterizing their new view is that they were the first who attempted to explain the natural world in terms of itself, using concepts that avoided supernatural causes, and this is certainly true, even though aspects of their language might suggest lingering aspects of a personified world picture, for example, Anaximander's claim that the things that are “give penalty and recompense to one another for their injustice, in accordance with the ordering of time” (12B1) or Thales' assertion that the lodestone has a soul (presumably because it moves iron, 11A22). It is commonly said of the early Presocratics that they were fundamentally materialist physicists, explaining the world around them in terms of some basic material stuff that undergoes alterations and changes while at the same time remaining (in some sense) the same and so underlying and being responsible for all physical phenomena. The three Milesians differ, on this view, primarily in their choice of basic stuff (water in the case of Thales, some mysterious “indefinite stuff” for Anaximander, and air for Anaximenes). This view of the Milesians goes back at least as far as Aristotle. In the 1990s, scholars began to challenge some of the traditional assumptions about the Milesians (and other early Presocratics), questioning the standard interpretation of their views and stressing the early Presocratic interest in astronomy. Stephen White, in his contribution, bases his account of the Milesians on their attempts at measurement and explanation of the regularities of astronomical phenomena, arguing that attending to the interactions among observation, measurement, and theory can help provide a richer understanding of the Milesian contribution to the development of both science and philosophy. Similarly, close attention to the meteorological theories of Xenophanes of Colophon has led to a greater appreciation of his role as a theoretical philosopher, and has led scholars to see him as more than a traveling poet with some interests in the vagaries of religious belief among human beings, and some suggestive remarks about knowledge. For instance, in claiming that the rainbow is by nature cloud colored in a certain way, Xenophanes uses a pattern of analysis and explanation that will stay with philosophy for a long time; in exhorting humans to engage in inquiry, he makes explicit the method of the Milesians and begins to test its efficacy. A. P. D. Mourelatos, in a discussion of Xenophanes' “cloud astro‐physics” (the analysis and explanation of all heavenly and meteorological phenomena in terms of cloud), provides a view of this newer Xenophanes, who is now being recognized as an important philosopher‐scientist in his own right and a crucial figure in the development of critical thought about human knowledge and its objects in the next generation of Presocratic thinkers.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, called the Riddler (by Timon of Phlius) and the Obscure (by Cicero), has hardly suffered from neglect. His views on change (or flux), on understanding the logos and the unity of opposites, on religious and ethical questions, and on the dunderheadedness of most ordinary people have been subjects of debate and ridicule since ancient times. Also since ancient times, commentators have had difficulty not only understanding Heraclitus, but also fitting him into certain pictures of the development of early Greek thought: is he a cosmologist who follows the Milesian line and adopts fire as the single substratum of all things? Is he primarily an ethicist with no real concern for scientific inquiry? The renewed interest in the Presocratics of the last few decades has not ignored Heraclitus, and some new and fruitful lines of inquiry are now being pursued. In his chapter on Heraclitus, Daniel Graham presents a unified Heraclitus who is a thoughtful critic of his predecessors, and keenly interested in the possibility of human understanding. This Heraclitus rejects the Milesian account of a single substance with systematic changes and transformations that guarantee the stability of the whole. He recognizes that his new views will be difficult to understand, but provides hints and lessons to allow his hearer or reader to grasp his philosophical account. Parmenides of Elea, too, has not been ignored by the scholarly community—a number of new interpretations of Parmenides have appeared in the last decade. Yet it can still be difficult to understand just how Parmenides reaches his conclusions: how are the parts of his long argument in fragment B8 connected with one another, and how do they function to further his claims that what‐is is and must be and that what‐is‐not is not and cannot be? Richard McKirahan undertakes here a close analysis of fragment B8, teasing out the structure of the arguments, and showing what parts of the traditional and new interpretations of Parmenides those arguments do (or do not) support. He presents some surprising conclusions and opens up spaces for new interpretations.
Traditional histories of Presocratic philosophy have tended to see a double strand of interests developing, usually side by side without much interaction (at least until the time of Plato). First, there are the Milesians and their descendents among the physiologoi: Heraclitus (however uneasily he might fit the pattern), Parmenides (as critic of physical science), the pluralists and atomists (who persist in the study of the cosmos despite Parmenides' arguments). Second, there are Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, who concentrated on formal or mathematical accounts of things, and were as committed to living a certain sort of life as to philosophical inquiry. This picture has been disputed recently: scholars have not only argued that Parmenides wished to reform rather than reject cosmological inquiry but also integrated the Pythagoreans more fully into a more expansive picture of Presocratic interests.1 Recently, the Pythagoreans have received rather more attention, both in their own right and as part of the developing picture of Presocratic thought, than they received for much of the twentieth century. Thanks to these studies, a new and more complicated picture is emerging. Carl Huffman refines this picture in his chapter, critically examining Aristotle's claims about (p. 7) Pythagorean influence on Plato, along with the related question of who among early Greek thinkers actually counts as a Pythagorean. Huffman provides a reminder that Aristotle's account of the history of earlier thought is always a history of just a part of the philosophy of his predecessors, and makes clear that the eagerness with which some present‐day scholars find Pythagorean influence on later thought may be misplaced. Not only our view of the Pythagoreans has become more nuanced but also our understanding of post‐Parmenidean thought. The fuller assimilation of the Pythagoreans into the story and a better appreciation of the influence of Parmenides have changed our view of later Presocratic thought. Patricia Curd, in her chapter on Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, undertakes to show the connections among the metaphysical, epistemological, and cosmological parts of Anaxagoras's theory. The discovery and publication of new material has also enhanced our understanding of Presocratic thought. A spectacular example is the new material from Empedocles of Acragas that has become available.2 Oliver Primavesi considers how the new finds have affected our view of Empedocles, and suggests how interpretation of that material might help solve (or dissolve) some longstanding problems about the structure and content of Empedocles' writings.
Presocratic atomism was one of the most influential of the early theories: both Plato and Aristotle thought of it as a major competing theory, and it was an important source for post‐Aristotelian Hellenistic theories (as was Heraclitus). It has been a commonplace that the atomism developed first by Leucippus of Abdera and then by Democritus of Abdera was a reaction to the Eleatic arguments of Zeno and Melissus, but the details of that influence have sometimes seemed rather hazy. Daniel Graham and David Sedley here bring them into sharper focus. The paucity of direct evidence and the welter of reports and responses in later philosophical treatments hampers all study of Presocratic atomism. Graham undertakes the task of recovering Leucippus, the first atomist, attempting to determine his own particular views, and to show how Eleatic arguments and theories affected atomism; not in the first place as a target to be undermined, but as a positive model that Leucippus used. Sedley also considers the Eleatic foundations of atomism, especially the question of the importance of Zeno and Melissus for Democritus. By concentrating on some of the less‐studied aspects of atomism (through a close study of Aristotle's criticism of Democritus) and especially of the development of the concept of the unlimited into the notion of the infinite, he furthers our understanding of not only the development of early atomism but also the Eleatics Zeno and Melissus.
In the last part of the fifth century, we meet with figures who both carried on and marked a change in the Presocratic tradition. Diogenes of Apollonia developed a theory based on air. He has often been dismissed as a minor or eclectic thinker (eclecticism somehow being a mark of inferiority) who merely echoed (in an inferior way) Milesian views that Parmenides had discredited. André Laks challenged that view in a monograph published in 1983; here Laks (p. 8) takes up Diogenes again, investigating some of the reasons Diogenes has been unappreciated, and making a case for Diogenes' mind‐based teleology as a significant philosophical contribution. The sophists, too, have suffered from the charge, which goes back to Plato, of not being “real” philosophers. By now, this view is largely discredited, yet as Paul Woodruff and Michael Gagarin show, important questions remain to be answered about the topics the sophists studied and taught, and their views, both positive and negative, about truth, religion, and convention.
While many studies focus on individual early Greek thinkers, we can perhaps best appreciate the Presocratic achievement by looking at their views synoptically: seeing how certain assumptions and questions were common to them. Five chapters in this volume consider the Presocratics from this vantage point. Philip van der Eijk explores the often overlooked but crucial connections between ancient Greek medicine and early Greek thought, emphasizing how porous the boundaries were between disciplines that we now see as quite different, and how the practitioners of medicine and philosophy understood, criticized, and influenced one another. M. R. Wright explores early Greeks' cosmological speculation, showing how they explored the possibility of a “theory of everything” and human understanding of the cosmos. R. J. Hankinson focuses on their explorations of the fundamental concepts of reasons and causation, and the problems of explanation, and argues, like Wright, that it is indeed reasonable to see in Presocratic thought the foundations of Western scientific explanation. J. H. Lesher explores Presocratic epistemology, arguing that these thinkers replace divine revelation as a warrant for knowledge with naturalistic accounts of how and what we humans can know; thus replacing earlier Greek pessimism about knowledge with a more optimistic outlook that allows for human discovery of the truth. Despite what may seem to be a rejection of traditional Greek notions of the gods and the piety due them, many of the Presocratics maintained a keen interest in what we would call religious belief, and that interest is the subject of the chapter by T. M. Robinson; not only Xenophanes but others of the Presocratics had important views on the relation between the human and divine, and in some, as in Empedocles, that relation could underlie their philosophical theories.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw the Presocratics as important sources and forerunners. Thinking about how they treated their early Greek predecessors can help us to see how Plato's and Aristotle's understanding of the Presocratics affected later accounts, which often are all we have to go on when we study them. As noted, our own view of the Presocratics is enormously complicated by the problems of sources and traditions for their work. Michael Frede sheds light on Aristotle's own understanding of philosophy, hence his views of his predecessors (which can help us understand some of the claims he made about the earlier thinkers). John Palmer deals with classical thinkers (including Plato and Aristotle) who interpreted, wrote about, and preserved the Presocratics, pointing out that just as we must read the Presocratics through the filters of Plato and Aristotle (and their successors and commentators), Plato and Aristotle were influenced by the (p. 9) already burgeoning tradition of historiography that developed in the late fifth and fourth centuries.
2. The Historiography of Presocratic Philosophy
When we study the great philosophers of the classical age, we read their writings (as in the case of Plato and Aristotle) or works depicting the philosopher and his methods (Socrates). But in the case of their philosophical predecessors, we have no intact philosophical works. We are forced to gather reports about them by informed sources (testimonies) and quotations of their words (fragments) taken from these sources. When we study these literary remains, we must take into account the biases of the ancient secondary sources; we are dependent on them to put the fragments in context, yet we recognize the possibility that they may distort the context or misconstrue the meaning of the passage. Despite the fact that the ancient secondary sources are much closer in time to the Presocratics, and share much of their social, historical, and linguistic environment, we find that these sources are often insensitive to differences that divide them from the earlier thinkers, hence they are apt to misunderstand the Presocratics in certain ways.
Modern scholarship consists of a twofold attempt to recover ancient thought: an effort to reconstruct the historical, social, linguistic, and intellectual context in which the Presocratics wrote, and an effort to reconstruct their theory in a systematic way so that the scattered remarks and doctrines attributed to them make philosophical sense. The first project falls primarily within the domain of the classicist, the second within that of the philosopher. In practice, however, scholars who work in the field must in large measure be, to use an Aristotelian term, “dualizers,” competent in both fields. They must also be masters of detail, because the textual sources are so diverse; and capable of visionary imagination, because the gaps in the record require significant reconstruction.
The gap in time that separates the Presocratics from contemporary students is 2,600 years, at its greatest extent. But it is possible, in broad outlines, to trace the path by which the ancients' works come to us; and it is desirable to do so precisely to see what information is available, how it is understood, and what remains to be done. Before the beginning of this brief survey, however, I must make some preliminary observations about the subject of this study. In one sense, the Presocratics are a modern invention: modern scholars have given them a name, identified them as philosophers, and located them at the beginning of an ongoing intellectual tradition. In another sense, they are an ancient invention: Aristotle (among others) distinguished groups of phusikoi or phusiologoi (roughly: philosophers of nature) (p. 10) whom he saw as his own predecessors, and sophists, whom he saw as forerunners in ethical and political theory. Our views of the Presocratics are the product of a long tradition of interpretation that we should be aware of.
2.1. The Ancient Tradition
In recent years, scholars have begun to recognize that the study of the Presocratics began even during their own time. Hippias of Elis (a sophist) devoted a treatise to the early thinkers in which he seems to have organized their views in a systematic way. Similar schematic groupings of the Presocratics by Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates suggest that they are working from a common source, most likely Hippias. Gorgias also organized the views of his predecessors in a schematic way for the sake of disagreeing with them. Hippias may have laid out his predecessors' views for the purpose of refuting them; Gorgias may simply have wished to show how every possible option had been canvassed in a futile attempt to explain phenomena that elude explanation.3 Plato seems to have gotten his view of Heraclitus from an interpretation unique to the Heraclitean Cratylus. In all these cases, it appears that some preliminary classification and analysis was going on before Plato and Aristotle emerged as major philosophers indebted to the new style of philosophy derived from Socrates.
Plato imitated Socrates' conversational style of philosophy by composing dramatic dialogues in which Socrates is a prominent speaker. Plato presents Socrates as offering an alternative to sophistic methods, sometimes in discussions with sophists such as Protagoras and Gorgias. In later works, Plato shows an increasing interest in the natural and theoretical philosophers, depicting Cratylus, Parmenides, and Zeno as interlocutors (Cratylus, Parmenides), as well as having other characters examine their theories (e.g., theories of Heraclitus and Parmenides in the Theaetetus and Sophist, respectively). Plato thus sometimes has early thinkers appear in propria persona, and even when he has other characters discuss these thinkers' theories, he views them as contributing to an ongoing dialogue. Although his method mostly dispenses with a historical perspective on the Presocratics, he does recognize and for the first time articulate the principle of charity: the need to give an accurate and fair‐minded account of a philosopher's theory (in a candid moment of self‐criticism, Tht. 166a‐b).
Whereas Plato presents philosophical theories—his own and others'—in dialogues, Aristotle develops them systematically in treatises. Aristotle recognizes a role for dialectic, or conversation‐style treatment, in the preliminary examination of philosophical topics, which for him requires a survey of important opinions on a given topic. Thus the circumspect philosopher will collect the views of those who have already developed theories on a given topic, will consider the puzzles and problems they have confronted, and will develop a theory that will resolve those problems and show what insights are to be accepted and what errors avoided. Accordingly, at the beginning of his treatises Aristotle often surveys the views of (p. 11) Presocratic philosophers as well as those of Plato and his contemporaries. For instance, Aristotle explores theories of soul in the De Anima, theories of change in the Physics, theories of elements in On Generation and Corruption, and theories of cause in Metaphysics 1. In all of these works, Aristotle organizes the opinions of Presocratic philosophers as being on one side or other of an issue that is under debate.4 He does, in one notable case, describe a history of theoretical development, namely in the Metaphysics discussion of cause (which presents more of a history of ideas than a history of philosophy per se). In general, however, he (like Plato) is more interested in the synchronic presentation of arguments and positions than the diachronic development of theories. He occasionally shows an interest in the systematic coherence of a Presocratic's theory, but more often he focuses on whichever Presocratic doctrine connects with whatever topic he is examining. It appears that he prepared monographs, or perhaps preliminary notes, on several Presocratic figures, but these studies have not survived.
The great ancient sourcebook of Presocratic philosophy was the one Aristotle's follower and colleague Theophrastus prepared. His Doctrines of the Natural Philosophers or Doctrines on Nature, in 16 books, collected the opinions of the Presocratics (and others) on topics in natural philosophy (D.L. 5.48). The opinions were organized by topic rather than figure, and if Theophrastus's treatise On Sense is typical, were set in a critical exposition that aimed at refuting false doctrines and vindicating true ones. Too lengthy and detailed for practical use, the Doctrines was excerpted and digested into a shorter collection Diels called the Vetusta Placita, or Early Doctrines, in the first century bce. But even before this work, there must have been an earlier collection, recently posited as the Vetustissima Placita, or Earliest Doctrines. 5 This work was available in the third century bce and presumably became the basis of further digests of philosophical doctrines, in which later philosophers' views were attached to those of earlier philosophers. Various versions of this work may have circulated as textbooks or reference guides for students of philosophy. It is not clear that the editors or revisers of these books had any independent knowledge of the Presocratics, whose original works became increasingly scarce and, no doubt, difficult to understand.
In the Hellenistic period, some of the schools showed interest in the works of Presocratic philosophers. The Stoics accepted Heraclitus's physics of fire as being the forerunner of their own theory of nature. The Epicureans were atomists who could look to Leucippus and Democritus as their forebears (even if Epicurus himself preferred to downplay his debts to previous movements). Some skeptics found Xenophanes' views on knowledge congenial. Since, however, the documents of the Hellenistic schools themselves are scarce, we do not benefit much from their continued interest in the Presocratics.
Hellenistic writers developed a new genre in biography. After Aristotle's student Aristoxenus wrote some philosophical biographies, philosophers became popular subjects for biographical studies. Materials, however, on early philosophers were meager and often unreliable. In any case, biographers preferred anecdotes and bons mots to facts and arguments. The Peripatetic Sotion wrote his (p. 12) Succession of the Philosophers in 13 books in the early second century bce. He sought to establish links between one philosopher and another in an unbroken succession down to his time, as in the case of the heads of Hellenistic schools—never mind that before Plato's Academy there may have been no formal schools. Apollodorus of Athens wrote his Chronicle in verse in the second century bce, dating important historical and also philosophical events from the fall of Troy to his own time. This work provided a historical framework for the history of philosophy, even if it was crudely schematic in some ways.
In the first century ce, an unknown scholar, Aëtius, compiled his Placita (Doctrines), based on the Early Doctrines, which extended the coverage down to the time of Posidonius (first century bce). This work is the source of extant collections of doctrines in pseudo‐Plutarch (the Epitome) and John Stobaeus (Selections). Aëtius's work, reconstructed in Diels's Doxographi Graeci, supplies much of the information we have about specific doctrines of Presocratic philosophers. Since its pedigree (though not all of its content) goes back to Theophrastus, we can rely on it as a source of information on Presocratic doctrines.6
At some point, the collections of doctrines that were originally organized topically in Theophrastus (and those who epitomized his work) were organized by author. We find this arrangement in the Christian bishop Hippolytus, who wrote in the early third century ce, accusing heretics of repeating Presocratic theories. About the same time, an otherwise unknown writer, Diogenes Laertius, wrote The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, in ten books. Combining biography with doxography, he studies the philosophers from Thales down to the first century ce. He draws on over two hundred writers (many at second hand) to give us much valuable information about the philosophers—along with gossip, slanders, and misinformation.
Much philosophical research in late antiquity is carried out in commentaries on classical philosophers, especially on Aristotle, whose systematic treatises seemed to embody the best in philosophy and science, but needed learned explication to be intelligible to readers. We are especially indebted to Simplicius, a sixth‐century commentator who worked in Athens until the Emperor Justinian closed the pagan schools, and then in Mesopotamia and Syria, before returning to Athens. Because works of Presocratic philosophers were scarce, he quotes extensively from books available to him the words of Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Zeno, Melissus, and Diogenes of Apollonia.
2.2. The Middle Ages and Renaissance
Barbarian invasions overwhelmed the Roman Empire, and eventually divided the eastern, Greek‐speaking half of the empire from the western, Latin‐speaking half. A successor empire continued in the East as what we call the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (Byzantium, renamed by the emperor Constantine). In the West, the Roman Empire collapsed. Since most educated Romans under the empire had been taught Greek as well as Latin, few Greek books had been (p. 13) translated into Latin. In the Middle Ages, few people in the western part of Europe had any knowledge of Greek. Only a few works of Aristotle were translated into Latin, by Boethius, and half a Platonic dialogue, the Timaeus, had been translated by Chalcidius. Greek philosophy could be studied, if at all, mostly secondhand, in the works of Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca, or Augustine.
Meanwhile, scholars in the East continued to study the works of Greek philosophy and literature in their native language. Many works of philosophy, science, and medicine were translated into Syriac, and later into Arabic for the Arab conquerors of the Middle East. Thus Aristotle and other Greek thinkers were studied in Greek in what was left of the Byzantine Empire and in Arabic throughout Muslim domains from the borders of India to Spain, at a time when they were not available in western Europe.
As Europe recovered from foreign invasions in the twelfth century, scholars became aware of books of ancient learning in Muslim countries. Works were translated first from Arabic and then from Greek as scholars sought originals from the Byzantine Empire. First the works of Aristotle were translated, then the works of commentators on Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius was translated into Latin in the twelfth century but later lost. Apparently the book of Anaxagoras was still available in Sicily at this time, and copies of Empedocles' poem(s) may also have survived into this period in Greece.7 Aristotelian philosophy became the basis of university teaching in the West, bringing with it an interest in all the things Aristotle had studied.
In the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Greek scholars were welcomed to Italy to teach their language and share their books. Greek philosophy and literature were translated into Latin at an increasing rate. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 brought new Greek refugees and their books, but put an end to the Byzantine patronage of Greek learning. Meanwhile, the invention of the printing press meant that books could be mass produced, and careful reproductions could avoid the errors copyists had made. Editions of Greek classics were published, including the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Diogenes Laertius, as well as Latin translations of them.
A great deal of energy and scholarship went into making editions. Aristotle was published in a printed edition for the first time in 1495–98 by Aldus Manutius, Plato in 1513 by the same and by Musurus, then in 1578 by Henricus Stephanus. The Greek text of Diogenes Laertius was first published in 1533 by Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Episocopian at Basel.
As yet the study of philosophy was rather a partisan and parochial affair: there were schools of Platonists and Aristotelians, each defending their favorite philosopher from a traditional vantage point; Platonists read Plato through Neoplatonic lenses, while Aristotelians read Aristotle through scholastic lenses. Although in principle philosophers could distinguish doctrines of the ancient Greek philosophers from scientific knowledge, it came as a shock to philosophers when scientific studies began to contradict the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, during the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter‐Reformation, (p. 14) both Protestant and Catholic theologians tended to side with ancient philosophers against scientific innovations. In general, philosophers during this period rarely achieved a critical understanding of the ancient philosophers they read, much less of the Presocratics, whom they read at second hand through the works of Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius, and others.
2.3. The Modern Age
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw important advances in understanding the Greek language and in preparing editions of classical authors. But historians tended to rehash Diogenes Laertius or just gather and translate testimonies, as in the case of Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (1655–62). In the eighteenth century, the first critical histories of philosophy were written. But it was in the nineteenth century that significant advances were made in writing the early history of philosophy. Hegel's historicism put a new emphasis on the historical dimension of philosophy. The notion that each age has its Zeitgeist and that one age becomes aware of ideas and theories unknown to earlier ages suggested a robust role for historical research in philosophy as in other studies. In Germany a new conception arose: Altertumswissenschaft, the science of antiquity, which envisioned a synthesis of archaeology, history, language study, and literature leading to a unified understanding of the classical world. At the new University of Berlin, Friedrich Schleiermacher translated Plato, encouraged Immanuel Bekker to edit Aristotle, and awakened interest in Presocratic philosophy with some of his writings. In the Netherlands, Simon Karsten edited the philosophical poets, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles (1825–38). Jacob Bernays, who taught at the University of Bonn and at a Jewish seminary in Breslau, drew on newly discovered fragments of Heraclitus from Hippolytus in his important studies of that philosopher. He also traveled to England, where he influenced Ingram Bywater in his edition of Heraclitus.
In Germany, Eduard Zeller wrote a detailed and carefully researched history of Greek philosophy, Die Philosophie der Griechen, in three volumes (1844–52), which had many subsequent editions, down to Nestle's (ZN). Putting the schools of philosophy in their historical context, Zeller followed the development of philosophy in meticulous detail. Although he criticized Hegel's treatment of ancient philosophy, Zeller was deeply influenced by the Hegelian way of thinking: he saw grand abstractions emerging, coming into conflict, and being resolved. Zeller's Hegelian division of Greek philosophy into three periods is still with us: the Presocratic from Thales to the sophists, the classical from Socrates to Aristotle, and the Hellenistic from the early third century bce until the end of the ancient world. Zeller was still deeply indebted to Aristotle for his organization and analysis of the philosophers, but he brought all the tools of modern scholarship to bear on the study of Greek philosophy. Drawing on traditional school designations, Zeller treats first the Ionians (the Milesians of the sixth century bce plus Diogenes of Apollonia of the fifth), next the Pythagoreans, then the Eleatics (including (p. 15) Xenophanes); subsequently he groups together Heraclitus, Empedocles, the atomists, and Anaxagoras, in that order—without a real unifying principle. He treats the sophists in a final section. In his study, school associations count for more than chronology in understanding the Presocratics, and (despite his Hegelian leanings) no clear dialectic emerges among the several schools or individual players.
The greatest advance the study of the Presocratics in the nineteenth century was made by Hermann Diels, whose monumental work Doxographi Graeci (1879) studied and collected the doxographical sources of antiquity.8 He identified Theophrastus as the main source, recognized the Vetusta Placita, reconstructed Aëtius's collection, and in general vindicated the ancient doxography as a valuable source of information (despite its severe limitations). Subsequent work has suggested modifications of Diels's work, but his overall conclusions have held up remarkably well through the years.9 The sources Diels collected in his work became the basis of the testimonies in his later edition of the Presocratics.
The first general collection of Presocratic fragments was published in Paris in the Didot series: Fragmenta philosophorum graecorum, edited by F. W. A. Mullach (1883). This rather promiscuous volume contains not only fragments of the Presocratics, but those of later philosophers such as Timon of Phlius and Cleanthes, as well as the spurious writings of Ocellus of Lucania. Mullach also includes the pseudo‐Aristotelian On Melissus, Xenophanes, Gorgias. He gives the Greek with Latin translation, and sometimes running commentary. What is missing compared to later editions of fragments is any systematic collection of testimonies.
In 1887 an important French study appeared: Paul Tannery examined the Presocratics in the context of scientific theory in Pour l'Histoire de la Science Hellène. Complaining that most studies focused on metaphysical development (in a time still dominated by Hegel), Tannery wished to concentrate on “special theses of a purely scientific character.”10 His most innovative—and controversial— interpretation was a reconstruction of a Pythagorean cosmological theory: he argued that both Parmenides and Zeno reacted to this in positing a monistic ontology. Moreover, Parmenides' cosmology in the Doxa was in broad outlines borrowed from the Pythagoreans. Tannery thus made a dialectical connection between the Pythagorean school and the Eleatic school, suggesting an ongoing debate that lasted at least into the mid‐fifth century bce. He also developed an influential account of Anaxagoras's theory, according to which the homoiomeries or stuffs that Aristotle describes as his elements are really not elemental, but are composed of a set of qualities arranged in certain proportions that determine the character of the stuff. Tannery appended French translations of the testimonies and fragments of the philosophers to the chapters in which he expounded them.
In 1892, the British scholar John Burnet published what would be the standard textbook in English on the Presocratics for over fifty years (in four editions). Early Greek Philosophy contained English translations of the fragments of the major philosophers, together with an explanation of their several systems. Burnet followed Tannery in his account of how Zeno was reacting to the Pythagoreans, and he adopted his interpretation of Anaxagoras's ontology with slight modifications. (p. 16) Up until this time, sourcebooks had typically been written in Latin; now the Presocratics were available to the general public of the English‐speaking world with a helpful exposition.
The twentieth century offered a major leap forward in sources with Hermann Diels's work Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903). Diels collected sources for each philosopher separately, assigning an A‐section for testimonies and a B‐section for fragments (where these were available). He organized the testimonies to give information about first the philosopher's life, then his writings, then his teachings. He supplied a German translation for the fragments, and in later editions he supplied a critical apparatus for the Greek and Latin text. For the first time, scholars could find all the known material on all the Presocratic thinkers in one place. Diels's sourcebook quickly became the standard work for research on the Presocratics. Diels had already made several editions of individual philosophers, and a collection of the poet‐philosophers. The one somewhat odd feature of the Vorsokratiker is the fact that he includes works of philosophers working well into the fourth century, including one, Nausiphanes, who was probably younger than Aristotle. Diels considered the Pythagoreans and atomists of the fourth century still Presocratic, in the dialectical sense of not having been influenced by Socratic concerns; but in any case, he employed a very broad construal of Presocratic philosophy. He also included figures whose philosophical credentials were weak at best, such as Damon the musician and Polyclitus the sculptor, and some pre‐Presocratics who provided background material. Diels's work went through four editions in his lifetime, and two posthumous editions under the direction of Walther Kranz, the last appearing in 1951–52. This work has remained the standard sourcebook, but it is now unfortunately dated, for want of improvements after more than a half century of ongoing scholarship.
Any arrangement of materials will affect how they are studied and thought of. Diels's division of source materials into testimonies and fragments brought with it advantages and disadvantages. Set off by themselves, the fragments could be read as major excerpts of the original philosopher, at least for those for whom extensive fragments existed. Moreover, the validity of interpretations embodied in the doxography could be checked against the words of the philosopher. On the other hand, for the most part the fragments appeared out of their original contexts, and clues to their meaning from the contexts might be disregarded. If, however, Diels had not separated the fragments, the words of the fragments would have been surrounded by commentary or extrinsic discussions that could mislead readers or at least distract them from the original statements of the philosopher. It is always an open question whether the ancient source of a quotation understands the statements he is quoting, and in many cases sources are clearly applying their quotations to problems and situations different from what the original author intended.11 In any case, henceforth the fragments of the Presocratics would increasingly take precedence over testimonies about them.
One major accomplishment of the twentieth century was the emergence of Parmenides as the pivotal figure of philosophical development. Previously, (p. 17) philosophers tended to be viewed as members of school traditions (a view promoted by Hellenistic succession‐histories inspired by the relatively well‐organized schools of Hellenistic philosophy). Histories tended to stress common views within schools (Milesian, Pythagorean, Eleatic, Pluralist, atomist) and perhaps ongoing debates between schools, rather than dialectic development in the Presocratic tradition as a whole. One question was the relative priority of Heraclitus and Parmenides. Hegel saw being as dialectically prior to becoming, hence thought Parmenides must inevitably have preceded Heraclitus. But Bernays noticed what he thought were echoes of Heraclitean language in Parmenides, and suggested the reverse order. This view gradually won out, although by the mid‐twentieth century many scholars came to doubt that there was evidence that either philosopher knew the other.12 Guido Calogero's study of Parmenides and the Eleatics (Studi sull'Eleatismo, 1932) used logical and linguistic analysis on Parmenides' “is” and “is‐not,” in effect pioneering this kind of close study of Parmenides. In Harold Cherniss's work (to be discussed next) Parmenides is clearly the central figure of Presocratic debates; the rules for theorizing change significantly as a result of Parmenides' criticisms of earlier cosmologies.
As already pointed out, we are deeply indebted to Aristotle, Theophrastus, and the Peripatetic school for preserving the views of the Presocratic philosophers. But Aristotle and his followers also interpret the Presocratics, translating their theories into the language of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, and criticizing them from their own standpoint. This is not of itself problematic: every generation must discuss previous generations in its own terms and from its own perspective. The problem arises when we take the interpretations of a later generation uncritically. Although modern interpreters had criticized and corrected some interpretations of the ancients, this had never been done systematically or self‐consciously. One major attack on Aristotelian interpretation was made by William A. Heidel, the first American scholar to make significant contributions to Presocratic studies. Having studied with both Zeller and Diels in Germany, he developed independent views about the Presocratic tradition. In 1906 he published a long article (“Qualitative Change in Presocratic Philosophy”) on Presocratic theories of matter, in which he criticized the Aristotelian interpretation of matter in the Presocratics. Aristotle saw the Milesians as monists who recognized only one kind of matter, for instance water or air. This single kind of matter could take on the appearance of other stuffs‐for instance Anaximenes' air could turn into wind, cloud, water, and so on by condensation—but the other stuffs were only modifications of the one substance. Consequently, the only kind of change allowed was alteration (or perhaps change of quantity). Heidel argued that this account embodied a misunderstanding of Presocratic physics. The Milesians did not distinguish between substance and properties, viewing what Aristotle would call qualities (such as hot and cold) as powers existing in their own right and interacting with each other and other things.
Another American, Harold Cherniss, subjected Aristotle's criticisms of the Presocratics to his own critical scrutiny in an influential book (Aristotle's Criticism (p. 18) of Presocratic Philosophy, 1935). He found multiple sources of error in Aristotle's treatments of the Presocratics. He used the fragments of the Presocratics with his own reconstruction to show how Aristotle had misconstrued Presocratic theories. Since Cherniss's book was published, scholars have been cautious of Aristotelian interpretations of the Presocratics; they cannot be used as uncritical data for reconstructing Presocratic theory. There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Aristotle. As scholars have shown, Aristotle often does mark a transition between his exposition of a Presocratic theory and his criticism of it; and his expositions are often less loaded with presuppositions than his criticisms. Overall, however, Cherniss showed that modern reconstructions of the Presocratics could improve on and correct ancient ones. John McDiarmid (“Theophrastus on the Presocratic Causes”) argued that Theophrastus tended to follow Aristotle uncritically in his study of Presocratic doctrines, and so helped to perpetuate erroneous interpretations. One groundbreaking study of the Presocratics, by Charles H. Kahn (Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology), critically examined the evidence in light of a careful reconstruction of the historical context; this work continues to offer a paradigm of Presocratic scholarship, establishing Anaximander rather than Thales as the originator of the cosmological tradition, and going beyond Aristotle's limited treatment of him.
In the early twentieth century, questions of religion took center stage for several scholars. F. M. Cornford, inspired by anthropological studies, traced the emergence of philosophy from religion (From Religion to Philosophy). He found two opposing traditions among the Presocratics, a scientific tradition exemplified by the Ionians, and a mystical tradition exemplified by the Italians. The former gave rise to scientific thinking, while the latter stressed religious experience. A Swiss scholar, Willy Theiler, argued in his dissertation (Zur Geschichte der teleologischen Naturbetrachtung bis auf Aristoteles, 1925) that the argument from design for God's existence could be traced back from Xenophon to Diogenes of Apollonia. This gave Diogenes, hitherto a minor figure, an important place in the history of ideas. In his Gifford Lectures of 1936 (The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers), Werner Jaeger studied the theology of the Presocratics, finding a developing sense of the divine that culminated in the teleology of Anaxagoras and Diogenes. In The Greeks and the Irrational (his Sather Lectures), E. R. Dodds stressed the neglected irrational aspects of Greek culture and religion, following an anthropological approach that led from a “shame culture” in the Homeric poems to a “guilt culture” in later times. Gregory Vlastos (“Theology and Philosophy in Early Greek Thought”) argued for a middle ground between the scientific view of the Presocratics in Burnet and a view of them as theologians in Jaeger; while they clearly admit of a religious dimension, he maintained, they do not address the gods of Greek cult.
At the end of his life, Cornford switched from his dichotomy of an Ionian scientific tradition versus a mystical Italian tradition to a sweeping criticism of the Ionians (Principium Sapientiae). The Ionians were not really scientific but were mere purveyors of dogmatic speculations, uninformed by empirical verification. It (p. 19) was really the physicians of the Hippocratic tradition who pioneered the scientific method with their careful observations. Vlastos (in his review of Principium Sapientiae) criticized this view on the grounds that no theories of early Greece were precise enough in their predictions to be corrected by experiment; and the Hippocratics, no less than the Ionians, produced unsubstantiated hypotheses about the world.
One other major shift in emphasis that occurred in the mid‐twentieth century was a reevaluation of the role of the Pythagoreans in early thought. Erich Frank, in Plato und die sogenannten Pythagoreer, had already provided a skeptical challenge to claims that there was a well‐developed Pythagorean theory in the sixth and even fifth centuries bce, but his argument had little impact in a field dominated by Tannery, Burnet, and Cornford, followed by Raven, Pythagoreans and Eleatics, who saw the Pythagoreans as perhaps the leading movement of early Greek philosophy. Cherniss and Vlastos had already pointed out the lack of reliable evidence for these expansive views when Burkert carefully sifted the evidence in a masterful study (Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism). He showed that there was no secure early evidence identifying Pythagoras himself as a philosopher; he was, rather, a religious leader. On the other hand, Burkert distinguished between genuine and spurious fragments of Philolaus so as to rehabilitate this figure of the late fifth century as a genuine philosopher and cosmologist, who was the source of much of Aristotle's account of Pythagoreanism.13 The result has been a wholesale devaluation of Pythagoras himself as a formative influence in Presocratic thought, and a skepticism about any unified Pythagorean doctrine. On the other hand, Philolaus has emerged as a major philosopher with connections to Ionian and Eleatic as well as Pythagorean influences. In this volume, Carl Huffman continues to undermine claims of Pythagorean influence with a rereading of Aristotle.14
Thus far, we have not said much about the philosophical currents that developed in Europe and beyond. As already shown, Hegelian analyses had an impact on views of the Presocratics in the nineteenth century. According to his widely accepted theory, there is a rational historical progression of concepts, which are embodied in the thought of each era. Thus the history of philosophy is an integral part of philosophical inquiry, and each era has a vital role to play in the onward march of self‐knowledge. At the end of the nineteenth century, G. E. Moore and his student Bertrand Russell at Cambridge University led the so‐called Revolt from Idealism, which brought a new style of philosophy to Great Britain. Rather than looking for a great system of philosophy emerging out of historical reflection, Moore and Russell taught philosophers to analyze concepts. Going back to David Hume, Russell saw statements as divided into sentences that were true by virtue of their meaning alone and those that were true (or false) by reference to the world. Increasingly, analytic philosophers stressed individual claims, rather than philosophical systems, and arguments for those claims. Symbolic logic became a powerful tool for evaluating arguments.
Meanwhile, on the Continent, Hegelian idealism was giving way to other methods of analysis. In Germany, Edmund Husserl pioneered phenomenological (p. 20) analysis, in which he bracketed experiences to study them as phenomena. His student Martin Heidegger increasingly focused on the metaphysical question of being, which he saw as inseparable from questions of human existence. Seeing a close connection between early Greek speculations and contemporary philosophical problems, Heidegger lectured on the Presocratics as predecessors to his own views. His work has inspired and continues to inspire study of the Presocratics in the Continental tradition.
At first, analytic philosophy does not seem to have had any significant effect on the study of Presocratic philosophy. And there was a danger that analytic philosophy might have a deleterious effect on all the history of philosophy. For whereas Hegelian idealism and the later Continental tradition had at least recognized an important historical dimension, analytic philosophy was ahistorical and could even become antihistorical. Russell's protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein had no interest in professional philosophy, and attempted in his Tractatus Logico‐Philosophicus to lay out all the truths of philosophy in propositional form. Philosophers of the Vienna Circle, inspired by Wittgenstein, sought to develop philosophy as a critique of knowledge, especially of science, and to reject metaphysics as meaningless. For them, as well as for Wittgenstein, philosophy had no worthwhile history, and indeed not much future. After German military expansion brought the annexation of Austria, Nazi persecution scattered the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, mostly to Great Britain and the United States.
Refugees from Vienna brought a new excitement to the United States, hitherto little affected by analytic philosophy. During World War II, academic life was limited by the demands of training officer candidates. But soon after the war, leading analytic philosophers were hired at Cornell University, where Gregory Vlastos, who had previously taught in Canada and briefly studied with the classicist F. M. Cornford at Cambridge, imbibed the new method. Vlastos became a leading advocate and exemplar of analytic methods, applied to the problems of ancient Greek philosophy. Moving to Princeton University, he set up a joint program in classics and philosophy that became a model for American universities and that sent out its graduates to teach at leading universities. In England, G. E. L. Owen, a graduate of Oxford University, exemplified the same style of philosophy, combining the rigor of classical scholarship with the precision of analytic philosophy. He brought the new style of analytic philosophy to Cambridge University, long a center of Presocratic studies (Cornford had been there). G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven provided an advanced textbook in The Presocratic Philosophers (1957). Another Cambridge scholar, W. K. C. Guthrie, wrote the authoritative six‐volume History of Greek Philosophy, whose first two volumes (1962, 1965) provided an extensive study of the Presocratics. The interest of major philosophers such as Karl Popper and Wesley Salmon in the Anglo‐American tradition put Presocratic studies in the mainstream of philosophy. A sort of benchmark of studies in the analytic style was reached with the publication of Jonathan Barnes's work The Presocratic Philosophers (1979, 1982), followed by the second edition of Kirk and Raven's work, with Malcolm Schofield rewriting several chapters (1983).
At a time when one might have anticipated an increased interest in Presocratic studies, there was in fact a flight to Hellenistic philosophy, which suddenly became the focus of much scholarly interest, attracting many of the scholars who had previously worked on the Presocratics. There have been important editions and monographs on individual philosophers in recent years, exciting work on the doxographical tradition, and some new discoveries of papyrus texts.15 Yet much remains to be done in understanding the first philosophers and their legacy. We hope this volume will call attention to the valuable work of the last few years and contribute to a renewed interest in Presocratic studies.
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Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. 1962. Translated by E. L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.Find this resource:
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Calder, William M., III, and Jaap Mansfeld, eds. Hermann Diels (1848–1922) et la Science de l'Antiquité. Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1999.Find this resource:
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(1.) On Parmenides see Curd, Legacy, Graham, Explaining the Cosmos. On the Pythagoreans, see Burkert, Huffman, Kahn.
(2.) See Martin and Primavesi, L'Empédocle de Strasbourg; the Derveni Papyrus has also yielded new insights, and new sources of controversy. See Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus; Kouremenos et al., The Derveni Papyrus; and Janko, “The Derveni Papyrus (Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes Logoi?); “The Derveni Papyrus: An Interim Text”; “The Physicist as Hierophant.”
(3.) See the chapters by David Runia and John Palmer here.
(4.) See esp. Top. 105b12, with Mansfeld, Studies in the Historiography of Greek Philosophy, 22.
(5.) Mansfeld, “Chrysippus and the Placita.”
(6.) On DG see Mansfeld and Runia, Aëtiana, and Runia's chapter here.
(7.) On Diogenes Laertius and Anaxagoras see Berschin, Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages, 232–33; on Empedocles see Primavesi, “Lecteurs antiques et byzantins d'Empédocle,” 199–201, who shows that a manuscript may have been extant in the fifteenth century.
(8.) See Calder and Mansfeld, Hermann Diels (1848–1922) et la Science de L'antiquité on Diels's life and scholarship.
(9.) See now the reconsiderations of doxography in Mansfeld and Runia, Aëtiana, and the chapter by David Runia here.
(11.) See Catherine Osborne, Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy, for a dissenting view on the usefulness and importance of contexts.
(12.) See Graham, “Heraclitus and Parmenides.”
(13.) Huffman, Philolaus of Croton, has more fully explicated Philolaus in accordance with Burkert's insights.
(14.) It should be noted that optimistic views of early Pythagoreanism continue to be written, including Zhmud, Wissenschaft, Philosophie und Religion im frühen Pythagoreismus; Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans; Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence.
(15.) Most notably the Strasbourg Papyrus, with significant additions to Empedocles fragments (see Martin and Primavesi, L'Empédocle de Strasbourg); and the Derveni Papyrus, with an early philosophical commentary on an Orphic poem (see Laks and Most, Studies on the Derveni Papyrus; Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus).