Pre-Socratic Philosophers


Pre-Socratic philosophy is Greek philosophy before Socrates (but includes schools contemporary with Socrates which were not influenced by him
In Classical antiquity, the Presocratic philosophers were called physiologoi (in English, physical or natural philosophers).

Διογένης Λαέρτιος
Diogenes Laertius
Diogenes Laërtius divides the physiologoi into two groups, Ionian and Italiote, led by Anaximander and Pythagoras, respectively.

Διογένης Λαέρτιος, -  Diogenes Laertius . c. 3rd century AD) was a biographer of the Greek philosophers. Nothing is known about his life, but his surviving 'Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers' is a principal source for the history of Greek philosophy.

Major analyses of pre-Socratic thought have been made by Gregory Vlastos, Jonathan Barnes, and Friedrich Nietzsche in his 'Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks'.
It may sometimes be difficult to determine the actual line of argument some Pre-Socratics used in supporting their particular views.
While most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts has survived in complete form. All that is available are quotations by later philosophers (often biased) and historians, and the occasional textual fragment.

The Presocratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations of the phenomena they saw around them, in favor of more rational explanations.
These philosophers asked questions about "the essence of things":

From where does everything come?
From what is everything created?
How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
How might we describe nature mathematically?

Others concentrated on defining problems and paradoxes that became the basis for later mathematical, scientific and philosophic study.
Later philosophers rejected many of the answers the early Greek philosophers provided, but continued to place importance on their questions.
Furthermore, the cosmologies proposed by them have been updated by later developments in science.

Map of Southern Italy and Greece

Milesian School

The first Presocratic philosophers were from Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia.

Θαλῆς - Thales c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and one of the Seven Sages of Greece.
Many, most notably Aristotle, regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition. According to Bertrand Russell, "Western philosophy begins with Thales."
Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to mythology, and was tremendously influential in this respect.
Almost all of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers follow him in attempting to provide an explanation of ultimate substance, change, and the existence of the world—without reference to mythology.
Those philosophers were also influential, and eventually Thales' rejection of mythological explanations became an essential idea for the scientific revolution.
He was also the first to define general principles and set forth hypotheses, and as a result has been dubbed the "Father of Science", though it is argued that Democritus is actually more deserving of this title (see below).
In mathematics, Thales used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.
He is credited with the first use of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to 'Thales' Theorem'.
As a result, he has been hailed as the first true mathematician, and is the first known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been attributed.

Next came Ἀναξίμανδρος - 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.
Anaximander's theories were influenced by the Greek mythical tradition, and by some ideas of Thales – the father of philosophy – as well as by observations made by older civilizations in the East (especially by the Babylonian astrologists).
All these were elaborated rationally.
In his desire to find some universal principle, he assumed like traditional religion the existence of a cosmic order and in elaborating his ideas on this he used the old mythical language which ascribed divine control to various spheres of reality.
This was a common practice for the Greek philosophers in a society which saw gods everywhere, therefore they could fit their ideas into a tolerably elastic system.
His younger contemporary, Anaximenes (585-525 BCE), took for his principle air (aether), conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth.


Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος
Pythagoras of Samos

The practical side of philosophy was introduced by  Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος - (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.
His followers included Philolaus (470-380 BCE), Alcmaeon of Croton, and Archytas (428-347 BCE).

Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος - Pythagoras of Samos b. about 570 – d. about 495 BC) was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism.
Most of the information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, so very little reliable information is known about him. He was born on the island of Samos, and might have travelled widely in his youth, visiting Egypt and other places seeking knowledge. Around 530 BC, he moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and there set up a religious sect. His followers pursued the religious rites and practices developed by Pythagoras, and studied his philosophical theories. The society took an active role in the politics of Croton, but this eventually led to their downfall. The Pythagorean meeting-places were burned, and Pythagoras was forced to flee the city. He is said to have ended his days in Metapontum.
Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religious teaching in the late 6th century BC. He is often revered as a great mathematician, mystic and scientist, but he is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name, however, because legend cloud his work even more than that of the other pre-Socratic philosophers, one can give only a tentative account of his teachings, and some have questioned whether he contributed much to mathematics and natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Whether or not his disciples believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality is unknown. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or 'lover of wisdom', and Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy.

Ephesian School

Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος
Heraclitus of Ephesus
Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος - (Heraclitus of Ephesus) c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of the Greek city Ephesus, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor.
He was of distinguished parentage.
Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom.
From the lonely life he led, and still more from the riddling nature of his philosophy and his contempt for humankind in general, he was called "The Obscure" and the "Weeping Philosopher".
Heraclitus is famous for his insistence on ever-present change in the universe, as stated in the famous saying, "No man ever steps in the same river twice" (see panta rhei, below).
He believed in the unity of opposites, stating that "the path up and down are one and the same", all existing entities being characterized by pairs of contrary properties.
His cryptic utterance that "all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos" (literally, "word", "reason", or "account") has been the subject of numerous interpretations.

The Logos

"The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos" and "the Logos is common," is expressed in two famous but obscure fragments:
This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep. 
For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.
The meaning of Logos also is subject to interpretation: "word", "account", "plan", "formula", "measure", "proportion", "reckoning." Though Heraclitus "quite deliberately plays on the various meanings of logos",[26] there is no compelling reason to suppose that he used it in a special technical sense, significantly different from the way it was used in ordinary Greek of his time.
The later Stoics understood it as "the account which governs everything," and Hippolytus, in the 3rd century AD, identified it as meaning the Christian Word of God.

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.
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.
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.

Ζήνων ὁ Ἐλεάτης; - Zeno of Elea - ca. 490 BC – ca. 430 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of southern Italy and a member of the Eleatic School founded by Parmenides. Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialectic. He is best known for his paradoxes, which Bertrand Russell has described as "immeasurably subtle and profound".
Zeno's paradoxes are a set of philosophical problems generally thought to have been devised by Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (ca. 490–430 BC) to support Parmenides's doctrine that "all is one" and that, contrary to the evidence of one's senses, the belief in plurality and change is mistaken, and in particular that motion is nothing but an illusion. It is usually assumed, based on Plato's Parmenides 128c-d, that Zeno took on the project of creating these paradoxes because other philosophers had created paradoxes against Parmenides's view. Thus Zeno can be interpreted as saying that to assume there is plurality is even more absurd than assuming there is only "the One". (Parmenides 128d). Plato makes Socrates claim that Zeno and Parmenides were essentially arguing exactly the same point (Parmenides 128a-b).
Some of Zeno's nine surviving paradoxes (preserved in Aristotle's 'Physics' and Simplicius's commentary thereon) are essentially equivalent to one another. Aristotle offered a supposed refutation of some of them. Three of the strongest and most famous—that of 'Achilles and the Tortoise', the Dichotomy argument, and that of the Arrow in Flight—are presented in detail below.
Zeno's arguments are perhaps the first examples of a method of proof called reductio ad absurdum, also known as proof by contradiction. They are also credited as a source of the dialectic method used by Socrates.
Some philosophers, however, say that Zeno's paradoxes and their variations remain relevant metaphysical problems.
The origins of the paradoxes are somewhat unclear. Diogenes Laertius, a fourth source for information about Zeno and his teachings, citing Favorinus, says that Zeno's teacher Parmenides was the first to introduce the 'Achilles and the Tortoise' paradox. But in a later passage, Laertius attributes the origin of the paradox to Zeno.

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.
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.

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.

Void Hypothesis

The atomistic void hypothesis of Democritus was a response to the paradoxes of Parmenides and Zeno, the founders of metaphysical logic, who put forth difficult to answer arguments in favor of the idea that there can be no movement. They held that any movement would require a void—which is nothing—but a nothing cannot exist. The Parmenidean position was "You say there 'is' a void; therefore the void is not nothing; therefore there is not the void." The position of Parmenides appeared validated by the observation that where there seems to be nothing there is air, and indeed even where there is not matter there is something, for instance light waves.
The atomists agreed that motion required a void, but simply ignored the argument of Parmenides on the grounds that motion was an observable fact. Therefore, they asserted, there must be a void. This idea survived in a refined version as Newton's theory of absolute space, which met the logical requirements of attributing reality to not-being. Einstein's theory of relativity provided a new answer to Parmenides and Zeno, with the insight that space by itself is relative and cannot be separated from time as part of a generally curved space-time manifold. Consequently, Newton's refinement is now considered superfluous.


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 (aether).
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.
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, and Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Leontini in Sicily.


Karl Marx
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
The Pre-Socratic method of critical reasoning deployed in the examination of the natural world was applied by Socrates to an examination of the human individual and his social institutions.
Karl Marx's doctoral thesis "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature" evaluates the thought of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, one of the founders of Atomic theory.
Within the Marxist philosophical tradition the Pre-Socratics are recognized as the first Materialists.
Nietzsche, in 'Menschliches, Allzumenschliches' - (Human, All Too Human), calls them the tyrants of the spirit, and says of Socrates that “the hitherto so wonderfully regular, although certainly too rapid, development of the philosophical science was destroyed in one night.”

No comments:

Post a Comment