Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
1. Who Were the Presocratic Philosophers?
Our understanding of the Presocratics is complicated by the incomplete nature of our evidence. Most of them wrote at least one “book” (short pieces of prose writing, it seems, or, in some cases, poems of not great length), but no complete work survives. Instead, we are dependent on later philosophers, historians, and compilers of collections of ancient wisdom for disconnected quotations (fragments) and reports about their views (testimonia). In some cases, these sources had direct access to the works of the Presocratics, but in many others, the line is indirect and often depends on the work of Aristotle, Theophrastus, and other ancient philosophers who did have access. The sources for the fragments and testimonia made selective use of the material available to them, in accordance with their own special, and varied, interests in the early thinkers. (For analyses of the doxographic tradition, and the influence of Aristotle and Theophrastus on later sources, see Mansfeld 1999, Runia 2008, and Mansfeld and Runia 1997, 2009a, and 2009b.) Although any account of a Presocratic thinker has to be a reconstruction, we should not be overly pessimistic about the possibility of reaching a historically responsible understanding of these early Greek thinkers. Calling this group “Presocratic philosophers” raises certain difficulties. The term was made current by Hermann Diels in the nineteenth century, and was meant to mark a contrast between Socrates who was interested in moral problems, and his predecessors, who were supposed to be primarily concerned with cosmological and physical speculation. “Presocratic,” if taken strictly as a chronological term, is not quite accurate, for the last of them were contemporaneous with Socrates and even Plato. Moreover, several of the early Greek thinkers explored questions about ethics and the best way to live a human life. The term may also suggest that these thinkers are somehow inferior to Socrates and Plato, of interest only as their predecessors, and its suggestion of archaism may imply that philosophy only becomes interesting when we arrive at the classical period of Plato and Aristotle. Some scholars now deliberately avoid the term, but if we take it to refer to the early Greek thinkers who were not influenced by the views of Socrates, whether his predecessors or contemporaries, there is probably no harm in using it. (For discussions of the notion of Presocratic philosophy, see Long's introduction in Long 1999, Laks 2006, and the articles in Laks and Louguet 2002.) A second problem lies in referring to these thinkers as philosophers. That is almost certainly not how they could have described themselves. While it is true that Heraclitus says that “those who are lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into many things” (22B35), the word he uses, philosophos, does not have the special sense that it acquires in the works of Plato and Aristotle, when the philosopher is contrasted with both the ordinary person and other experts, including the sophist (particularly in Plato), or in the resulting modern sense in which we can distinguish philosophy from physics or psychology; yet the Presocratics certainly saw themselves as set apart from the ordinary person and also from other thinkers (poets and historical writers, for example) who were their predecessors and contemporaries. As the fragment from Heraclitus shows, the early Greek philosophers thought of themselves as inquirers into many things, and the range of their inquiry was vast. They had views about the nature of the world, and these views encompass what we today call physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, astronomy, embryology, and psychology (and other areas of natural inquiry), as well as theology, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. In the earliest of the Presocratics, the Milesians, it can indeed be difficult to discern the strictly...
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