Posted by: yannaungoak | January 28, 2010

(Book Review) Presocratic Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction

The “Very Short Introductions” series has a wonderful set of books on philosophy, which I’m very excited to read. Even if I end up not getting very far into the list of 240+ books that the series has in total, I hope to at least read all the philosophy books. They’ve got everyone from Socrates to Habermas. I’ve always been interested in philosophy but I didn’t take many philosophy classes in college, so now I’ve only got the rest of my life to catch up. Well, what better way to start then to go through all the short introductions fist before reading the dense original works.

So, we start at the beginning, with the Presocratics, who, as the name implies, were the folks who were in the philosophy game before the time of Socrates. I think the term only applies to Greek philosophers before Socrates, since we’re talking about the Western tradition. The ancient Greeks, of course, had colonies all over the Mediterranean so these guys come from all over the place, from Sicily to the Western shores of modern Turkey.

The author is Catherine Osbourne, a professor of philosophy from the University of East Anglia. She’s written a few books on ancient Greek philosophy, including one on the ancient Greek notion of love, and another about Greek notions of animal rights or something or other.

The wikipedia page on Pre-socratic philosophy has a wonderful “family tree” of the Presocratic philosophers, starting from Thales of Miletus to the Sophists such as Thrasymachus who debated with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. It gives a good overview of who influenced whom and also shows the chronological order of the lives of these thinkers. I found it a helpful reference while reading the book, because the chapters were categorized not chronologically but according to the topics in which these people dabbled in, with some, such as Zeno, Pythagoras and Heraclitus receiving special treatment (they get a chapter each).

I had to read some of the chapters two or three times for the material to sink into my head. It seemed at first like there really wasn’t anything interesting that these folks had to say, their ideas seemed more vague and mystical than anything else. What’s more, a lot of modern day interpretations of their philosophy literally rely on bits and pieces of text that survive from that era. Most of the texts that have survived since the age of the Presocratics are in the form of incomplete fragments of paper that have to be fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. So if we are lucky, we have half the page of some old document that happen to have contained a poem by some philosopher that was written down a hundred years after his death. If we are comparing among vague and mystical texts, I would at least settle for vague and mystical texts that at are at least complete, right? I mean, if I was a researcher on ancient philosophy, I’d choose to work with the Upanishads, the writings of Confucius, or the Torah any day, then have to start each day trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle.

So, why do people bother to read the ancient Greek philosophers? Well, it’s because the Western tradition IS a very important part of our global heritage and culture, and it’s important to know how these ancients influenced great philosophers ranging from Plato to Nietzsche.

So, what did they actually say, these Presocratics?

Parmenides: The first Greek philosopher that we know of is Thales, who was famous for falling into well while deeply lost in his thoughts, and also for claiming that everything in the universe was made of water. After Thales, a whole bunch of people started claiming different things about the fundamental constituents of the universe, such as air, fire, earth, etc. Then Parmenides comes along and one-ups the argument, by claiming that nothing is made from “more fundamental things”, but actually, everything in the universe is just one indivisible whole, including both space and time. No atoms, no future, no past.

Armed with our modern knowledge of Physics and Chemistry, all these baseless ontological arguments seem silly of course, but the author of the book points out that what’s important and interesting is rather the way these philosophers came up with their claims. Moving away from mere speculation, Parmenides was the first to posit the idea that from our observations of the world, we can postulate a perfect and unchanging ideal. This is of course something that greatly inspired Plato’s philosophy, and it’s still a issue that is being dealt with by modern philosophers.

Moreover, Parmenides was the first to have employed some system of logic to prove his arguments. This, of course was also a huge step forward for philosophy. So now, you can no longer say “what you say is logically correct, but I disagree”, unless you are just expressing your opinion. We can use logic to separate opinion from fact.

Zeno: This guy is famous for his paradoxes, and is probably one of the most well known among the Presocratics. I remember first reading about him in Douglas Hofstadter‘s wonderful book Gödel, Escher, Bach. Zeno’s most famous paradox involves a race between the Greek hero Achilles and a tortoise. I’ll go over it for the sake of people who don’t know about it, but Google will probably find you a better explanation of it.

So one day Achilles and the tortoise decide to start a race. Achilles decides to give the tortoise a head start because obviously he knows he’s going to win the race no matter how much of a head start the tortoise has. The race begins, and Achilles catches up to the point where the tortoise had started from, let’s call it point A. By that time the tortoise had already traveled a little further, up to point B. Achilles quickly catches up to point B, and during the time it takes for Achilles to travel from A to B, the tortoise has traveled just a little bit further, to point C. When Achilles reaches point C, the tortoise is already at point D. This goes on and on, ad infinitum, and of course, the paradoxical conclusion is that Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise.

Since we all know that in real life, Achilles do catch up with the turtle, something must have gone logically faulty somewhere in the story. According to the author, Zeno intended this to be a reductio ad absurdum, to show that if you take space or time to be infinitely divisible, you get to absurd conclusions. Zeno was inspired by Parmenides and also believed in the indivisibility and “one-ness” of space and time.

I didn’t like the chapter of the book on Zeno too much. The author seems to have a muddled view of some basic mathematics. After explaining Zeno’s paradoxes, she goes on to say this about present day mathematicians, who DO take space to be infinitely divisible, unlike Zeno:

mathematically there will be no point that is the last point before reaching B, and no time at which Achilles changes from being behind the tortoise to being level with her. There is a time at which he is not yet there, and there is a time at which he is already there, but no time at which he exchanges the former description for the latter. This is a counter-intuitive observation. Mathematicians evade the difficulty by the use of the fiction of ‘infinitesimal’ quantities, which treat the series as if it effectively had a last member, of infinitesimal size. But the fact remains that in reality the parts do not suddenly become ‘infinitesimally small’ as though that were some ultimate size; in fact they go on becoming ever smaller ad infinitum. So Zeno was right, and we cannot evade the truth that the completion of the task may come between two identifiable points in time and space but not at any time or place.

From what I’ve learnt in Math classes, modern mathematicians no longer use the “fiction of infinitesimal quantities“. I believe they had stopped using that concept since the nineteenth century, since the development of analysis. My complaint is not about the author not knowing the history of mathematics, but rather muddling up Zeno’s paradox, which is only paradoxical if it occurs in the real physical world, with mathematical abstractions. Yes, she is right, that in the physical world, “parts do not suddenly become infinitesimally small”, but mathematics does not concern itself with the physical world. You can’t diss mathematicians by saying the assumptions that they are making won’t hold true in the physical world.

Heraclitus: If you’re trying to find the intellectual ancestor of people who say blatantly contradictory things to sound deep and wise, look no further, this guy must have been the godfather of them all. Some of the things Heraclitus said include:

The road up and down is one and the same.

The sea – he says – water most pure and most impure; for fishes drinkable and healthy; for humans undrinkable and deadly.

Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living the death of those, dying the life of these.

Into the same rivers we step in and we don’t step in, we are and we are not.

Yes, my friends. We are… and we are not… How profound! Maybe I just don’t get it, but spewing blatantly contradictory one-liners is not an intellectually respectable activity. If I walk around saying stuff like that, say at a job interview, what are the chances that I’ll get hired? Zero! But when a philosopher says it, it’s profound.

Okay, to be fair, I guess the reason Heraclitus’s contradictory remarks are held with esteem by many great philosophers from Nietzsche to Heidegger is from the fact that they make us take an introspective look at what we actually mean when we use words like purity, being, and mortality. It was probably Herclitus’s intention to cast these statements as riddles that have no clear answer. His whole entire worldview and cosmology seems to have revolved around the idea of “not having a clear cut resolution”. Heraclitus’s world was one in which opposites intertwine, which was endlessly being destroyed and recreated by fire, and in which there was always a tension and an eternally recurring struggle.

Pythagoras: We’ve all known about this guy since our primary school math classes, but I think he deserves a “Very Short Introduction” book all by himself. For this guy, science, religion, philosophy and mathematics were all parts of a unified whole.

Among other things, Pythagoras believed in reincarnation, and was an advocate of vegetarianism. It’s curious that all these Presocratics believed in ideas that are similar to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, be it reincarnation, or Heraclitus’s belief that the world is destroyed and recreated over and over again, to Parmenides’s belief in the “one-ness” of everything. I guess beliefs and ideas must have flowed in to Greece from the East during this time, through trade and conquest. Or perhaps it was just beliefs that were native to the Mediterranean.

Of course, Pythagoras’s theorem about the sides of a right triangle is his most famous work in mathematics, but he actually was the founder of a whole entire religion which held that numbers governed the entire cosmos, making everything work in perfect harmony. The ancient Greeks were obsessed with mathematics and geometry, from the Golden Ratio to the Platonic Solids, and the religious reverence for mathematics that Pythagoras and his followers had would live on for millennia.

Well, that was my short introduction to the short introduction. I did not really like that book all that much, it did not flow as well, usually because the author would keep citing fragments of ancient text from another page in the book, and you’d have to flip back and forth constantly. I believe it would have been better to start off with the wikipedia article on the Presocratics and followed the links from there, that would have been a better short introduction to the subject, and one that was more coherent and comprehensive.



  1. Good timing. I’m taking history of psychology and reading ancient greek philosopher for the past week.
    At least from what I’ve learnt so far, the shift from ‘explanation of the world through Gods’ to ‘explanation through natural elements’ is one of the most important things these old greeks had done for us. It doesn’t mean they are free of ‘magic’ or ‘mystics’.
    It is telling that Thales thought water was THE element considering that he lived near the coast where their wellbeing depends on water.
    As far as I know, Heraclitus was an A-hole. He thought he knew it all and wrote in a way that no one could understand it just to prove the point. The most interesting part of his philosophy to me is his epistemological view – ‘if everything in the world is changing, then how can we ever know anything at all’. He seems to think that knowledge require a type of permanence.
    I’m loving these Shorts man. Last time I was working in the library and saw “A Short Introduction to Philosophy of Science” and I thought about you. Waiting to read the next one.

  2. hm i think i remember Bertrand russell saying somewhere that Socrates was the beginning of the end for Greek philosophy. according to him, prior to Socrates, philosophers sought the truth for its own sake. Whereas starting with Socrates they sought to prove some point (or push some agenda) of theirs.
    Bert also said that Socrates (at the trial and all that) was so unworried about dying, only because he “knew” he’d be spending his afterlife with the Greek gods (apparently a privilege reserved for the wise only).
    i cant say i know enough to comment, but i thought bert was funny.

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