The Six Best Books on Presocratic Philosophy

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This page contains a list of the six best books on presocratic philosophy. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on presocratic philosophy” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for original works of presocratic philosophy. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on presocratic philosophy. Here are the best books on presocratic philosophy in no particular order:

Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 168 pages | Published: 2004

Generations of philosophers, both ancient and modern, have traced their inspiration back to the Presocratics. Part of the fascination stems from the fact that little of what they wrote survives. Here Osborne invites her readers to dip their toes into the fragmentary remains of thinkers from Thales to Pythagoras, Heraclitus to Protagoras, and to try to reconstruct the moves that they were making, to support stories that Western philosophers and historians of philosophy like to tell about their past.

This book covers the invention of western philosophy: introducing to us the first thinkers to explore ideas about the nature of reality, time, and the origin of the universe.

The Presocratic Philosophers – Jonathan Barnes

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 728 pages | Published: 1983

The Presocratics were the founding fathers of the Western philosophical tradition, and the first masters of rational thought. This volume provides a comprehensive and precise exposition of their arguments, and offers a rigorous assessment of their contribution to philosophical thought.

Philosophy Before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary – Richard D. McKirahan

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 512 pages | Published: 2011 (2 ed.)

Since its publication in 1994, Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates has become the standard sourcebook in Presocratic philosophy. It provides a wide survey of Greek science, metaphysics, and moral and political philosophy, from their roots in myth to the philosophers and Sophists of the fifth century. A comprehensive selection of fragments and testimonia, translated by the author, is presented in the context of a thorough and accessible discussion. An introductory chapter deals with the sources of Presocratic and Sophistic texts and the special problems of interpretation they present.

In its second edition, this work has been updated and expanded to reflect important new discoveries and the most recent scholarship. Changes and additions have been made throughout, the most significant of which are found in the chapters on the Pythagoreans, Parmenides, Zeno, Anaxagoras, and Empedocles, and the new chapter on Philolaus. The translations of some passages have been revised, as have some interpretations and discussions. A new Appendix provides translations of three Hippocratic writings and the Derveni papyrus.

The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy – P. Curd & D. W. Graham

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 608 pages | Published: 2011

In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. a new kind of thinker appeared in Greek city-states, dedicated to finding the origins of the world and everything in it, using observation and reason rather than tradition and myth. We call these thinkers Presocratic philosophers, and recognize them as the first philosophers of the Western tradition, as well as the originators of scientific thinking. New textual discoveries and new approaches make a reconsideration of the Presocratics at the beginning of the twenty-first century especially timely.

This handbook brings together leading international scholars to study the diverse figures, movements, and approaches that constitute Presocratic philosophy. More than a survey of scholarship, this study presents new interpretations and evaluations of the Presocratics’ accomplishments, from Thales to the sophists, from theology to science, and from pre-philosophical background to their influence on later thinkers. Many positions presented here challenge accepted wisdom and offer alternative accounts of Presocratic theories.

The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts – G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 518 pages | Published: 1984

Beginning with a long and extensively rewritten introduction surveying the predecessors of the Presocratics, this book traces the intellectual revolution initiated by Thales in the sixth century BC to its culmination in the metaphysics of Parmenides and the complex physical theories of Anaxagoras and the Atomists in the fifth century it is based on a selection of some six hundred texts, in Greek and a close English translation which in this edition is given more prominence. These provide the basis for a detailed critical study of the principal individual thinkers of the time. Besides serving as an essential text for undergraduate and graduate courses in Greek philosophy and in the history of science, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers with interests in philosophy, theology, the history of ideas and of the ancient world, and indeed to anyone who wants an authoritative account of the Presocratics.

The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy – Daniel W. Graham

Category: Anthology | Length: 1040 pages | Published: 2010

This two-part sourcebook gives the reader easy access to the language and thought of the Presocratic thinkers, making it possible either to read the texts continuously or to study them one by one along with commentary. It contains the complete fragments and a generous selection of testimonies for twenty major Presocratic thinkers including cosmologists, ontologists, and sophists, setting translations opposite Greek and Latin texts on facing pages to allow easy comparison. The texts are grouped in chapters by author in a mainly chronological order, each preceded by a brief introduction and an up-to-date bibliography, and followed by a brief commentary. Significant variant readings are noted. This edition contains new fragments and testimonies not included in the authoritative but now outdated Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. It is the first and only complete bilingual edition of the works of the Presocratic philosophers for English-speakers.


This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

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