Who Are the Presocratics?

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

- Xenophanes

Podcast of the Day

The first thinkers of antiquity are referred to as the "Pre-Socratics", even though some of these thinkers were in fact contemporaries of Socrates. The first podcasts in the series look at the beginnings of Greek philosophy in the 6th century BC in the city of Miletus, on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). There, Thales and his successors Anaximander and Anaximines developed theories sometimes referred to as "material monism," deriving the entire visible cosmos from a single stuff or principle (water, the infinite, air). The following episodes look at the critique of Homer and Hesiod at the hands of Xenophanes and the more ambitious philosophical reflections of Heraclitus and Parmenides (though Peter casts some doubt on the simple opposition often drawn between these two).

Listen to Peter Adamson discuss Thales on the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

According to Aristotle, the first Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus. His historical details are vague, contradictory even; there are conflicting stories about whether Thales married, one being that he did and had a son, another that he didn’t, at first telling his mother that he was too young to marry, and later, that he was too old. He also set the standard for intellectual distraction, falling into a well, or maybe a ditch, because he was so busy studying the stars. What isn’t in doubt is his influence on Western thinking: within a few generations, the philosophers he inspired, in particular Anaximander, Pythagoras and Parmenides, had established empiricism, mathematics and logic, the three disciplines that dominate thinking today.

Continue reading Will Bouwman's article: Philosophy's Roots and Branches

Further Reading

Calling this group “Presocratic philosophers” raises certain difficulties. The term, coined in the eighteenth century, was made current by Hermann Diels in the nineteenth, 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 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...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Presocratic Philosophy by Patricia Curd

Related Topics

Ancient Greece | Plato

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.