The Presocratics: Introduction

Mark Vuletic

Introduction

When one thinks of ancient Greek philosophy, one probably thinks immediately of Socrates, even if one has only a dim idea of who he was. So famous is Socrates that even Bill and Ted—not renowned for their scholarship—recognized him during their most excellent time-traveling adventure.1 Although Western philosophy began more than a century before Socrates, the appearance of Socrates was such an event that we now call all of the philosophers born before Socrates—even those who ended up outliving him2Presocratic philosophers.

Studying Presocratic philosophy is useful, but it also can be a real trial. To start with, one must learn the difference between Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Anaxagoras: the names alone are enough to fill most newcomers with grief, horror, and despair. More importantly, although many of the Presocratics wrote prodigious amounts, none of their writings have survived to the present day. This means that historians of Presocratic philosophy have to look at later—sometimes much later—writers who either attribute views to the Presocratics, or purport to quote from them. Even with these secondary sources, the evidence is often scanty and of uncertain reliability, leading to intense debate not merely about what the Presocratics meant (which is par for the course in the history of philosophy), but about what they even said in the first place. We won't get too deep into these matters, but I want you to be aware that they exist, since up ahead I will try to give you the most conventional account I can put together of each of the Presocratics.

If you would like to take a look at the fragmentary evidence we have to work with when it comes to the Presocratics, you can look at the resource list below.

The philosophers

What follows is a list of the chief Presocratic philosophers. The list is in very rough chronological order, but I lump some of the names together into collections. I will hyperlink this list to articles on the specific individuals or collections as I write them.

1. The Milesians: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.

2. Pythagoras.

3. Xenophanes.

4. The Eleatics: Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno (of Elea).

5. Heraclitus.

6. Anaxagoras.

7. Empedocles.

8. The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus

9. The Sophists: Protagoras, Gorgias, Thrasymachus, and many, many others.

Resources

For an introductory survey of the fragments themselves, Barnes's Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin, 2002), Waterfield's The First Philosophers (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Curd and McKirahan's A Presocratics Reader (Hackett, 2011), all are good, inexpensive places to start.  

If you want a comprehensive survey of the fragments in their original Greek and Latin, and can speak German, then the gold standard is Diels and Kranz's Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. If you don't speak German, there is an English translation of Diels and Kranz by Kathleen Freeman. I have also heard good things about Graham's Texts of Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2010), if you can afford the hefty price.

For introductory secondary texts, I found James Warren's Presocratics (University of California Press, 2007) immensely readable and enjoyable. Catherine Osborne's Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004) struck me as contrarian, but pleasantly and convincingly so.

For scholarly secondary texts, Barnes's The Presocratic Philosophers (Routledge, 1979) and Kirk and Raven's The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press, 1957) are standard. There appears to be some debate about the relative merits of the different editions of Kirk and Raven, but if you're deep enough into Presocratic philosophy for that kind of thing to matter to you, then you're light-years ahead of me.

Notes

1 If you don't know what I'm talking about, go find a copy of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure right away—it's more important than anything you might read on this site.

2 And in at least one case—Democritus—someone who both was born after Socrates and outlived him.

Last updated: 15 Mar 2017

Comment
Pleased? Angered? Confused? Have something else you would like
me to write about? Please send in your questions and comments!