Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Presocratics: the revenge

Catherine Osborne, the author of a recent Very short introduction to Presocratic philosophy wrote an interesting comment on my last post. I think it is worth quoting it here:

I have to admit to finding the opposition to "Presocratic" as a category rather irritating. In some cases it seems to be based on the simple misconception that "pre" must mean chronologically prior--whereas logical or developmental priority is surely what is intended by this term. (Where one thing is the inspiration or target or provocation for another, the latter is in a sense posterior). And priority in this sense needn't be anything to be ashamed of: on the contrary in all ancient thought priority is preferable and dependence is inferiority. Only if one assumes that all development is progress should one assume that being described "pre" Socrates is an insult. And why on earth should one think that?

That's a nice twist: why not think of 'Presocratic' as a way of saying that a particular philosopher is a necessary progenitor of Socrates? Some things from Platonic dialogues could certainly be offered as supporting evidence: Socrates' interest in and eventual rejection of Anaxagoras in Phaedo; his interest in Eleaticism as made clear in Republic V, Parmenides, Sophist and so on; and other less explicit strands of influence such as the possible influence of Philolaus, or Diogenes of Apollonia's teleology. The difficulty is, of course, that these are all cases from the Platonic Socrates. So how about reviving the Nietzschean category of 'Pre-platonic' philosophy?


Catherine Osborne said...

I should have added that another sense of "pre" socratic is "innocent of Socratic influence". That was the meaning I favoured in my VSI. This could be true even of those who are not in any way vital to understanding what Socrates is up to.

Harry said...

I like Catherine’s suggestion about the different meanings of ‘pre’ in ‘Presocratic’. But ‘vor’ (from Hermann Diels’ Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker--which, to my knowledge, is the first instance of this term in any language) is limited to temporal priority. Would it be better if the German was also conveying the different types of priority?

senn said...

Just in response to Harry's suggestion that "the first instance of this term [Vorsokratiker or Presocratic] in any language" occurred in Diels: The term definitely predated Diels; Pre-Sokratic occurs in George Grote's Plato and the Other Campanions of Sokrates, first published in 1865, though I doubt that even this is the first instance of the term.