Monday, May 14, 2007

Were there Presocratic philosophers?

A strange question, perhaps, but one worth asking. It is particularly interesting for me, having just completed a book called Presocratics which at least one of the press's reviewers thought was unfortunately titled. Haven't we moved away from the anachronistic and misleading designation of a group of people, some of whom are contemporaries of or later than Socrates, as 'Presocratics'? And doesn't this term make us fall into the trap of seeing early Greek philosophy merely as a prelude to something more impressive? And doesn't it mislead by implying that there was a distinguishable group of 'philosophers' in sixth and fifth-century BC Greece, contrasted with the various other doctors, astronomers, theologians, poets, historians and the like? Come on, these people might go on, let's give this eighteenth century fiction the boot (perhaps with a recognition that we can blame people like Aristotle for recommending it for this long)! Down with Die Vorsokratiker and up with something less contentious: 'Early Greek philosophy', maybe, or -- if you're sticking to a certain view of what these people in fact did -- 'Early Greek natural philosophy'. In fact, the US distributors of my book were particularly concerned by this sort of criticism and have added -- without asking me -- a subtitle. In the US, it is called: Presocratics: Natural philosophers before Socrates, even though there is quite a lot of epistemology, for example, discussed in it. The subtitle does not seem to be on the cover, though, so I doubt it will make a great deal of difference.

Now, I've no significant investment in the term 'Presocratic' such that I think these criticisms are all misguided. On the contrary, I think they are generally sound. All the same, I think it is a term which is not wholly useless. In fact, it is the easiest and more effective way to refer to a recognised tradition and period of ancient philosophy. True, this tradition -- like any other -- is to some extent manufactured. The classical Greeks put this lot together, even if they didn't use the term 'Presocratic' to refer to them, and that means that thinking about them in the 'traditional' way is not wholly out of touch with at least some of antiquity. It's a bit like other historiographical terms, like 'The Dark Ages' or 'Archaic Greece', retrospectively applied and a touch misleading on occasions but not completely useless. How strongly do people feel about discarding this sort of categorisation?

In any case, I was excited this morning to get hold of a copy of a recent book by one of the most intelligent and persuasive critics of the unthinking acceptance of this category of ancient philosophical historiography, André Laks: Introduction à la «philosophie présocratique». (Note the importance of the 'entre guillemets..'.) He has published a series of important pieces on this question recently and here is the full statement of his views. While I was at it I also bought his Le vide et la haine: éléments pour une histoire archaïque de la négativité. They are, I'm afraid to say, not the sort of thing that could easily be put on to one of our undergraduate reading lists, not least because they are not in English and undergraduates in Classics and Philosophy don't read much in other modern languages. That's a shame, because they are bound to be very interesting.


Catherine Osborne said...

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 dependent upon another for its inspiration or its targets or its provocation, 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?

Scott Hughes said...

Well, there were philosophers before, during and after Socrates and his period. Additionally, some philosophers before, during, and after did exist without knowledge of Socrates teachings and such, thus making them pre-Socratic. These pre-Socratic philosophers can be worse, just as good, or better than Socrates (and other philosophers from the same period and place) at philosophy.

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