Pre-Socratic philosophy

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A number of early Greek philosophers active before and during the time of Socrates are collectively known as the pre-Socratics. Their inquiries spanned the workings of the natural world as well as human society, ethics, and religion, seeking explanations based on natural principles rather than the actions of supernatural gods. They introduced to the West the notion of the world as a kosmos , an ordered arrangement that could be understood via rational inquiry. [1]

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

Socrates classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the main contemporary author to have written plays mentioning Socrates during Socrates' lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios' Travel Journal provides important information about Socrates' youth.


In Classical antiquity, the pre-Socratic philosophers were called physiologoi (Greek : φυσιολόγοι; in English, physical or natural philosophers). [2] Aristotle was the first to make a clear distinction between these physiologoi or physikoi ("physicists", after physis, "nature") who sought natural explanations for phenomena, and the earlier theologoi (theologians), or mythologoi (story tellers and bards) who attributed these phenomena to various gods. [3] [4] Diogenes Laërtius divides the physiologoi into two groups: Ionian, led by Anaximander, and the Italiote, led by Pythagoras. [5]

Classical antiquity Age of the ancient Greeks and Romans

Classical antiquity is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which Greek and Roman society flourished and wielded great influence throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Natural philosophy ancient philosophical study of nature and physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science

Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature was the philosophical study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science.


Modern interest in early Greek philosophy can be traced back to 1573, when Henri Estienne collected a number of pre-Socratic fragments in Poesis Philosophica (Ποίησις Φιλόσοφος). [6] Hermann Diels popularized the term "pre-Socratic" in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker ( The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics ) in 1903. However, the term "pre-Sokratic" [ sic ] was in use as early as George Grote's Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates in 1865. Edouard Zeller was also important in dividing thought before and after Socrates. [7] Major analyses of pre-Socratic thought have been made by Gregory Vlastos, Jonathan Barnes, and Friedrich Nietzsche in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks .

Henri Estienne French printer

Henri Estienne, also known as Henricus Stephanus, was a 16th-century French printer and classical scholar. He was the eldest son of Robert Estienne. He was instructed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by his father and would eventually take over the Estienne printing firm which his father owned in 1559 when his father died. His most well-known work was the Thesaurus graecae linguae which was printed in five volumes. The basis of Greek lexicology, no thesaurus would rival that of Estienne's for three hundred years.

The Latin adverb sic inserted after a quoted word or passage indicates that the quoted matter has been transcribed or translated exactly as found in the source text, complete with any erroneous, archaic, or otherwise nonstandard spelling. It also applies to any surprising assertion, faulty reasoning, or other matter that might be likely interpreted as an error of transcription.

George Grote English political radical and classical historian

George Grote was an English political radical and classical historian. He is now best known for his major work, the voluminous History of Greece.

It may sometimes be difficult to determine the actual line of argument some pre-Socratics used in supporting their particular views. While most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts have survived in complete form. All that is available are quotations by later philosophers (often biased) and historians, and the occasional textual fragment.

The pre-Socratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations of the phenomena they saw around them in favor of more rational explanations. These philosophers asked questions about "the essence of things": [8]

Religious cosmology is an explanation of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe, from a religious perspective. This may include beliefs on origin in the form of a creation myth, subsequent evolution, current organizational form and nature, and eventual fate or destiny. There are various traditions in religion or religious mythology asserting how and why everything is the way it is and the significance of it all. Religious cosmologies describe the spatial lay-out of the universe in terms of the world in which people typically dwell as well as other dimensions, such as the seven dimensions of religion; these are ritual, experience and emotional, narrative and mythical, doctrinal, ethical, social, and material. Religious mythologies may include descriptions of an act or process of creation by a creator deity or a larger pantheon of deities, explanations of the transformation of chaos into order, or the assertion that existence is a matter of endless cyclical transformations. Religious cosmology differs from a strictly scientific cosmology informed by the results of the study of astronomy and similar fields, and may differ in conceptualizations of the world's physical structure and place in the universe, its creation, and forecasts or predictions on its future. The scope of religious cosmology is more inclusive than a strictly scientific cosmology in that religious cosmology is not limited to experiential observation, testing of hypotheses, and proposals of theories; for example, religious cosmology may explain why everything is the way it is or seems to be the way it is and prescribing what humans should do in context. Variations in religious cosmology include those of Indian origin, such as Buddhism, Hindu, and Jain; the religious beliefs of China; and, the beliefs of the Abrahamic faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious cosmologies have often developed into the formal logics of metaphysical systems, such as Platonism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Daoism, Kabbalah, or the great chain of being.

In philosophy, essence is the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates rigorously with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for its Latin translators that they coined the word essentia to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition.

Others concentrated on defining problems and paradoxes that became the basis for later mathematical, scientific and philosophic study.

Later philosophers rejected many of the answers the early Greek philosophers provided, but continued to place importance on their questions. Furthermore, the cosmologies proposed by them have been updated by later developments in science.

Cosmology Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Cosmology is a branch of astronomy concerned with the studies of the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future. It is the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. Physical cosmology is the scientific study of the universe's origin, its large-scale structures and dynamics, and its ultimate fate, as well as the laws of science that govern these areas.

Science systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.


Graphical relationship among the various pre-socratic philosophers and thinkers; red arrows indicate a relationship of opposition. Presocratic graph.svg
Graphical relationship among the various pre-socratic philosophers and thinkers; red arrows indicate a relationship of opposition.

Coming from the eastern or western fringes of the Greek world, the pre-Socratics were the forerunners of what became Western philosophy as well as natural philosophy, which later developed into the natural sciences (such as physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy). [1] Their efforts were directed to the investigation of the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. [9] They sought the material principle ( archê ) of things, and the method of their origin and disappearance. [9] As the first philosophers, they emphasized the rational unity of things and rejected supernatural explanations, instead seeking natural principles at work in the world and human society. The pre-Socratics saw the world as a kosmos , an ordered arrangement that could be understood via rational inquiry. [1] Pre-Socratic thinkers present a discourse concerned with key areas of philosophical inquiry such as being, the primary stuff of the universe, the structure and function of the human soul, and the underlying principles governing perceptible phenomena, human knowledge and morality.

Arche is a Greek word with primary senses "beginning", "origin" or "source of action", and later "first principle" or "element", first so used by Anaximander. By extension, it may mean "first place, power", "method of government", "empire, realm", "authorities", "command". The first principle or element corresponds to the "ultimate underlying substance" and "ultimate undemonstrable principle". In the philosophical language of the archaic period, arche designates the source, origin or root of things that exist. In ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although undemonstrable and intangible in itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that thing.


Only fragments of the original writings of the pre-Socratics survive (many entitled Peri Physeos, or On Nature , a title probably attributed later by other authors). [10] The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts - known as doxography - of later philosophical writers (especially Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus and Simplicius), and some early theologians (especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome).

The translation of Peri Physeos as On Nature may be misleading: the "on" normally gives the idea of an "erudite dissertation", while " peri " may refer in fact to a "circular approach"; and the traditional meanings of "nature" for us (as opposition to culture, to supernatural, or as essence, substance, opposed to accident, etc.) may be in contrast with the meaning of "physeos" or " physis " for the Greeks (referring to an "originary source", or "process of emergence and development"). [11]

Milesian school

The first pre-Socratic philosophers were from Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia. Thales (624-546 BC) is reputedly the father of Greek philosophy; he declared water to be the basis of all things. [9] Next came Anaximander (610-546 BC), the first writer on philosophy. He assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance without qualities ( apeiron ), out of which the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. [9] His younger contemporary, Anaximenes (585-525 BC), took for his principle air, conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth. [9]


The practical side of philosophy was introduced by Pythagoras of Samos (582-496 BC). Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on number, he aimed at inducing humankind likewise to lead a harmonious life. His doctrine was adopted and extended by a large following of Pythagoreans who gathered at his school in south Italy in the town of Croton. [9] His followers included Philolaus (470-380 BC), Alcmaeon of Croton, and Archytas (428-347 BC).

Ephesian school

The Ephesian philosophers were interested in the natural world and the properties by which it is ordered. Xenophanes and Heraclitus were able to push philosophical inquiry further than the Milesian school by examining the nature of philosophical inquiry itself. In addition, they were also invested in furthering observations and explanations regarding natural and physical process and also the functions and processes of the human subjective experience. [12]

Hereclitus and Xenophenes both shared interests in analyzing philosophical inquiry as they contemplated morality and religious belief. This was because they wanted to figure out the proper methods of understanding human knowledge and the ways humans fit into the world. This was much different than natural philosophy that was being done by other philosophers as it questioned how the operations of the universe as well as the human positions within the universe. [13]

Heraclitus of Ephesus on the western coast of Anatolia in modern Turkey (535-475 BC) posited that all things in nature are in a state of perpetual flux, connected by logical structure or pattern, which he termed Logos. To Heraclitus, fire, one of the four classical elements, motivates and substantiates this eternal pattern. From fire all things originate, and return to it again in a process of eternal cycles.

Eleatic school

The Eleatic School, called after the town of Elea (modern name Velia in southern Italy), emphasized the doctrine of the One. Xenophanes of Colophon (570-470 BC) declared God to be the eternal unity, permeating the universe, and governing it by his thought. [9] Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BC) affirmed the one unchanging existence to be alone true and capable of being conceived, and multitude and change to be an appearance without reality. [9] This doctrine was defended by his younger countryman Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) in a polemic against the common opinion which sees in things multitude, becoming, and change. Zeno propounded a number of celebrated paradoxes, much debated by later philosophers, which try to show that supposing that there is any change or multiplicity leads to contradictions. [9] Melissus of Samos (born c. 470 BC) was another eminent member of this school.

Pluralist school

Empedocles of Agrigentum (490-430 BC) was from the ancient Greek city of Akragas (Ἀκράγας), Agrigentum in Latin, modern Agrigento, in Sicily. He appears to have been partly in agreement with the Eleatic School, partly in opposition to it. On the one hand, he maintained the unchangeable nature of substance; on the other, he supposes a plurality of such substances - i.e. four classical elements, earth, water, air, and fire. Of these the world is built up, by the agency of two ideal motive forces - love as the cause of union, strife as the cause of separation. [9] Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC) in Asia Minor also maintained the existence of an ordering principle as well as a material substance, and while regarding the latter as an infinite multitude of imperishable primary elements, he conceived divine reason or Mind ( nous ) as ordering them. He referred all generation and disappearance to mixture and resolution respectively. To him belongs the credit of first establishing philosophy at Athens. [9]

Atomist school

The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by Leucippus (5th century BC) and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BC) from Thrace. This was the doctrine of atoms - small primary bodies infinite in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and arrangement, of the atoms which compose them. [9]


Diogenes of Apollonia from Thrace (born c. 460 BC) was an eclectic philosopher who adopted many principles of the Milesian school, especially the single material principle, which he identified as air. He explained natural processes in reference to the rarefactions and condensations of this primary substance. He also adopted Anaxagoras' cosmic thought.


The sophists held that all thought rests solely on the apprehensions of the senses and on subjective impression, and that therefore we have no other standards of action than convention for the individual. [9] Specializing in rhetoric, the sophists were typically seen more as professional educators than philosophers. The sophists traveled extensively educating people throughout Greece. Unlike philosophical schools, the sophists had no common set of philosophical doctrines that connected them to each other. They did, however, focus on teaching techniques of debate and persuasion which centered around the study of language, semantics, and grammar for use in convincing people of certain viewpoints. They also taught students their own interpretations of the social sciences, mathematics, history, among others. [14] They flourished as a result of a special need at that time for Greek education. Prominent sophists include Protagoras (490-420 BC) from Abdera in Thrace, Gorgias (487-376 BC) from Leontini in Sicily, Hippias (485-415 BC) from Elis in the Peloponnesos, Prodicus (465-390 BC) from the island of Ceos, and Thrasymachus (459-400 BC) from Chalcedon on the Bosphorus.

Other early Greek philosophers

This list includes several men, particularly the Seven Sages, who appear to have been practical politicians and sources of epigrammatic wisdom, rather than speculative thinkers or philosophers in the modern sense.

Solon (c. 594 BC)
Chilon of Sparta (c. 560 BC)
Thales (c. 585 BC)
Bias of Priene (c. 570 BC)
Cleobulus of Rhodes (c. 600 BC)
Pittacus of Mitylene (c. 600 BC)
Periander (625–585 BC)



  1. 1 2 3 "Presocratic Philosophy", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 4 April 2016.
  2. William Keith Chambers Guthrie, The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus, p. 13, ISBN   0-317-66577-4.
  3. John Freely, Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe (2012)
  4. Most, G. W. (1999). The poetics of early Greek philosophy. In A. A. Long (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (pp. 332–362). chapter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Franco Orsucci, Changing Mind: Transitions in Natural and Artificial Environments, p. 14, ISBN   981-238-027-2.
  6. Giannis Stamatellos, Introduction to Presocratics (2012). p. 7.
  7. Simon Goldhill. Rethinking Revolutions Through Ancient Greece. p. 221.
  8. Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (1955). p. 323.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Oskar Seyffert, (1894), Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, page 480
  10. Irwin, T. (1999). Classical Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 6, Google Books.
  11. Souza, J. C. (1985). Pré-socráticos. Coleção Os Pensadores. 6ª ed. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, pp. 19, 45, PDF Archived 2016-02-22 at the Wayback Machine .
  12. Curd, Patricia (April 4, 2016). "Presocratic Philosophy". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 20, 2019.
  13. Warren, James. The Oracles of Heraclitus. Skocksfield.
  14. Hornblower, Simon. Sophists. The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Oxford University Press.
  15. Picturing Hegel: An Illustrated Guide to Hegel's Encyclopaedia of Logic. p. 46.
  16. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (June 9, 2012). "The Dawn of Day".

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Further reading