Presocratic philosophy is Greek philosophy before Socrates. In Classical antiquity, the Presocratic philosophers were called physiologoi (in English, physical or natural philosophers). Diogenes Laërtius divides the physiologoi into two groups, Ionian and Italiote, led by Anaximander and Pythagoras, respectively.
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 was in use as early as George Grote's Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates in 1865. 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.
It may sometimes be difficult to determine the actual line of argument some Presocratics used in supporting their particular views. While most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts has survived in complete form. All that is available are quotations by later philosophers (often biased) and historians, and the occasional textual fragment.
The Presocratic 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":
- From where does everything come?
- From what is everything created?
- How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
- How might we describe nature mathematically?
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.
Western philosophy began in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. The Presocratics were mostly from the eastern or western fringes of the Greek world. Their efforts were directed to the investigation of the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. They sought the material principle (archê) of things, and the method of their origin and disappearance. As the first philosophers, they emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological explanations of the world. Only fragments of the original writings of the presocratics survive. The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts of later philosophical writers (especially Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus and Simplicius), and some early theologians, (especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus).
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