Book Review: Presocratic Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Osborne

In my efforts to educate myself, I have been growing in appreciation of good philosophy over the last decade or so. But I’ve not really looked at it in any kind of systematic way. I’ve read a few bits and bobs here and there, but I wanted to go back to some of the earliest examples we have. The most common might be those found in the Old Testament of any bible, not least in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But neither of those works fall under the heading of Greek philosophy. Of that variety, the earliest I read was Plato’s Republic, so I have some grasp of the Socratic dialogue, but nothing of what came in between. Rather than read the surviving works themselves, I figured that a VSI would be a good place to start. Over the course of this year, expect a few more VSI reviews about philosophers.

Osborne starts the book in a slightly unexpected manner, by looking at a recent discovery of a text that seems to fill in some gaps in the understanding of one particular philosopher: Parmenides. We get presented with a translation of the fragments that survive, which made me rather glad I read an expert analysis rather than the raw texts themselves, as they are completely different from anything I have previously read. As might be expected from the term Presocratic, they are certainly not in the form of a Socratic dialogue, nor are they sets of propositions and reasoning, but neither are they anything like the more discursive musings of Wittgenstein.

Rather, it’s almost poetry, but rather fractured and obscure. I wanted to ask “what do you mean by that” but then the past is a different country, isn’t it? They do things differently there.

The book begins by jumping in the middle and looking at a relatively recent discovery on the work of Empedocles. Some fragments of his work were already known, but these just looked like a really bad jigsaw puzzle. In fact a picture is included which rather resembles such a puzzle. From what was reconstructed, we can see that Empedocles’ view is that that universe ebbs and flows between periods of unity and periods of strife.

Yet it struck me as rather peculiar how much could be taken from such fragmentary remnants. The whole chapter is full of speculation over Empedocles’ views yet the amount of text we actually have barely runs to two (fairly short) pages. I think the point was not that Osborne was exegeting Empedocles but to illustrate the issues that we have when trying to understand ancient philosophy.

From here, we widen our scope and look at the general concerns of the presocratic philosophers. But Osborne is cautious. Apparently, the study of this period has been dominated by a metanarrative that tells us the kinds of questions that the presocratics asked themselves and which their work attempted to answer. Osborne’s view is that this metanarrative is misleading. Not that it is wildly wrong, but that it has led generations of scholars to approach the presocratics with certain questions in mind. Such questioning then narrows the scope of research and does not allow the presocratics to speak for themselves. Here, I could see why this could be a problem given the parallels in biblical scholarship.

With that cautionary note, Osborne does play somewhat into this metanarrative by positing that one of the overarching themes is the question of “first things” or, to put it another way, what is fundamental? Here we can put Empedocles into some kind of context. The main figure in this chapter is Parmenides who has the curious argument that nothing ever changes. This is very well done and the figure of Parmenides certainly stuck in my head a little clearer than Osborne’s portrayal of Empedocles. This particular argument is one that I think is very important as it serves as a good example of a false argument that needs to be critiqued, but when one reads it at face value it appears to make sense. So it becomes necessary to dig into it and unearth the hidden assumptions in order to assume its falsity.

The next major figure we deal with is Heraclitus. Some may have heard of him as he is most famous for the idea that one cannot step into the same river twice (the idea being that because the river is ever-flowing if you set foot in the same physical location, the water that makes the river will have moved on). So we can see again that the question of change crops up. This also features in a chapter on Zeno’s paradoxes which will be familiar to anyone who remembers their introduction to differential calculus. This is another example of an ancient puzzle that can still be used to expose poor reasoning. Though one idea that Osborne moots is that this, as well as Parmenides’ ‘no change’ hypothesis, may have been designed to do just that. i.e. that they were jokes rather than seriously held ideas. It’s an hypothesis I like, though I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to give an informed opinion as to its correctness.

Eventually we come to Pythagoras; one of the few presocratics that almost everyone will have heard of, but for the wrong reason. He is here portrayed a mystic cult leader who abhorred the idea of leaving a written legacy so who we only know through word of mouth and the odd bit of possibly authentic writing left by some of his more dissident disciples. But as for the idea of his having discovered the theorem of right-angled triangles for which he is famed, there is scant all evidence to support it. Rather, he is better portrayed as a man obsessed with numbers and their hidden meanings, making him more of a numerologist than a mathematician.

In this review, I’ve mentioned just a few of the philosophers who are included in this short work. There are many more besides. In being given the brief for this book, Osborne had a very tough job on her hands, but she’s done an admirable job. This book introduced me to a wealth of new names and helped colour in some areas of philosophy that I only knew the bare outlines of. If you are looking for a very short introduction on the subject, then this definitely is the right book to turn to. Even beforehand, having flicked through some translations of the original works without commentary, I found them hard going. But even more so after having read this, I would think I need a helping hand to guide me along a tour of this very old, very different world from that which we live in today, but whose influence may be inferred, if only you have the right spectacles on and know where to look.

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