The point of studying the Presocratics

Salma asked:

In what way can the study of philosophy in the pre-Socratic thinkers illuminate the nature of philosophy?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here are three ways in which philosophy was, and still is, greatly influenced by the Presocratics.

1. They were the original naturalistic philosophers.

2. They exemplified the two sides in the debate as to whether the world is fundamentally made up of things (substance metaphysics) or processes (process metaphysics).

3. Discussion of time, space and infinity still takes account of Presocratic views, notably Zeno’s paradoxes of motion.

To deal briefly with each.

1. Naturalistic philosophers

Instead of seeing events as due to gods and demons, they tried to give a rational account of the origin and workings of the world, believing that this could be comprehended by humans. Explanation by mechanism (natural) replaced explanation by agency (supernatural). The former is standard nowadays (Big Bang, laws of nature). They were protoscientists, the first natural philosophers. Different thinkers came up with different suggestions as to what the basic elements (or single basic element) of the cosmos might be – fire, water, air, the infinite (‘apeiron’), the 4 elements (earth, air, fire, water), atoms in the void. Some of these seem quaint now, but are they stranger than modern views that the world is made of strings, quantum fields or information? Whilst they got the ‘conjecture’ bit of the scientific method right, they fell short on the ‘testing’ bit, hardly ever testing their views against the empirical world. Mind you, no progress was made in this direction by Socrates and the ancient Greeks, and we had to wait till medieval times for the idea of experiment and observation, and till early modern times for it to take hold.

2. Things or processes?

(a) things: on this view, things are primary and process (change) secondary. Change is due to interaction of things which remain unchanged by these processes. For example, atoms constantly interacting and reconfiguring in space (Democritus); or eternal basic units (‘no thing comes to be

nor does it perish’) producing change by ‘mixing together and dissociating’ (Anaxagoras). In short, substance metaphysics.

(b) processes: on this view, process is primary, things secondary. Change is fundamental and unceasing, whilst things are merely temporary stabilities or patterns in the eternal flux. This was Heraclitus’ view (‘all things flow’). Famously he said that nobody can step into the same river twice. A river isn’t so much a thing, as a temporary pattern in the constant process of flow, which in turn is part of the water cycle (evaporation, cloud formation, raining, flowing). Other processes include growth, decay, heating/cooling, thinking. In short process metaphysics.

Aristotle sided with substance metaphysics, and this became the Western paradigm. Aristotle was posthumously ‘adopted’ and ‘baptized’ by the Church, and his views became official, with lively debates about how the divine and earthly substances were united in the body of Jesus etc. Later, Descartes suggested there were two basic substances, res extensa and res cogitans (matter and mind). The notion of mind as a substance was controversial and has now rather faded, but matter held its ground as substance. Atomic theory supported the notion for two hundred years.

But by the 20th century the game was up. Atoms were found to be mostly empty space, and subatomic ‘particles’ seem to have no size at all, being merely loci of high energy in quantum fields, and without even definite positions, but rather existing in states of quantum superposition. Bertrand Russell truly said that the ‘matter’ of modern physics was no more substantial than anything we might be invited to witness at a seance. Modern physics supports the process view.

Russell’s colleague, Whitehead, championed process philosophy, which had continued, in a minor key after the Presocratics, in the views of Leibniz, Bergson and William James. To date, process philosophy hasn’t had the attention that substance metaphysics has enjoyed over the centuries, and so is less well-developed than materialism or idealism, but I fancy it will survive and thrive, becoming a serious rival to substance metaphysics as it was with the Presocratics.

3. Zeno’s paradoxes of motion

Zeno’s general philosophical views are hardly known but his 4 paradoxes of motion are justly famous, standard fare for Philosophy of Mathematics students, and worthy of discussion in 21st century thinking on time, space and infinity. Thus, the main change in the second edition (2010) of Dainton’s ‘Time and Space’, the standard work on philosophy of time and space, is the addition of 2 substantial chapters on Zeno and the Continuum. And the paradoxes have stimulated modern thought experiments on supertasks.

There is much more to be said on why study of the Presocratics helps illuminate the nature of philosophy, but I have tried to give a flavour.

It is a pity that we largely study others’ views on the Presocratics, since hardly anything of what they wrote survives, so that it is difficult to get a feel for what they were like as people, something we can do when we read say, Plato, Descartes or Hume.

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