21 September 2005

Another Question about the Pre-Socratics

Maybe this is a dumb question. Hasn't Barnes answered it?

When I lecture on ancient philosophy, or philosophy at all, like other professors I like to put arguments up on the board, in 'list' version (numbering the steps), for ease of analysis.

In lecturing on the presocratics, however, if I try to be faithful to the extant fragments and reliable testimonia, then--to be honest--I can do that sort of thing, I think, only with Parmenides and Zeno, but not, it seems, with anyone else. What argument does Empedocles give anywhere? Or the atomists? Or even Anaxagoras? One finds no defense of premises (either by conceptual analysis or from observation), and no deductions of conclusions from premises. One can only say such things as "Empedocles insisted (apparently without a very good response to Parmenides) that there were four elements (without giving any reasons for this) and asserted (again, without giving reasons) that the universe went in cycles" etc. etc.

Admittedly, Aristotle gives lots of reconstructions--of why Thales might have thought that water was the first cause; or why proponents of the apeiron might have thought that body was everywhere and apeiron; and so on. But these are Aristotle's reconstructions.

And so, it seems, one is left with the following alternatives:

1. The presocratics indeed had arguments, which they did not care to give to us, or which our extant sources do not represent, and we therefore may rightly attempt to reconstruct what those arguments were. (This makes sense. After all, if we really did have a chance to pose questions to, say, Thales, do you think he would have nothing to say in defense of his view?)

2. The presocratics had no arguments. What they were up to, rather, was simply sketching a way in which the world could be. They didn't think they had to establish, by evidence, that that is how it must be or was likely to be --perhaps because they thought it enough to establish something, rather, about themselves (namely, that the person putting forward a view was indeed a 'wise man'). (By the way, on this second alternative we needn't say the presocratics weren't philosophers. We might say, instead, that philosophy can take the form of sketching a novel picture of how everything might be.)

Perhaps this is overly pessimistic. But that's the philosophical mood I'm in currently.

What's wrong with looking at things in this way?


Anonymous said...

I don't think the cleavage need be so abrupt. While most Presocratics might not have had elaborated arguments (which we ought not to retrospectively lavish upon them), it is not foolish to presume that they had at least _reasons_ to think that X was the case as opposed to Y. To take an obvious example, there are not-so-stupid reasons to believe that everything is made of water. I take the point about competition amongst wise men (there's certainly one-upmanship involved, especially among the phusikoi), but that can't be the whole story.


Posted by J. Villeneuve

Michael Pakaluk said...



(a) Presumably everyone has reasons for what he or she does (or says). One can grant what you urge in simply acknowledging that. But wouldn't 'having reasons' in that sense be too weak?

(b) Or would it then follow that what made the presocratics 'philosophers' (of sorts, at least) was not that they argued (as some have claimed), but rather that they talked about certain sorts of things, or about things in certain sorts of ways, so that any reasons they might have given would have been, because of that, 'philosophical.' E.g. Thales wants to give a theory of everything; he does so by saying that everything is water; and then the *sort* of reason he might give (if pressed), or did in fact give, for such a claim ends up being philosophical.