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A Not-So Brief Introduction to the Not-So Brief History of Philosophy (Part-I)

  • 14 Oct 2019

Editor’s Note:

You will read here briefs about a select group of philosophers known as the Presocratics. They are an important bunch! And, once we are familiar with them, we will move on to the man Socrates himself.

This article, written in a simple, fluid style, emphasises on introduction rather than deep academic introspection. Read on for a pleasurable jaunt into the subject of philosophy!



Philosophy is an overused word in our generation, especially among those who are aware and opinionated. We have attached a widely accepted meaning to the word ‘philosophy’ which we use to describe some opinion we might have or an approach we might take to define a certain topic? or issue — basically, a fancier word for ideology or school of thought. And while it isn't wrong, we are going to use this word quite narrowly here - to describe a way of approaching the world that traces its roots back to Ancient Greece, 500 years prior to the Common Era. It was a time defined by great intellectual movements. Buddhism and Jainism had begun to develop in Asia, while philosophical thought developed in Greece.

The Presocratics - Thales

Philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other. (Department of Philosophy, Florida State University)

The initial big challenge that eluded the early philosophers was to draw the distinction between philos and mythos; what we can now roughly call science and story-telling, respectively. Bards like Homer were trying to understand and explain the occurrences of the world through the art of story-telling and the earliest philosophers were trying to do the same through a more scientific and analytical approach?— although it is safe to say that the concept of science, as we know it today, didn’t really exist back then.

‘Philosophia’ or the love for wisdom was just starting to make its way through the world as a concept that tries to make sense of the world. The early definition of philosophy was the study of anything and the subject was just as vague as its definition. However, as time progressed, so did the subject. Plato’s Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum can be considered as the first universities in the western world and in there mathematics, astronomy, poetry, political science, biology, and physics were all considered to be philosophy. Eventually, scholars began to think of these fields differently— as different disciplines. The fields that were based on strong empirical points came to be known as science - a search for answers. Whereas, philosophy came to be known as a way of thinking about questions. And since then, even after hundreds of years since the Greeks introduced the concept of the subject to us, philosophers still love thinking and asking questions, sometimes even repeating the same big questions, and frankly, philosophers don’t seem to mind not getting a definite answer to these questions - it is the thinking that attracts them.

Philosophy is a vast subject which questions everything and anything. It can be broadly divided into three fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

Metaphysics is an effort to understand the fundamental nature of the world, nature, and of being. It studies the nature of reality. Epistemology is literally the study of knowledge, it is knowing about knowing. It is a study which focuses on how we know the answers to the questions that the subject puts in front of us, the nature and scope of knowledge. It questions our knowledge of the normative (what we are used to, our regular way of life) and if the world is really how we perceive it to be. Value theory is a branch of philosophy that helps you frame your thinking around what you actually do, like — how you should act and what you should attach meaning to. It is divided into two branches, ethics and aestheticism.

Ethics is a common word in our usual conversations and perhaps, not a difficult one to define. However, in philosophy, ethics is more than just code for what’s right and what's wrong, it is the study of how humans should coexist with each other. Instead of sitting with a book of rules in your hands and judging people, it poses questions like: how should I live? Is there any reason that I should treat strangers differently than the people I love? Do I owe anything to myself? Whatever your personal ethics maybe, they come from the values you have, that is why ethics is a part of the value theory.

The second branch of value theory is aestheticism, which focuses on what is beautiful, not on what is right. Aesthetics is the study of beauty and art. The idea of beauty is, right now to put it subtly, subjective and highly debated. It is diverse, multifaceted, and basically, in modern debates, there is no one type of beauty. For philosophers, the pursuit of aesthetics involves considering what beauty is, or if it even exists. Aesthetics is a part of the value theory because beauty is something we value and evaluate. Aestheticians believe that there exists something called ‘the Beautiful’— something that does not depend on what you find attractive but something that is just objectively true.

Coming now to how Philosophy developed, from a vast array of different streams and subjects, into a somewhat neatly devised yet ever so abstract and broad subject, we have to start with the Presocratics.

Philosophy has come a long way.

There are a lot of Presocratic theories that don't make any sense if we read about them today but philosophy (Western) has grown and evolved out of it as time progressed. Today, philosophy, as we have it, is much more devised, though the usual nature of the subject still remains, in a way, abstract. To follow the timeline for philosophy closely and with the least amount of confusion, it is best to start with its roots - the Presocratics.

The coinage of the term - Presocratics - dates back to the 18th century; it was made current in the 19th century by Hermann Diels. It was originally meant to create a contrast between Socrates who was more interested in the moral problems, and his predecessors, who were supposedly and primarily concerned with the cosmological and physical speculations. Note that if taken only chronologically, saying that Presocratics is a group of philosophers that lived before Socrates can be incorrect as many of the Presocratics were Socrates’ contemporaries and some were even contemporaries of Plato’s.

But why are we starting with the Presocratics? Because people, all around the world, had developed knowledge for millennia which makes it difficult to pinpoint a starting point of this exercise. However, Greece* can be considered as a good place as any, to find our footing. They are, after all, considered to be the cornerstone of scientific inquiry in Western Europe. [*the Greeks had practised Natural Philosophy which they defined to be a self-conscious inquiry into nature.]

Two pointers on the Presocratics

When we look closely at the theories of Presocratic philosophers, we notice two main things.

First, they weren't anywhere close to our present idea of scientists. While they did not make detailed or accurate observations of nature they did try to come up with theories to answer the questions of why things were the way they were. Even though, when we look at them now, they seem a little too strange or ‘out there’ but there is a reason why these millennia-old theories have survived - they have driven centuries worth of further inquiry: the divide between the abstract and the material, or identifying the smallest possible part of all matter.

Second, as these natural philosophers tried their level best to separate the myth from the truth, they developed what we have now come to identify as the very first drafts of many of the values and methods we currently use, making their work relevant and significant in the present time.

Natural Philosophy became a quest for abstract knowledge. And this is important because the Presocratics came up with the idea of general claims about the world - laws that weren’t substantial and would apply to every situation.

They also developed schools of thought that were essential for spreading their ideas and beliefs, both throughout the geographical land and throughout the passages of time. Here we have to understand that these schools of thought did not have a physical presence but rather they were a group of teachers and students who pondered and thought about the same problems.

Also, we have substantial knowledge about the theories of the Greeks because they operated individually. They took credit for their work and passed down their ideas. This practice of inquiry may seem unconventional and unorganised now-a-days but it served as the foundation for how the modern Europeans had systematically made knowledge.

The method on which we are going to focus on first is Rational Debate. It is obvious that between so many schools of thought and individuals, disagreement over ideas and theories are bound to have happened. To garner public interest and to gather the public’s support, a natural philosopher had to use reason, logic, and observation to cleverly attack the wrong-seeming ideas and bolster himself over the other philosophers.

However, there are more Presocratic philosophers than we can mention here, or even begin to inscribe, and as such we will be talking about only some of the most popular and relevant Presocratics in this series of articles.

Presocratic: Thales

The first European natural philosopher that we know of is Thales, whose ideas have survived until the present.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that it was in Aristotle’s texts that we find mention of Thales of Miletus as being the first to engage in the field of inquiry.

Thales was the first individual to have proven a mathematical theorem - the Thales' theorem. Writers like Herodotus (ancient Greek historian who lived between c.484 – 425/413 BCE; said to have invented the field of study known today as `history’ and was called ‘The Father of History’ by the Roman writer and orator Cicero for his famous work The Histories) and Diogenes Laertius (a biographer of the Greek philosophers who lived between 180 and 240 AD) are responsible for the accounts written on Thales that have put a lot of firsts under his belt, like the prediction of a solar eclipse (28 May 585 BCE), the accounts of Thales helping Ionian Greeks against the Persians and Croesus the Lydian King against the Ionians, the calculation of the sun's course from solstice to solstice and the size of the sun in relation to the solar circle (the sun's magnetic field changes polarity approximately every 11 years, which is known as the solar or sunspot cycle), the inscription of the right-angled triangle in a circle, etc.

Since the Greeks have attributed a lot of firsts of things to him, it makes it a task to differentiate the fake claims from the authentic ones and while these claims have little to no proof, there is still a long tradition that extols him for his wisdom.

The calculation of the solar eclipse could have been traced back to the empirical observations and recordings made by the Egyptians and the Babylonians, who have watched the stars from the remotest past. (paraphrased, Aristotle, On The Heavens, 292a)

One of the major theories of Thales was about the natural element of water. And since a big part of Greek mythology governed the occurrence of the four natural elements and tied them to divine entities, gods and goddesses, the theme of divinity is also a primary one in Thales’ ideas.

The four elements, namely fire, water, earth, and air, all are of crucial significance in the presence of the physical world and the survival of human existence. While all of them are important, can we choose the one that is the most important out of these four? Water, as Aristotle suggests, is co-ordinate with life itself (A12)*. This makes it unsurprising that Thales chose this element over the others.

*(A12) here in the passage is an example of a Dielz-Kranz number. It is the standard system for referencing the works of the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, based on the collection of quotations from and reports of their work, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics), by Hermann Alexander Diels. The Fragmente first published in 1903, was later revised and expanded three times by Diels, and was revised in a fifth edition (1934–7) by Walther Kranz and again in a sixth edition (1952). In Diels-Kranz, each passage, or item, is assigned a number which is used to uniquely identify the ancient personality with which it is concerned, and the type of item given. Diels-Kranz is used in academia to cite any pre-Socratic philosopher.

Source: Wikipedia

Thales founded the first school of European thought called ‘The Milesians’ and they were known for their theory of matter, physical objects. This theory held that water was the primary substrate, the most basic element. The earth floats around on water like a ship. Earthquakes happen when the water rocks it back and forth.

According to this theory, the soul of matter may not have been water, but their composition does contain water. There are also accounts that make use of water as the crucial first step in the story of the evolution of the world. For example, the god of the Old Testament creates the water bodies before he creates the Earth.

“He hath founded the earth upon the seas and established it upon the floods.” [Psalm 24:2 ]

The Psalms talks of land over the water, much like Thales’ idea. Moreover, his ideas also later took the form of the essential dualism of soul versus matter.

Another important point that we mentioned earlier is divination and divine interference in the natural phenomenon. Greek mythology is vast and all-consuming, having explanations for everything that occurs in the physical world, regardless of how bizarre the reasoning may be, but it did have reasons, and gods and goddesses, for everything in the world.

Thales, though not irreligious, set the natural world separately from the divine one. To him, the world was something that was comprehensible by the power of human intellect: it became an object, a thing, like other things and this meant leaving the gods out! For instance, Thales believed that the wind caused the Nile to flood, not a God who was angry and needed appeasement. It was a very common practice all across Greece, that any natural calamity that results in loss of life and/or property was seen as an expression of the wrath of the gods. And not just Greece but this was a normal assumption all over the world and often resulted in elaborate rituals of atonement.

What Thales did here was that he made a general but natural observation for a phenomenon. In doing so he may come off as an irreligious man but he was not, as he had believed that every being has a god and (or) a soul inside of them!

The main aim behind visiting these philosophers is to present a perspective of how our modern ideas about the world have evolved from the somewhat ‘far-fetched’ and illogical ideas of the Presocratics. And while we think we have uncovered the mysteries of the universe, we never really know what new invention or discovery will show up next and make everything that we know about this world different.

And perhaps one day, we will be like the Presocratics with theories, ideas, and inventions of our own, some of which may be far-fetched and illogical, but nevertheless shall be able to raise the right questions and debates for our future generations to ponder upon!

To conclude, here is a quote from Thales: ‘The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.’

(Writer’s Note: This article is going to be a series of several articles focusing on the most relevant Presocratic philosophers. The goal is to present you with ideas and to pique your interests in things that gave rise to modern philosophical thoughts. In the next article will focus on Anaximander and Anaximenes - two of the greatest Presocratics.)

 Devyani Singh, New Delhi 

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