Review of Andre Laks’ “The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance”

The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, written by Andre Laks and translated by Gleen W. Most, is an outstanding scholarly contribution to our understanding of how it is we came to designate a certain class of philosophical work as “Presocratic,” what overarching characteristics have characterized this early Greek philosophy,  and how the debate about the “Presocratic” designation is related to the boarder questions both of what philosophy is and what characterizes reason. The book shows all the erudition one might expect from Andre Laks, who along with Gleen W. Most, is co-editor of the Loeb Classic Library’s edition of Early Greek Philosophy (9 volumes).

The book (Princeton UP, 137pp.), contains a preface and six chapters: 1) Presocratics: Ancient Antecedents; 2) Presocratics: The Modern Constellation; 3) Philosophy; 4) Rationality; 5) Origins; 6) What is at Stake.

Laks begins his study noting that the “Presocratic” designation of early Greek natural philosophers was not explicitly used until  1788, when J.-A Eberhard entitled one section of his manual of the history of philosophy as vorsokratische Philosophie (1). Nonetheless, numerous ancient philosophers early began to differentiate Socratic philosophy from the natural philosophy that was dominant in Greece before him.  Both Xenophon and Plato cast Socrates as the first humanist, distinguishing him from the natural philosophers (8). The idea is thus expressed early that Socrates represents a turn from speculation of nature toward questions of the human role in society, questions of justice, and an analysis of concepts.

In part, Plato’s characterization of the difference between Socrates and the natural philosophers (as well as  the sophists) is necessary as part of his defense against the accusations of Socrates in his trial. Socrates was not the first to be tried for questioning the gods and corrupting the youth. Natural philosophers had been so tried, as was allowed by the decree of Diopeithes of 438/7. Anaxagoras — who under Pericles brought natural philosophy to Athens — was charged with maintaining that the heavens were merely natural objects. Diogenes of Apollonia may have been tried (7 ff.). It is against this background that Plato, like Xenophon, distances himself from a popular view of Socrates propagated by Aristophanes in The Clouds, which, incorrectly, depicts Socrates as a natural philosopher, speculating on the heavens. The Platonic view that becomes generally accepted is that Socrates studied some cosmology in his early life, but abandoned it as unfruitful to devote himself to moral or humanist questions.

Cicero offers one of the earliest formal differentiations of Greek philosophy into formal stages starting with the 1) era of the sages, which includes various mythological and quasi-mythological figures like Odysseus and Nestor. This is followed by 2) early philosophy, initiated by Pythagorus, who is the first to use the term philosophy. These thinkers formulate theories but are remote from practical questions. 3) Socratic thought follows these stages; and it is vital that Socrates reintroduces practical questions (10).

The account attributed to Socrates, like the account of Cicero, draws a distinction between philosophy before and after Socrates in reference to content. Those before Socrates deal with questions of natural philosophy in some way. Socrates focuses on practical moral questions. Yet not all ancient thinkers thought that this distinction was most fundamental — indeed not even all of them who thought that we might still distinguish Socrates from those who did natural philosophy emphasized this as the fundamental point. Aristotle, for example, saw the distinction between Socrates and the natural philosophers as fundamentally tied up with method. In contrast to the natural philosophers, Socrates emphasizes the definition of concepts. His development of this method is viewed as the prerequisite for the Platonic theory of the forms (16).

Despite some references in these early sources to the important difference between Socrates and those who came before him, the reference to “Presocratic” thought does not appear in Diogenes Laertius, who offers the most thorough testimony to early Greek thought to have survived. It is two developments in the 19th century that help solidify the characterization. One is Nietzsche’s work. The other is the work of H. Diels, the founder of the modern study of Presocratics, who published the first scientific studies of the Fragments of the Presocratics. (19). W.T. Krug, in 1815, was aligned with a general tendency when using Plato, rather than Socrates, as the father of a new era of philosophizing in the Ancient world (19 ff.). In some early texts, Nietzsche, like others of his time, preferred to speak of Pre-Platonic rather the Presocratic thinkers (21 ff.). Yet, he eventually uses the term Presocratic, helping to establish it. Nietzsche, though, represents an important exception to the general reading of the early Greek naturalists since he rejects the developmental view — that is that they are to be seen as steps on the path to Plato (23).

Nietzsche does not read the Presocratics so much as responding to one another as they steadily progress on a road to truth. Rather he views them as functioning as a corrective to a “tragic” Greek culture (23). He reads the Presocratics as parallel to the 19th century Germans. Like the Germans of his day, the Presocratics too were reacting to a degenerate culture (24). Here theoretical truth is not fundamentally the aim of their thought. It is rather cultural well-being. While this is their worthy goal, in the main Nietzsche does not view the Presocratics as accomplishing this goal. Rather, they announce or promise well-being but are unable to deliver it (26). Nietzsche consequently develops an ambivalence about the Ancient naturalists. What they begin is promising, but they end up reproducing errors. As Laks summarizes: “The essence of what the Presocratics have to tell us does not have to do with their doctrine but with the relation between their doctrine and the culture within which they advanced those truths” (27).  In the end, Nietzsche rejects all of them, with the exception of Heraclitus.

One reason that the references to “Presocratics” was long troubling is because many “Presocratics” lived as contemporaries of Socrates, or even Plato  (28). Another is that the term has often been used to imply that they are inferior to those who come after them — they are preparing for something that surpasses them. The latter was Aristotle’s view already in the Metaphysics. Yet it is one that Nietzsche and, after him, Heidegger, reject (29ff.). Heidegger spoke of the need to recover the thinking of these early philosophers, who he characterized not as Presocratics but as “originary thinkers” (anfaenglichen Denker) (30).

Though the debate has raged about the appropriateness of the term “Presocratics,” the term has largely been preserved. In part, this is because of the linguistic convenience of the term. In part, it is because the great works of these early thinkers have been lost. Their ideas come to us largely through the works of those who accepted bits and pieces of their fragments rather than through schools of thought that they founded.

Chapter 3, “Philosophy,” examines debates about whether the early Greek thinkers are actually engaged in philosophy at all. Some of have suggested that it is more appropriate to designate Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Xenophanes as sages than philosophers. Other thinkers, like Anaximander and Anaximenes,  it has been argued, ought be considered “scientists,” not philosophers. Parmenides and Empedocles might be viewed as shaman. In taking up these issues, Laks focuses on two issues: 1) the differentiation between myth (muthos) and reason (logos); and 2) the distinction between scientific and philosophical rationality (35ff.). Herbert Spencer’s view was like that of many others in too radically distinguishing a period of myth before philosophy and a period without any after it (37). In fact, rationality was at work in myth making, and elements of myth were preserved in the new reasoning (39). The scientist and philosophy distinction has some parallel difficulties. Some of the early Greek thinkers, like Heraclitus, it has been argued, should be viewed as “pure philosophers,” whereas others, like the astronomer Clemostratus of Tenedos, should be viewed as “pure scientists.”

In fact, philosophy, as a special kind of activity, is being distinguished from the 5th century BCE. The activity of philosophizing may have predated the terminology, but Laks argues that this period displays the concurrent emergence of a new kind of thinking and attempts to characterize it. The term philosophy is found in Pythagoras and in Heraclitus. Laks examines some of the early uses of the term and the characterization of the activity of philosophizing — from Heraclitus’ statement that “men who love wisdom [philosophioi] must be investigators into many things” to Socrates’s view that links philosophy, in Laks’ words, “to the search for happiness in a protreptic perspective” to Plato’s contrasting of philosophical activity with that of mere experts (the sophists) (44 ff.).  When considering the history of philosophy we would of course do well to note that the natural science/philosophy distinction that we make today was simply not made in the Ancient world. Yet this alone does not provide an adequate answer to why the Greeks classified these thinkers as philosophers rather than scientists. Aristotle, in fact, thinks that Thales, who some might view as a mere natural scientist, is a philosopher in part because he also does ontology. His concern is not merely scientific, even by today’s standards. Instead, he proposes the idea of a substrate, a substance, that underlies all nature — and that is a distinctly philosophical claim. What particularly characterizes the early philosophy as it is understood in Ancient Greece is, first, that it is totalizing, meaning that it is an inquiry into all of nature, and second, that it involves a certain kind of rational argumentation, based on natural causes and calling into question the prevalent mythological explanations (52).

Chapter 4, “Rationality,” examines views of the extent to which early Greek naturalism is a part of a more general process of the rationalization of society. Already in 1962, J.P. Vernant, in the Origins of Greek Thought, related the rationalization in early Greek philosophy to the formation of the city. He sees a dual rationalization at work in regard both to nature and society. Vernant’s book was not primarily about the emergence of philosophy. C. Meier, from a more philosophic perspective, focused on how this rationalization in politics required a form of reflection, political reflection.

Laks discusses details of these arguments, in the end accepting that Max Weber’s concept of rationalization serves us well in thinking about the developments in Ancient Greek thought, even if Weber himself focuses in his discussions on rationalization on religious forms of thought largely to the exclusion of Hellenic philosophy. Weber discusses rationality in three main ways, as: 1) scientific-technical; 2) metaphysical-ethical, expressed in what Weber calls “meanings of the world”; and 3) practical, focussed on “a methodically regulated way of life” (66). The role of ideas, such as we find in early Greek natural philosophy, do play some role here. As noted in a passage quoted by Laks, “Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the ‘world of images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest” (qtd. p. 66ff.). It is this role of ideas in the process of rationalization that is important, in Laks’ view, for understanding how early Greek philosophy surpasses the rationalization that Vernant saw as rooted the city. In Laks’ words “For what the Presocratic philosophers confront us with is the conflictual diversity of images of the world, in relation to which the reader is invited to situate himself, and which transcend the categories of the city in every direction” (67).

Chapter 5 examines questions of the origins as relevant to the study of early Greek natural philosophy. It starts with a recounting of Karl Jasper’s view of “breakthroughs” that occurred in the “Axial Age” not only in Greece but in other civilizations as well, and uses this to segue into a discussion of questions of origins.  Jaspers has been criticized for having an overly teleological perspective. While Laks indicates that the term origin could simply be considered a foundation or principle, he highlights that historians can hardly avoid using some “teleological presuppositions.” In speaking of origins, we tend to presume a “starting point” of something that undergoes development.

The chapter continues with a discussion of much of the criticism of the teleological view of the early Greek philosophers that occurred the 20th century, for example, in Heidegger. Heidegger rejects that there was a steady progress from the views of the Ionian philosophers to Plato and Aristotle. He suggested a possible fruitful return to ideas of the work of the early Greek naturalists and ontologists, quite aside from how they feed into the systems of Plato and Aristotle — so quite aside from their designation as Presocratics. Heidegger, rather than referring to the as Presocratics, preferred the term “originary thinkers” (73).

Laks here also discusses various debates about whether Greek philosophy ought to be viewed as beginning with Thales, or perhaps Pythagoras after him, or maybe Hesiod before him. The absolute beginning, he suggests, may be difficult to determine and may depend on how one precisely defines philosophy. Leaning on Ernst Cassier’s own considerations regarding the beginning of the Renaissance, he suggests that determining an exact moment for a revolution in thought is a rare occurrence in the history of ideas (76). Leaning on Edward Said, he highlights that “beginnings are characterized less by the fact of being what they are than by what they make possible or ‘authorize'” (77). What the philosophy of Ancient Greece did is authorize and allow new possibilities, quoting Xenophanes, that “The gods have not indicated all things to mortals from the beginning / But in time, by searching, they find something more that is better” (77)./

Chapter 6, “What is at Stake,” examines varying interpretations of these early Greek thinkers — some emphasizing their continuity, others emphasizing their discontinuity and their relation to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Laks’ own strongest background is in Continental philosophy, and he draws largely in this chapter on thinkers from that tradition, focusing particularly on Hans Georg Gadamer and Ernst Cassier.

Laks spends most of the first part of this chapter contrasting  Gadamer’s interpretation of the Presocratics with that of others. Gadamer reshuffles the traditional importance of different Presocratics, in fact arguing that Parmenides is the first important Greek philosopher given his focus on meaning. Unlike Hegel and a whole tradition, Gadamer thinks it more fruitful to read Parmenides and Heraclitus — and indeed the Presocratics generally — not as responding to each other, but independently. In Gadamer’s reading, Parmenides thought begins something that Plato is able to complete — so there is a developmental history. But Gadamer has a reading of the Presocratics that is nondialectical, or as Laks characterizes it, even “non-relational” since he does not read them as responding to each other. While Gadamer does see the importance of a distinction between the Eleatics and other early natural philosophers, Gadamer also underlines a basic uniformity in all of their perspectives. As Gadamer writes, “The Milesians, Parmenides, and Heraclitus express the same basic view of the unity of difference” (qtd. p. 83). Gadamer favors what he sees as the Platonic understanding of Presocratics over the Aristotelian one, which he believes Hegel too unreflectively accepts. In line with this, early Greek philosophers, with the exception of the Eleatics (to whom Parmenides belongs), are viewed as “Heracliteans.” But it is the Eleatics — with their focus on meaning and being — whose thought Gadamer thinks Plato completes.

Laks follows his discussion of Gadamer with one of Cassier, who he thinks is a good example of the the type of reading of the Presocratics that Gadamer rejects but who Laks, clearly in contrast to a Gadamerian reading, thinks still provides one of the best introductions to the Presocratics, and one not well enough known.

Cassier emphasizes an internal development to the thought of the early Greeks and to modern thought. Both, in his view work on the basis of an idea of “internal progress,” which originates in Greek thought. But he distinguishes Ancient and Modern progress in relation to substance and function. The Greeks focus on substance, the moderns on relations.

Laks presents Cassier’s thought as a stark contrast to the Nietzschean readings of Presocratics that became popular in Germany in the 1920s.  The Nietzschean reading had rejected developmental readings like the one Cassier proposes. Cassier views a development however as occurring and in a unique reading sees the transition from Presocratics to Plato as involving a transition from a focus on things in space and time to a focus on meanings (86). Further, drawing on Hegel, he sees the period as involving a discovery of logos.

Here he distinguishes between three phases in Pre-Attic philosophy, which focus on: 1) knowledge of nature, 2) moral knowledge, and 3) knowledge of knowledge (86). Cassier’s reading highlights both categories of scientific thought and reflective schemata in light of which the development of ideas become clear. His approach attempts to distinguish between the form of the questions posed and the content of the answers provided to those questions. In Laks’ view: “It remains the cases that the distinction between form and content and the reflexive scheme that is connected with it are extremely useful for understanding the nature of the Presocratic philosophers and the dynamics of their succession” (93).

Laks ends by discussing the need for an approach to these early Greek philosophers that draws on Cassiers’ insights but that deals in ways that Habermas suggests with tensions in his thought between expressions and meanings. In Laks’ words, “If there is indeed progress [in the ideas of these thinkers] it is never only by virtue of the pure concept.”  The approach to the Presocratics that he suggests would also need to be complimented by a Weberian view of “images of the world.” Laks suggests that a study of Presocratics drawing on such approaches is needed.

The book he has offered here, however, has provided another service. It offers an extraordinary survey of debates around the determination of “Presocratic” philosophy and about the origins of Ancient Greek philosophy. The book not only facilitates our understanding of these issues but can play an important role in thought more generally about what the role of philosophy is.




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