Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 27.
Catherine Osborne, Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xviii + 144, incl. 28 illustrations, 2 tables and 1 map. ISBN 0-19-284094-0. UKú6.99.
Philosophy, University of KwaZulu-Natal
This book is one of a series of Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of topics. This short introduction is not the sort of terse summary that one might expect; it is surprisingly comprehensive and challenging. Osborne's approach might be a bit unsettling to anyone familiar with the traditional history of the Presocratics found in most textbooks. She contrasts the traditional approach, which she calls 'the first principles story' (p. 34), from the less unified but richer stories that she tells in this book. The traditional account derived from Aristotle, neat, focussed and philosophical, does not stand up to close historical or philosophical scrutiny. So instead of rehashing the historical approach, Osborne takes a topical approach, perhaps in part to break old habits. I found this move a bit unsettling at first, but it didn't take me long to decide that it not only works, but that it helped me to see old and often familiar ideas in a new light. Although Osborne's stories are not as neat as the traditional one, and are often open-ended and confusing, they provide much food for thought.
The na´ve reader should have little trouble engaging with Osborne's survey, though, if they are like me, they may keep checking the dates and map in the introduction to regain historical and geographical perspective. My own familiarity with the Presocratics is mostly from citations and quotations in modern works, supplemented by a few articles by acknowledged classicists. I can't say that I learned anything surprising or especially shocking and novel, but I do feel that my understanding has been enriched, and that my enthusiasm for the Presocratics is a good deal greater than it was before. Osborne makes her topical approach more inviting by enticing us to do philosophy along with the ancients, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Her approach makes it evident that many of the issues that concerned the Presocratics are still very much alive today. I suspect that even experts would find reading the book worthwhile, if only to enhance their love of the topic.
The book has seven chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. The main textual evidence, from various fragments, is put into boxes titled with short and informative legends. Many of the main points are illustrated with diagrams, and the book is scattered with illustrations from modern and ancient Greek sources that add both accent and alternative entry points to the meaning of the text.
The first chapter starts with an account of the reconstruction of the Strasbourg papyrus by Alain Martin in 1990-1994. The papyrus contains the words of Empedocles, or at least a version of his words from 600 years after his death. Osborne discusses some of the problems of reconstructing Empedocles' views, cleverly using an analogy to the actual reconstruction of (some of) the papyrus from its disarrayed fragments. Osborne describes the patchy and indirect evidence of Presocratic views, whose reconstruction must always be somewhat speculative and patchy, rather than being woven into whole cloth. Empedocles is a good example of the problems involved in reconstruction, since we have recent evidence from the Strasbourg papyrus that confirms ancient sources. In particular, Empedocles' writing does not confirm the first principles (archai) story, but shows that Empedocles did not believe the world was made up of just earth, air, fire, and water, as the story requires. His view was much more rich and complex: he also believed that the universe oscillates between unity and chaos (one and many), with mortal (temporal) beings produced and destroyed by the oscillations. Furthermore, the papyrus confirms ancient reports that Empedocles' religious and metaphysical views were closely intertwined. This aspect of his philosophy was largely ignored in the first principles story, but the recent evidence shows that the connection is not spurious, and that it should not be ignored. Since this casts doubt on the whole first principles story, much accepted belief about the Presocratics becomes open to reconsideration, including many passages by other Presocratics that have been ignored or suppressed in the traditional story.
In the second chapter Osborne reviews the reasons for accepting the traditional account: First, it tells a neat story about a single problem of origins. Second, it indicates progress on this problem, which is always reassuring. Last, the issue of origins was debated philosophically, with points and counterpoints debated by successive Presocratics, much as we do today. The problem with the story is that it omits or suppresses much of the evidence that there is really no single story or single focus, and that the traditional story ignores much that was important in Presocratic thought. Much of the rest of the book contributes to this case, and in the process it explores the philosophy involved in the alternative stories.
In the second part of this chapter, Osborne turns to an alternative thread in Parmenides' thought. The traditional view places him as the divide between early and late Presocratic thought on origins through his arguments that change is impossible, and that the first principle must be The One, or Unity. Osborne, however, picks up on his concern for the distinction between the Way of Truth and the Way of Seeming: should we trust our reason or our senses? Whatever Parmenides' actual views (these remain puzzling), the issue remains alive today in the debates between constructivism and realism over the issue of whether we bring meaning to the world or it brings meaning to us.
Chapter Three is an interesting look at Zeno's paradoxes, but it also focuses on Zeno's use of reductio ad absurdum. Osborne points out that this argument form can be traced at least to Xenophanes, who used it to criticize belief in the gods. Zeno used the reductio form, however, to attack common sense beliefs in change, and to question the apparent evidence of the senses. Osborne continues these themes with the examination of Melissus, Anaxagoras, and Democritus. She pays special attention to Melissus' reasoning against the evidence of the senses on the basis of conceptual truths. This scepticism about the senses was taken up by the atomists, who tried to explain change in terms of the rearrangement of immutable but unobservable particles. This is quite a different use of the appearance/reality distinction from that of the Eleatic philosophers, but many of the same basic arguments remain.
Chapter Four deals with Heraclitus, emphasizing not just his well-known views about change, but also the role of logos and the tension between opposites in his philosophy. Logos here cannot be the 'Word' of the New Testament, nor simply logic, but must include the dynamical tension of opposites, a view I find especially appealing because it brings dynamics and logic into the same domain.
The next chapter deals with the mystical views of Pythagoras and his followers, including the rule against eating beans. This last mystery, like many of the others that can be traced to the Pythagoreans, remains unsolved.
The final chapter concerns the Sophists, the 'spin doctors of the 5th century' (p. 112). This chapter is especially clever, and portrays the Sophists, whatever their real purposes, as initiating inquiry into all manner of things, including morality, etiquette, political beliefs, and religion, not to mention the nature of truth itself. Whether or not they took themselves seriously (and Osborne gives evidence that at least some of them at least some of the time did not), their audacious inquiries set the stage for the exacting philosophical inquiry of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, which continues as academic philosophy 2500 years later.
Osborne's stories, as she admits in the epilogue, give a much less focussed view than the traditional one, but it is also much richer and more engaging, giving the Presocratics a lively role that is still relevant today. This is not just a simple introduction; it is an invitation to deep contemplation.