Pre-Socratic philosophy is ancient Greek philosophy before Socrates
and schools contemporary to
Socrates that were not influenced by
him. In Classical antiquity, the Presocratic philosophers were
called physiologoi (Greek: φυσιολόγοι; in English, physical
or natural philosophers).
Aristotle was the first to make a clear
distinction between these physiologoi or physikoi ("physicists", after
physis, "nature") who sought natural explanations for phenomena, and
the earlier theologoi (theologians), or mythologoi (story tellers and
bards) who attributed these phenomena to various gods. Diogenes
Laërtius divides the physiologoi into two groups: Ionian, led by
Anaximander, and the Italiote, led by Pythagoras.
Hermann Diels popularized the term "pre-Socratic" in Die Fragmente der
Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics) in 1903. However,
the term "pre-Sokratic" [sic] was in use as early as George Grote's
Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates in 1865.
Edouard Zeller was
also important in dividing thought before and after Socrates. Major
analyses of pre-Socratic thought have been made by Gregory Vlastos,
Jonathan Barnes, and
Friedrich Nietzsche in his
Philosophy in the
Tragic Age of the Greeks.
It may sometimes be difficult to determine the actual line of argument
some Presocratics used in supporting their particular views. While
most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts has
survived in complete form. All that is available are quotations by
later philosophers (often biased) and historians, and the occasional
The Presocratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological
explanations of the phenomena they saw around them in favor of more
rational explanations. These philosophers asked questions about "the
essence of things":
From where does everything come?
From what is everything created?
How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
How might we describe nature mathematically?
Others concentrated on defining problems and paradoxes that became the
basis for later mathematical, scientific and philosophic study.
Later philosophers rejected many of the answers the early Greek
philosophers provided, but continued to place importance on their
questions. Furthermore, the cosmologies proposed by them have been
updated by later developments in science.
1.2 Milesian school
1.4 Ephesian school
1.5 Eleatic school
1.6 Pluralist school
1.7 Atomist school
2 Other early Greek philosophers
6 Further reading
7 External links
Graphical relationship among the various pre-socratic philosophers and
thinkers; red arrows indicate a relationship of opposition.
Western philosophy began in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. The
Presocratics were mostly from the eastern or western fringes of the
Greek world. Their efforts were directed to the investigation of the
ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. They
sought the material principle (archê) of things, and the method of
their origin and disappearance. As the first philosophers, they
emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological
explanations of the world. The Presocratic thinkers present a
discourse concerned with key areas of philosophical inquiry such as
being and the cosmos, the primary stuff of the universe, the structure
and function of the human soul, and the underlying principles
governing perceptible phenomena, human knowledge and morality.
Only fragments of the original writings of the presocratics survive
(many entitled Peri Physeos, or On Nature, a title probably attributed
later by other authors). The knowledge we have of them derives from
accounts - known as doxography - of later philosophical writers
(especially Aristotle, Plutarch,
Simplicius), and some early theologians (especially Clement of
Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome).
However, the translation of Peri Physeos as On
Nature may be
misleading: the "on" normally gives the idea of an "erudite
dissertation", while "peri" may refer in fact to a "circular
approach"; and the traditional meanings of "nature" for us (as
opposition to culture, to supernatural, or as essence, substance,
opposed to accident, etc.) may be in contrast with the meaning of
"physeos" or "physis" for the Greeks (referring to an "originary
source", or "process of emergence and development").
The first Presocratic philosophers were from
Miletus on the western
coast of Anatolia.
Thales (624-546 BCE) is reputedly the father of
Greek philosophy; he declared water to be the basis of all things.
Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy.
He assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance
without qualities (apeiron), out of which the primary opposites, hot
and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. His younger
contemporary, Anaximenes (585-525 BCE), took for his principle air,
conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire,
wind, clouds, water, and earth.
The practical side of philosophy was introduced by
Pythagoras of Samos
(582-496 BCE). Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on
number, he aimed at inducing humankind likewise to lead a harmonious
life. His doctrine was adopted and extended by a large following of
Pythagoreans who gathered at his school in south Italy in the town of
Croton. His followers included
Philolaus (470-380 BCE), Alcmaeon of
Archytas (428-347 BCE).
Heraclitus of Ephesus on the western coast of Anatolia in modern
Turkey (535-475 BCE) posited that all things in nature are in a state
of perpetual flux, connected by logical structure or pattern, which he
termed Logos. To Heraclitus, fire, one of the four classical elements,
motivates and substantiates this eternal pattern. From fire all things
originate, and return to it again in a process of eternal cycles.
The Eleatic School, called after the town of Elea (modern name Velia
in southern Italy), emphasized the doctrine of the One.
Colophon (570-470 BCE) declared God to be the eternal unity,
permeating the universe, and governing it by his thought.
Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE) affirmed the one unchanging existence
to be alone true and capable of being conceived, and multitude and
change to be an appearance without reality. This doctrine was
defended by his younger countryman
Zeno of Elea
Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE) in a
polemic against the common opinion which sees in things multitude,
becoming, and change. Zeno propounded a number of celebrated
paradoxes, much debated by later philosophers, which try to show that
supposing that there is any change or multiplicity leads to
Melissus of Samos
Melissus of Samos (born c. 470 BCE) was another
eminent member of this school.
Empedocles of Agrigentum (490-430 BCE) was from the ancient Greek city
of Akragas (Ἀκράγας), Agrigentum in Latin, modern Agrigento,
in Sicily. He appears to have been partly in agreement with the
Eleatic School, partly in opposition to it. On the one hand, he
maintained the unchangeable nature of substance; on the other, he
supposes a plurality of such substances - i.e. four classical
elements, earth, water, air, and fire. Of these the world is built up,
by the agency of two ideal motive forces - love as the cause of union,
strife as the cause of separation.
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae
(500-428 BCE) in Asia Minor also maintained the existence of an
ordering principle as well as a material substance, and while
regarding the latter as an infinite multitude of imperishable primary
elements, he conceived divine reason or Mind (nous) as ordering them.
He referred all generation and disappearance to mixture and resolution
respectively. To him belongs the credit of first establishing
philosophy at Athens.
The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by
century BCE) and his pupil
Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BCE) from
Thrace. This was the doctrine of atoms - small primary bodies infinite
in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but
distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite
void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in
accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and
arrangement, of the atoms which compose them.
The last of the Presocratic natural philosophers was
Apollonia from Thrace (born c. 460 BCE). He was an eclectic
philosopher who adopted many principles of the Milesian school,
especially the single material principle, which he identified as air.
He explained natural processes in reference to the rarefactions and
condensations of this primary substance. He also adopted Anaxagoras'
The Sophists held that all thought rests solely on the apprehensions
of the senses and on subjective impression, and that therefore we have
no other standards of action than convention for the individual.
Specializing in rhetoric, the Sophists were more professional
educators than philosophers. They flourished as a result of a special
need at that time for Greek education. Prominent Sophists include
Protagoras (490-420 BCE) from Abdera in Thrace,
Gorgias (487-376 BCE)
from Leontini in Sicily,
Hippias (485-415 BCE) from Elis in the
Prodicus (465-390 BCE) from the island of Ceos, and
Thrasymachus (459-400 BCE) from Chalcedon on the Bosphorus.
Other early Greek philosophers
This list includes several men, particularly the Seven Sages, who
appear to have been practical politicians and sources of epigrammatic
wisdom, rather than speculative thinkers or philosophers in the modern
Seven Sages of Greece
Solon (c. 594 BCE)
Chilon of Sparta
Chilon of Sparta (c. 560 BCE)
Thales (c. 585 BCE)
Bias of Priene
Bias of Priene (c. 570 BCE)
Cleobulus of Rhodes (c. 600 BCE)
Pittacus of Mitylene
Pittacus of Mitylene (c. 600 BCE)
Periander (625–585 BCE)
Proconnesus (7th century BCE ?)
Pherecydes of Syros
Pherecydes of Syros (c. 540 BCE)
Anacharsis (c. 590 BCE)
The Pre-Socratic method of critical reasoning deployed in the
examination of the natural world was applied by
Socrates to an
examination of the human individual and his social institutions.
Hegel deeply studied the Pre-Socratics, crediting the philosopher
Parmenides with introducing the concepts of Being and Non-Being (or
Karl Marx's doctoral thesis "The Difference Between the Democritean
Philosophy of Nature" evaluates the thought of the
Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, one of the founders of Atomic
Within the Marxist philosophical tradition the Pre-Socratics are
recognized as the first Materialists.
Nietzsche described the Pre-Socratics as "the tyrants of the
spirit", and says of
Socrates that "the hitherto so wonderfully
regular, although certainly too rapid, development of the
philosophical science was destroyed in one night".
Oswald Spengler's doctoral thesis "The metaphysical idea of
Heraclitus' philosophy" evaluates the thought of the Pre-Socratic
philosopher Heraclitus, dubbed "the obscure".
Karl Popper, one of the 20th century's most influential philosophers
of science, placed great importance on the critical tradition embodied
in the development of Pre-Socratic thought, the analysis of which
contributed to his own epistemological theories. His well-known essay
on the subject, "Back to the Pre-Socratics", can be found in the
anthology of his essays Conjectures and Refutations - The Growth of
Scientific Knowledge, 2nd Edition. Routledge Publishing. 2002.
^ Presocratic Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007
^ William Keith Chambers Guthrie, The Presocratic Tradition from
Parmenides to Democritus, p. 13, ISBN 0-317-66577-4.
^ John Freely, Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern
Science in Medieval
^ Most, G. W. (1999). The poetics of early Greek philosophy. In A. A.
Long (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek
332–362). chapter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
^ Franco Orsucci, Changing Mind: Transitions in Natural and Artificial
Environments, p. 14, ISBN 981-238-027-2.
^ Simon Goldhill. Rethinking Revolutions Through Ancient Greece.
^ Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Oskar Seyffert, (1894), Dictionary of
Classical Antiquities, page 480
^ Irwin, T. (1999). Classical Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, p. 6, Google Books.
^ Souza, J. C. (1985). Pré-socráticos. Coleção Os Pensadores. 6ª
ed. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, pp. 19, 45, PDF Archived 2016-02-22 at
the Wayback Machine..
^ Picturing Hegel: An Illustrated Guide to Hegel's Encyclopaedia of
Logic. p. 46.
^ Fredrich Nietzsche, Dawn, Aphorism 547
Brisson, L. et al. Lire les Présocratiques. Presses universitaires de
France, Paris, 2012.
Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, Meridian Books, New York, 1957
Colli, Giorgio, The Greek Wisdom (La Sapienza greca, 3 vol. Milan
De Vogel, Cornelia J., Greek Philosophy, Volume I,
Thales to Plato,
E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1963
(in German) Diels, Hermann, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed.,
Walther Kranz (Berlin, 1952).
(in English) Freeman, Kathleen, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic
Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels,
ISBN 978-1-60680-256-4 (Cambridge,  1970).
Lloyd, G. E. R., Early Greek Science:
Thales to Aristotle. New York:
Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E. & Schofield, M., The Presocratic
Philosophers (Second Edition), Cambridge University Press, 1983
Nahm, Milton C., Selections from Early Greek Philosophy,
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1962
(in French) Alain Sournia. Voyage en pays présocratique. Publibook,
Giannis Stamatellos, Introduction to Presocratics: A Thematic Approach
to Early Greek
Philosophy with Key Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Graham, Daniel W. (ed.), The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: the
Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics,
2 vols. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Hussey, Edward, The Pre-Socratics, in series, Classical Life and
Letters, G. Duckworth & Co., London, 1972. N.B.: A study of
Pre-Socratic philosophy within the intellectual culture of Greek and
other Antiquity. ISBN 0-7156-0824-X
Luchte, James, Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn, in series,
Bloomsbury Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Bloomsbury Publishing,
London, 2011. ISBN 978-0567353313
Look up Presocratic in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Pre-Socratic philosophy at PhilPapers
Pre-Socratic philosophy at the Indiana
Curd, Patricia. "Presocratic Philosophy". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Graham, Jacob N. "Pre-Socratic philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of
Giannis Stamatellos, Presocratic Philosophy
Alain Sournia, (in French) Philosophie sauvage
Chronology and geographical origins: The Ionian origins of Greek
Pre-Socratic philosophers by school
Ancient Greek schools of philosophy
Zeno of Elea
Diogenes of Sinope
Euclid of Megara
Phaedo of Elis
Apollonius of Tyana
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Philosophy of psychiatry
Philosophy of perception
Space and time
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Acintya bheda abheda
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