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The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were active before Socrates or contemporaneously, but expounding knowledge developed earlier. The popularity of the term originates with Hermann Diels' work Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics, 1903). Major analyses of Pre-Socratic thought have been made by Gregory Vlastos, Jonathan Barnes, Gordon Clark, and Friedrich Nietzsche in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Original name of them in antiquity was physiologoi (physical (natural) philosophers).Diogenes Laertius divides the physiologoi in two groups, Ionian and Italiote, headed by Anaximander and Pythagoras

It may sometimes be difficult to determine the actual line of argument some pre-Socratics used in supporting their particular views. While most of them produced significant texts, none of the texts have survived in complete form. All that is available are quotations by later philosophers and historians, and the occasional textual fragment.

The pre-Socratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations for 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 views based on modern science.


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. Only fragments of the original writings of the presocratics survive. The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts of later philosophical writers (especially Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus and Simplicius), and some early theologians, (especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus).

Milesian school

The first Presocratic philosophers were from Miletusmarker. Thales (624-546 BCE) is reputed the father of Greek philosophy; he declared water to be the basis of all things. Next came Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy. He assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance without qualities, 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, especially in Lower Italymarker. His followers included Philolaus (470-380 BCE), Alcmaeon of Croton, and Archytas (428-347 BCE).

Ephesian school

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BCE) assumed as the principle of substance primordial fire. From fire all things originate, and return to it again by a never-ending process of development. All things, therefore, are in a perpetual flux.

Eleatic School

The Eleatic School, called after the town of Elea, emphasized the doctrine of the One. Xenophanes of 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 (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 contradictions. Melissus of Samos (born c. 470 BCE) was another eminent member of this school.

Pluralist School

Empedocles of Agrigentum (490-430 BCE) 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 - ie. 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) 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.

Atomist School

The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by Leucippus (5th century BCE) and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BCE). 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 Diogenes of Apollonia (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' cosmic thought.


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 for at that time for Greek education. Prominent Sophists include Protagoras (490-420 BCE), Gorgias (487-376 BCE), Hippias (485-415 BCE), and Prodicus (465-390 BCE)

Other early Greek thinkers

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 sense.

Solon (c. 594 BCE)
Chilon of Sparta (c. 560 BCE)
Thales (c. 585 BCE)
Bias of Priene (c. 570 BCE)
Cleobulus of Rhodes (c. 600 BCE)
Pittacus of Mitylene (c. 600 BCE)
Periander (625-585 BCE)


  • Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, Meridian Books, New York, 1957
  • Colli, Giorgio, The Greek Wisdom (La Sapienza greca, 3 vol. Milan 1977-1980)
  • 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
  • De Vogel, C.J., Greek Philosophy, Volume I, Thales to Plato, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1963
  • Diels, Hermann, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., rev. by Walther Kranz (Berlin, 1952).

External links


  1. The term "Pre-Sokratic", however, had been in use as early as George Grote's Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates (1865).
  2. The presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus By William Keith Chambers Guthrie page 13 ISBN 0317665774
  3. Changing mind: transitions in natural and artificial environments By Franco Orsucci Page 14 ISBN 9812380272
  4. Feller, Eduard — Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (1955) p.323
  5. Oskar Seyffert, (1894), Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, page 480

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