The Presocratics as pioneers of Western philosophy

Western philosophy begins with the Presocratics. These philosophers lived in the period from approximately 600-350 BC. and are so called because the way they did philosophy was different from philosophy from Socrates onwards. The centers of Pre-Socratic philosophy were the Greek cities of western Asia Minor and southern Italy. None of the many works of the Presocratics have been completely preserved. Almost everything we know about them today has come down to us from writings of later ancient authors who quote from the works of their predecessors. Chief among these authors are Aristotle and the historian of philosophy, Diogenes Laertius. An important theme of the Presocratics was the question of the origin of all things (the arché, primordial principle). Other topics included ethics, theology and political philosophy. In addition, many Presocratics were also concerned with mathematics and natural sciences.


By ,presocratics, we mean the early Greek philosophers who were not influenced by Socrates. Most of them lived before Socrates, but some were contemporaries or even younger than Socrates. The one who first made this distinction was Aristotle. He saw that with Socrates philosophy took on a more humanistic character. After all, the core of Socrates’ philosophy was ethics, while his predecessors made philosophical reflections on nature and cosmology: how the world and the universe came into being.

Primary sources

We do not possess an intact work by any pre-Socratic thinker. What we do have to help us make sense of their ideas are isolated fragments. These vary in length from a word to a few sentences and are found in quotations from later ancient authors. Of the Milesians, apart from a few sentences, there is almost nothing; of Pythagoras nothing at all; from Heraclitus we are left with just over a hundred true sayings, mostly very short (the longest consists of fifty-five words). About one hundred and fifty hexametric rules of Parmenides and about 340 rules of Empedocles survive; from Anaxagoras we have a number of fragments totaling about a thousand words. Between two and three hundred fragments of Democritus, who is known to have been an extremely prolific writer, have survived.

Plato and Aristotle as commentators

Since almost nothing remains of the original texts of the Pre-Socratics, we have to settle for the most reliable ‘secondary sources’. Writers who lived not long after the Pre-Socratics and still had access to their texts. These are in particular Plato and, first and foremost, Aristotle.

Plato’s assessment of the Pre-Socratics was not so favorable. In his work, for example, he made ironic comments about Heraclitus, Parmenides and Anaxagoras. He seems to have taken Pythagoreanism seriously. Aristotle, on the other hand, did attempt to systematically study and evaluate his predecessors. Their studies of nature particularly interested him.

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, was the author of a voluminous work in which he summarized the views of early Greek philosophers on nature, God, etc. That work became the source on which many later historians of Greek philosophy could draw. Theophrastus’ work is lost; but he was so influential as a historian of philosophy that many fragments and quotations from his work have been copied by others.

Diogenes Laertius and later commentators

Diogenes Laertius lived in the 3rd century AD and was the author of Lives of Eminent Philosophers. However, the question is which sources he still had access to at that time in order to study the work of the Presocratics of centuries ago. The stories he quotes from dubious Alexandrian biographers about Heraclitus (ca. 540-480 BC) covering himself with dung, or Empedocles (ca. 492-432 BC) throwing himself into the volcano Etna will probably have no historical basis whatsoever.

The first Western philosophers

The first philosophers in the history of Western philosophy were the Milesians, from Miletus on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor (now located in modern-day Turkey). In the 6th century B.C. they were the first to break with the tradition of explaining natural phenomena with myths. Instead, they studied the phenomena and tried to use their minds to find an explanation and formulate a hypothesis. This approach already sounds very ‘scientific’. According to Aristotle, they looked for a physical substance such as water and air as the ‘primeval matter’ from which everything else arose.

For Thales, this primordial principle of water was the basis of all matter. He had established that water turned into steam when heated and turned into a solid when frozen . So it seemed logical to him to suppose that water was the sole causal principle behind the natural world.

Anaximander, a student of Thales of Miletus, stated that everything came from the apeiron, the limitless. He was also the one who introduced the word arche in the sense of primordial matter as the first principle of all matter.

Anaximenes, a student of Anaximander, considered air to be the primordial element from which all other substances possessing a different density were derived .


Pythagoras migrated from Ionia to southern Italy and founded a school there where he taught transmigration and mystical number theory. According to this Pre-Socratic, number was the basis of all reality. Once he returned to Ionia, he posited the changeable fire as a primordial element capable of transforming other substances.


Xenophanes was the famous precursor of the Eleatic school of philosophy (of Parmenides), which emphasizes unity rather than diversity and regards the existence of individual material things as appearance rather than reality. His attacks on the immortality of the Olympian gods and goddesses are famous. He also poked fun at the doctrine of transmigration, traveled widely and spread his philosophical ideas by reciting poems.


What we know about Parmenides’ teachings has been reconstructed from the few surviving fragments of his most important work, a long three-part poem entitled On Nature. Parmenides’ most important concept is that the multiplicity of existing things with their changing forms and movements is only an appearance, and that behind that appearance lies eternal reality (,Being,). His most famous statement in that regard is ,All is one,.


Not much is known about Heraclitus’ life. He was born in Ephesus in 540 BC. and died in 480 BC. He was mainly concerned with cosmology. Well-known sayings of his are ,Everything is fire,, and ,Everything is chaos and transient,. He emphasized the importance of logos (Greek: ‘reason’), the universal principle by which all things are connected and through which all natural events take place. For this philosopher, fire was the primordial element from which everything else emerged. Everything that becomes comes into being with him through struggle. It is the contradictions that keep everything in motion and always lead to a new equilibrium. He expresses this interaction between stability and dynamism in the aphorism ,Whoever steps into the same river, different water always flows towards him,.


Empedocles (490 BC-430 BC) was a philosopher, statesman, physician and poet. He was said to have been so convinced of his divinity and immortality that he threw himself into the crater of the Etna volcano to prove it. According to Aristotle, he was the inventor of rhetoric, and he was praised for his talent as a physician and poet long after his death. He is also known for his teaching of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. By combining these four immutable elements in different proportions, the different types of matter are created. This idea would have a major influence on medieval alchemists who wanted to transmute matter in order to turn lead into gold.


Democritus (ca. 460-ca. 370 BC) has gone down in history as one of the first ‘atomists’ and as the one who developed an atomic theory of the universe. Everything, he argues, is composed of indivisible atoms within an empty space (the necessary condition for motion). These atoms are infinite in number and are always moving. They come in different sizes and shapes. It is also worth mentioning that, according to later Greek historians, he wrote a theory about poetry and art before Aristotle. According to Democritus, knowledge acquired through the senses is unreliable (an idea that Plato, among others, would adopt). According to Democritus, although the senses can provide us with incorrect data, they are the only data we have and they must be the starting point of reason, the legitimate form of knowledge.

Zeno of Elea

Zeno (495-ca. 430 BC) was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who, according to Aristotle, was the inventor of dialectics (Van Dale: Thinking ­from a theorem through contradiction to a synthesis). So reasoning. However, Zeno was especially famous for his paradoxes, statements that seem absurd at first glance , but which later turn out to be correct. Possibly the best known of Zeno’s paradoxes is that of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles accepts the tortoise’s challenge to have a running race. The condition is that the turtle gets a small head start. In theory, however, Achilles can (seemingly) never overcome that gap, because in the time it takes him to cover half of it, the tortoise has already moved on.

Other Presocratics

The Seven Wise Men (of Greece) is the name for a number of wise men from the sixth century BCE. Thales also appears in this select group.

  1. Priene’s bias
  2. Solon of Athens
  3. Pittakos of Mytilene
  4. Cleobulus of Lindus
  5. Chilion of Sparta
  6. Thales of Miletus
  7. Periander of Corinth


The great merit of the Pre-Socratics

The Pre-Socratics were often vilified after Socrates, but they were actually the ones who first sought theoretical explanations for phenomena such as lunar and solar eclipses that had previously been attributed to the gods. With their work they prepared the way for later developments in the scientific and philosophical fields. They did not contribute much to areas such as ethics, logic and epistemology, but with them there is an awakening of reason (‘logos’), a confidence in the human mind to independently seek explanations. Without any exaggeration, they laid the foundation for later science.

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