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Hellenic Philosophy:

Pre-Socratics through
Aristotle (620 B.C.E. to
322 B.C.E)
What is Philosophy?
A systematic, reason-based inquiry
into questions that concern human
existence and place in the universe
but that generally do not allow for
empirical answers.
Greek Philosophy
A Greek cultural phenomenon that first
appears in the early 6th and late 5th
century B.C.E., gets institutionalized
in the 4th century (by Plato) and the
tradition that follows it.
Studying Philosophy
The aim of the class is to come to
understand various views and
theories. Your understanding is tested
by your ability to explain in your
own words and by using your own
examples what a given theory
means, what arguments there are in
its favor and/or what arguments there
are against it.
What does it mean to explain
you have to be able to provide
reasons, for why one should believe
some claim or theory.
you have to be able to illustrate it on
Philosophy is not an exercise in selfexpression. Your own view of things
has no traction unless you can give
some reasons for why others should
care about your view and consider
whether it is true or not.
The problem is, of course, that the
questions to which philosophy tries to

give answers are not only difficult to

understand, but it is also difficult to
come up with answers and reasons for
those answers that would be
Thus philosophy has been, from the
start, characterized by its interest in
methodology how to do you go about
raising meaningful questions and
answering them and what will count as
an answer. Hence, you will have to
spend a lot of time thinking on your
own what giving reasons and
arguments consists of!

Who are the Presocratics?

Group of thinkers who lived no later
than the time of Socrates.
Their philosophical thinking was not
influenced by Socrates.
Their way of thinking started to depart
from other ways of thinking (such as
religious or poetic thought) and
gradually led to the development of
scientific and philosophical thinking as
distinct modes of thought.
What did they have in common?
Made bold claims about the
fundamental features of the universe,
features that could not be
immediately accessible to sense
experience(Shields 1).
Most of the first philosophers thought
that the only sources of all things
were in the form of matter. From this
all things are and come to be and into
this finally all things perish, but this
being remains while changing in its
They say that this is the element and
this is the source of all that exists, and
because of it they think that nothing
comes to be or passes away, as
though this sort of nature were always
preserved. Aristotle, Met. 983b6-13

Earth rests on water.

A fundamental principle, ultimate
orgin/source, basic element/matter.

Everything has a soul (based on the

observations of the effects of natural
magnets). (4-5).

Apeiron: boudless, indefinite,
eternal. infinite, limitless, boundless.

The Milesians
From the city of Miletus in Ionia.
6th century BCE:
c. 600 Thales active
c. 580
Anaximander active
c. 550
Anaximenes active

Everything is water. Why? Perhaps
because water can change into
various forms. Or because it is found
in all living beings.
Thales, the founder of this kind of
philosophy, stated it to be water. He
may have gotten this idea from seeing
that the nourishment of all of all
things is that from which they come to
things is moist, and that even the hot
itself comes to be from this and lives
on this (the principle be); perhaps he
said it for that reason, and also
because the seeds of all things have a
moist nature, and water is the
principle of the nature of moist
things. (2)
Thales naturalistic universe makes it
possible to explain all there is in
terms of material bodies and their law
governed interactions. Thales makes
it possible to uncover patterns and
laws and to use such laws as the basis
for stable predictions. Thales
predicted an eclipse.

For Anaximander, the arkhe, the single

original material of the cosmos, is the
apeiron. The infinite is the source of all
Water cannot be the basic stuff,
because it is so different from fire.
Something indefinite is needed to
explain the contrasting features of
Anaximander: Theories
Explanation of meteorological
phenomena in terms of natural causes
(thunder: clouds hitting each other;
rain: humidity drawn from the Earth by
the Sun; etc.)
Origin of animals:
Anaximander of Miletus considered
that from warmed up water and earth
emerged either fish or entirely fishlike
animals. Inside these animals, men
took form and embryos were held
prisoners until puberty; only then,
after these animals burst open, could
men and women come out, now able
to feed themselves (15).
the Earth floats free in the middle
without falling; universe as a system
of hollow concentric wheels (sun we
see the original fire through a hole):
There are some, including
Anaximander of the ancients, who say
that the earth stays still because of
similarity. For it is no more

appropriate for something set in the

middle and placed similarly in relation
to the extremes to move up than
down or to either side. It being
impossible to generate a simultaneous
motion in opposite directions, it
necessarily stays still. (10)
Anaximander: The main Idea
Anaximander said that the apeiron
was the arkhe and element of all
things and he was the first to
introduce this name for the arkhe.
He says that it is neither water nor
any of the other things called
elements, but some other nature
which is apeiron, out of which come to
be all the heavens and all the worlds
in them. The things that are perish
into the things from which they come
to be, according to necessity: For
they pay the penalty and retribution
to each other for their injustice in
accordance with the ordering of time,
as he says in rather poetical
language (6).

Arkhe is air.
Aer (dense mist) is indefinite enough
to produce the other things in the
cosmos but it is not as vague as
Anaximanders boundless.
Like Anaximander, he too thought
that there was a single underlying
nature, but unlike Anaximander, he
thought it was not undefined, but
rather definite, calling it air. When air
becomes rarified, it becomes fire,
when condensed it becomes wind,
then cloud, and further on water,
then earth, then stones, and other
things are formed from these. Air also
causes eternal motion, through which
change also occurs. (16).
Explained clouds, hail, and snow.

Why Are The Milesians

Considered Philosophers?

They do not always give arguments for

their views (at least insofar as we
However, they try to explain things not
be reference to deities but introducing
an impersonal universal principle or
principles (however, ridiculous from
our point of view) which could be
assessed or argued about and which
could, ultimately, provide us with
objective understanding of the
workings of nature which could be
used to predict natural events.
Thales predicted an eclipse of the sun
which occurred on 28 May 585 B.C.E:
On one occasion the Medes and the
Lydians had an unexpected battle in
the dark, an event which occurred
after five years of indecisive warfare:
the two armies had already engaged
and the fight was in progress, when
day was suddenly turned into night.
This change from daylight to darkness
had been foretold to the Ionians by
Thales of Miletus, who fixed the date
for it within the limits of the year in
which it did, in fact, take place
(Herodotus, I.74)
And they do have arguments, such
But there are some who say that it
(namely, the earth) stays where it is
because of equality, such as among
the ancients Anaximander. For that
which is situated in the center and at
equal distances from the extremes,
has no inclination whatsoever to move
up rather than down or sideways; and
since it is impossible to move in
opposite directions at the same time,
it necessarily stays where it is. (10)
This is the first known example of an
argument that is based on the
principle of sufficient reason which is
the principle that for everything which
occurs there is a reason or explanation

for why it occurs, and why this way

rather than that.

unmoving, but all seeing, all hearing,

and all thiking, and who shakes all
things by the thoug of his mind
One god, greatest among gods and
men, not at all like mortals in form
and thought (8).
whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks,
and whole [he] hears (9).
always [he] remains in the same
[state], changing not at all, nor is it
fitting that [he] come and go to
different places at different times
but completely without toil [he]
agitates all things by the will of his
mind (10).
Xenophanes: Epistemology
challenges human claims to sure and
certain truths about things that are
not manifest, drawing a sharp
distinction between knowledge and
belief (Shields)

Xenophanes of Colophon
Born in Colophon, close to Miletus, c.
570 BCE
Gods have been anthropomorphized.
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to
the gods
all sorts of things that are matters of
reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception.

and of course the clear and certain

truth no man has seen nor will there
be anyone who knows about the gods
and what I say about all things; for
even if, in the best case, someone
happened to speak what has been
brought to pass, nevertheless, he
himself would not know, but opinion is
ordained for all. (13)
Gods do not communicate knowledge
to humans, but humans can gain
knowledge themselves.

Xenophanes mocks explanations

offered by Homer and Hesiod.

By no means did the gods intimate

all things to mortals from the
beginning, but in time, inquiring, they
discover better (12).

There is rather a single nonanthropomorphic god who is

Two ways of discovering better:

Logical inquiry: paying attention to the

consistency of what one is saying (as
in his inquiries about the gods)
Empirical observation, and inference
based on such observations:
Xenophanes believes that earth is
being mixed into the sea and over
time it is dissolved by the moisture,
saying that he has the following kinds
of proofs: sea shells are found in the
middle of earth and in mountains, and
imprints of fish and seals have been
found at Syracuse in the quarries, and
the imprint of coral in the depth of the
stone in Paros, and on Malta flat
impressions of all forms of marine life.
He says that these came about when
all things were covered with mud long
ago and the impressions were dried in
the mud. All humans perish when the
earth is carried down into the sea and
becomes mud, and then there is
another beginning of generation, and
this change occurs in all the kosmoi
[that is, in every such cycle] (18).

exercising ones own critical judgment,

as opposed to accepting his or anyone
elses authority:
I went to search out myself (B101).
Account, things said, word, reason,
ground, explanation, story, structure.
There is an underlying order to the
universe and that by attending to his
words, humans, with effort, can come
to understand that the logos holds
An independent objective truth
available to all, single divine law of the
universe, unchanging law of the
cosmos with underlies and governs
change in the world. the physical sign
or manifestation of the logos is fire, an
element that is always changing, yet
always the same.
Universe, ordered whole, beautiful
Human blindness & the
timelessness of truth:
Although the logos is independent,
objective truth available to all,
Heraclitus claimed that most people
do not exercise their abilities to come
to understand it, acting instead as if
they are asleep and in a private

Heraclitus of Ephesus
Interests in cosmology, morality,
Invites his readers/listeners to embark
to personal engagement with certain
philosophical questions using a proper
philosophical method that involves

Although this logos holds always

humans prove unable to understand it
both before hearing it and when they
have first heard it. For although all
things come to be in accordance with
this logos, humans are like the
inexperienced when they experience
such words and deeds as I set out,
distinguishing each thing in
accordance with its
nature and
saying how it is. But other people fail
to notice what they do when awake,

just as they forget what they do while

asleep. (1)
But although the logos is common,
most people live as if they had their
private understanding. (2)

Flux Theory
The River Fragments:

All things are One

It is not possible to step into the same

river twice. (B91)

Listening not to me but to the logos, it

is wise to agree that all things are
one. (B50)

Into the same rivers we both step and

do not step; we both are and are not.

This kosmos, the same for all, none of

gods or humans made, but it was
always and is and shall be: an everliving fire, kindled in measures and
extinguished in measures. (B30)

On those stepping into the same

rivers different and then different
waters flow. (B12)

The turnings of fire: first, sea; and of

sea, half is earth and half fiery
waterspout Earth is poured out as
sea, and is measured according to the
same ratio (logos) it was before it
became earth. (B31)
All things are an exchange for fire and
fire for all things, as goods for gold
and gold for goods. (B90)
Does Heraclitus think that all
things are modifications of fire?
(material monism)
But then how come he thinks that
there is radical flux:
Immortals are mortal, mortals
immortal, living their death, dying
their life. (B62)
For souls it is death to become water,
for water death to become earth, but
from earth water is born, and from
water soul. (B36)

Diachronic Change
Things have contrary qualities at
different times.
Diachronic Interpretation: The material
world is constantly changing, so we
can never get to know it.
Implies the ones identity is constantly
changing, so no one is responsible for
their actions.
Cratylus ended up thinking that we
should not speak but instead simply
raised his finger. And he criticised the
Heraclitean statement that it is
impossible to step into the same river
twice, for he thought it was impossible
to step into it even once. (Aristotle,
Met.) (B91)
Synchronic Change
Things have contrary qualities at the
same time (conflation of opposites into
Change is relative. Change results
from shifting perspectives. something
being heavy depends on who is doing
the carrying.

Our approach to the natural world is

conditioned by the perspectives and
preferences we bring to it.
asses prefer garbage, pigs like mud.
how I view and value the world is in
part a function of who and what I am.
If I seek to transcend my subjective
self to attain objective knowledge, I
am bound to fail. Implies
Unity of Opposites
Sea: purest and foulest water; for fish
drinkable and nourishing, for humans
undrinkable and deadly. (B61)
The god: day night, winter summer,
war peace, hunger satiety. It changes
as when mingled with perfumes it is
named by the pleasure of each.(B67)
The road up and down is one and the
Disease made health sweet and good,
hunger satiety, and tiredness rest.

The same thing is both living and

dead, and the waking and the
sleeping, and young and old; for these
things transformed are those, and
those transformed back again are
these. (B88)
Cosmological Principles
We must recognize that war is
common, strife is justice, and all
things happen according to strife and
necessity. (B80)
War is father of all and king of all; and
some he manifested as gods, some as
men; some he made slaves, some
free. (B53)
They do not understand how, though
at variance with itself, it agrees with
itself. It is a backward-turning
attunement like that of the bow and
lyre. (B51)