Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.32

André Laks, Claire Louguet, Qu'est-ce que la Philosophie Présocratique? Cahiers de Philologie vol. 20.   Villeneuve d'Ascq:  Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2002.  Pp. 550.  ISBN 2-85939-740-X.  EUR 29.00.  

Contributors: André Laks, G.E.R. Lloyd, Maria Michela Sassi, M. Laura Gemelli Marciano, Patricia Curd, Walter Leszl, Oliver Primavesi, Alberto Bernabé, Emese Mogyoródi, David Sider, Carl Huffman, Alexandre P.D. Mourelatos, Daniel W. Graham, Gábor Betegh, Mantas Adomenas, Pierre-Marie Morel, Richard McKirahan, Claire Louguet

Reviewed by Christopher Gribbin, The University of Melbourne (
Word count: 3198 words

This book is a collection of eighteen essays (thirteen in French, five in English) from a conference held at Lille in October, 2000. The topic of the collection is ostensibly the question "What is Presocratic philosophy?", though, in fact, only five of the contributions seek to explicitly answer that question. A few of the others explore questions with respect to several of the Presocratics. In the majority of cases, however, the contribution deals with a specific problem in one particular Presocratic thinker (and three really seem to be primarily about Plato and Aristotle). Nonetheless, all of the articles are of a high standard and present plenty of stimulating ideas about the Presocratics. The contributions capture the current trends in the study of the Presocratics well, and they generally have extensive and up-to-date bibliographies for the reader wishing to explore any of the topics further. This work is aimed at the expert, and anyone working in the field of Presocratic philosophy will find something worth looking at here; but I can also see some of the contributions being useful to university students just starting to study the Presocratics. The book certainly deserves a place on library bookshelves.

A problem with all such collections of essays, however, is the necessary shortness of each contribution (though at 550 pages in total, some of the contributions are quite substantial). This is particularly a problem with the Presocratics, where our evidence for them is so controversial. It is impossible to argue anything thoroughly without a careful philological analysis and impossible to do much of a philological analysis in a small number of pages. Thus, the authors of this volume have had to choose either to concentrate on a very narrow theme or a particular author and then thoroughly explore the philology or to explore a broader topic and gloss over some of the philological debate. There are examples of each solution in this collection -- either way, though, more is left unsaid than is said. All of the contributions, however, present interesting starting points for somebody wishing to explore the issues further.

The first five contributions seek explicitly to characterise Presocratic philosophy. Together they make up 122 pages, which is a substantial offering on this topic. One of the great advantages of these first five essays -- in contrast to many of the books on Presocratic philosophy out there -- is that they treat Presocratic thinking and the birth of Western philosophy as one phenomenon and not just a series of ideas. Sadly, there is little explicit interaction between the contributions -- what debate there is is confined to a few footnotes -- but they do each approach the topic from a different perspective and the contributions work together well.

In the first essay ("Philosophes Présocratiques: Remarques sur la construction d'une catégorie de l'historigraphie philosophique"), André Laks tries to determine how legitimate the term "Presocratic philosophy" is. He tackles the problem from two directions -- is it legitimate to group all of these thinkers together as "Presocratics" (as opposed to "Prearistotelians" or some such) and is it legitimate to speak of the Presocratics as all engaged in the same sort of activity? In response, Laks stresses the interconnectedness of the Presocratics -- even though they may have radically different explanations for the world, these explanations are nonetheless responses to the theories of predecessors. All of the thinkers are, moreover, engaged in the same activity -- that of explaining everything. Presocratic philosophy is, for Laks, a dialectic -- a dialectic, moreover, which continues with Socrates, the Sophists, Plato and even Aristotle. Because of this essential continuity, we are wiser to speak of the Presocratics not as some group superseded by Socrates, but simply as "the first philosophers".

G.E.R. Lloyd in the next contribution ("Le pluralisme de la vie intellectuelle avant Platon") presents quite a different view of Presocratic philosophy. Like Laks, Lloyd sees philosophy not as a phenomenon which is born fully self-aware of how it differs from other endeavours but rather as a phenomenon which only slowly, and not always clearly, differentiates itself from other intellectual activities. The fact that these thinkers did not declare themselves to be Presocratic philosophers leaves us today in a double bind: to know what Presocratic philosophy is, one needs to define who are the Presocratic philosophers; to know who the Presocratic philosophers are, one needs to know exactly what Presocratic philosophy is. Rather than simply apply a modern definition of philosophy, Lloyd examines ancient concepts (e.g. ἱστορίη, μαθηματική) and comes to the conclusion that categories were fluid and the frontiers permeable -- there was no category that the Greeks of the fifth or fourth century had which exactly covered those people that we today tend to classify as Presocratic philosophers. Furthermore, the Presocratics did not always see themselves as engaged in the same activity as each other (n.b. especially Heraclitus 22B40 D-K). Even if one were to develop today a list of interests that one might classify as a core of subjects that Presocratic philosophy consisted of, one would still be left with the problem that many people we would not think of as philosophers (e.g. medical authors) investigated the same issues. Whatever modern categorisations we may use, it is important to remember that these were not the Presocratics' categorisations.

Maria Michela Sassi in "La naissance de la philosophie de l'esprit de la tradition" examines the beginning of Presocratic philosophy. She does this by focusing on the relationship between philosophy and myth. She examines Cornford's and Burkert's analyses of the similarities between philosophy and myth (especially Near Eastern myth) and also Aristotle's and Plato's opinions on myth (both of whom sometimes see value in it). There was no rigid polarity between myth and philosophy. What does separate Greek intellectual culture (philosophy, poetry, medical theory, etc.) from earlier (especially oral) cultures is egoism. Rather than a personless tradition such as we find in Mesopotamia, with the Greeks we find ideas associated with individual thinkers. Each thinker, moreover, attempts to outdo his predecessors, often explicitly, and usually through innovation. This, as Lloyd has argued elsewhere, is what leads to the discussion of second order questions. Thales, therefore, deserves his traditional title as founder of Greek philosophy because there is a series of doctrines associated specifically with his name against which a succession of thinkers reacted.

M. Laura Gemelli Marciano ("Le contexte culturel des Présocratiques: adversaires et destinaires") analyses the Presocratics (focusing on Xenophanes, Heraclitus and Empedocles) in terms of whom they were arguing against and their intended audiences. She believes these two factors to be important in understanding the Presocratics' beliefs, especially with respect to epistemology. Thus, Xenophanes is primarily competing with poets and trying to convince the public, so he emphasises the visible as the basis for his arguments. Heraclitus is competing with polymaths who base their ideas on observation and "reputable" sources, and so he emphasises insight which penetrates beyond mere appearances. Empedocles' audience for his On Nature is his pupils, and thus it emphasises the divine origin of Empedocles, the master. One of the interesting facts that emerges from this investigation is the lack of a clear "us versus them" mentality in the early Presocratics -- note Heraclitus grouping Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes and Hecataeus together (22B40 D-K). However, in general there simply is not sufficient reliable evidence for us to determine who constituted the Presocratics' adversaries and audience -- the author struggles at times with the three that she has selected, and the problem would be worse with many of the other Presocratics. Thus, though this is an interesting approach, it is one with limited applicability.

Patricia Curd ("The Presocratics as Philosophers") seeks to defend some of the earliest philosophers from some recent attacks which have suggested that they should not be considered philosophers. Focusing particularly on Heraclitus, Parmenides and Xenophanes, Curd stresses two tendencies in these thinkers. On the one hand, they investigate nature in a sort of proto-scientific way (i.e. with an emphasis on observation and thinking about the issue). This is accompanied, however, by a methodological concern with the enterprise and what is appropriate thereto, i.e. epistemological speculation. And, lest one think that these issues were of secondary importance to these thinkers and that they were in fact primarily law-givers, healers and poets, Curd argues that these thinkers' speculations on such issues are also connected with their epistemologies. Thus, Curd argues that the Presocratics should still be considered philosophers.

Three further contributions explore certain themes in the Presocratics. Daniel W. Graham ("La lumière de la lune dans la pensée grecque archaïque") seeks to determine who first discovered that the light of the moon is a reflexion from the sun. Though we might not think this a particularly important question, Graham shows that such a theory has a number of important consequences for cosmology (e.g. if celestial bodies are spherical, maybe the earth is too; celestial bodies must have continued existence rather than being created and destroyed each day; the sun's trajectory must pass under the earth) -- though I would be inclined to see some of these ideas as necessary preconditions rather than consequences. Graham shows that believing the moon to be illuminated by the sun is incompatible with the better attested theories of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes and Heraclitus, and dismisses Pythagoras, based on Burkert's belief that Pythagorean astronomical work should be ascribed to Philolaus not Pythagoras himself. Graham prefers to ascribe it to Parmenides (primarily based on 28B14 and 15 D-K), reminding us that Parmenides had some interesting cosmological ideas in his Way of Opinion.

Gábor Betegh ("Le problème des représentations visuelles dans la cosmologie présocratique: pour une histoire de la modélistaion") tries to explore the early history of the celestial sphere. Unfortunately, reliable evidence is simply not extant, and Betegh is forced to rely on conjectures, late testimonia and references which are by no means indisputable (e.g. Parmenides 28B12). Nonetheless, Betegh certainly does show that a number of Presocratic cosmologies, from Anaximander on, were such that they could have been made into three-dimensional models. This is an important datum for people assessing Presocratic thought by the criteria of modern science.

It is not uncommon to find references to "Orphic influence" on the Presocratics, but often the reference is vague and without support. Alberto Bernabé in "Orphisme et Présocratiques: bilan et perspectives d'un dialogue complexe" seeks to remedy this by directing us to areas where there are some correspondences between the Presocratics and Orphism for which there is textual evidence. He concentrates especially on theories of creation and the soul and suggests a number of parallels. There is not the space in this contribution to explore the reasons for these parallels: whether they are from Orphic influence on the Presocratics or vice versa or from some common set of similar principles or simply from the zeitgeist. But Bernabé has presented some preliminary thoughts for someone wishing to explore such matters.

The other ten essays deal with specific problems in particular thinkers, rather than being general in nature. Two contributions (Walter Leszl, "Problems raised by an edition of Democritus with comparisons with other Presocratics" and Oliver Primavesi, "Lecteurs antiques et byzantins d'Empédocle: De Zénon à Tzétzès") explore the traditions which have preserved the fragments and testimonia of Democritus and Empedocles. Leszl essentially presents his personal reflexions on preparing an edition of Leucippus and Democritus, focusing on the issues he had to consider in arranging the fragments and testimonia. Much of this involves trying to trace the traditions through which our information was preserved -- how much ultimately comes from Theophrastus? How much can be gleaned from Epicureans and Skeptics? How much have later doxographers and epitomators added? Leszl highlights how many gaps there are in our knowledge of the later traditions which preserved Democtritus' beliefs. Primavesi looks at the traditions preserving Empedocles, presenting several tables of data: authors providing fragments and testimonia of Empedocles; authors citing Empedocles verbatim; authors presenting citations not cited earlier; and how many of these "new" citations each author presents. It appears from all of this that at least Aristotle, Plutarch and Simplicius had copies of Empedocles' texts (meaning they survived until at least the sixth century A.D.) and that some original text may have survived until late Byzantine times. Further evidence for the latter theory is presented in the next section of Primavesi's contribution, which looks at testimonia not normally (or ever) included in collections of Empedocles. These two contributions demonstrate well how important this sort of careful analysis is, and Primavesi's point that Byzantine literature also needs to be consulted for the Presocratics is well made.

Three articles explore the interpretation and use of the Presocratics by Plato and Aristotle. Mantas Adomenas ("The Fluctuating Fortunes of Heraclitus in Plato") looks at Plato's ascription of the idea of "flux" to Heraclitus. This is usually thought to contradict Heraclitus' belief in the unity of opposites, but Adomenas attempts to resolve this contradiction by reinterpreting what Plato means by flux. Rather than seeing it as meaning that all things are constantly changing in every respect, Adomenas sees Plato as referring to the fact that the properties in the world of appearances are constantly changing (i.e. an object is constantly fluctuating between smaller and larger depending on what it is compared to). Adomenas spends far more time discussing Plato's ideas than Heraclitus', but he does provide a way of eliminating Plato's troubling testimonium.

Richard McKirahan and Pierre-Marie Morel both look at Aristotle's use of his predecessors' ideas. McKirahan ("La dichotomie de Zénon chez Aristote") looks at Aristotle's presentation of Zeno's argument from dichotomy. Whereas other Presocratics such as Parmenides and Melissus are discussed and dismissed in the historical survey at the beginning of the Physics, Aristotle takes a different approach to Zeno. Aristotle presents Zeno's arguments in the sections explaining his own theories, typically following a theory of Aristotle's own which he believes refutes Zeno's argument. In this context, it is interesting to note that, in different passages, Aristotle presents Zeno's argument from dichotomy in slightly different ways and presents slightly different refutations depending on the context. Morel ("Démocrite dans les Parva naturalia d'Aristote") looks at the way that Aristotle engages with Democritus with respect to the causality of vision, dreams and breathing. We see from this that Aristotle does take some ideas from Democritus, but, most interestingly, Democritus forms an ideal sparring partner for Aristotle in that Aristotle can neatly attribute Democritus' errors to a failure to understand the categories into which Aristotle divides the world. We learn more about Aristotle's methods than about Presocratics in these contributions, but they are interesting examples of Aristotle's methods. They also remind us of the dangers of using Aristotle as a source for the Presocratics: Aristotle's extant works are not histories of philosophy.

Of the remaining articles, two look at Xenophanes and the other three at Democritus, Polyclitus and Anaxagoras. Emese Mogyoródi ("Xenophanes as a philosopher: theology and theodicy") looks at Xenophanes' theological ideas from two perspectives, how they might have fit into the intellectual context of the day; and how to reconcile them with his naturalism. Mogyoródi sees Xenophanes not as a critic of religion but as a religious reformer. To this end, Xenophanes' descriptions of the divine stress its power and glory and its impartiality, responding to some sort of moral-religious crisis. But Xenophanes also, in Mogyoródi's reading, sees the divine as "beyond good and evil" as a consequence of its absoluteness: the absoluteness of the divine is categorically distinct from our observable world. This removes the possibility of people being able to use the gods' misbehaviour as justification for their own, but it also leads to Xenophanes' naturalism. The distinction between the divine and the observable world removes the divine from natural phenomena and also means that whereas observation is a valid methodology for natural phenomena, the conclusions therefrom do not necessarily apply to the divine. There is still a tension between the divine as distinct from the world and the divine as some sort of moral guarantor, but Xenophanes' "exploration of causes and effects in the domain of religious-moral phenomena" (284) earns him a place as a philosopher.

Alexander P.D. Mourelatos ("La Terre et les étoiles dans la cosmologie de Xénophane") presents a close analysis of our evidence for Xenophanes' theories on the earth and the stars. Rather than seeing the world as infinite in depth, as most people interpret Xenophanes' fragments, Mourelatos suggests that Xenophanes saw the world as infinite in width. This is compatible with Xenophanes' beliefs about the moon and sun, and the motion of the stars could be explained as it is by Anaximenes as circular but flat. This contribution is carefully argued and presents an interesting possibility. If correct, this would move Xenophanes' thinking away from the Milesian concern with how the earth is supported.

David Sider ("Demokritos on the Weather") explores the tradition about Democritus' ability to predict the weather. Though testimonia about Democritus predicting weather are often thought to be referring to the Hellenistic philosopher Bolus of Mendes, Sider argues through an analysis of the tradition that some of this should be attributed to Democritus. The evidence is slight, but the possibility is there.

Carl Huffman ("Polyclète et les Présocratiques") looks at the sculptor Polyclitus of Argos. On the basis of the language of his two fragments, some modern commentators have suggested a Pythagorean influence on Polyclitus. Huffman goes through these claims and convincingly shows how little basis there is for them.

In the final contribution, Claire Louguet ("Note sur le fragment B4a d'Anaxagore: pourquoi les autres mondes doivent-ils être semblables au nôtre?") examines two questions raised by fragment B4a of Anaxagoras: what and where was Anaxagoras referring to when he speaks of "another place", and why does he believe this other place to be "just like our place (ὥσπερ παρ' ἡμῖν)"? With respect to the first question, she explores the answers offered by Simplicius, Fränkel and Mansfield, showing the inadequacies of each. Second, she points out that it comes down to how one conceives of the creative Mind. Louguet argues that Mind must be understood not as a creator but just as a separator, who merely separates the already-existent substances from the primordial mixture. The nature of the primordial mixture and the role of Mind thus leave no room for creating things differently. In proposing this, Louguet makes Anaxagoras' theories an interesting mix of Parmenidean and Milesian thought.

There is no subject index, but there is an eighteen-page index of names and passages (which tends to be more useful -- to the expert anyway -- when the subject matter primarily involves the interpretation of discreet fragments). As a final point, I might add that in the course of this review, the book fell apart in three places. I am, of course, not qualified to say whether this was due to some defect in my particular copy or to some defect in the binding technique they have chosen; but I might add that I did not treat the book particularly roughly. Nonetheless, this collection of essays is a valuable contribution to the study of the Presocratics. The essays are of a high standard and will undoubtedly appear in many future bibliographies.

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