Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.54

Dieter Bremer, Hellmut Flashar, Georg Rechenauer (ed.), Frühgriechische Philosophie (2 vols.). Die Philosophie der Antike, 1/1-2.   Basel:  Schwabe, 2013.  Pp. 1088.  ISBN 9783796525988.  €301.00.  

Reviewed by Oliver Hellmann, Universität Trier (

Table of Contents

Studies in the so-called Presocratics seem to be booming in the last few years. One may simply take a look at the great number of new collections of fragments and testimonies or handbooks on the texts of Early Greek Philosophy that have been published in the last decade.1 The growing number of new editions alerts us that the seminal collection of Diels and Kranz, despite being a masterpiece of philological research, is getting old. New demands in education and research call for new collections of texts. Students ask for translations of all fragments and testimonies, and researchers direct their attention to texts that may not be found in Diels-Kranz. Some of them are new findings, like the famous ‘Strasbourg’ papyrus of Empedocles, but most were known already to Diels but considered worthless for reconstructing the thoughts of the ancient thinkers. Modern research often judges differently on this point, and a new interest in reception of Presocratic thinking entails taking into account all available material. Traces of this development may be also found in the “New Ueberweg” on the Presocratics. While using Diels-Kranz as a standard reference, the authors often point to important texts outside this collection for their reconstructions of Presocratic theories, and at the end a “Wirkungsgeschichte” is presented for all the ancient philosophers treated.

The new Ueberweg-volume (edited in two half-volumes) has been a long-time desideratum and is now highly welcome, since it closes gaps in different ways. First, it completes the series Die Philosophie der Antike of the Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, leaving just one last lacuna in the imperial period and late antiquity (vol. V 1/2), to be filled by Christoph Horn, Christoph Riedweg, and Dietmar Wyrwa. Antiquity is taking the lead here, as the overview of the whole “Grundriss”-project (XXIII-XXIV) indicates. (This overview may be found at the end of Wolfgang Rother’s interesting historical essay “Vom alten zum neuen ‹Ueberweg›”, XV-XXV.) The project aims to cover all periods of the history of philosophy in about 40 volumes, and this means, as the General Editor points out in his “Vorwort zum Gesamtwerk” (XI-XIII), that the Ueberweg is “die dem Plane nach – weltweit gesehen – umfassendste und umfangreichste Philosophiegeschichte” (XI). Second, it provides readers with a handbook on the Presocratics that is – as far as I can see – without parallel in scope, conception, and bibliography. However, the two half-volumes, with over 1000 pages, are not an introduction to the Presocratics to be read in a day, but a reference-book for constant use and partial reading.

In a short “Vorwort” (XXXI-XXXIII), the editors provide insight into the long history of the preparation of this volume which began almost 50 years ago. There follows an essay by the late Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Philosophie und ihre Geschichte” (XXXV-LIX), written in 1996 and published already as an insert to the 1998 volume on the Sophists, Socrates and the Socratics.2 It is presented as “Einleitung” and, as the title clearly indicates, this thoughtful text may be read as an introduction not only to this volume but to the whole series as well.

In light of the various thinkers of different historical periods that are treated and the manifold problems of the reconstruction of Presocratic philosophy, it was a wise decision of the editors to start with a first Chapter on “Übergreifende Themen” (1-234). § 1 “Forschungsgeschichte und Darstellungensprinzipien” by Dieter Bremer, § 3 “Frühgriechische Philosophie und Orient” by Walter Burkert and § 5 “Die doxographische Tradition” by Leonid Zhmud should be marked out for special attention here. The last topic has been much discussed in the last decades, and Zhmud, a leading expert in this field, gives a fine summary of his views with references to competing interpretations, especially those of Jaap Mansfeld and David Runia.3 The biographies of the early philosophers are also discussed in this part of the work, in § 6 “Biographie und Ikonographie”. Ancient biographies do indeed have their own problems, but it is questionable whether it is expedient to separate the reconstructions of the lives of the Presocratics from the reconstruction of their works and thinking.

Chapters 2-5 (235-946) may be seen as the heart of the volume. While the macrostructure is thematic (e.g. ch. 2: “Ursprungsdenken und Weltmodelle”), the content is organized by individual thinkers. In most cases, each philosopher is treated in a single paragraph, though sometimes groups or “schools” are discussed together. Ch. 2 has two subchapters: “I. Naturphilosophische Anfänge”, where Niels Christian Dührsen treats the Milesians Thales (§ 7), Anaximander (§ 8) and Anaximenes (§ 9) and “II. Theologie und ‘Aufklärung’. Weisheit und Wissenschaft”, where Thomas Schirren presents Xenophanes (§ 10) and Leonid Zhmud Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans (§ 11). Ch. 3, “Seinsbestimmungen”, deals with Parmenides (§ 12 by Manfred Kraus), Zenon and Melissos (§ 13 and § 14, both by Christof Rapp). Ch. 4 “Einheit der Gegensätze” focuses on Heraclitus and the Heracliteans. Dieter Bremer appears again as author here, dealing with Heraclitus (§ 15) in cooperation with Roman Dilcher, but expounding “Kratylos und die Herakliteer” (§ 16) alone. The final chapter, 5 “Einheit und Vielheit”, brings together “Empedokles” (§ 17 by Oliver Primavesi), “Anaxagoras” (§ 18), “Archelaos aus Athen” (§ 19), “Diogenes aus Apollonia” (§ 20) and “Leukipp und Demokrit” (§ 21), all by Georg Rechenauer. It is easy to see that this chapter is more heterogeneous than the preceding ones.

The microstructure is almost identical in all the paragraphs, generally dividing the entries into: “1. Überlieferung und Forschungsstand”, “2. Werk”, “3. Lehre”, “4. Wirkungsgeschichte” and “5. Bibliographie”, and presenting items 2, 3 and 4 as key-texts in larger font. This tight, homogeneous structure helps users get information quickly and easily in every case. Nonetheless the authors were obviously free to set priorities, and so the general character of the entries and the methods used varies to some degree. Some authors focus on surveying previous research, e.g., Manfred Kraus, on Parmenides: “Eine auch nur einigermaßen konsensfähige Darstellung der Lehre des Parmenides zu geben, ist nahezu unmöglich . . . Daher werden in der folgenden Darstellung vielfach mehrere konkurrierende Deutungsvorschläge aufzuzeigen sein, ohne dass eine endgültige Entscheidung getroffen werden kann” (449). Others put forward their own, more definite view: Oliver Primavesi presents a clear and easy-to-read article on his interpretation of Empedocles (§ 17), and Leonid Zhmud sets forth his well-known view on Pythagoras (§ 11).4 Yet differing views are never ignored. Zhmud, for instance, gives full information about the two main lines of interpretation concerning Pythagoras (376-7). Christof Rapp gives a fine analysis, in the analytical tradition, of Zenon (§ 13) and Melissos (§ 14).

In the sections on “Wirkungsgeschichte”, reception of the early thinkers is treated in different ways. Some authors limit their discussion to antiquity and give concise remarks, as Thomas Schirren on Xenophanes (367-9); others present a fuller account up to modern times, e.g., Georg Rechenauer on Anaxagoras (782-9) or Leucippus and Democritus (915- 27), who stands out in this regard. Of course, such differences are caused not only by the preferences of the modern scholars but may also reflect different histories of reception of the Presocratic thinkers. More could be written in every case here, but this would surely be beyond the scope of a handbook of Presocratic philosophy.

At the end, an “Ausblick” (§ 22) by Dieter Bremer, “Von den frühen Philosophen zu den Sophisten”, provides a bridge to the following volume 2/1, on the Sophists (cf. note 2 above), and gives an interesting overview of how the Sophists reacted to Presocratic thinking.

As in all Ueberweg-volumes, the extensive, thematically subdivided bibliographies in chronological order are of high value for further research. Georg Rechenauer’s “Bibliographie” on Leucippus and Democritus alone (at 927-46) includes 615 items. It is easy to imagine the size of the entire amount of biographical information to be found in this work. There are some gaps in the most recent years before publication,5 but this may be excused in a cooperative work of that scope, and does not severely reduce its general value.

Several indices (Sachregister, Stellenregister, Personenregister) (971-1061) help users to find their way in this impressive work of scholarship. Everyone working on Early Greek Philosophy will want to have it in his personal library – yet the price of €301 will not allow everybody to buy it.


1.   See e.g. Curd, P. and D.W. Graham (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy (Oxford 2008); M. L. Gemelli Marciano, (ed.), Die Vorsokratiker (3 vols.) (Düsseldorf 2007-2010); D. W. Graham (ed.), The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy. The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics (2 vols.) (Cambridge 2010); J. Mansfeld and O. Primavesi (eds.), Die Vorsokratiker (Stuttgart 2011); S. N. Mouraviev (ed.), Heraclitea. (11 vols. so far) (Sankt Augustin 1999-2011); G. Stamatellos, Introduction to Presocratics. A Thematic Approach to Early Greek Philosophy with Key Readings (Malden, Mass. 2012); G. Wöhrle (ed.), Die Milesier: Thales (Berlin 2009): G. Wöhrle (ed.), Die Milesier: Anaximander und Anaximenes (Berlin 2012); a Loeb edition in 4 vols. is announced by G. Most: here.
2.   H. Flashar (ed.), Die Philosophie der Antike 2/1: Sophistik, Sokrates, Sokratik, Mathematik, Medizin (Basel 1998).
3.   In the bibliography, p. 42 (§ 1 *80), J. Mansfeld and D.T. Runia, Aëtiana vol. 3: (Leiden 2010) is missing.
4.   L. Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans (Oxford 2012).
5.   On Thales § 7: A. Schwab, Thales von Milet in der frühen christlichen Literatur (Berlin 2012). On Anaximander and Anaximenes § 8 and § 9: G. Wöhrle (ed.), Die Milesier: Anaximander und Anaximenes (new edn., Berlin 2012); D. L. Couprie, Heaven and Earth in Ancient Greek Cosmology (New York 2011); J. Mansfeld, “Anaximander's Fragment: Another Attempt”, Phronesis 56 (2011), 1-32. On Xenophanes § 10: L. Reibaud (ed.), Xénophane de Colophon. Œuvre poétique (Paris 2012). On Parmenides § 12: M. Marcinkowska-Rosół, Die Konzeption des 'noein' bei Parmenides von Elea (Berlin 2010). On Heraclitus § 15: M. van Ackeren, Heraklit. Vielheit und Einheit seiner Philosophie (Bern 2006).

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