BMCR 2007.06.42

Introduction à la “philosophie présocratique”

André Laks, Introduction à la philosophie présocratique. Collection Libelles. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2006. 172 p. ; 19 cm.. ISBN 2130556639 €16.00.

One must take proper note of the quotation marks in the title of this deceptively slight book. It is not an introduction to Presocratic philosophy itself, at least not immediately, but an introduction to “Presocratic philosophy” as an historiographic category. Laks himself describes the book as follows: “Le livre part … des questions typologiques liées à l’emploi du syntagme ‘philosophie présocratique’, et des enjeux qui le sous-tendent, pour problématiser ensuite la question même des ‘origines’, et de la ‘rationalité’.” He draws upon and synthesizes some of his own articles from the past decade to produce a work of remarkable subtlety and depth of thought that succeeds admirably in its principal aims. The book comprises six essays. The first two consider ancient and modern formulations and problematizations of the view that Socrates somehow marks a turning point in philosophy’s early history; together this pair of essays provides an overview of the historiographic tradition’s demarcation of a “Presocratic” period of philosophy. The next three essays examine concepts necessarily foundational to any history of Presocratic philosophy — beginning with the concept of philosophy itself and with the legitimacy of grouping certain early Greeks together as the first philosophers. This leads naturally, in the two essays that follow, to the fundamental concepts of rationality, as this shared characteristic is supposed to legitimate the grouping, and of origins, given that philosophy is supposed to have originated among this group of thinkers. The sixth and final essay discusses, in light of the perspective developed in the previous essays, the approach to telling the history of Presocratic philosophy by two major twentieth-century philosophers. This book is densely packed throughout with provocative analyses and a wealth of powerful concepts. It is at once a notable contribution to both the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history.

In “Présocratiques: les antécédents antiques,” Laks considers the basis of the modern categorization of certain early Greek thinkers as “Presocratics” by detailing the two principal ancient views of how Socrates constituted a major break with previous inquiry. The “socratico-ciceronienne” view (where “Socratic” means basically “Xenophonic”) sees Socrates as abandoning natural philosophy or peri phuseôs historia in favor of a philosophy of human affairs. The notorious Athenian decree of Diopeithes in 438/7 B.C. opened those inquiring into the nature and operation of the cosmos’ population to formal charges of impiety. Anaxagoras and probably Diogenes of Apollonia were so charged, and Socrates himself would most famously be prosecuted for impiety and executed in 399 B.C. The consequent denials by both Plato and Xenophon that Socrates ever concerned himself with “things in the sky and below the earth” (Pl. Ap. 19b) or with phusis, the kosmos, and the necessity that brought about the heavenly bodies (X. Mem. 1.1.11), coupled with their assertions that he concerned himself solely and resolutely with human affairs ( ta anthrôpina), would have an enormous influence on the conception of philosophy before Socrates as primarily natural philosophy. Laks discusses the way the ancient historiographic tradition developed this opposition between the naturalist tradition and Socratic humanism into chronographic categories, most influentially in Cicero’s prologue to Tusculan Disputations V, which Laks reviews in some detail. The “Platonic-Aristotelian” view depicted Socrates as effecting the transition from a philosophy of things to a more self-consciously conceptual form of inquiry, that is, from the more direct, first-order approach to understanding the world that was characteristic of his predecessors to the more indirect, second-order approach that has remained characteristic of philosophy ever since. Plato has Socrates announce this latter form of inquiry at Phaedo 99c-e, in the midst of his so-called “intellectual autobiography,” by describing why he came to think it necessary to “take refuge in logoi and in them search for the truth of things,” and Laks focuses on how the Phaedo in turn paved the way for the historical categorizations operative in Aristotle’s treatment of earlier philosophy in Physics I and Metaphysics I.

The companion essay, “Présocratiques: la constellation moderne,” discusses certain problems arising from the term “Presocratics” itself, first employed in Johann August Eberhard’s 1788 Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie. Lak’s second essay begins by surveying the efforts of 19th century philosophers and historians of philosophy, including Schleiermacher, Hegel, Zeller, and particularly Nietzsche , to develop acceptable categorizations and periodizations and how they, like the ancients, struggled with the question of whether and how Socrates inaugurated a new approach. Laks then moves to more general reflection on the problematic implications of the prefix in the term “Presocratic,” emphasizing not only its obvious chronological ineptitude but also its unfortunate implications of primitivism and of a teleological view of the period’s thought that Aristotle adopted and that, largely due to his influence, has had a pernicious effect on modern histories of the period. After briefly reviewing some of the alternative designations that have been proposed, Laks concludes this essay by usefully remarking on how the sense that those thinkers we now refer to as “the Presocratics” form some sort of homogenous group is effectively favored by the state of our evidence for their thought, by the fact that we possess none of their writings whole but must rely in each case on quotations, doxographies, paraphrases, commentaries, allusions, and biographical information by later, often much later, authors. In a real sense, then, “Presocratic” is more a historiographic than a proper historical category, and Laks sensibly concludes that the common history of the transmission and survival of their writings is one of the least contestable criteria of an otherwise problematic identity.

The third essay (“Philosophie”) considers the extent to which it is appropriate to regard the Presocratics as philosophers, rather than, for example, as sages or mages. This amounts to asking to what extent philosophy can be regarded as having distinguished itself as an autonomous activity during this period. Laks approaches this question by focusing, first, on the differentiation between myth and reason. Aware of the numerous difficulties in thinking of a transition from myth to reason, he finds it useful to adopt a functionalist conception of these two categories and to employ Herbert Spencer’s specific concept of differentiation as “the change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity,” concluding that nothing militates against myth being the product of a rational activity or reason itself becoming mythical. Laks then discusses at greater length the more specific differentiation between scientific rationality and philosophic rationality. Heeding Geoffrey Lloyd’s warnings that categories of specialization we take for granted were not yet fully articulated or operative during the Presocratic period, Laks nonetheless rightly refuses to conclude with Andrea Nightingale in Genres in Dialogue (Cambridge, 1995) that the discipline of philosophy “was an artificial construct … invented and legitimized as a new and unique cultural practice” by Plato in the fourth century. Laks here focuses on some of the evidence (Hipp. VM 20, Gorg. Hel. 13, and Pl. Euthyd. 305c) that the process of specialization that would lead to the emergence of philosophy as an autonomous discipline was well underway prior to Plato, though just how to characterize this activity remained an open question at this early date even as it does today. Part of the problem is that philosophical activity encompasses or at least involves more specialized activities, as Laks nicely illustrates with an example from Diogenes of Apollonia. Laks concludes this essay by noting that what accounts for the fact that philosophy was perceived early on as an independent discipline was the way peri phuseôs historia involved rationalization, naturalization, and argumentation in its efforts to produce general accounts of the broadest range of phenomena.

The fourth essay (“Rationalité”) begins by acknowledging the influence of the ancient Near Eastern civilizations upon early Greek thought, largely by reprising some of Walter Burkert’s case in Die Griechen und der Orient (Munich, 2003). He follows Burkert in stressing the fact that the early Greek thinkers did not merely reproduce inherited material but used it in ways that raised new kinds of questions and, in so doing, led to a remarkable acceleration of reflection that still merits being seen as part of the development of a new rationality. Seeing that the problem of the origins of Greek philosophy cannot be separated from the broader question of the emergence of Greek rationality, Laks revisits and critiques the thesis of Jean-Pierre Vernant, most notably formulated in Les origines de la pensée grecque (Paris, 1962), that tied this broader development to the emergence of the Greek polis, with its particular political and social institutions. Vernant’s notion that Greek rationality was essentially political and social, a notion spurred by an impulse to avoid simply characterizing Greek rationality in term of our modern conception of rationality, Laks finds not only inherently dubious but easily falsified by the evidently systematic and theoretical nature of Greek accounts of the world from Hesiod onward. As for Vernant’s view that Greek rationality was the child of the polis, in that the deployment of its argumentative structures required the polis‘ public space, Laks concludes that one could equally well argue that the development of rationality at this stage required a space as much “anti-political” or “trans-political,” in that it tended to generate a class of experts separated from others and also tended toward a universalization that transcended political and social boundaries. Finding the concepts of “positivité” and “publicité” deployed by Vernant insufficient to account for the specific development of philosophical thought, Laks turns to the more complex conception of western rationality employed by Max Weber. While acknowledging how difficult it is to generate a systematic typology of the forms of rationality identified by Weber, Laks nonetheless finds him operating with three fundamental senses of “rationality”: rationality in a scientific-technical sense, rationality in a metaphysical-ethical sense involving the systematization of patterns of meaning or “images of the world,” and rationality in a practical sense, involving the adoption of a way of life methodically regulated. Greek rationality, including that evident in the Presocratic period, displayed or at least contributed to each of these forms. Laks concludes this essay by claiming that to understand the logic of the beginnings of Greek philosophy, it is necessary to recognize the decisive role in the development of rationality played by ideas, values, and “images of the world” alongside and together with more formal notions such as entailment and consistency. What we in fact find among the Presocratics, Laks emphasizes, is a conflicting diversity of images of the world, a diversity which itself has to be taken into account in approaching the question of the origins of rationality.

The fifth essay (“Origines”) begins analyzing the foundational concept of an origin itself by distinguishing and classifying the ways something may be an origin. On Laks’ analysis, the origin of a phenomenon may be simply its genesis, either as the external source(s) from which the phenomenon proceeds or as a beginning homogeneous with the phenomenon itself; or the origin may be, more than that, the principle or foundation of the phenomenon, and this either simply as its cause or in a normative manner. The difference between these conceptions of an origin, as a genesis versus a principle or foundation, is a function of the degree of temporalization invested in the notion, and the distinction Laks draws in fact corresponds to a oft-remarked tension in early Greek theogonies and cosmogonies between a more purely chronological and a more purely ontological sense of archê. Laks eventually focuses on a particularly relevant sense of “origin” he finds reflected in the typical ancient interest in identifying the prôtos heuretês. In the case of the ancient historiographers of philosophy, identifying the “first philosopher(s)” becomes an essential part of the discipline’s self-definition. Laks also discusses the modern historiographic category of an “epoch” marked by some historical turning point. He argues that employment of this notion has engendered two fallacies particularly common in histories of the Presocratic period: the fallacy of treating an “ideal-typique” characterization as an intrinsic determination of a period — as in the common treatment of Presocratic philosophy as essentially natural philosophy; and the fallacy of neglecting the essentially symbolic value of the notion of a turning point by treating it as if it had genuine determinative efficacy — as in the treatment of Thales’ “beginning” and Socrates’ “ending” of the Presocratic period. Given the need to appreciate, when considering the question of the origin of philosophy in Greece, that no epoch-making event likely actually occurred with Thales or anyone else, and acknowledging as one must that our evidence for the “first philosophers” has been affected by the desire of later ancient authors to cast them as such, Laks in the end finds salient Edward Saïd’s suggestion that we think of certain figures and events as beginnings, not so much in virtue of themselves, but in virtue of what they make possible or “authorize.” For this perspective suggests that it might, after all, be possible to avoid the problems of a teleological history such as Aristotle’s.

This final essay (“Enjeux”) largely comprises a critical examination of the quite different treatments of the Presocratics by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ernst Cassirer, whose influence in both cases Laks judges inversely proportional to their merits. Laks exposes numerous problems and tensions in Gadamer’s account that make it difficult not to accept the generally negative assessment Laks makes. Gadamer’s denunciation of teleological and Hegelian approaches and his deep debt to Heidegger leads Gadamer not only to deny any progressive dialectical engagement among the Presocratics but even to treat them as if they had hardly any significant historical relation to one another at all. Cassirer’s 1925 “Die Philosophie der Griechen von den Anfängen bis Platon” remains in Laks’ estimation one of the best introductory treatments of Presocratic philosophy, and he spends the rest of the essay reprising it, partly as an effort at rehabilitation, but also to give some indication of what a genuinely philosophical history of Presocratic philosophy looks like.

Laks’ excellent book should henceforward be one of the principal starting points for anyone undertaking to write such a history. Furthermore, although it does not aim to be an introduction to Presocratic philosophy of the type one has come to expect, it functions as one almost in spite of itself; for Laks compels us to be more reflective about just what is at stake when we approach study of the Presocratic period as originative of philosophical rationality. If there is a complaint to be made, it is only that one wishes to see Laks carrying through on the historiographic agenda that emerges from the book’s foundational inquiries. Unfortunately for us, however, this book aims to serve primarily as a preamble to histories yet to be written.