Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hypatia's Girl Angrily Reads the Presocratics

A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, ed. Patricia Curd, Trans. Richard D. McKirahan (Hackett, 1996)

This one's a little difficult to blog, because it covers a good 300 years and 19 disparate thinkers.  All in, you know, 106 pages.

It's been longer than I like to admit since I've really done any work with the old ancient philosophers, at least 2 years since that Aristotle class, and heavens knows when before that class that I would have done much work on the ancients.  Which is not to say that I don't think the history of philosophy is important, it's mostly that I kind of always thought that I found the ancients kind of boring. Well, except for Heraclitus, who is clearly the most bad-ass of bad-asses.  (And also, in the interest of scrupulous honesty, "kind of boring" can be wielded against a lot of philosophy, particularly if you're not used to reading it, or its A.J. Ayer.  Just saying.)

As I was pleasantly surprised to discover, a good ten years of philosophy education and general growing up can make reading the pre-Socratics much more fun.

I have slightly more than a passing interest in the philosophy of science as well as a deeply ingrained fascination with Enlightenment histories, and so had always kind of trundled along with this sort of real science started in the early modern age belief.  You know, when they got telescopes and diagrams and natural explanations.  Re-reading The Presocratics, I have to push my "when we got the science" back a couple thousand years.

Curd notes in the introduction that the day (western) philosophy was born was the successful prediction of a solar eclipse by a certain Thales of Miletus in 585 BCE (Curd, 1).  (If we believe the wiki article, we should all have a nice big Happy Birthday Philosophy party on May 28th)  What tends to get drawn as a line in the sand, indeed Curd makes this distinction, is the development of a line of reasoning that is dependent solely on natural explanations and causation.  So whilst we have Thales and Anaximander and Anaximenes arguing that the essential substance is water (Thales), the boundless (aperion) that is moving and so giving rise to opposites (Anaximander), and Aer, something like a thick mist (Anaximenes), which sounds kind of cute and little nutty and perhaps a touch, you know, primitive, when you read the fragments of fragments that remain of these thinkers' works, you realize that, given what they had to work with, they had some pretty damn good reasons for what they were claiming.  Anaximenes proposed the Aer in part to fix problems with Anaximander's aperion.  And that's fucking science

(Which means, in my opinion, that we philosophers should totes be brought under the STEMM love, because, frankly, we gave you science.  But that's neither here nor there.)

Throughout the course of the book, we see the recurrent themes of what makes up the world, what accounts for change (if it happens at all), and what can we know about our place in the world, whatever essential substance(s) are proposed, there is a reason offered for that position.  What marks out Thales as the earliest philosopher, and puts the rest of them in the tradition, is this commitment to a common world, a world that can be known and that has certain, sharable, perspectives.  It is the difference between poetry and philosophy.

Next book: Apology, Plato.  The next one will be much more informative, promise!

1 comment:

  1. What is the difference between poetry and philosophy? That philosophy is committed to a knowable world, with sharable perspectives? Not to be too defensive, but then, what is poetry? An unknowable world, with only unique perspectives? This may be true of (some) modern forms of lyric poetry, but I don't think it adequately separates the Epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Or even Hesiod's Theogony. The real separation, I would say, is that one is a story, and one is an explanation. Vague, but so is the difference between the two (especially with Plato).