INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY COURSE: Pre- Socratic Philosophy part one

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Philosophy is a profound symbolic and logical activity with a particular history, areas of exploration, and a methodology. All three of these components are necessary to take into consideration if one is to portray accurately philosophical activity for curious bystanders or peripatetic spectators. Two ancient prophecies probably from oracles are important navigational tools if one is to understand the depth of what we read, especially in the cases of Heraclitus, Anaximander, and Parmenides where we are dealing with fragments of whole works. The first is the prophecy cited by Socrates in the Republic which claims that everything created is destined to fall into ruin and decay and be destroyed. The second is the prophesy or commandment from the Delphic oracle to “Know thyself”. This latter commandment must be understood to be broader than a piece of epistemological advice: it must be understood against the background of the first prophecy, i.e. as a matter of life and death and it also needs to be understood against the background of Aristotle’s epistemological remark that this is the knowledge most difficult to attain.

The First philosopher, Thales, was what one might now call a natural philosopher, concerned with the starry sky above him and predominantly driven by the poetic classification system of all the elements of the world, namely earth, air, water, and fire. He was principally concerned to discover which element was more fundamental than the rest. We do not quite understand his choice of water over fire(energy) but we can see certainly the importance of water to life, and perhaps we have always been able to understand this particular relation. This is the first “materialist” explanation but without any detailed account of the role of physical processes such as heat and cold, wet and dry which later allowed Aristotle to formulate the first meteorological system. Although it has to be mentioned that Thales was able to predict the weather many months in advance. There is a famous story of him predicting favorable weather for the olive trees, buying up all the olive presses and making a considerable amount of money to make a point to the community he lived in. This action of Thales is also in itself interesting because it suggests that a state of tension existed between the exploring spirit of the first philosopher and his religiously inspired community where lightning striking trees was best explained in terms of the anger of the Gods. This dualistic bipolarity of the natural and the supernatural world was probably to persist not just in the communities of Ancient Greece but also in the minds of all the philosophers up to and including Aristotle.

It is, however, firstly in the thoughts of Anaximander Heraclitus and Parmenides that we begin to feel we are dwelling in the city-state of philosophy. For it is in the fragments that we have of their works that we first begin to sense that these thinkers are not just concerned with the physical world but rather with the world as a whole in a critical spirit which methodologically avoided supernatural references to the mythical Gods: concerned with what Heidegger would call our relation to Being.

Anaximander is a transitional figure, seemingly perpetuating the materialistic spirit of investigation: investigating eclipses and meteorological events and at the same time introducing the speculative idea of “Apeiron” or the infinite into his reflections on existence. Some commentators wonder whether this was a nod in the direction of the divine immortal gods but some like Christopher Shields in his work, “Classical Philosophy” points to the possibility that Anaximander was reflecting upon the infinity of space and time. Our world has its origins in the Apeiron Shields claims on behalf of Anaximander.

Heraclitus is famous for his claim that “Everything is changing all the time”. We cannot, he insists, step into the same river twice because if the river is constituted of the water that is flowing by(which is a questionable premise) we will certainly be wading in different water the second time we enter the river. With this almost oracular proclamation the agenda of philosophical explanation is changed and from then on the second prophesy from the Delphic oracle moved into the central arena of philosophical thought and joined the materialist prophesy that all created things are doomed to destruction. “Change” becomes the focus of thought: what needs to be explained. The world is viewed through the lens of the image of the water of a river: it is something that is constantly and forever changing. Shields points to a distinction that Heraclitus draws between synchronic change such as that which occurs in relation to the waters of the river or a pile of pebbles A. Remove one pebble from the pile and replace it with another and this, Heraclitus would claim is an example of diachronic change or flux, whereby we are forced to say that we are now dealing with a different pile B of pebbles. Synchronic change or flux is demonstrated in two examples in which Heraclitus begins to play with the thought that contradiction can actually be used philosophically to demonstrate our relation to reality or Being. The first example is that “the road up and the road down is one and the same”. Here we have opposites which might seem contradictory but are not in virtue of the fact that a road is traversable in both directions: the road is the hidden uniter of these seeming opposites. It is here, however, that the fragmentariness of the fragments becomes a problem. How shall we interpret these claims?- We will suggest that Heraclitus should be interpreted as meaning that the essential activity of a human being is their thought and it is in the thought of the thinker that the road is one and it is only because of this fundamental fact that we are able to understand that walking up and down the road are one and the same. This is a clear move toward the prophecy of the Delphic oracle and the primacy of thought. The principle of contradiction regulates thought first and only by implication the object of the thought(which is doomed to decay and destruction. But Heraclitus is also famed for his discussions of Aletheia and a fragment which claims that Aletheia reveals what is hidden. This fragment should be viewed together with the fragment which claims that what is hidden is the logos of the one rather than the many.

Parmenides is an interesting thinker from many different perspectives but we are going to concentrate on his critical relation to Heraclitus whose aphoristic style of proclamations must have irritated the Philosopher who was possibly one of the first to believe that proclamations must be replaced by demonstrations or arguments that something is the way it is and not in some other way. Parmenides’ argument is complex but on the assumption that we are in the realm of thought and that we must think something, Parmenides argues that this something must be the bearer of change if it is to be thought about at all. Change is an illusion. Plato used this fragment as the guiding light for the construction of his theory of forms or ideas. Aristotle also referred to this fragment in his Metaphysics and transformed it into a principle of all metaphysical reflection whilst at the same time acknowledging the fragment of Heraclitus relating to change by insisting that of course change is real and it is so because we perceive change in the bird hopping from one branch of the tree to another. But Aristotle would have agreed that change without any reference to some enduring thing that is changing cannot be thought about. It is after all the bird that is hopping and not a nothing. The Delphic oracle’s prophecy was almost fully actualized in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The counterargument to this position is one that Heraclitus may have embraced in order to save his position from the Aristotelian attack. It is contained in Shields’ argument that it is, in fact, possible to think nothing. This is a complex argument which cannot be resolved here but suffice it to say that the assumption of this work will be in this respect at least, Aristotelian through and through. The next Philosopher to be considered in this unit will be that towering figure of Socrates which followed upon the Parmendiean demand that one demonstrate the validity of one’s thinking in arguments. We will discuss Socrates the next but one issue of the journal.