This is possibly the best VSI I’ve read so far. It’s an example of the VSI series at its best. My own reading the Presocratics has tended to be from a historical perspective. You start with the Milesian Triad, then Pythagoras and the difference between east and west and so on. This leads to a view of philosophy as an inevitable rise to science, which I’m not happy about. It’s neither inevitable nor, really, science. Catherine Osborne throws out this chronological approach and instead focuses on the problems that the Presocratic philosophers tackled.
The central chapters Zeno’s tortoise and Reality and appearance: more adventures in metaphysics both explore the relationship between thought and reality. If there is a common theme in presocratic philosophy this is perhaps it. The chapters both show an infectious enthusiasm for the subject. It’s a cliché to tell students that Classics is a subject with relevance to the here and now, but these chapters do propose problems which challenge people today.
It’s a particular challenge to tackle the Presocratics, because of the ephemeral nature of the evidence. This is the first issue that Osborne tackles. The opening chapter starts, not with the Milesian Triad, but with Empedocles – a much later philosopher. She brings out the problems in placing the fragments that survive, in other author’s texts or as scraps of papyri, into context. In a later chapter on Heraclitus she expands on this, showing how this fragmentary view can be confusing and contradictory. Though in Heraclitus’s case it’s pretty obvious that he was being deliberately awkward.
The final chapters close with an examination of what the point philosophy was. What use to did philosophers have to society? It’s in this light at Osborne looks at Pythagoras, another philosopher shrouded in mystery. She also examines the sophists. Attacked by Plato, these people were able to sell knowledge but what sort of knowledge did people want to buy?
The book is excellent. It’s not simply that Osborne knows the material, it’s also that she communicates her passion for it. If I were looking to find faults I might whine about the lack of space given to Thales et al, but that would be missing the point. The book illustrates the richness and diversity of Greek thought in the archaic period and does it beautifully. Rather than telling you all you could reasonably want to know about Presocratic philosophy, Osborne whets the appetite to find out more. Which ultimately it the biggest success a book of this size could have.