Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Osborne

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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.

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