restricted access Presocratics. Natural Philosophers before Socrates (review)
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Reviewed by
James Warren. Presocratics. Natural Philosophers before Socrates. Ancient Philosophies 2. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. xv + 224. US $50.00, ISBN 978-0-520-25367-4 (hardcover); US $19.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25369-8 (paper).

Presocratics meets its limited mandate as the second volume in UCLA’s Ancient Philosophies series: “Created especially for students, this series of introductory books on the schools of ancient philosophy offers a clear yet rigorous presentation of core ideas” (ii). Warren introduces himself to his student readers in a sympathetic manner as having once been “a new Classics student in Cambridge [in a course taught by Malcolm Schofield] … confused by the idea that studying philosophy involved thinking about [End Page 91] people who thought the world was made of water” (vii). By reducing the Presocratic dicta to the minimum and then interpreting them in a commonsense manner, he alleviates for his undergraduate reader the kind of difficulty he experienced as a student. Indeed, I was immediately struck by how easily and quickly Presocratics reads. Even the oracular opacity of Heraclitus is tamed into manageable lucidity. Partly, this lucidity is achieved by limiting the amount of material cited and discussed—it is a select number of fragments, not all, that is covered. Partly, lucidity is achieved by limiting the scope and extent of discussion to what can be reasonably made sense of before entering into more difficult and, to be frank, more philosophical aspects of Presocratic thinking.

After a useful Introduction (1–21) explaining the probable oral and literary transmission of sources, the Presocratics are introduced by way of Bertrand Russell’s cliché that philosophy begins with Thales—borrowed, of course, from Aristotle, to whom Warren quickly turns, but only to question the basis on which Aristotle makes the claim: “the explanation offered here of Thales’ reasons for saying that water is the arkhe are the result of Aristotle’s own speculative reconstruction. Aristotle, it appears, does not have Thales’ own account of his process of reasoning and must rely on a certain amount of guesswork” (26). None of this is new; in short, Warren’s book is a simplified version of Kirk, Raven and Schofield, offering basically the same view, but covering more recent discussion. The Cambridge project of extracting the Presocratics from Aristotle, like that of extracting the Sophists from Plato, has been going on for decades, culminating earlier in Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy. Nor is it new to correct Aristotle’s metaphysical interest in Thales by an empirical interest to which it makes more sense to interpret Thales as espousing “a naturalist’s idea that all living things originated—perhaps long ago—in water” (26). But in advising his student reader to spurn the difficulty of Aristotle’s alleged metaphysical distortion of Thales, Warren exceeds the reserve of his predecessors (cf. KRS, 2nd ed. 93–94; Hussey, 18; he is closer to Akra, shorn of hylozoism, 54).

The treatment of Thales is typical of what one finds in the rest of the volume. Core fragments are cited, difficulties of competing interpretations introduced in a summary fashion, and then, assuredly, a fairly reasonable way of reading the texts is offered that makes good ordinary sense of the sources and sets scholarly debate aside as matter for advanced study. But in alleviating the unintelligibility of the sources, Warren also tends to empty them of their philosophical interest—except for the empirical interest that is implicit in his account. If one agrees with this view, doubtless the volume should prove most useful for the task at which it aims.

But I do not believe it is unfair to worry that students will find in Warren’s Presocratics merely the earliest strivings toward their own, normatively [End Page 92] empirical, view of the world—and thereby fail to discover the ancient world which existed millennia before the modern divide of mind and matter, fact and value. It may be that Aristotle is finding in Thales—or Heraclitus or Parmenides—something other than, or at least something more than, they themselves knew. But this should not alleviate us from catching the profound otherness of the dictum...