Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Philosophy Before Socrates

I have to credit my company's VP of Technology for turning me on to this book. When I told him that I planned to go back and do a little "classical re-education" to fill some gaps regarding my "inductive reasoning" toolkit, he suggested this book as a good place to start.

"Philosophy Before Socrates" is exactly what the title suggests. It's a look at all (or at least a broad range) of the philosophers that preceded Socrates. Socrates, of course, is probably the most famous and most applicable of the Greek Philosophers to the testing profession because, really, testing is a continuous form of Socratic Debate. We pose questions and, through the answers we receive, we can eliminate those hypotheses that don't work for our purpose or help us reach our goal. Socrates, however, did not come fully formed and just appear. Nor did he invent Greek Philosophy. He tends to stand as the pillar of Greek Philosophy because we have a great deal of information about him, mostly through Plato's writings. By comparison, many of the earlier philosophers in the sphere of Classical Greece have little to no surviving records of their writings. There are a few fragments here and there, as well as numerous "testimonia" in others writings. In other words, we typically can only look at what others have said about these early philosophers to understand what they said and how they said it (if they actually said it, that is!).

It is into this strange dust storm of history Richard D. McKirahan bravely travels. It's also important to realize that the region we know of as Greece today only encompasses a small area of where the Classical Greek influence spread and was nurtured. The ancient area of Anatolia (which is in modern day Turkey) also figures into this story, as does the island of Sicily and the southern area of Italy. This book is dense, and to go through each and every chapter will make this review extremely long, so I will dispense with my usual chapter by chapter summary and group the ideas into larger areas.

The Sources of Early Greek Philosophy
The biggest challenge with the pre-Socratics is that we don't have much to go on that's original material. Remember, in the ancient times, if an author wanted to create a book, they wrote it themselves in long hand, or they had a scribe write it. When the book was finished, to make another copy required exactly that, another scribe to write in long hand an exact copy of the original, and so on and so on. The problem with this method is that errors creep in (usually unintentionally) and then we are left wondering if what Thales of Miletus actually said was what we have available to us today. In most cases, no originals exists of the early philosophers, and in many cases, only reference to these philosophers by other philosophers allow us to even know what those later philosophers say that the earlier ones said. In short, the biggest challenges is teasing out of the commentaries, fragments and "testimonias" provided by Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, Hippolytus and others the true words of the ancients.

Hesiod and the Beginnings of Greek Philosophy and Science
For many fans of Greek Mythology, much of the structure of the Pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses are described in Hesiod's Theogony ("Birth of the Gods"). While most of this work is orthodox Classic Greek theology, his other most famous work, the Works and Days, takes us into the workings of the agrarian yeomen farmer, and the world view that is in many ways seen as "ever so Greek", that of stoic effort, strength in the face of capricious gods, and the idea that one's life and success are measured by the extent and quality of fields and livestock, the harvest, and the qualities in oneself and one's family.

Miletus in the Sixth Century
What was it about this area that produced so many people that would challenge the conventional wisdom of their day, and set the Classical Greek world onto a new path of inquiry and reason? Part of it comes from where Miletus was situated. In many ways, Miletus was the Ancient world's "crossroads and cross naval paths" of the Western world. It was a sea-port, and as such it had access to trade from all over the known world, ranging from Greece to the Levant, Egypt, Punic Northern Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Miletus was what was referred to as a secular city state (or Polis). In short, Miletus was happy to keep its religious life and its political life separate. This was an attribute that would come to be seen as defining of most of the city states of the Classical Greek era and those in its sphere. Why Miletus was the first to flower with this "rational thought" is not certain, but many point to the fact that, because of its strong position in inter-continental trade, its lack of a dominance from a religious hierarchy, and its ability to have enough riches so that some people didn't have to scrape out a living from the soil alone, helped set the stage for people to look at the world and say "so, what have we got here?" in ways no other kingdoms or civilizations had the time or luxury to consider.

Thales, Anaxamander and Anaximenes of Miletus
Many people look to Thales as the start of the great Greek tradition of Philosophy. The fact that he was brilliant and unorthodox comes to us from various sources (Aristophanes mentions him by name in one of his plays written two hundred years after his passing). He comes down to us as being a bit of a "absent minded professor" type, but one who could also use the knowledge he gained to take advantage of the opportunities in the world, opportunities he profited from handsomely. In short, Thales enjoyed a position as a wealthy man, and that ability also allowed him time to make observations and put them into practice in ways a common man of the time would neither have the inclination or the free time to do (and have the influence to convince others that he was on to something). Thales would become famous for his statements regarding Astronomy, and the ability to fairly accurately predict eclipses. Thales is also believes to be the man that adapted Egyptian Geometry with numerous theorems, many of which Euclid was later to refine and codify.

Anaximander is credited with being one of the first known "map makers", having drawn the inhabited world that was, or at least the world that was known to him and to those who had traveled by land or sea in the regions they were aware of. Anaximander is credited with warning the Spartan king of an impending earthquake, and encouraging the kingdom of Sparta to seek shelter. He is also one of the first to look at space and see it as an infinite void where numerous stars are to be found, surrounded by an eternal substance that he referred to as Apeiron, which was distinct from all of the classic elements. It was from Apeiron that the world formed, and that various elements separated into their own classes from the Aperion in space. This is one of the first references to the idea that matter in space was formed and coalesced to develop the world on which we stand.

Anaximenes took the idea that all things come from Air, and that in his estimation, air condensed into fire, then into wind, then into clouds, then water, and finally stone, out of which all other elements can be extracted. One of the more dramatic and, at the time, unprovable aspects of Anaximenes theories was the idea that the Earth floated on air and that the rarified air would be strong enough to support the weight of the world within it. In short, Anaximenes was one of the forerunners who described atmosphere and its role in regulating and sustaining life.

Xenophanes of Colophon
Xenophanes was one of the first to break wholly with the idea that a universe was ordered and ruled by gods and goddesses. His poetry went after and attacked the statements made by Homer and Hesiod, and argued that the pantheon of gods described were irrational and disorderly, and did not fit within a defined KOSMOS as was developing in Western thought. In Xenophanes view, since all gods are defined by their region and by the peoples that believe in them, and since all gods cannot be different to different people and be the same, then this brings the entire pantheon of gods into question. Mind you, while there was a secular tradition in the Greek city states, this was a bold world view, and one that caused Xenophanes quite a few accusations of impiety. Xenophanes does not deny the existence of the divine, but he has qualms with the way that God was represented at the time. In many ways, the idea of an all present, omniscient deity that can be everywhere at once finds its philosophical moorings in Xenophanes. Likewise, for those who are interested in the development of epistemology, or the science of knowing what we know and how we know it, Xenophanes arguably deserves to be acknowledged, if not as the founder, then at least as one of its earliest known adherents. He makes the clear delineation between truth, belief, opinion and knowledge, and shows that they are not the same thing.

The Early Ionian Achievement
As the ideas of the four previous mentioned philosophers take hold, are debated, are considered, and in many cases discredited or accepted, we see that a population takes to the daring step to stop looking to tradition for all answers. In fact, the philosophers of Miletus and the surrounding area have specifically rejected tradition as an authoritative source of knowledge. The net result of this action is that theories must stand or fall on their own merits. This heralds the development of "rational criticism", and this rational criticism took place in the public square and was roundly debated by many individuals. Theories that did not hold up to observation were discredited, and new theories came to take their place. These in turn would be held up to scrutiny and likewise rise or fall. That's not to say that the early theories were all excellent and scientific. Many of them were what we would consider outrageous today, but the temperament of the time and place allowed for outrageous speculation, and in fact, welcomed it. The more outrageous the theory, the more interesting the debate would be. The idea of experimental science as was developed in the early Renaissance was mostly foreign to this age of philosophy; most theories stood or fell based on the rhetorical skills of those posing the ideas and the questions.

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans
...and you thought that theorem about the hypotenuse of a right triangle was all he had going for him? Pythagoreas was the start of an entire movement related to not just the development of theorem proofs in geometry, but a whole range of opinions and beliefs including the transmigration of souls (mirroring in many ways Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation beliefs). Pythagoreus also wrote of an idea where the Earth was counted among the stars and circled a fire at the center of the universe, causing night and day. While the purpose of the "eternal fire" was said to be the house of Zeus, it does show that Pythagoras was one of the first to consider that the Earth may not be the center of the KOSMOS.

Heraclitus of Ephesus
Heraclitus is the first of the pre-Socratics of which substantial fragments exist, so comparison to his actual words and what others said about them can be made. The key idea that Heraclitus worked towards and expounded on was that of LOGOS, the idea being that speech and word, if properly attributed and formed, describe the nature of something (bedeviling as that thought might be in practice). In short, the only thing preventing us from truly understanding something is the language to describe it. If something is straightforward and simple, it is very likely wrong. Heraclitus summarized this by saying "out of all things there comes a unity and out of a unity all things" (and you thought Homer could be confusing!). Actually, for us testers who look to "context" for situations, Heraclitus is in many ways the forerunner of context-driven inquiry.

Parmenides and Zeno of Elea
This small Italian city would produce two thinkers that would focus a great deal of attention on what would seem to be on the surface nonsensical ideas, but that would likewise have long-lasting staying power in western thought. Both Parmenides and Zeno described the idea that motion did not exist, and they used the idea that the person would never reach a midpoint of their journey because the distance would grow smaller with each step, and the midpoint would constantly shift, thus there would be an infinite number of midpoints and the person would never reach the destination. Of course, we can show that we do reach the destination just by walking. The value of the idea is the fact that there are potentially infinite sizes of things, both big and small, and that this notion of the infinite allows us to conceive of things that are truly gigantic and things that are extremely diminutive (think the distance across the universe or the number of atoms in an object, or even the existence of the atom, for that matter). Both present many of their arguments as paradoxes, and it's the paradox that allowed philosophers and philosophy to sharpen their arguments.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae
When we think of the Athenian persecution and the trial of Socrates where he pays with his life for the crime of impiety, Anaxagoras was another that became a target during that period. His views of the universe and his daring to utter that the sun was a ball of molten and fiery rock and not a god caused him to be the first of the philosophers of this time to be exiled from Athens. The main idea that Anaxagoras offers it the idea that all things are comprised of basic things and that nothing comes into being or perishes. This is akin to the law of conservation of matter, where nothing is ever truly created or destroyed, but rather transferred. Basic things contain a little part of everything, and these parts can be expanded or broken down infinitely. In Anaxagoras world view, there is no smallest thing, an item can be broken down ad infinatum and part of it would still be there. Finally, the mind is the action, the reason and the focus in which all things are put into play, and it is the mind that allows all matter to be formed and reformed. But it is the radical idea for its time that the moon and the planets were balls of rock in space that got him into the most hot water (saying that the moon's light was actually a reflection of the sun, and that the sun was a molten ball of fire). In hindsight, he was absolutely right! In others, he was very wrong, but the fact that he was able to focus on and come close in so many ways to the actual nature of the KOSMOS is interesting.

Empedocles of Acragas
When we think of a "Gandalf the Great" character to exist in the ancient world, in many ways, Empodocles fits the bill nicely. A flamboyant "Wizard" of a man, he nevertheless was an evangelical figure, one who believed strongly in the idea of saving souls and that he knew how to do it. The classical alchemical view of the four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire) and the two sources of all change (Love and Strife) are key to his philosophy.

Fifth Century Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus
If the idea of the atomic nature of things, that infinitesimally tiny items string together and become larger objects, and that all matter is comprised of them sounds familiar (and it should) then thank these two men and the Atomist school of thought that followed on with them. Though the idea was developed in this ancient time, that's not to say that it was wholly embraced, or that the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus are similar in all ways to our current understanding of them, but they definitely started the ball rolling with the idea and the philosophical reasoning behind it, that of the infinite number of building blocks existing within the void.

The book ends with a pair of chapters discussing the Sophists that immediately predated Socrates and the nature of the debate between Laws of Man and Laws of Nature, and the many participants and their ideas related to them.

Bottom Line:

Philosophy before Socrates is a dense book. It covers a lot of ground, numerous literary fragments, and a number of complimentary and conflicting systems and ways to look at the world and the understanding of knowledge. While many of the ideas and ideals espoused by these philosophers have been discredited today, it's the attempt that they made to rationally and through reason and debate come to understand their world that we see the seeds of Western thought, morals, logic, and understanding. To know where me might go, it's helpful to know where one has been, and this book definitely gives us that. Fans of philosophy will find this book fun in places and ponderous in others, but on the whole, it's an enjoyable read and helps to put into perspective many ideas that have formed and a looking glass to help bring them into better focus today. For those who are epistemology fans at heart, and like to know why we know what we know, this book is a gem.

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