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Catherine Joanna Rowett is a philosopher. She published as Catherine Osborne from 1979 to 2011.
Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2004)
- Often, when thinking about Socrates (or about Plato’s depiction of Socrates), we need to remember that he is reacting to the Presocratics, but the reverse is never true.
Ch. 1 : Lost words, forgotten worlds
- If we are to understand what is going on in Empedocles’s writings, we need to think about the philosophical motives that drive him, and we need to make use of the bits of text we already had before the papyrus turned up.
- Besides the ‘how many?’ question, Empedocles seems to be answering two other ancient questions: ‘How did the world come to be as it now is?’ and ‘How did it come to have the creatures that it now has?’. [...] His answers are subtle and intricate.
- Philosophy asks for a reason, not just a scientific fact.
- So, with due thanks to those great heroes, the ancient authorities, we can now move on with a more cheerful heart to the rest of Presocratic philosophy. Many of the Presocratics’ words are lost, but we may still catch a glimpse of their strange forgotten worlds, woven into a splendid patchwork of ancient quotations and interpretations.
Ch. 2 : Puzzles about first principles
- Many aspects of Parmenides’s thought remain puzzling even when we have collected all the scraps of evidence from his own writings and those of later thinkers who discussed his views. But his immense significance in philosophical terms has never been obscured by the difficulties in the nitty-gritty of interpretation. For one thing, it is obvious that Parmenides throws at us the challenge of whether we should trust our reason or our senses, in circumstances when they seem to conflict.
- Parmenides did for science what Plato would later do for morality and aesthetics as well: he alerts us to the fact that opinions are just opinions, and they may differ widely. There may yet be a single truth, which need not be as anyone thought. To search for knowledge is to search for access to the truth, not to collect other people’s opinions, and philosophy conducts its unrelenting search for truth in the steps of Parmenides, by respecting sound and rigorous logical argument rather than the variegated tapestry of unexamined opinions.
Ch. 3 : Zeno’s tortoise
- Whether or not Zeno was merely trying to defend Parmenides from the ridicule of others, there is no doubt that he has pushed the analysis of reality onto a new plane. He makes us think not just about objects in space, but about space as a structure within which they exist; about motion not just as the behaviour of physical bodies, but as a theoretical concept involving conceptual divisions in space and time; about number not just as a way of counting finite bodies but as a rational system potentially (or actually) continuing ad infinitum, with the problematic consequences that that might entail; about the notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in time, and how long the duration of the present is.
Ch. 4 : Reality and appearance: more adventures in metaphysics
- By taking us on a cumulative sequence from our own familiar gods, through those of other ethnic groups, to those of animals, Xenophanes shows that our own images have no more authority than those of animals.
- Xenophanes might be saying that we have only superficial understanding, and we never get to knowledge of the clear truth.
- Even if Melissus’s analysis of the concept of existence is faulty, his procedure is very interesting. He challenges the data of sense experience by appealing to conceptual truths, facts about what a certain predicate (here ‘true’) must entail. These facts seem to escape the need to appeal to sense experience. We check up what is true about being true by examining our notion of being true, not by checking any things in the external world. So the argument seems to find a way of challenging the value of sense experience without begging the question. Melissus casts doubt on the senses by privileging the logical grammar of the word ‘true’. But, we might ask, did we learn how to use the word ‘true’ without relying on the senses?
- Both Democritus and Anaxagoras try to explain the puzzling behaviour of ordinary reality by appeal to a microscopic replica of reality, in which another set of tiny bodies or minute scraps of stuff move around and cause things to happen. As a way to overcome the difficulty of explaining changes in the world, this ultimately emerges as unsatisfying: if there were problems with explaining chemical and physical events as they appear to us, there will be the same problems with explaining the reactions between smaller and yet smaller bodies.
- Plato’s metaphysics grew out of that of Parmenides, together with a strong feel for Heraclitus’s account of the physical world as a world of incessant change. His ethics were deeply inspired by Socrates, but his views on the soul also pick up on motifs that emerge in Pythagoras.
Ch. 5 : Heraclitus
- For Heraclitus, the logos is something that we need to learn to notice if we are to understand the true significance of the world. It manifests itself all around us but, Heraclitus suggests, only a few intelligent people ever realize what is going on.
- Perhaps Heraclitus lived before Parmenides, perhaps he lived after, perhaps he lived at the same time. Whichever way, his sayings cry out to be read in their own right, as a radically anti-materialist project unlike anything previously known. They bitterly resist the attempt to package them along with the pre-Parmenidean thinkers; they flourish in a situation in which we are able to juxtapose them with alternatives, such as Parmenides’s world view, for which they may indeed have been a foil.
Ch. 6 : Pythagoras and other mysteries
- Philosophy has come to include, for us, a wide range of theoretical questions that typically look beyond what we can answer by experimental enquiries. While science asks how matter behaves, and tests its theories with observation, philosophy asks what matter is, or how observation can teach us anything. While mathematics asks what the sum of 2 and 7 is, philosophy asks what the number 2 is, and whether 2 plus 7 could ever make anything but 9.
- Much of the content of so-called Pythagorean teaching appears to be a mix of mystical gobble-de-gook and adulatory veneration of the genius of the founder.
Ch. 7 : Spin doctors of the 5th century
- Sophistry is one of the methods by which politicians dress up their policies in alien clothing, to pass them off as more desirable than they really are. Spin doctors thrive best where ‘democracy’ is the slogan.
- As the Presocratic philosophers bow out and Plato arrives to direct the next drama in the series, the Sophists make an astounding final act. All singing, all dancing, they ask society to question its raison d’être, its political beliefs, its moral values, its religious beliefs, its educational system, its legal codes, and its codes of etiquette. They draw attention to the power of the media and ask us to consider whether, without the media, there would be any truth at all. The antagonism that they generate, as portrayed by the Socrates imagined in Plato’s dialogues, starts the ball rolling for some of the most exacting philosophical endeavours the world has ever seen.
Socrates in the Platonic Dialogues (2006)
"Socrates in the Platonic Dialogues", Philosophical Investigations 29:1, January 2006
- In the Protagoras Socrates persuades Protagoras that goodness is identical with pleasure. He advocates a form of hedonism. In the Gorgias, Callicles espouses hedonism and Socrates refutes him. Socrates gets Callicles to admit that, after all, some pleasures are not good. [...] So Socrates holds contradictory views on pleasure in the Protagoras and the Gorgias.
- Are these good reasons for worrying about the apparent contradiction? Should either make us feel the need of an explanation?
- Plato not only permitted live philosophical enquiry to take place in the course of every reader’s every reading of the dialogue, by putting tempting and plausible views on trial, in a situation as near as possible to the open-minded exploratory give and take of dialectical debate with a real interlocutor. He also created a most fitting memorial to the real Socrates – the man himself, who lived and died for the idea that philosophy is best done in open-ended dialogue, and with your whole way of life at stake should you be refuted.