Finally! After struggling through the early mystical musings of Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—where very little thought survives intact in terms of philosophical fitness—I get to look at a new civilization that cemented its place in world history by turning away from all that mumbo jumbo. Ancient Greece. In the 6th century BCE, the Presocratic philosophers emerged and came to be called physiology (φυσιολόγοι) or the first physical philosophers. Aristotle called them "physikoi (physicists after physis or "nature") because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose philosophical basis was supernatural." Is it any wonder that Greece became the cradle of democracy—our dominant surviving political structure—since they were the first to question the dictatorial dogma of divinely revealed knowledge? We owe them much.
Aristotle called them physikoi because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi, whose philosophical basis was supernatural.
Unfortunately, we know only a little about these men and rarely give them their proper due other than to lump them together in an adjectival term showing they at least predated and therefore influenced the father of philosophy. Our understanding of the Presocratics is "complicated by the incomplete nature of our evidence. Most of them wrote at least one “book” (short pieces of prose writing, it seems, or, in some cases, poems of not great length), but no complete work survives. Instead, we are dependent on later philosophers, historians, and compilers of collections of ancient wisdom for disconnected quotations and reports about their views." Individually, none of their surviving works justifies naming them to my brief list of the most famous philosophers, worthy of analysis in an overview of Evolutionary Philosophy, but here (and in future versions of my work), their names can at least be known in a top 10 list, since, you know, we hate those, even though our brains love them. Counting down to my overview of their collected works then, here they are:
3. Thales of Miletus
(Seriously, check out that top 10 list for more on each of these men.)
Pre-Socratic Western Philosophy (600-440 BCE)
The efforts of these earlier philosophers had been directed somewhat exclusively to the investigation of the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. There was an emphasis on questions of nature. They rejected mythological explanations of the world. And some have continued this tradition down through the ages.
Needs to Adapt
It was during this time that the concept of atoms – uncuttables - was developed. The concept is right, but we are still building more and more powerful supercolliders to find the smallest pieces of matter.
During this time, Sophists held that all thought rests solely on the apprehension of the senses and on subjective impression, and that therefore we have no other standards of action than convention for the individual. This is the basis of thought, but the Sophists failed to recognize that we exist in a universe where failure to act correctly is met with extinction. This creates a powerful standard for action.
Philosophers believed water, air, and fire were the principal things and that the primary opposites were hot and cold, and moist and dry. Later (470 BCE) the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire were developed, and two forces – love for attraction, strife for separation - were determined. Our understanding of chemical elements and forces has come a long way.
Now that we are looking at the natural world, the stage is set for some actual philosophy. Next week, Socrates!