The History of Philosophy From the Pre Socratic Naturalists to Moral Philosophy

This division of subject matter to be investigated follows the development of Greek speculation itself. The history of philosophy is thought to begin with what are known as the pre-Socratic naturalists (seventh to fifth century bc) who were concerned with enquiring into the nature and origins of the universe (kosmos)." It gradually shifts to those engaged in a more critical philosophy (fifth to fourth century bc), concerned with the foundations of morality and knowledge. Because we still take these kinds of concerns to be central to many contemporary major philosophical concepts, the beginnings of Greek

10 See the feminist debates on the gendered political realm alluded to in n. 1 above.

11 See M. Gagarin and P. Woodruff, eds, Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists (Cambridge, 1995), pp. lx-xxxi and texts in translation; G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1957) and revised editions with M. Schofield; A. P. D. Mourelatos, ed., The Pre-Socratics (New York, 1974).

philosophical discussions are considered to be inextricably involved in the historical origins of philosophy as it is still practised. Most notably, the vocabulary of reflective and critical thought in ancient Greek has contributed key terms to our own philosophical vocabulary (physis — nature; aletheia — truth; logos — discourse, account, reason). How, when and from what origins Greek philosophy arose are questions which have been controversially answered from the time of Aristotle onwards. In general, however, Greek philosophy is said to have begun from a view of the world or kosmos as a well-ordered totality of concrete and relatively discrete things governed by uniform periodicity, a balance of cosmic opposites that are proportionately and symmetrically structured. The cosmic structure was taken to conform to an intelligible formula and this is the tradition from which the philosophical rationalism of Plato and Aristotle would emerge.'2 Indeed, Aristotle took the naturalists to be the first philosophers, concerned as they were with law and regularity, change and stability in the universe. Not only was nature viewed by some of them as an all-inclusive system, ordered by immanent law. The natural world was somehow the result of reason which, for some thinkers, was not itself part of nature but sovereign over it. A normative, necessary, rationalistic explanation of all that is, and which assumes a well-ordered universe, sometimes conflicted with an assumption that men can arguefrom reason and appearance to justified conclusions about objective reality. But in all cases, the pre-Socratic naturalists did not defend their arguments by appealing to the evidence of observation alone.13 Rather, they relied on principles which were not derived from observation. They framed their scientific theories so that the use of observation relied on and indeed, confirmed, the theoretical principles of the sort they discovered. Hence, prior to observation for them was the assumption that natural processes conform to general laws and such laws are not known from authority or tradition but by logos, that is, by reason, by giving an account or an argument.

The shift from the focus on how the 'world' came into existence and to be as it is, to the question 'what do I have to know and then do in order to live a worthwhile human life which is what I desire above all else?' is the shift in focus that marks off the beginning of our subject, moral and political philosophy, from other philosophies in the ancient world. So the history of political thought in one sense, as a part of a history of philosophy, is thought to have begun in ancient Greece with the kind of distinct philosophical investigation which, as systematic reasoning, was consciously brought into the communal life. There it asked ordinary men to consider questions of virtue and vice, good and evil, justice and injustice, and the respective roles played by nature and convention in the constitution of a good society and the understanding of man's role within it and its institutions. Once this occurred, we confront discussions of human awareness and activity in a universe whose reality is governed by laws which somehow circumscribe human freedom, enabling men to distinguish between their capacities to cause 'events' and actions or to be caused or determined by them. As we shall see, aspects of these discussions have a peculiar, even discordant ring to contemporary liberal democratic ears.

12 D. Furley, The Greek Cosmologists (Cambridge, 1987); D. Furley and R. E. Allen, eds, Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, 2 vols (London, 1970-5); Mourelatos, The Presocratics; W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol.1: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (Cambridge, 1962); vol. 2: The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (Cambridge, 1965).

13 G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason and Experience: studies in the origins and development of Greek science (Cambridge, 1979).

To ask questions about the limits of human autonomy, about the extent to which humans can be the architects of their lives, individually and collectively, given their place in the natural and customary schemes of things, however one understands these to be arranged, is to ask not only about humans in general, but about the nature of the reality in which they are situated and within which and because of which they behave in what are taken to be peculiarly human ways. To ask these kinds of questions and also to try to find some answers is to engage in a kind of thinking that is meant to transcend time and one's own culture. It is meant to 'raise' the discussion to levels of abstraction that would allow people from a variety of different cultures to move beyond opinions prominent in their own society in order to discover the truth about such issues. On this view, the logic of certain kinds of arguments should be able to transcend people's opinions that tie their views to the historical times and conditions in which the argument may have first been made.

Certain Greeks thought it possible to enquire comprehensively, systematically and according to general laws and principles in order to disclose what they took to be evident or apparent regularities in the natural environment and in human cultures as responses to it. And instead of appealing only to traditional authorities, whether gods or ancestors, they insisted that a logos, a reason, argument, an account could be sought and found to enable them better to understand their collective social myths as well as those assumptions they already accepted when they said they understood common-sense reality. The discovery and account of what the basic laws of human nature are should explain not only how each and every society came into being but why they have the histories they have.

For some Greek thinkers, the logos discovers an objective and evident order in appearances. For others, the logos discovers a hidden order that is inaccessible to common sense, so that reality is to be sharply distinguished from appearance. Still others argued that human nature does not follow objective and independent laws at all, but rather, results from arbitrary human customs and conventions and therefore, our definition of human nature depends on culture and the processes of acculturation. On this view, there is no reason to prefer one moral outlook or one account of reality to another. Instead of there being a knowable and fixed truth about reality, how things are is a measure of convention; how things are is how they appear to any perceiver or thinker in a certain milieu in which he experiences what he experiences. These kinds of discussions and the debates concerning how humans evaluate reality and discover not only their moral convictions but the standards they use in judging or criticizing conventional norms, laws, structures of organized power, in their own society and in that of others, were central to Greek political philosophy, that is, to their systematic accounts of the social world. Variations on all these views still exist in our own world.

Here, however, we must pause. There is no Greek philosophy or social discourse which presupposes or aspires to the idea that man is self-made, an autonomous thinking 'I' whose cognition is culture-free. No Greek claimed what Descartes in the seventeenth century was later to claim: that there was only one clear and distinct idea to which man is inwardly compelled: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am), the existence of the thinking, conscious self, an idea which is established autonomously, privately, without any extraneous aid, and which transcends culture and its prejudices.14 Culture

14 E. Gellner, Reason and Culture: the historical role of rationality and rationalism (Oxford, 1992).

for the Greeks was either natural (for instance, divinely established or simply the result of natural impulse), or conventionally established, but man was not usually conceived of as being capable of thinking without it. How humans classify and handle the things to be known was discussed by the Greeks in terms of an order that inheres in the culturally instilled manner of holding shared conceptualizations, and these came about through society. Greeks were prepared to admit that shared conceptualizations varied from one society to another and that the content of concepts was socially guided. But the boundaries of shared conceptualizations were understood to be acquired only by being part of a community, be that community a naturally or a conventionally established one and it is this which defined man for them, as distinguished from beasts. A hypothetical man who lived outside the social was, by definition, not a man at all but either a beast or a god. Man, for the Greeks, was rational in the large sense, meaning that generically, men think in circumscribed, shared concepts that arise in them by means of controlled and collective social habituation, be that acculturation process a consequence of nature or of convention (physis or nomos). Society, however it came about, through force, or through fear, or through a kind of pragmatic utilitarianism, or as the consequence of divine intervention, and however it was arranged, was sacred to them because it was the context in which 'man' could be defined. 'Man' could not be defined without it. This context was comprised of a shared history, rituals, myths, religions, customs and norms. In considering man's ability to reason, they situated him within a context where reason either lived side by side with Greek religion and myth or had to confirm religion and myth. Although some, namely the leading philosophers, came to depersonalize their conceptions of nature and they increasingly accounted for cosmic history without continual references to gods with human-like motives, they none the less did not separate nature from religion. They may have considered sense experience and human knowledge to be limited but they were not sceptical about the general orderly structure of the world or about the separate existence of gods and their general relation to humans.15 Reasoned explanations were, for them, the means of rephrasing rather than replacing myth. This is a rationalism that is not the rationalism of modern analytic philosophy which begins, more or less, with Descartes, although elements of it can be found in Hobbes.1"

What is often taken to be the modern notion of reason17 assumes the existence of a generic faculty that is identically present in each human mind, capable of categorizing and calculating, and it assumes a general criterion of truth applied to all cases, impartially and universally, without being tied to local circumstances. When the emphasis is placed on the general criterion of truth applied to all cases, this modern reason's method of discovering it is said to be detached, procedural, a rule-following logic that is meant to liberate from a specific culture each self-sufficient and autonomous mind that operates

15 E. Hussey, 'The Beginnings of Epistemology: from Homer to Philolaus' in S. Everson, ed., Companions to Ancient Thought, 1: Epistemology (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 11-38.

16 J. Cottingham, A Descartes Dictionary (Oxford, 1993), p. 5 on the slippery concept of modernity and Descartes as the 'father of modern philosophy'.

17 See the co-authored introductory essay in R. Rorty, J. Schneewind and Q. Skinner, eds, Philosophy in History (Cambridge, 1984); K. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London, 1957); K. Popper, Objective Knowledge: an evolutionary approach, revd edn (Oxford, 1979); E. Gellner, Reason and Culture; J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford, 1972).

on its own. Indeed, this kind of reason is meant to transcend the natural in the sense that it requires that explanations be subject to tests which are not under the control either of a prevailing system of ideas, an orthodoxy, or a culturally induced vision of the world. No world vision is allowed to dictate the rules of evidence. The truth this modern reason is said to establish is unified and systematic, external to and independent of any society's social requirements. Furthermore, and of great importance, a modern account of the truth is not meant to be stable; it is open to change and is ever revised. No stage in its progress is ever regarded as final, so that the past and its truth is always viewed as provisional. Modern truth is therefore cognitively unstable. But the means to its achievement is methodologically orderly and fixed. Through its logic of proceeding it is said to owe nothing to community, or to one society or another, when it gives all and sundry the valid view of reality, a reality that is thought to be immune from the dominance of any collective 'illusion'.

This modern reason is not ancient Greek (Roman or medieval and Renaissance) reason in certain fundamental ways. For Plato, notably, the truth is not open to change and revision. It is not progressive. For Plato, the truth is cognitively stable and access to it is methodologically orderly. This is because of his assumptions about cosmic orderliness and his belief that human reason may obtain access to it in the here and now. Aristotle, too, provides a version of this cognitive and methodological stability. There is similarly a range of prior assumptions which need to be uncovered before we can assess the cogency of the arguments of many other political theorists in the tradition of Western political theorizing.

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Responses

  • Jennifer Evans
    What did the naturalists thought it meant to be an american?
    8 years ago
  • jerry
    What was the focus of presocratic philosophy?
    8 years ago

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