Understanding philosophy one painstaking step at a time

The Presocratics Part IV: Parmenides

Though I have described several of the early Presocratics in terms of their metaphysics, our next Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides, is considered to be the father of metaphysics.  Parmenides was born approximately 515 b.c.e. in Elea, which is on the southern coast of what is now Italy.  Parmenides was alive, although he would have been elderly, in the time of Socrates, and although it is doubtful that Parmenides and Socrates ever actually met, Plato has a dialogue that is called The Parmenides.  Parmenides is said to have been both a student of Xenophanes, and loosely associated, possibly in his early years, with the Pythagoreans.  His writings, however, which were written in verse and are full of poetic images, are essentially a rejection of all that came before him, in terms of Western philosophical thought.  In one of Nigel Warburton’s wonderfully fascinating Philosophy Bites podcasts, Warburton interviews the philosopher Raymond Tallis, who claims that Parmenides is in fact the most important Western philosopher, and that, rather than all subsequent Western philosophy being a footnote to Plato (as Alfred North Whitehead famously said), Plato should be more properly considered one of the more interesting and significant footnotes to Parmenides.  Tallis maintains that Parmenides laid the groundwork for basically all subsequent Western thought.

Parmenides’ ideas were indeed a radical departure from his Presocratic forebears.  If Heraclitus’ vision was governed by change, flux, and fire, then Parmenides’ teachings were almost the polar opposite.  He is said to be the ultimate monist—that there is but one single, unchanging entity in the cosmos, and nothing else.  This position can be summarized thus: what is, is; and what is not, is not.  Parmenides writes,

The only ways of inquiry there are for thinking:
the one, that it is and that it is not possible for it ot to be,
is the path of Persuasion (for it attends upon Truth),
the other, that it is not and that it is necessary for it not to be.


That which is there to be spoken and thought of must be.
For it is possible for it to be,
but not possible for nothing to be.  I bid you consider this.

Parmenides believed that an entity could neither come into being, nor pass out of existence, because for an entity to come into being means that it must come from what it not, which Parmenides deems impossible.  Similarly, for an entity to pass out of being, or cease to exist, it must pass from what is, to what is not, which, again, is impossible.  To Parmenides, “what is not, is not,” meaning that the mere notion of what is not cannot be thought or comprehended.

So much can be said about the above passages that I can’t even begin to do them justice in this brief essay.  Suffice it to say that Parmenides laid out what is likely the first incontrovertible philosophical argument* in Western philosophy.  When discussing the existence of, say, a tree, one might argue the following.  Before a tree is planted, or is even a seed, the tree does not exist.  Therefore it is not.  While the tree is alive, the tree exists, or is.  After the tree is chopped down and burned as firewood, it no longer exists; therefore, it is not.  By this logic, one can, in fact, conceive “what is not.”  Parmenides would counter argue, however, that the above argument is invalid, as we would be allowing ourselves to be misled by sensory experience.  In the continuation of one of the above fragments, Parmenides says,

This I point out to you to be a path completely unlearnable,
for neither may you know that which is not (for it is not to be accomplished).

Thus, we return to the notion that all sensory information that we, as humans, experience, comprises the sum total of our reality.  Reality is simply, what is.  Everything else is what is not, which is something that we cannot imagine.  It is essentially non-existence.

Furthermore, Parmenides believed that what is, is in fact indivisible; that what is is simply one single undivided and indivisible entity.  He writes,

Nor is it divided, since it all it is alike;
nor is it any more in any way, which would keep it from holding together,
or any less, but it is all full of what is.
Therefore, it is all continuous, for what is draws near to what is.

In other words, for what is to consist of more than one entity, the entities in question must be separated by what is not, which, per Parmenides, would be impossible.

On a final note, in classical logic, there are three classic laws of thought: The law of identity; The law of non-contradiction (or the law of contradiction); and The law of excluded middle.  Parmenides is said to have anticipated two of these three laws: The law of non-contradiction (that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time); and The law of excluded middle (that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is).

*On a side note about arguments, since I am writing this from a lay perspective, I need to define the term.  By “argument,” I do not mean the act of squabbling over whether or not what Parmenides had to say has merit.  Rather, I mean argument as a statement that provides evidence in support of a claim.


Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts.

Argument. (2012, April 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:29, April 29, 2012.

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Edmonds, David & Nigel Warburton.  Philosophy Bites.

Heraclitus. (2012, April 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:58, April 25, 2012.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Parmenides.

Law of thought. (2012, April 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:48, April 29, 2012.

Palmer, John, “Parmenides“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

The Presocratics Part III: Heraclitus

Ancient Greek thought becomes darker and more mysterious with the arrival of Heraclitus, who was born around 540 b.c.e. in Ephesus, which was also in ancient Ionia.  There is a much more substantial written record of Heraclitus’ works, including a passage which is thought to be the introduction to a book he wrote, On Nature, which is now lost.  Most of the existing writings of Heraclitus are in the form of epigrams or aphorisms—short sayings, such as, “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” which can have more than one meaning.  Probably due to the comparatively more vast quantity of extant fragments, Heraclitus comes across, at least to a lay reader such as myself, as a more challenging, sophisticated, and enigmatic thinker than his Presocratic predecessors.  Of course, this is also due to the nature of his writings, which are frequently obscure and paradoxical (he was known, in his time and after, as “The Riddler”).  His fragments have also been described as “oracular,” meaning that they resemble the oracle with their cryptic, elusive structure.

Much can be said about the writings of Heraclitus, so I will try to focus on a few passages, and what I believe to be the most salient points that Heraclitus tried to make, however obliquely.  A topic that frequently arises from discussions of Heraclitus is the “unity of opposites.”  This is the notion that opposites coincide or exist in conflict to make a cohesive whole.  The unity of opposites is exemplified in the following fragment.

The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fishes drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive.

Sea water as a single entity consists of two conflicting properties in opposition, yet comprising a whole: its life-sustaining properties (as regards fish) and its toxic properties (as regards man).  The previously discussed fragment, “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” also exemplifies this unity.  The passage does more than simply state the obvious—that a road that slopes uphill from one person’s perspective also slopes downhill from another’s.  Rather, Heraclitus is saying that a single entity—the road—is simultaneously two opposing things: a road that goes up and a road that comes down.  It is thus two seemingly conflicting properties that exist in opposition to one another to constitute a united whole.

Heraclitus believed in the concept of the universal truth.  He maintained that these truths were present in the form of a single logos (which means “word,” “account,” “measure,” or “reason,” among other possible meanings/translations), but that the common person, or perhaps mankind, as a whole, is not necessarily able to see or understand this logos.  It is only through reflection, contemplation, and thought that individuals can glean these universal truths.  It seems to me that Heraclitus used his aphorisms as a means to express hidden truths about the world in an abstract manner in an effort to cause his listeners to pause and reflect on his words, and in turn, understand the logos.  This is expressed in Heraclitus’ fragment that, “An unapparent connection is stronger than an apparent one.”  Furthermore, he says that, “The soul has a self-increasing logos,” which seems to imply that human beings are born with an innate ability to understand the logos, which increases as universal truths are systematically understood.

Regarding “common man,” Heraclitus’ writings also feature a strain of elitism, as in the following aphorisms.

A fool is excited by every word.

Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to people if they have barbarian souls.

Uncomprehending when they have heard, they are like the deaf.  The saying describes them: though present they are absent.

One ought not to act and speak like people asleep.

And finally:

One person is ten thousand to me if he is best.

These fragments are indicative of an individual with little patience for the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the common man.  Heraclitus, if his writings are taken at face value, placed great value on wisdom, rational inquiry, and understanding, at the expense of a willingness to follow the herd, as it were.  His impatience or sorrow towards mankind’s predilection for ignorance and indifference is frequently expressed in later paintings and images of Heraclitus.  He is often depicted as a gloomy, black-clad philosopher wringing his hands above a globe, which represents mankind, and perhaps the negative aspects of the human condition.

I’d like to conclude with a final note about Heraclitus’ metaphysics.  The writings of the Milesians make it fairly explicit what these philosophers believed in terms of what constitutes the stuff of the cosmos, whether it is air, water, or “the indefinite.”  In keeping with his other fragments, Heraclitus expresses his understanding about the composition of the material world with some ambiguity.  He expressed a belief that fire is the life-giving stuff of the cosmos (hence, living organisms are warm, while they become cold when they die, and the “fire” no longer gives them life).  Another consensus among philosophers and historians is that movement has a particular significance in Heraclitus’ thought; that things are always in a state of flux, or change.  Take Heraclitus’ famous aphorism, “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow,” which is commonly paraphrased as, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  As the composition of the river is always changing, in the form of rapidly-flowing waters, the river is technically different from one moment to the next.  I find it appealing to consider this fragment in other terms as well: the experience of the world causes people to change from one moment to the next as well; therefore the “you” who steps into the river is different from the “you” who subsequently steps, again, into the same river.


Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts

Ancient Philosophy.  IEP archive.

Ancient Philosophy Now.  Heraclitus on BBC’s In Our Time.

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Heraclitus. (2012, April 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:58, April 25, 2012.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Heraclitus.

The Presocratics Part II: Xenophanes and Pythagoras

Xenophanes was born in Colophon, an ancient city in the region of Lydia, not far from Miletus, in approximately 570 b.c.e. He is said to have lived to a very old age, as he describes himself thus in his writings. Like the Milesians, very little is actually known about Xenophanes, save for the few remaining extant accounts. He wrote in verse rather than prose. Xenophanes is also said to have possibly been a teacher of Parmenides, a later Presocratic. Though many of the accounts of his work show Xenophanes concerning himself with matters of theology and ancient Greek religion, he rejected the previous generally accepted accounts of the gods found in the work of Homer and Hesiod, and advocated a less anthropomorphic view of them. He says that the Thracians believed that the gods were blue-eyed and red-haired, and that the Ethiopians ascribed dark skin to their gods. He faults mortal men for describing the gods as wearing clothes, squabbling, fighting amongst one another, and exhibiting generally unsavory human weaknesses. Xenophanes believed that the early accounts were merely “forgeries,” and fabrications of the forefathers of the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, Xenophanes believed that there may have been but a single god—an entity wholly unlike mortals “in body or thought,” and that no man can even begin to understand the gods. He is supposed to have said that god is an all-seeing, all-thinking, all-hearing, unmoving entity, who can shake all things simply by thinking. Xenophanes’ advocacy of a sort of monotheism was an interesting development in ancient Greek thought.

Though most of the writings attributed to Xenophanes deal with religion, he did concern himself with science and metaphysical issues. He is thought to have said that “all things that come into being are earth and water.” This is a curious remark that could indicate that he thought that earth and water are the two “stuffs” of the cosmos. In terms of science, Xenophanes also postulated about the origins of fossils, noting that fossils of shells have been found great distances from the sea, and that fossils of objects, such as laurel leaves, have been found buried in rock, deep underground.

An important distinction made by Xenophanes was the difference between knowing something to be absolutely true, and believing it. He asserted that mortal men simply have “belief” to rely on, and that belief merely “resembles the truth.”

Pythagoras was also born in approximately 570 b.c.e. in Samos, in the eastern Aegean Sea, but he eventually settled in Croton in southern Italy. Pythagoras is one of the least-known figures in ancient Western philosophy; in fact, he is said to have become more myth than man, so to speak, throughout the ages. While he probably did not invent the Pythagorean theorem, Pythagoras and his followers were highly concerned with numbers and order. Pythagoras was also an early proponent of the theory of transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation. He was mocked by contemporaries, notably Xenophanes, for this belief. It has been suggested, however, that Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation was in fact crucial to his philosophy, and that of his followers, in that it introduced the concept of dualism, which implies a distinction between the body and the soul.

Pythagoras’ followers, the Pythagoreans, eventually split into two groups, the akousmatikoi and the mathematikoi. This split probably occurred after Pythagoras’ death. The akousmatikoi were the branch of the Pythagoreans more concerned with ethics and religion, while the mathematekoi were more concerned with Pythagoras’ philosophical teachings and scientific endeavors, particularly mathematics and astronomy. Pythagoras supposedly spent some time in Egypt in his early years where he may have accumulated some knowledge of mathematics, for which he eventually found many applications—such as the relationship of notes in musical composition. By and large, the Pythagoreans emphasized numbers and mathematics as a way of finding and creating order in the universe and everyday life. Rather than trying to discern what substance comprised the stuff of the cosmos, which drove the ideas of the Milesians, the Pythagoreans were primarily concerned with the structure, order, and form of the world, and perhaps the greater cosmos.


Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

The Presocratics Part I: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes

Very little is known about the Presocratics, the loosely-defined group of ancient philosophers who, as one might imagine, predated Socrates and Plato.  The writings and alleged ideas of these philosophers are fragmentary, consisting mainly of anecdotal evidence from later philosophers and historians.  Many of these accounts may not even be entirely accurate, and much of the accounts themselves has been lost through the ages.  But what exists hopefully gives us a general idea of what the Presocratics believed, and stands as a testament of the movement away from the theological (as it relates to the ancient Greek gods) accounts of history, mankind, and the nature of things, towards argument, critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and metaphysical questions.

The first Presocratics came from Miletus, an ancient city in the greater region of Ionia, which is now the Western coast of Turkey.  Thales, who is thought to have been born in 625 b.c.e., is the earliest known Presocratic philosopher, and as such, is the first Western philosopher.  The ideas of Thales probably sounded as bizarre in Seventh Century Ionia as they do now.  He believed that water is the basic stuff of the universe, and that the earth floats on water.  He believed that the soul produces motion, and that since magnets move iron, then magnets must have a soul.  He is also said to have predicted a solar eclipse in 585 b.c.e.  While this is an extremely brief summary and oversimplification of what Thales believed, it is also basically all we know of Thales ideas.  However absurd they might seem upon initial reflection, they represent the earliest ideas about the physical properties of the cosmos without taking ancient Greek mythology and theology into account as explanations of natural phenomena.

Anaximander comes next in line as the second Milesian Presocratic philosopher.  He is thought to have been a pupil of Thales and is also said to be the the first individual to create a map of the world.  Anaximander also shares Thales’ belief in “material monism,” the idea that the cosmos is comprised of one single material stuff.  Significantly, Anaximander believed that water could not be the stuff of the cosmos, because water has its own unique character–its “wateriness.”  Rather, he believed that the stuff of the cosmos is indefinite or boundless (apeiron).  This indefinite “stuff” somehow gives rise to hot (fire) and cold (dark mist); furthermore, it is also always in motion.

The third and final Milesian Presocratic philosopher is Anaximenes, who was thought to be a pupil of Anaximander.  Anaximines also advocated the belief in material monism.  He believed that air was the stuff of the cosmos, and that it was also boundless (but not indefinite).  Anaximenes thought that air was transformed into all other substances in the universe through a vague process of condensation and rarefaction.

While each of these explanations is quite different from the others, they all represent an important turning point in the history of human ideas.  They represent the birth of metaphysics–the branch of philosophy that deals with understanding and explaining the fundamental nature of the world–the “essence” of things.  No longer would Homer and Hesiod’s accounts of the gods suffice as an explanation for how mankind and the world came into being.


Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts

Ancient Philosophy.  IEP archive

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Sevenoaks  School.  The Presocratics


At long last I have finally decided to undertake a project that has been in the making for many months, if not years.  My intention with this blog is to utilize the format (the blog itself) as an ongoing journal and exploration into the history of Western Philosophy, starting with the Presocratics.

By way of explaining my reasons for engaging in this academic endeavor, I will provide a little background about myself and my interests.  I am currently a stay-at-home parent and have previously worked in academia and finance.  I have no formal training in philosophy, so my entire approach to the questions and arguments of Western Philosophy will be that of the layman.  The questions of who we are, why we think the way we do, and the meaning of existence have always plagued me.  I enjoy literature and history and have read some philosophy at various points in my life.  My knowledge of philosophy, however, is spotty at best, and I hope that by starting at the “beginning,” as it were, and working my way forward chronologically I will gain many important insights about myself and the world, in addition to polishing up my critical thinking skills.

If I may be permitted a brief anecdote, several years ago I took a college course on contemporary literary theory.  One of the readings for the course was a brief excerpt from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.  I slogged my way through it, reading and re-reading passages, sometimes several times over.  I found it infuriating at the time, not because anything in the text was particularly offensive, but rather that Heidegger’s writing was so dense, abstract, and (to my mind) incomprehensible that I had a difficult time believing that the author’s intentions were anything other than perpetrating a sick joke upon the reader (a la The Sokal Hoax).  I have since then acquired a copy of Being and Time, and have read some secondary literature on the work.  Additionally, I have listened to several interesting podcasts on Heidegger, such as the wonderful philosophy website, The Partially Examined Life,  Hubert Dreyfus’ Berkeley lectures on Heidegger, and Sean Kelly’s Harvard lectures on Being and Time as well.  Admittedly, the work makes more sense to me now, but I don’t believe that it can be fully understood (if one is indeed capable of this at all) without first having a considerable understanding of the Western philosophical canon.  In a humble effort to one day achieve a modicum of fluency in the Western philosophical tradition, I present this blog as a record of my efforts.

On a side note, I have a long-standing interest in art, music, and film, and I hope to intersperse post pertaining to philosophy with the occasional rant and/or review of music, film, and the arts.  On that note, I wish to welcome you to my blog, thank you for joining me, and encourage comments and meaningful, substantive discourse.