12/04/2019

Pre-Socratics or First Philosophers?

"What did the man who devised the designation actually mean? In 1815, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the philosopher-theologian (and the superb translator of Plato), in an address “On the Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher,” declared that Socrates was pivotal in the history of philosophy. The reason seems a little underwhelming; it was that before him there were different schools of philosophy pursuing different kinds of philosophy, but after him, although the kinds were still distinguished, every school cultivated all kinds. Thus Schleiermacher is kindly crediting Socrates with preventing an incipient academic specialization. This view must have seemed plausible, because Schleiermacher’s label “Pre-Socratic” stuck and is now used for collections of texts without further comment.

Of course, the notion that Socrates was epochal, not as the human phenomenon of the Platonic dramas, but as a historical event, appears in the first history of philosophy, Book I and II of Aristotle’s Physics and again in Book I of the Metaphysics. In the latter, Socrates is presented as “busying himself with moral matters and not at all with the whole of nature [as did the preceding so-called “physicists”], however seeking in those matters the universal, and being first to fix his thinking on definitions” (I.6)—a far more epochal distinction than Schleiermacher’s. Here, too (I.5), he calls those who became “the Pre-Socratics” the “first wise men.” This description seems to me significant in two ways: First, it implies that they were not “lovers” of, here meaning “not in secure possession of,” wisdom, but that they were actually wise, and that delineates accurately the prevailing mode of the two I will single out in a moment. Second, it raises a question: In calling them the “first wise men,” does he just mean “earliest” or is there a hint that they studied “first things,” and were concerned with what Aristotle calls “the first [science]” or “first philosophy”?(VI.1)"