Further information on Winter 2020 courses


Perry Mason: Philosophy Before Socrates


Expanded description:

Most educated persons know that Western philosophy burst into full flower in the late fifth century and the fourth century BCE in the brilliant intellectual careers of Socrates (470-399), Plato (429-348), and Aristotle (384-22).  Less well known is that this blossoming was preceded by nearly two hundred years of serious, inventive philosophy in Greece.

In this course we will look at the philosophical perspectives, reasoning, and conclusions of the major thinkers of this two hundred year tradition.  None of their public writings has survived intact to our time.  Instead, we have only snippets, usually quotations or summaries in others’ writings about them, universally designated as “fragments.”  In their entirety, these fragments comprise fewer than 170 pages in the edition to be used in this course.  But in them we will find the first Western theories of matter, the first philosophical theology, an early theory of the evolution of life forms, and the first atomic theory of matter, as well as paradoxical arguments that motion, change, and even multiplicity are impossible in the real world.

In addition, we will find some strange, perhaps even bizarre theses.  For example, that everything in the universe is made of water, or that everything is always changing and nothing whatsoever is stable, or that everything is stable and change is a mere illusion.  Our aim will be to elucidate what these claims come to, what reasons were or may have been behind them, what implications they may have had, and how subsequent philosophers in this tradition dealt with them.


Course text

The fragments of the pre-Socratics are available in several inexpensive, useful translations.  To promote easy cross-referencing in discussion, the recommended edition is A Presocratics Reader, edited by Patricia Curd & Richard D. McKirahan, SECOND EDITION (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2011).  Using this version of the fragments, we will work through the pre-Socratic philosophical tradition in roughly chronological order.  “Working through” the material will consist of reading the texts in advance of class and then having structured discussions in class.  Lectures will be minimal—few and far between, short and (hopefully) sweet.


Schedule of classes (subject to modification)

  1. Introduction, Jan. 9

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. viii-xiii, 1-12

  1. Thales, Anaximander, & Anaximenes, Jan. 16

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 13-22

  1. Pythagoras & Xenophanes, Jan. 23

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 23-30, 31-38

  1. Heraclitus, Jan. 30

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 39-54

  1. Parmenides, Zeno, & Melissus, Feb. 6

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 55-65, 66-72, 127-31

  1. Anaxagoras & Empedocles, Feb. 13

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 73-100, 101-108

  1. Leucippus & Democritus, Feb. 20

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 109-26

  1. The Sophists, Feb. 27

                        Curd & McKirahan, pp. 144-6l