Pre-Socratics – PhilFri #2

When it was announced that I would be teaching philosophy at the high school, an older teacher joked, “Ah, philosophy! What is air?” As someone who spent some time studying philosophy, I wasn’t amused. There’s a lot more to it. First of all, how do you even know there’s air? My friend, L.T., use to say, “First off, homeboy.” Well, when discussing philosophy, at least here in the West, you have to start with the group known as the pre-Socratics. So . . . “First off, homeboy!”

How do you know what you [think] you know about the world? Is it only by what other people tell you or do you use your senses to figure things out? I bet you’re a sharp cookie and you’ve spent a lot of time constructing your view of reality, determining what is air, with your senses, but surely there’s something else to reality than just what you experience. Right? I mean, not to start a debate, but there are people who insist there is such a thing as climate change while there are others who deny it. One of the things deniers do is question what they’re being told.

When we think of pre-Socratics, we should think about climate change deniers . . . sort of.

The pre-Socratics were the philosophers who came before Socrates. Socrates, who you’ll learn more about in two weeks (and I know you can’t wait), pretty much was the start of philosophy, but he wasn’t the first philosopher. That honor, at least in the West, goes to Thales. This relates to climate change deniers in one way and one way only: questioning what the majority think is true.

So, what did these guys question? Everything. Including questions about air. In fact, I teach the pre-Socratics using Captain Planet. Let’s go ahead and tag this as nostalgic right now.

I am a child again, sitting cross-legged, eating some cereal on the carpet, being the remote

I love that Captain Planet is a hero because it tells us a little about Ancient Greece. Back then, heroes were important. When you think about the stories told thousands of years ago, you’ll see the emphasis placed on heroes. Think about, for example, Achilles. In fact, think about all of the Greek mythology and you’ll know what the people then believed. It was taken as fact. The questions philosophers started asking concerned this view of reality and how it may have been untrue.

I also like using Captain Planet because the admixture of humans and elements that go into bringing him into existence. The pre-Socratics also focused on the stuff that brought us into existence. Are we one thing? Are we many things? Are we mainly air? Water? Do we stay the same or do we change? How does something come from nothing? These are all questions you can ask kids these days and see their little brains start fabricating stories. They’ll just make shit up is what I’m saying. And I love that they do that. Like Captain Planet worked with kids, since adults are dolts, the pre-Socratics were like children, too. And why not? They had nothing but possibilities in front of them. So do we.

So, let’s run through them with quick Tweet-ready versions of their philosophies:

  • Thales: we’re all made of water
  • Pythagoras: we’re just numbers
  • Heraclitus: everything is in flux
  • Empedocles: we’re a mix of various elements
  • Democritus: we’re atoms and swerves

Now, let me admit to you, I’ve just went by memory and it could be shaky. I’m not about fronting like I know it all. I don’t. But we can dig deeper. I usually use triangulation to verify things. What does that mean? Three sources.

Here’s one source I use for quick reference: The Basics of Philosophy. Another source I use is The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Finally, I’ll try to get something from a textbook (I gave all of my philosophy textbooks away to my students). But, videos help, as well. I’ve included this process because I think we always see the final product and ignore the work that goes into it. I’m not Google. This isn’t easy.

Some of the books the San Antonio Public Library gave me this summer for planning

So, just like the pre-Socratics had to take some risks and mess up in front of others to jump-start the move from myth to knowledge, I want to reveal my messes to my readers, so they’ll see they can do everything I do and, often enough, do it better (listen to Syd’s podcast and tell me who taught speech classes).

So, while the story goes that Zeus and other gods are determining what happens to humans and nature, the pre-Socratic philosophers were looking for alternative explanations. You don’t have to believe everything you’re told and, in my opinion, you shouldn’t.

Thales, who was the first scientist and philosopher, did so by asking what we’re made of. Observing his surroundings, he came to the conclusion that it was water. I remember in elementary school learning about us being made of so much water, then seeing the globe, and thinking, we’re all little earths.

Little earths? Yes, little planets, each. Don’t laugh. Google, “we’re all planets” and see what you find.

This attempt to explain reality by finding out what it’s made of ended with Thales embracing materialism. We are material beings existing in a material world.

Not that type of material

We’re made of stuff! Substances! For Thales, it was water. For others, the one thing was air, fire, or earth. If they were about one thing, they were called monists. Not all of them believed that the universe was made of just one thing, though. Later, you’ll learn about substance dualism (you can look it up now).

Think about Thales and him thinking we’re just water. Isn’t that an amazing observation? That’s basically what these early philosophers and natural scientists tried to do. Instead of relying on myth, they looked at the world and said, “Based on what I’ve seen, this is what I think explains” whatever phenomenon they observed and pondered.

Heraclitus, who we always mention with a nod to rivers, discussed Logos. Think of this as like a command or an order in the universe. You could call it Word. I know whenever I think of Heraclitus, and remember Logos, I always think about my fascination with language and how we use it to make meaning and determine value. Whatever Logos was for Heraclitus, he saw our states as constantly changing. Can you step into the same river twice? When thinking about change, this brings in identity over time (are you the same person you were before you started reading this blog post?). So, Heraclitus also reminds me of The Ship of Theseus. His element was something like fire. A cosmic spark, maybe.

I have probably written too much, so I’ll leave this post behind. You probably don’t feel any better about philosophy right now. That’s okay. I’ve studied it and unless you talk about it or have a great memory, you’ll forget stuff.

What are you made of, though? I like the take of Empedocles: love and strife. Maybe it’ll remind you of Eastern philosophy.

If you noticed any mistakes, let me know.


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