38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Nelson Reed Kerr Jr.
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In common with so many of the other superb volumes in the Cambridge University "Companion" series, the latest addition to the line up contains scholarly information about philosophy before Plato that is both engaging and thorough. The editor has selected contributors whose names are well known within the field about which they write. Their articles neither patronize the neophyte, nor disappoint those whose learning is more advanced. After a survey of the field, discussions why the term "pre-Socratics" most often used with reference to the thinkers covered by this book is misleading and distorting, and a review of the sources of the writings (none of the original writings of these folk have survived the 2500 years that have intervened between their activity and the present) the book reviews the major fields of inquiry for the writers, and the writers themselves. Each of the articles brings new slants on old knowledge from which all but global experts will gain valuable information. There is also a superb listing of most of the literature about the period and about the scholarship on which our present understandings are based. There is no uniformity here: even at the beginning, perhaps especially at the beginning of the new endeavor that became philosophy there is a sense of excitement and discovery which the writers in this book enhance. Any student of Greek philosophy,even the most elementary survey course, will gain a lot of important knowledge from this book....
0 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Kindle Edition
GREAT REFERENCE WORK. MANY MORE SUCH REFERENCE BOOKS SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE, AND UNIVERSITY POST GRADUATE STUDENTS.
7 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Bruce P. Barten
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This mix of the views of modern professors on the first steps into a field which started growing wild explanations when writing was not common, covering some authors who are known mainly for what Aristotle and Plato thought of them, though Diogenes Laertius was the source of 65 passages also considered, now available in English with little need for study of the original language in which a love of wisdom seemed to be a high ideal proper for those who would like to teach, attempts to locate the major ideas which started growing in this field up to and beyond the time of Socrates without trying to define the meaning of philosophy for that particular individual. The scholarly division of labor makes it easy to suppose that knowledge in this field is sufficiently broad and diffuse enough to allow any student who specializes to become more of an expert than his teachers on some particular questions. The Index of Passages on pages 399-413 includes a range of authors, in addition to the listings for Plato and Aristotle which were so numerous I didn't count them. Undoubtedly this information will be helpful to students who are primarily concerned with learning what the professors of philosophy generally think about the Greek aspect of the roots of this tradition. Those who are more interested in lively questions about the nature of Socrates as an individual devoted to a more public practice of philosophy might be disappointed in the slight treatment he receives, compared to the more scholarly Greeks considered in this book.
The summary section, Lives and Writings of the Early Greek Philosophers on pages xvii-xxviii includes twenty major names, but not Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates. The twenty have life timelines on the Chronology on page xxix, but ten others, not all of whom were as late as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, are shown on page xxx. The reason for the split between those now considered truly great and the topics considered in this book was made explicit in the first chapter:
"Given the sources at our disposal and Socrates' remarkable afterlife, it would be irresponsible to treat him simply as one among other thinkers of the fifth century B.C. He must be viewed in association with Plato, and hence he is scarcely discussed in this book (but see Chapters 14-15)." (p. 6).
Just to acknowledge that some major figures are included in this book, the chapter titles mention the Pythagorean tradition, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, and the atomists. Professors from a number of countries have contributed to this book, but each seemed to be preoccupied with searching for explanations that might seem valid. Evidence that we have now learned a bit more about chaos than Aristotle could admit in his time is provided in the observation, "Aristotle (Phys. II.8) criticizes Empedocles for assigning too great a role to chance in the production of natural kinds, but in this Empedocles is closer to modern science than is Aristotle." (p. 161).
There is not much emphasis in this book on individual character of a kind that make Heraclitus, Socrates, Nietzsche, and Freud such monumental thinkers among Germans who wanted to attempt something great in poetry or philosophy. Perhaps the most psychological point is a note on Empedocles' claim that he has been treated like a god as "the claim so bizarre that he feels driven to assume that Empedocles is ironically criticizing those who adulate him excessively." (p. 361, n. 30, citing `Hermes' III (1983) pp. 170-79, with a title that appears to be in German.) Since thousands of years have passed, "To what extent Empedocles' claim that he is honoured as a god is realistic, to what extent wishful thinking, we may never know (though the former is likely to have been larger than some modern readers might expect); in any case, there is a lack of embarrassment in his acknowledgment of his divinity which no parallel hitherto cited from epic or mystery cults makes less remarkable. Not only does Empedocles tell us he is a god but he also explains elsewhere why he has been temporarily exiled from the gods so that he might come to speak to us . . ." (p. 355). A fragment designated DK 31 B112 in the Diels/Kranz numbering system used in the book, which was the beginning of the poem "Purifications" by Empedocles, clearly claims, "They follow me in their thousands, asking where lies the road to profit, some desiring prophecies, while others ask to hear the word of healing for every kind of illness, long transfixed by harsh pains." (p. 355).
As inspiring as some of the things in this book are, much seems odd. Those who believed in atoms were quick to argue, "for instance that the number of atomic shapes must be infinite, because there is no more reason for an atom to have one shape than another (Simplicius, In phys. 28.9-10)." (p. 183). Soon enough, philosophy produced "the distinction that Sextus immediately attributes to Democritus between `bastard' knowledge provided by the senses and the `genuine' knowledge provided by the intellect (B11)." (pp. 191-192). "As a result, if the senses are altogether unreliable, there are no reliable data on which to base the theory, so, as the senses say to the mind in B125, `Our overthrow is a fall for you.'" (p. 192). The attempt by Aristotle to sort out claims by Democritus "that either nothing is true, or it is unclear to us" (p. 194) is called "a very puzzling passage, for a number of reasons." (p. 194). Perhaps people with a higher level of expertise than mine can maintain an interest in these problems indefinitely.