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Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) [Paperback]

Catherine Osborne
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 April 2004 Very Short Introductions
This is a book about the invention of Western philosophy, and the first thinkers to explore ideas about the nature of reality, time, and the origin of the universe. It begins with the finding of the new papyrus fragment of Empedocles' poem, and uses the story of its discovery and interpretation to highlight the way our understanding of early philosophers is marked by their presentation in later sources. Generations of philosophers, both ancient and modern, have traced their inspiration back to the presocratics, even though we have very few of their writings left. In this book, Catherine Osborne invites her readers to dip their toes into the fragmentary remains of thinkers from Thales to Pythagoras, Heraclitus to Protagoras, to try to fill in the bits of a jigsaw that has been rejigged many times and in many different ways. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (22 April 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192840940
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192840943
  • Product Dimensions: 17.5 x 11.1 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 329,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

Catherine Osborne has been a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Norwich (since 2003), Reader in the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool from 2000 to 2003, and before that Reader in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Swansea. Her publications include Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy (1987) and Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love (1994), as well as the chapter on Heraclitus in the Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume 1 and many articles on a wide range of issues in Ancient Philosophy from the Presocratics to the Early Christian period.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By Peter Reeve VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
If you want to understand the origins of Western thought, whether science, philosophy or theology, then you must start with the Presocratics. Something very remarkable happened in the Greek world 2,600 years ago; the emergence of speculative intellectual enquiry and reasoned argument. Catherine Osborne provides a readable and lively introduction to these pioneer thinkers. She starts with an account of a discovery of a fragment written by Empedocles, to give the reader an insight into how scholars investigate these early philosophers and the difficulties they face interpreting such scant evidence. Then she proceeds to specific, selected topics and thinkers. So it is not a conventional, chronological account, although she incidentally provides that along the way. To this end, the map, timeline and pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book are extremely useful. If you want a more conventional - and more thorough - introduction, then try Early Greek Philosophy, by J Barnes.
Osborne's tone is occasionally very didactic, and she will sometimes ask a question and leave the reader to think of an answer, so that it feels very much like being in class. Her account of the Sophists is rather partisan (she doesn't seem to like them very much) and the reader should take it as a point of view rather than the last word. But overall, this is a great book, with an informative text and well-chosen illustrations. For many readers, this short account will tell them all they want to know about the beginnings of the Western intellectual tradition. Your next step is Plato and Aristotle.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Catherine Osborne, Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xviii + 144, incl. 28 illustrations, 2 tables and 1 map. ISBN 0-19-284094-0. UK6.99. Further details.
This book is one of a series of Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of topics. This short introduction is not the sort of terse summary that one might expect; it is surprisingly comprehensive and challenging. Osborne's approach might be a bit unsettling to anyone familiar with the traditional history of the Presocratics found in most textbooks. She contrasts the traditional approach, which she calls 'the first principles story' (p. 34), from the less unified but richer stories that she tells in this book. The traditional account derived from Aristotle, neat, focussed and philosophical, does not stand up to close historical or philosophical scrutiny. So instead of rehashing the historical approach, Osborne takes a topical approach, perhaps in part to break old habits. I found this move a bit unsettling at first, but it didn't take me long to decide that it not only works, but that it helped me to see old and often familiar ideas in a new light. Although Osborne's stories are not as neat as the traditional one, and are often open-ended and confusing, they provide much food for thought.
The nave reader should have little trouble engaging with Osborne's survey, though, if they are like me, they may keep checking the dates and map in the introduction to regain historical and geographical perspective. My own familiarity with the Presocratics is mostly from citations and quotations in modern works, supplemented by a few articles by acknowledged classicists.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What sort of introduction? 6 July 2007
Format:Paperback
Badly composed work. The choice has been to drop the reader directly into the subject, chronological order being disregarded, but the result is disappointing. Even the starting point in chapter 1 is irrelevant and messed up by technical peculiarities about deciphering a certain script puzzle relating to Empedocles. The flow of the project becomes frequently disturbed by own opinions on the philosophical story of each philosopher. The result is too much interpretation and too little amount of concrete facts from the sources -- the reader being uncapable of comprehending the true message from the philosopher in question. (Dealing with presocratic philosophy is a hard task because of the extremely scattered material). Even the words are hand-picked: The `world'(floating on water) is a diffuse substitution for `earth' as originally ascribed to Thales. Compared with other Very Short Introductions this one is a waste of money, so if you want a clear picture of the presocratic philosophers (not including the sophists) I recommend "Early Greek Philosophy" by Jonathan Barnes.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Useful Introduction 26 Jan 2012
By Keen Reader TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very useful little book (less than 150 pages). I've found the Very Short Introduction series to be extremely handy and useful and very reasonably available. They seem to be available on just about every topic under the sun and are well worth investigating. Concise yet complete information in a very approachable format, they make an introduction to a topic as obscure (to me) as presocratic philosophy very understandable and very much less mind-boggling than other more weighty volumes. This book does tend to leap about a bit, but you need to read the whole book to get the gist of the author's main themes. I paired this book with another Very Short Introduction book, Ancient Philosophy by Julia Annas, and also read Ancient Philosophy, by Anthony Kenny to get my background prepared for a paper on Ancient Philosophy this semester. Well worth reading for an interested reader.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Approaching the Presocratics from a Different Angle 24 Mar 2005
By Daniel R. Sanderman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
General Review of Book Series: I have to admit it: I am a fan of these little books. It's my dirty little secret. These short introductions provide one with a pocketsize, portable introduction to a wide variety of topics. With a light tone and a surface skim of the issues, these little guides provide one with the general overview one might expect in a small survey course. Naturally, there are downsides. Are these guides comprehensive? Heavens no! Do they take time to dig deeply into the issues? Not generally. But are they a good resource to use if you want to get your feet wet before you dive in? Yes. When used properly, these little guidebooks can allow what might start out as a casual curiosity to develop into a more in-depth research project. In fact, all of these introductions provide references and suggestions for further reading.

Catherine Osborne's _A Very Short Introduction to Presocratic Philosophy_ is another work, like Julia Annas's _Very Short Introduction to Ancient Philosophy_, that examines its subject matter topically rather than through a chronological account of the various thinkers who fall under this category. Osborne manages to pull it off splendidly, while still providing enough of a timeline in order to develop a sense for the history. Readers who were looking more for "thought summaries" in Annas's work will find it in this introduction, as her focused topic allows for this sort of interpretation.

Osborne's first chapter is dedicated to the process of finding fragmentary evidence and how it is assembled and interpreted by scholars. I found this chapter particularly helpful, especially since it manages to communicate the difficulties that surround Presocratic scholarship. Chapter two addresses what might be called the main thesis of her entire introduction. For a long time now, scholars have organized Presocratic thinkers into a timeline according to Aristotle's observation that they were all striving after first principles (early attempts at cosmology) until Parmenides. However, if we follow this line of reasoning, we become locked into only examining certain thinkers and dismissing much of what they have to say regarding their other philosophical interests. Thus, Osborne vows to chuck the "first principles story" out the window and to examine what other stories are lurking in the fragments of these ancient thinkers.

What follows are a series of topically based chapters, each essentially covering the diverse thought of various thinkers: Zeno; the examination of reality and appearance through Xenophanes, Melissus, and Anaxagoras; Heraclitus; Pythagora; and finally the sophists Protagoras and Gorgias. Osborne's writing is clear and she manages to provide engaging summaries of these thinkers and the wide range of their thought. Additionally, she has provided an excellent bibliography for anyone interested in following up on any one of these topics or thinkers. If you have an interest in Presocratic philosophy, or just want a refresher on what these thinkers had to say, you've come to the right place.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thought-provoking introduction to the Presocratics 28 Aug 2005
By Peter Reeve - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you want to understand the origins of Western thought, whether science, philosophy or theology, then you must start with the Presocratics. Something very remarkable happened in the Greek world 2,600 years ago; the emergence of speculative intellectual enquiry and reasoned argument. Catherine Osborne provides a readable and lively introduction to these pioneer thinkers. She starts with an account of a discovery of a fragment written by Empedocles, to give the reader an insight into how scholars investigate these early philosophers and the difficulties they face interpreting such scant evidence. Then she proceeds to specific, selected topics and thinkers. So it is not a conventional, chronological account, although she incidentally provides that along the way. To this end, the map, timeline and pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book are extremely useful. If you want a more conventional - and more thorough - introduction, then try Early Greek Philosophy, by J Barnes.

Osborne's tone is occasionally very didactic, and she will sometimes ask a question and leave the reader to think of an answer, so that it feels very much like being in class. Her account of the Sophists is rather partisan (she doesn't seem to like them very much) and the reader should take it as a point of view rather than the last word. But overall, this is a great book, with an informative text and well-chosen illustrations. For many readers, this short account will tell them all they want to know about the beginnings of the Western intellectual tradition. Your next step is Plato and Aristotle.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fair but indifferently organized 7 Feb 2013
By G. Mosley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The presocratics may be a rowdy, incompatible bunch. They certainly do not corral well. I cannot blame the author too much for organizing her book as she does, but it is. . . peculiar. Instead of chronological or thematic organization, she opts for a detective story's hook. In the guise of "investigating" Empedocles we go elsewhere and weave through the usual presentation of the pre-Socratics, the thematic arrangements, and the historical arrangements (and questions). By that point, nothing is sticking, and then we learn that Pythagoras is to be excluded!

It may be that the task is too great, but the organizational choices simply fail to cohere. It really is a valiant effort.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars highlighting the intellectual past 27 Mar 2013
By Teig Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Catherine Osborne does not only do a fine job expressing the ideas of the pre-Socratic philosophers, she lays out both the controversy and difficulty surrounding their interpretation.

I obtained a BA in philosophy from western Michigan in 2004 and besides that have read 2 or 3 other books on ancient philosophy. But it has been awhile since I have visited the pre-Socratic philosophers (perhaps since college!). Dr. Osborne tells the story of pre-Socratic philosophy from the position of ideas, or possible interpretations of their work, and not in a linear (historical) fashion. This is because, as she elegantly explains, the actual dating of these philosophers and their views are not all the clear. Like with so much ancient history, the evidence for particular dates is scant, and all information of these individuals comes down to us through other writers, sometimes hundreds of years later.

Did Parmenides really believe that change, that is movement, wasn't possible, because of his "reasoning" of how being cannot come from non-being, and any notion for non-being logically (necessarily) thrusts us into talk of being? Did Heraclitus really believe the world was all flux? Or have we interpreted his analogy to fire too strictly? Was Pythagorus really a vegetarian and did he actually create the famous theorem that has his name? What in the world were Empedocles poems saying?

We will probably never know. But there is always further evidence to uncover. Evidence that will continue to broaden our views of the ancient past, and how, through time, they have shaped our present. We may even renew old ideas, and see how classic insights and descriptions accurately describe are world, showing another way that the past stays with us.

Catherine Osborne does justice to the historical and intellectual pursuit of philosophy as well as to the reader, by opening the process of inquiry, as well as to the generally agreed upon opinions; maintaining a strong position of what I think is one of our most important virtues: critical, intellectual honesty.
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a Solid 5 Stars, but Better Than 4. 5 April 2014
By David Milliern - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
While I am not qualified to say whether this is the best hundred-ish-paged introduction to PreSocratic philosophy, because I have had very little exposure to PreSocratic philosophy or introductions to the subject, I can say that neophytes to the subject will find quite a bit of value in this text. Probably the thing that tickled me the most about the book was the initial discussion of where all of the PreSocratic texts derives. The painstaking task (i.e., puzzle) of putting together actual material fragments is absolutely fascinating. I suspect that this topic, the first chapter of the book, serves as the novelty for this Very Short Introduction (VSI). (Note: Based on reading many of the books in the VSI series, it appears that the editors are keen on making it so that each possesses a novelty, making them unique, and thus worth purchasing and having.) One thing that may turn readers off is that the philosophers are not isolated, as Osborne approaches topics instead.

As I said, I came in with very little knowledge of PreSocratics, but I felt that everyone, of whom I wanted to know a little something about, I did. Perhaps the one impressive point to make is that errors I have found in works such as Russell's and Copleston's histories of philosophy were avoided, giving me quite a bit of confidence in the information contained in the book. For instance, Copleston says that Heraclitus maintained that the Urstoff of the universe was fire; but, Heraclitus' fragments considered, this was most assuredly a metaphor. Catherine Osborne does well to make a point of this.

Overall, the book is intelligently written, its novelty makes it worth the time to read, and the text sustains a simplistic (in a good way) discussion and well-enough explicated ideas that I think this is a very good choice in text for high schoolers, undergrads, at-large intellectuals, and grad students outside of philosophy. It is an enjoyable, content-rich, and quick read.
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