There is some confusion surrounding this difficult, studied, and rather idiosyncratic masterpiece by a brilliant, post-modern generation, scholar of classical philosophy, and, for a quarter century, Fellow of Balliol College. This book was written early on in Barnes' career, preceding what many feel to be his definitive translation of Aristotle. Few are as schooled and as good in both Greek and Logic as Barnes, and his talents are on full display here. The book is well-written as one would expect, yet regularly delves into technical analysis which is nearly impossible for the general audience (for whom the Presocratics still hold great interest) to penetrate. One of the highpoints of the book for me is his translation of Parmendes' arguments into modal propositional form. Not that it didn't take me a number of readings (over nearly two decades) to come to grips with what Barnes is saying; I did, however, eventually come away with a deeper understanding of those most gnomic of primordial philosophic utterances.
Some explanation to the prospective reader is in order, re: what Barnes' objectives in writing this book were. First, The Arguments of the Philosophers, a project edited by that most foursquare of contemporary academic philosophers, Ted Honderich, is not, at least in the volumes I have looked into, light reading. They involve deep, more or less, technical analyses of the arguments of these thinkers. They do not provide much in the way of historical/cultural context. We're talking epistemology, logic, language analysis, folks, and lots of it. Barnes' early contribution to this illustrious series is in line with its general objectives. In his introduction, he writes, "[the book]. . . was never intended to supply a comprehensive account [or cultural history] of early Greek thought ... my aim was . . . modest: I proposed to analyse some of the arguments of some of the early Greek thinkers; and in doing so I hoped to help celebrate the characteristic rationality of Greek thought."
As Barnes begins the text, he claims: "Logic is a Greek discovery. The laws of thought were first observed in ancient Greece; and they were first articulated and codified in Aristotle's 'Analytics'. Modern logicians surpass Aristotle in the scope of their enquiries and in the technical virtuosity of their style; but for the elegance of conception and rigour of their thought he is their peer, and in all things their intellectual father." And a bit further on: "The Presocratic philosophers had one common characteristic of supreme importance: they were rational . . ." This idea then, the earliest development of rational argument in the Occident, the primal attempts to "self-consciously . . . subordinate assertion to argument and dogma to logic. . .", the book eloquently traces.
Now, there is an exciting strain of scholarship which has emerged of late, notably in the work of Kingsley and McEvilley, disputing the viability of the very traditional approach taken here, on the basis of philological, historical, theological, mythological and geographical reconstruction. Can we properly arrive at the meaning of what the ancients were saying, perceived from the narrow lense of 20th century analytic semantics and logic? And there is no doubt that Barnes abides by what we might call Aristotilean assumptions. But he admits the narrowness of his focus, and that, I think, is one of the strengths of this text, despite serious revisions in our interpretation of what was actually said in that remote era. The fact remains that Parmenides' arguments were founded (as we have them) in logic - and the strength of his deduction (as we measure it) proves to be the turning point in the way we perceive the arguments of his forbears and his descendents.
On the downside, the book is at times an over-the-top Anglo-analytic response to Heideggerian, and other philologically-based analyses. Barnes was a student of the great G.E.O. Owen. Owen's views are provocative, often iconoclastic, and are expanded in this book. One might get the idea that Herakleitos was essentially a monist, and Paramenides, well, not necessarily, or something like that. These speculations make us think, and we can thank Barnes for his efforts to flesh out the arguments, fragmentary as the texts are. Herakleitos did cope with the inherited monistic outlook of some of his prominent forbears and did claim an 'arche' in fire. But does that make him a monist? I don't think Barnes sees him as one, or intends for us to - but the reading here is thick enough to confuse all but the most patient.
Finally, a prospective philosophy major once asked me which is the better book to buy for an overview of the era: Guthrie (Vols 1 & 2) or Barnes? My response was Guthrie, by all means! Barnes, while he opposes Guthrie's ultimate readings of a number of the Presocratics (as more famously did his mentor, Owen), pays homage to him throughout the work. The truth is, Barnes cannot approximate the comprehensiveness of Guthrie. However, his painstaking analtyic depth is singular and invaluable. His focus on the emergence of rational argument in Greece as a single thread is unrivalled. Nor can we fault Barnes, as selective as he is at times, for the degree of breadth he gives us, particularly in a convenient one volume format. Every major argument of the era is at least discussed. There is a neat section on the Sophists and their impact on the stream of Presocratic thought, overlooked in most studies of the period. There is also a useful timeline on page 593. Again, it must be noted that his work on the Eleatics and the fate of their intellectual legacy is among the most careful and deeply thought that the reader will find.