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on 31 March 2004
Jonathan Barnes is an important exponent of Early Greek philosophy having written a classic two volume account of the field for specialists (and this is now available in a single volume). As well as being a scholar of classical Greek, he is an able analytical philosopher. This Penguin Book is therefore based on an extremely high level of scholarship and knowledge. Some modern philosophers (eg Nietszche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Popper) have advocated 'a return to the pre-Socratics in order to re-direct the subject from the paths initiated by Plato and Aristotle. This book gives a lot of the original material in straight forward translations and offers good expostions of the ideas of this extraordinary group of ancient philsophers and their inter-relations. It is a valuable work as an introduction to some obscure and difficult ideas and shows how important these ideas were through their anticipation of and inadequacies in comparison with Plato and Aristotle. The main problem for the reader is in the problem of deciphering the continuity of thought in the original material quoted from alternating ancient sources.
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on 16 December 2010
Here is the situation - there were a whole lot of pre-socratic philosophers and we only have fragments of their writings. In some cases, we don't have any of the originals, only people commenting on the originals or even people commmenting on others' comments on the originals - and many of those commentaries are a couple of thousand years old. The texts were in ancient greek, and using a style and references that will be difficult to understand even with the best translator. The result is subject matter that is open to huge variations in interpretation and is never going to provide an easy read. This is not a book for the feint hearted, but given the contents I don't see how it can ever be a straightforward read without simplyfying the material to the point at which it ceases to reflect the orginal thinkers' intentions. There are some gems here, but there is also a lot which is simply impenetrable.

Barnes makes a very valiant attempt to present the material. There are other books if you want interpretations and commentary (including one by Barnes) - this book never sets out to provide that. It is primarily a reference source and as such, it is actually pretty good. What difficulties there are, are largely a result of the original materials.
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on 16 September 2016
“Early Greek Philosophy” by Jonathan Barnes is an overview of the surviving texts (fragments), ideas and lives of the earliest known Western Philosophers. More scientist than philosopher, these 6th century BC “Pre-Socratics” came from all over the Greek world and were the intellectual giants of their times.

Starting with Thales of Miletus, the writer has given each philosopher his own stand-alone chapter, discussing all the available textual sources. The ideas, the logic and meanings are not always easy to understand, but Barnes’ introduction and excellent explanatory notes make this a joy to read and a good reference source. The result is a good introduction to the sources of Western philosophy ranging from Thales, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Xenophanes and Zeno, to Parmenides, Heraclites, Anaximander, Democritus and Empedocles. I was astonished by the originality, sophistication, and exoticism of their thinking, covering topics as varied as atomism, physics, cosmology, evolution, theology and epistemology.

Their ideas and characters are never far away in Plato’s Socrates. He is either building on or criticising them, as happens for instance in "Theaetetus (Classics)". “Early Greek Philosophy” is therefore essential reading for understanding Socrates and Plato and placing them in the wider context of the early Western philosophy and civilization. Finally, listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast and reading his accompanying book, "Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1" will add further understanding and enjoyment of classical philosophy in general and the pre-Socratics in particular.
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on 20 January 2013
In this book, Barnes presents an insightful and scholarly account of the different views of the philosophers which preceded the Athenian trio. These works range from the predecessors of Greek philosophy to Diogenes of Apollonia, including many of the greatest thinkers of the era.
What is truly refreshing about this work is the citation of actual fragments of work from ancient philosophers, something which has been curiously lacking in the histories of philosophy. The presentation of, arguably, verbatim material gives the reader a greater understanding of the Greeks with whom they engage and allows for the construction of a true 'feel' of the philosophy.
The selection within this work is also generous, whilst the majority of the work is concerned with the more plentiful fragments of major names such as Empedocles and Democritus, there is also mention of smaller intermediaries and commentaries on periods of time. These give the work a distinct charm and offer a more complete view of the development of the history of ancient Greek thought.
Another great facet of this book is the scholarly nature of the writing, the authenticity of which is rare in philosophy books and once again provides another dimension to the reading.
However, there are a few issues which this book encounters. Firstly, and inevitably, there is a confusing use of notation and text style in this work. These are necessary to differentiate between Barnes, commentator and actual Greek philosopher, but nonetheless it can prove troublesome. Furthermore, there is a lack of a concluding section. Whilst this is obviously not a tremendous injustice, Barnes' writing would have been a useful resolution to the book.
Overall, this is a great product and one I would thoroughly recommend.
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on 24 October 2013
The introduction particularly is wonderful and the treatment of the subject fulsome. A great introduction to the early thinkers who shape our perception of the world.
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on 10 August 2014
This is, amazingly, a page turner. Barnes manages to give access to the awakening of the Western intellect 2.500 years ago. It is easy to read the book from cover to cover, and it is equally easy to skip the parts that don't attract you as much - without losing the plot. Most of all, Barnes conveys his own passion for how the Western mind awakened from its slumber, and how all these great philosophers were woefully primitive in one way, and amazingly sophisticated in another way - they actually were the first ones to start to wonder, ponder and claim bright ideas, opening the gates to what we now take for granted. This book fills you with awe at how far we've come in the mean time - and also the amazing fact that for whatever reason, human beings had a collective, irresistible intellectual awakening around 2.500 years ago.
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on 25 June 2014
This is an intriguing collection of Greek philosophy, which I can highly recommend for its entertaining accounts of muddled geniuses and their extant writings. I particularly enjoyed the section on Pythagoras, with the laugh-out-loud stories of limbs made of gold and weeping reincarnated warriors.
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on 30 April 2010
This book contains FRAGMENTARY excerpts of all the great philosophers that pre-date the masterful Plato and Aristotle. As with much of Greek tragedy and history, unfortunately, we do not have complete works but the parts we do have give us an interesting look into the minds of people that lived two and a half thousand years ago. Though the ideas are in some places made a little nebulous by the incomplete nature of the material presented, one is always rewarded and challenged by the concepts and logic of these quite extraordinarily sophisticated (pun not intended) people.
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on 26 February 2015
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on 28 December 2010
A lot of books I read use this as a source for their work, thus I was really pleased to get it, it is a little shorter than expected. I have skipped through in the last couple of days and I am really pleased with it, just what I needed.
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