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History of Science Ancient Egypt

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 3: Ancient Egyptian and Aegean science

The Presocratics: Introduction

| Presocratics Index | Intro | Thales | Anaximandros | Anaximenes | Herakleitos | Parmenides | Zenon | Melissos |
| Atomists: Leukippos and Demokritos | Anaxagoras | Empedokles | Significance of the Presocratics |

If we define physics as the study of matter and changes in matter, then we may search for its origins in a tradition of critical debate established by the presocratic natural philosophers who lived in early Greek colonies scattered, for the most part, around the Aegean Sea, before the time of Socrates. With the exception of the Pythagoreans, presocratic speculations in natural philosophy were distinct from the mathematical approach to interpreting nature we explored last week in the astronomy of ancient Mesopotamia and to which we will return again next week with Pythagoras and Plato. To appreciate the presocratics, we should keep in mind something of (i) the geography of the Aegean, (ii) their significance for the history of science, and (iii) their social and religious cultural contexts. This page touches briefly on each of these three topics in turn.

I. Geography

The twelve Greek city-states of Ionia, located in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey), were the original home of most presocratic philosophers we will consider here. The shores of the Aegean Sea include Greece on the west, a complex of islands to the south, Asia Minor on the east, and Macedonia on the north. The following map is provided by the Interactive Ancient Mediterranean. Like many maps, it refers to locations using their Latin names.

Note on Greek and Latin spelling of names: When Greek names were transliterated into Latin, there were many simple changes. For example, places ending in "-os" were changed to "-us"; "k" was changed to "c," and "ai" was changed to "ae." We will refer to the names in Greek so long as we are studying the Greeks themselves, but you should have little trouble identifying any location or person by its/their Latin name.

Locate the following towns on the map:

Athens, Delphi, Sparta
South islands:
Krete, Melos, Thera, Rhodos, Kos
Asia Minor:
Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ephesos, Samos, Miletos, Halicarnassos
North shore:

Click the map for a larger, print-quality pdf (copyright Interactive Ancient Mediterranean).

Aegean Sea; click for larger pdf

II. Significance for the history of science; or, Why study the Presocratics?

What is nature, and how is nature known?

Nature, physis: One of the most important concepts to consider as we explore these questions is the meaning of the word "nature," or in Greek, "physis." What did "physis" mean before the presocratics?

Homer (ca. 800 BC) described someone pulling up a weed to examine its physis, by which he meant its form. Xenophanes’ On the Art of Horsemanship advised the reader only to rub a horse down in the direction which the hair naturally (physin) grows. These two usages of "nature" or "natural" represent the typical pre-theoretical meaning of nature (physis) as "that which usually or regularly happens" during, or results from, a process of change. This is what the term "nature" meant before the presocratic natural philosophers (and later Aristotle) got hold of it and fundamentally changed its meaning.

We shall see next week that Aristotle made physis a technical term to refer to that which changes according to an internal principle. The growth of a tree is "natural" change because it is governed by the internal principle of the tree found initially in the seed. To transform a living tree into a wooden bed would not be natural change, but art (techne), where the principle of change is external (the craftsman) rather than internal (the seed). Those philosophers who study physis, that is, changes occurring according to an internal principle, Aristotle called physiologoi, or physicists.

Most of our knowledge of the origins of the abstract Greek debate about nature (physis), which became known as physics, depends upon Aristotle’s account (as related in two of his books, the Physics, Bk II, and Metaphysics, section A). Thus our historiography is liable to many of the dangers of anachronism commonly associated with retrospective explanations for a present state of affairs. Yet it was Aristotle’s regular practice when raising any question first to survey the opinions and arguments of others who had considered the given topic. This was his means of ensuring the comprehensiveness and thoroughness of his account, and it is the chief reason the fragments of the presocratics were preserved and have been studied from ancient Greece all the way up to today. It will be our task to appreciate the continuities he discerned between their endeavors and his own (and even up to modern physics), while also keeping in mind what Aristotle did not tell us about the religious and social contexts of the presocratics' own concerns. For example, if "nature" meant "that which regularly occurs," then how was nature understood as related to contemporaneous religion? This question was not at the heart of Aristotle's concern. We will return to this question below.

As we shall see, the presocratic natural philosophers articulated many of the fundamental questions of natural philosophy, or physics. They established the importance of debate over foundational scientific ideas. They initiated a long-standing debate on the meaning of “nature.” They demonstrated the power of knowing nature theoretically as well as empirically. Their focus on the problem of change in nature was particularly influential in shaping the views of Plato and Aristotle, and therefore of scientific traditions through the early modern period. And they created a framework of critical debate encompassing a wide range of various alternative options within which scientific theories could be developed. These theoretical alternatives included:

We shall explore each of these theoretical options in the following pages. Keep in mind that theoretical knowledge in science is often different from empirical knowledge. The presocratics were skeptical of observation, for the senses often deceive us. Therefore they relied upon intellectual argument, or theoretical activity, as the best way of knowing nature.

III. Contemporary social and religious cultural contexts

The scientific accomplishments we have explored for ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures were achieved in the context of powerful centralized states capable of marshalling resources and manpower for large collaborative projects, or builidng institutions to be staffed by elite priests. Not so with the presocratics. Perhaps the most obvious initial contrasts between the presocratics and the cultures we have looked at so far are the poleis (city states) and literacy:

  1. Polis. The Hellenic or early Greek culture was centered around the individual polis, or city state (pl. poleis). Some were ruled by dictators or tyrants, some by oligarchies or aristocracies, a few (notably Athens) were democracies. But regardless of their form of government, or the alliances any city might enter into with others for a given period of time, the individual city states were rivals. Similarly, the presocratic philosophers often worked in small schools or even alone, and traveled from one polis to another in search of rival philosophers to debate or of new pupils to recruit. The give-and-take character of the presocratics' public debate reflects the political structure and civic rivalry of the independent city states.
  2. Literacy. In the late second millennium B.C., the Phoenicians reduced the number of signs necessary for writing from about 300 (for syllabaries such as Mesopotamian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics) to a couple dozen signs for individual sounds (which in combination make up syllables). In other words, they invented the alphabet. However, they had signs only for consonants, leaving vowel sounds unexpressed. The Greeks then supplied specific signs for the vowels, creating an alphabet in the modern sense. The word alphabet may derive from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, aleph and bet, which are very similar to the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. However, the important point is that with such a small number of signs to learn, the alphabet made it possible for literacy to spread outside the confined circles of a highly educated and elite priestly caste. The spread of literacy in the Greek colonies by the time of the presocratics surely ranks as one of the most important factors underlying their endeavor and distinguishing it from that of the scribes of Egypt or Babylon.
  3. Religion. What about religion? We have seen that religious beliefs were pervasive in both ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, and that remarkable and sophisticated scientific accomplishments were achieved within their religious milieux, rather than in opposition to religion. One often-discussed question is how this may have changed with ancient Greek science:
    What was the basic character of presocratic science and to what extent did it distinguish itself from traditional Greek religious explanations of the world?

    For example, "Did the various presocratics distinguish themselves from their predecessors and contemporaries by dropping religion in favor of science or rational thought?" Many intellectuals answered the latter question with a resounding "Yes!" through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and this is the way the presocratics are often presented in introductions to the history of philosophy. Much can be said in defense of this interpretation. Yet in antiquity many writers viewed the presocratics' enterprise as fundamentally religious in character, and we shall see that the situation is considerably more complicated than any simple yes or no answer would suggest.

The traditional Greek gods, described in Homer and Hesiod's Theogony, for example, were anthropomorphic. That is, the Olympian gods and goddesses displayed human traits, all foibles, vanities and jealousies included, and seemed more like magnified humanity than divinity. By the time of the presocratics, movements to reform Greek religion were underway, perhaps most famously exemplified by Xenophanes of Kolophon (fl. 500 B.C.), who criticized both the anthropomorphism and polytheism of traditional Greek religion:

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)
...as they sang of numerous illicit divine deeds:
theft, adultery, and mutual deceit. (B12) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Xenophanes favored the idea of a supreme god instead:

One god greatest among gods and men,
not at all like mortals in body or in thought. (B23) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This monistic religious reform was an interesting movement away from polytheism that paralleled the presocratics' movement toward a monistic natural philosophy.

There were also external influences for monistic religious reform:

Indeed, the 600's B.C., the century immediately preceding the first of the presocratics, is often referred to as "the orientalizing period" because of the numerous cultural interactions between Greece, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia -- see, for example, Walter Burkert, Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (Harvard, 2004); and Heinrich von Staden, "Affinities and Elisions, Helen and Hellenocentrism," Isis, 1992, 83: 581-582.

As you read the following pages, ask yourself this question: Are presocratic theories best understood as a repudiation of all religion in favor of science, or as a reform movement advocating a more monistic or dualistic religious ethos against the polytheism and anthropomorphism of the Olympian gods? You make the call.

Before going on, review some important definitions:

Nature, physis That which changes in a regular manner (pre-philosophical); or by an internal principle (Aristotle). Example: Budding of a tree.
Art, Techne Change that results from an external principle; e.g., making a wooden bed.
Physiologoi Physicists, or natural philosophers; those who study physis or nature
Divine, or Arché (first principle) That on which all else depends, but which is not dependent upon anything else (i.e., it is self-sufficient)
Polytheism Multiple divinities
Anthropomorphism Divinities have human traits
Monism Belief in a single divinity (see divine), or first principle of all things
Dualism Belief in two opposed principles of all things; usually good and evil
Paganism A theory of reality in which the divine is within nature
Theism A theory of reality in which the divine is beyond nature
Pantheism A theory of reality in which the divine contains nature

We will conclude by briefly noting the last three definitions listed above. By the end of the course, we will encounter at least three different traditions of understanding reality (see the following figure). We have defined the "divine" as "That on which all else depends, but which is not dependent upon anything else (i.e., it is self-sufficient)." This week we will explore early attempts by the presocratic natural philosophers to identify some kind of divine first element as the cause of all things. In future weeks we will touch upon Plato's understanding of Forms, and Aristotle's search for the "natures" of things that cause them to change in an orderly fashion. For the purpose of this course, we will use the term "pagan" to refer to any understanding of reality that conceives the divine as a part of nature, or as contained within nature. The term pagan in this sense is not at all intended to be pejorative, but simply provides a useful term to contrast with theism and pantheism, which will be introduced in later weeks and need not concern us here. In theism, the divine is something other than nature, something that sustains nature but that also transcends or goes beyond nature. Pantheism, which we also need not discuss at this point, is the view of reality that sees nature as a part of the divine, contained within the divine. These terms for three different views of reality are summarized in the image below. Over the course of this semester, we will see that all three perspectives have contributed to the scientific tradition in various ways.

Caution: These terms are for heuristic purposes only. They are not value judgments. They are also not descriptions of specific religious movements, which were invariably far more complex and elude simple analytical categorization.


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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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