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Aristotle's criticism of presocratic philosophy

Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy - Harold F. Cherniss http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/118716606#comment_21562202

message 1: by AC Oct 04, 2010 11:08am
Please let me suggest, humbly, that you use Wedberg with great caution. This is a far more reliable introduction to the problem of Plato and the mathematics of the Early Academy.

Aristotle's picture is thoroughly distorted, and much of what is said about Aristotle's picture is itself distorted. If one is *really* serious about this topic of Plato and Aristotle, one has to read this book:
jmho, obviously

If you have access to a good university library, you will be able to find these --

There is also a very good one volume introduction to Ancient and Medieval philosophy (in 3 small fascicles) by Emile Brehier (English or French).

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message 2: by Leo - rated it 5 stars Oct 04, 2010 12:49pm
Thanks for the advice! I have just started reading Wedberg's book as it is part of the literature in a beginning philosophy course I'm taking. I had heard good things about it, and even though I've so far only read the first section (on early natural philosophy with only a few words on the stances of Plato and Aristotle on these matters), it seems to be very well written. I'm not very knowledgeable in these matter yet obviously, so I can't say anything about the reliability of the presentation, though it does seem that it is very much more pedagogical than other introductions to the history of philosophy I've come about.

As you don't go into more details about what is wrong about Wedberg's presentation, I can only speculate at the moment that it might have something to do with the author's exclusive focus on certain parts of philosophy (namely, philosophy of science and epistemology), which might paint an unfair and biased picture when comparing the early natural philosophers against Plato and Aristotle considering the former focused on the same subject area as the book whereas the latter seems more focused on other areas (at leasr that's my (understanding of the matter so far). Maybe you have some completely different form of criticism against Wedberg though. If so, please elaborate a bit, I always enjoy a bit of discussion.

Finally, I should note that I do also read "Filosofin genom tiderna" ("Philosophy through the ages" in english), a series of books in five volumes containing mostly fragments and excerpts of original texts from philosophers all the way from Thales through modern thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Donald Davidson and John Searle, with just a bit of commentary in the beginning of each section; as well as "A Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy" by Anthony Burgess at the same time. I have also previously read Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy". I know Russell's book has also gotten a lot of criticism (if I remember correctly, this was also, among other things, about his presentation of Aristotle), but I write this to point out that I do have several different sources of information on the subject I'm currently studying.

Furthermore, I'm trying to get a good overview at the moment and do not currently wish to delve to deeply into any specific area in depth. I will add the books you suggested to my wishlist though, in the hope that I'll have more time to look into them some time in the future.

Thanks again for taking the time to give me advice, I hope to continue our discussion!


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message 3: by AC Oct 04, 2010 05:39pm
OK…. the philological issues are a bit technical -- and philosophers generally get it wrong. But it's easy to explain.

I don't know anything about this book you're reading. Wedberg wrote a book on Plato's Mathematics -- that has had some influence in certain quarters (I don't know it very well) -- but this one you're reading is not an important book.

I can speak about some of these issues, however, with some authority.

The standard account of the Presocratics…

[The best treatment -- if you're looking for the standard account -- by FAR is John Burnet's Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed. - it is very accessible:
Burnet was a genius -- Burnet's text of Plato (the Greek text, I'm talking about) was a monumental achievement, and has not been surpassed.

But it's also worth calling your attention to vols. I and II of Gutherie's History of Greek Philosophy



Though the volumes are a bit fat -- they are very easy to read -- and Guthrie discusses the variant interpretations, with bibliography -- so that you'll get a good sense of the parameters of the debate. I have criticisms, but they are not important in this context.]

In any case… the standard account of the Presocratics is that:

they were looking for the primary stuff -- i.e., the matter -- out of which the material compounds are formed; and that Thales thought it was water; Anaximander, the Infinite (to apeiron); Anaximenes, Air; and Heraclitus, fire. Plato, then, was the first to recognize the importance of form -- while Aristotle's virtue was to realize that form and matter were BOTH required.

This account, present in nearly all the handbooks and in most of the secondary literature, derives from the so-called doxographical tradition collected in the Doxographi Graeci of Hermann Diels.

These ancient collections of the 'Opinions of the Ancients', of which there were three principle ones, all ultimately derive from Aëtius: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aetius_(.... The doxography of Aëtius was, in turn, a compilation -- with Stoic admixture - of material taken directly from the Physics of Theophrastus, Aristotle's star pupil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophra...), which ITSELF derives -- both in content and in language -- from the extant writings of Aristotle -- esp. bks I-II of the Physics, and Metaphysics Alpha.

None of this is controversial. This is all certain. Diels proved it. See, e.g.,


Most scholars (including Guthrie) take this material at face-value, but Harold Cherniss demonstrated, in fact, that the entire doxographical tradition is not only "derived" technically from Aristotle, but is thoroughly contaminated by Aristotelian material and thought -- in fact, that the whole account presupposes Aristotle's own conception of matter (as the ultimate substrate of all predication, itself deprived of all qualities), which is a very abstract notion and which could not have been -- and, in fact, was not -- in the minds of the early Presocratics (who remained thoroughly archaic). In fact, the whole account of Thales in particular is a fiction, since the pre-Aristotelian tradition connects him primarily with the tradition of the Seven Sages. Here's Cherniss' book:

In point of fact (if I can be so bold), the Presocratics were not concerned at all with the "ultimate stuff" -- but simply with 'process'. They looked about them, and saw a world of change and variation -- but it was change that was orderly and repetitive -- and it was this they sought to explain and understand in a naturalistic (non-mythological) fashion. No more, no less.

So nearly everything you'll read about the Presocratics is wrong.

Brehier, however, is very good -- brief - and avoids these common errors.

If you give me an email address, I'll send you a copy of one of Cherniss' papers (The Characteristics and Effects of Presocratic Philosophy), though you can also find it in his collected papers. Cherniss was anticipated in this by William A. Heidel, Shorey, and others.

One excellent monograph that well brings out this aspect of the Presocratics is

Diels, by the way, was a student of Hermann Usener (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usener) -- who was also Nietzsche's teacher. While Usener set Diels the task of working out the source criticism (Quellenforschung) of the doxographical tradition (see above), Nietzsche was set the task of working out the sources of the biographical tradition (Diogenese Laertius) -- but unfortunately, went and squandered his considerable talents on speculating…. (just kidding).

One other thing to beware of -- is anytime you hear the terms Orphism or Pythagoreanism -- in dealing with anything prior to, or contemporaneous with Plato -- or in connection with Plato himself -- just turn the page. It's all bullshit. There was no such thing. But to begin to make that case would require another long (and probably unwelcome) disquisition to set out the problematik.

Hope this helps.

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message 4: by howl of minerva Feb 03, 2013 02:02pm
Just stumbled across this old discussion. AC, why is anything dealing with Pythagoreanism prior or contemporaneous to Plato "bullshit"? As I understand (please correct me if I'm wrong) Pythagoras predates Plato by nigh on a century and his followers and thought were well known to Plato and influential on his own ideas.

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message 5: by AC Feb 03, 2013 06:18pm
Hi, Howl - I'm afraid I don't have the time to give this a proper answer just now -- My apologies. If it's something that is really important (for you or someone else), and you/they can be patient, I'll certainly do it. The short answer is that both the notion of a pre-Platonic Pythagoreanism (as advancing a certain abstract number-mysticism), as well as the notion of a pre-Platonic Orphism (as the source of a mystical philosophical religiosity/moral interpretation of sin, etc.) -- are both the result of Hellenistic sources retrojecting post-Platonic thought into the mists of legendary time. Hellenistic scholarship is notoriously unreliable.

(For Orphism, see I. Linforth's the Arts of Orpheus, where this point is proven beyond any question - nothing in the Derveni Papyrus overturns Linforth. The standard view, that 6th cen. Orphism really existed, is best given by Guthrie in his book on Orpheus).

What generally passes for Pythagoreanism is simply a number philosophy that appeared contemporaneously with Aristotle in the Early Academy around the time of Xenocrates, and which later writers then "put into the mouth" of the Master ('ipse dixit') himself. Aristotle himself, who is the source of many of these doctrines, is actually quite scrupluous, and says 'of Pythagoras himself, I know nothing; but there are these "so-called Pythagoreans" nowadays who hold that everything is number, and that, etc...' (The Hellenistic sources then take what Aristotle says - often verbatim -- and ascribe it to Pythagoras himself -- so its quite clear what's going on here....)

Paul Shorey says, somewhere, that when reading a book on Plato, whenever you come across the word "Pythagorean", it's time "to turn the page"....

That's good advice.

Even Walter Burkert -- for all his smarts -- can't avoid these simple traps (Lore and Science) -- and his attempts to salvage some of the fragments of Philoloaus should be rejected.

There are many false views that have entered the culture because of the errors or (sometimes outright) deceptions of Hellenistic scholars, and much of this material passed through the hands of Aristotle and Theophrastus (see above, on the Presocratics).

Hope this helps for now, anyway...

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message 6: by howl of minerva Feb 03, 2013 06:42pm
Thanks AC, that's plenty of food for thought. I had been interested in reading Burkert's Lore and Science. You think it's a waste of time? It seems you would argue that there is no Pythagoreanism, only a vague neo-Pythagoreanism which has little to do with P. himself. IS there anything worth reading on Pythagoras?

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message 7: by AC Feb 03, 2013 07:38pm
howl of minerva wrote: "Thanks AC, that's plenty of food for thought. I had been interested in reading Burkert's Lore and Science. You think it's a waste of time? It seems you would argue that there is no Pythagoreanism, ..."

Burkert's book is important - you should read it - but with some caution. His analysis is often superficially deep, and his conclusions, in my opinion, are just wrong. On Pythagoras, the complement to Linforth's book on Orphism was never written. And nowadays - and for a long time, indeed - everyone is gaga over mysticism. So it goes... But start with the papers of William Arthur Heidel dealing with Pythagoras - there are two in his Collected Papers (ed. L. Tarán, 1980) -- esp. the second: "The Pythagoreans and Greek Mathematics" (AJP, 1940 - remember, this is a field where the "newest thing" isn't necessarily the "best thing" -- Classical scholarship is not like detergent).

Also, there is an important book in German by H. Thomas, EPEKEINA (see H. Cherniss, Plato 1950-1957, Lustrum V, 50-52, for a small bibliographical essay; and for a sheer wealth of material (though I can't agree with his conclusions), R. Mondolfo's translation of E. Zeller = Zeller-Mondolfo, La Filolsofia dei Greci nel suo sviluppo storico (Part I, vol. 1). Mondolfo is a very important scholar - not only in classical philosophy, but it was Mondolfo who first first developed the humanist interpretation of Marx. He also wrote an important book on the problem/history of subjectivity in Antiquity, and also wrote on Vico.)

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message 8: by howl of minerva Feb 03, 2013 08:11pm
A lot to add to the reading list! Many thanks again. I wasn't aware of Zeller ("humility is endless..."). Seems it may have been time better spent than with Guthrie, though I did very much enjoy his writing.

A friend of mine is writing a thesis on the Orphic myths, but more from the p.o.v. of comparative literature and music than classical philology per se. I imagine he'd be keen to pick your brain at some point if you're amenable.

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message 9: by AC Feb 03, 2013 08:39pm
howl of minerva wrote: "A lot to add to the reading list! Many thanks again. I wasn't aware of Zeller ("humility is endless..."). Seems it may have been time better spent than with Guthrie, though I did very much enjoy hi..."

With zeller on the presocratics, you need Zeller-Nestle in German. That's Wilhelm Nestle. Much better than Guthrie, ... Except for the german part.... Ughh

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message 10: by howl of minerva Feb 03, 2013 09:11pm
Guthrie's prose is a marvel. I have a feeling some of the German philologists may not be such silky reads.

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message 11: by Randal Feb 04, 2013 06:25am
howl of minerva wrote: "IS there anything worth reading on Pythagoras? "

Think Like God by the "independent scholar" Arnold Hermann addresses Pythagoras and Parmenides. He is a Parmenidean and paints a somewhat ridiculous picture of Pythagoras, but the historical background seems good to me. At least a place to start. Bertrand Russell makes him into a charlatan, which may be fair. There are 40 pages on Pythagoras in Diogenes Laertius (Volume II in the Loeb) for comic relief.

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message 12: by howl of minerva Feb 04, 2013 07:25am
We clearly know little enough of Pythagoras and what we do know is hopelessly shrouded in myth, legend and third-hand report. I guess it comes down to whether you're a purist (as AC seems to be, quite reasonably) and will accept only what can be rigorously documented from reliable sources, or whether you will tolerate a degree of speculation on the basis of unsatisfactory and fragmentary data.

Whether a formal school of Pythagoras existed or not, I find the suggestion that many of the ideas classically associated with him influenced Plato, quite reasonable. Guthrie and others have drawn out the links between Pythagoras and Plato quite explicitly. I found it fairly convincing but of course it's not my area of expertise and I don't read Greek so I'm reliant on the experts...

I'm not sure how confidently one can assert that scholars like Guthrie and Burkert simply made "mistakes" or are talking "bullshit". There seems sufficient ground for legitimate difference of opinion.

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message 13: by AC Feb 04, 2013 07:30am
howl of minerva wrote: "We clearly know little enough of Pythagoras and what we do know is hopelessly shrouded in myth, legend and third-hand report. I guess it comes down to whether you're a purist (as AC seems to be, qu..."

Well, at least I don't pull any punches... Lol. Gotta give me that... ;-)

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message 14: by howl of minerva Feb 04, 2013 07:42am
Of course ;) I'm not sure poor doddery old Burkert and the ghost of Guthrie are upto such punches though, so I feel I should stick up for them a bit. I don't get the impression they're bad or stupid men (as I do with Paul Guyer in Kant studies, for example).

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message 15: by AC Feb 04, 2013 08:08am
Burkert is quite, quite brilliant and formidable, and can take care of himself in multiple languages and doesn't worry about the crankery of some fresh-water professor like me... So don't worry about him! As to Guthrie, I'm sure he was a very nice man and early on had a good memory and good training. But he lacks that instinct for the analytical jugular that is needed in this field.... Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and so this tolerance for weak links that someone like Guthrie is known for is even less workable in a field where there are so few links to be had. At any rate, the evidence that they are wrong on orphism is simply overwhelming, and Linforth is simply irrefutable. And there is LESS evidence for a pre-Platonic pythagoreanism than there is in the case of Orphism. But it has never been all brought together by a scholar of Linforth's calibre. And then Buerkery came along, with his great gifts, but his arrogance, and put down a big marker that suits the (anti-rationalist) temper of the times. Because, make no mistake..., the real thrust of ALL of this is the attempt to find an irrational basis for Platonism. It is all part of the attack, ultimately, on the Enlightenment. But this, admittedly, would ake us far afield. Anyway, my suggestion is to read Lore and Science, read *carefully* that little paper of Heidel I mentioned (it is short), and then read Cherniss' Riddle of the Early Academy (which is very readable, as they were his Sather lectures) and which deal with Xenocrates and the POST-Platonic soil of all this allegedly (without one DOT of pre-platonic evidence) pre-Platonic number philosophy. It is really not a difficult subject. Fwiw