The Birth of Philosophy

26.06.2020 |

Episode #1 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham


Hello! I’m Will Buckingham. Welcome to this short course on Ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a philosopher by training, and I’m interested in where ideas come from and why we think the way we do.

Over the next ten days, we are going to explore a few of the most fascinating and influential philosophers of all time, as well as the ancient roots of how many of us think about the world today.

Some of the Greek philosophers we will be looking at in this course are well-known, even more than 2,000 years after their death. Others may be more unfamiliar to you. But all of them have contributed to how we think now.


Greek Philosophy: One Tradition among Many

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek language. It literally means the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). In this view, a philosopher is somebody who cherishes wisdom, somebody who is in love with knowledge and hungers to understand things more deeply. The first philosopher who talked about philosophy as the love of wisdom was Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BCE.

Although the word “philosophy” is Greek, this desire to know and to understand is something that all human beings share. Although Greek philosophy forms an important philosophical tradition, it is not the only one. There are many traditions of philosophy, reflecting how people in different parts of the world have thought about and hungered after wisdom and truth, including China, Japan, India, Africa, and the Americas. In this course, we are focusing on Greek philosophy, but remember that it is only one tradition among many.


How Greek Philosophy Began

Greek philosophy began in the Mediterranean Greek-speaking world, around the 7th century BCE. The person who is usually identified as the first philosopher is Thales (c. 624-545 BCE). Thales came from the town of Miletus, on the coast of present-day Turkey. Miletus was once a busy trading town, and the trade routes of the ancient worlds were where people not only exchanged goods but also ideas. Miletus was a hub for both commerce and new ways of thinking about the world.

Thales is famous for asking a deceptively simple question that nobody had asked before. The world is full of billions of things, but Thales asked: What are these things made of? Is the world just one big chaos, or are there simpler patterns underpinning all this complexity?

With this question, Thales opened up an important split between appearance (how things seem to be) and reality (how they actually are), between surface complexity and the idea there is an underlying simplicity.


A Wet World?

The idea of a split between appearance and reality set off a race to find out what this underlying reality actually was. This race still goes on in contemporary science, where scientists seek out simpler principles behind complex phenomena.

From the point of view of the present day, the early answers to Thales’s question were not that convincing. Thales, for example, said that the underlying reality was water. The philosopher Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE) suggested that Thales came to this conclusion “from observing that everything derives its nourishment from what is moist.” Water is everywhere and is important for the processes of life and of change. Perhaps Thales was also thinking about how water changes and flows and how everything else seems to change and flow. This makes water a promising candidate for this underlying reality, even though Thales ultimately turned out to be wrong.

Not everybody agreed with Thales. Many other philosophers came along and suggested other first principles. A philosopher called Anaximenes (c. 586-526 BCE) said that everything was made of air. Empedocles (c. 494-434 BCE) came up with four fundamental principles: earth, air, fire, and water. The philosopher Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) hit it lucky with the idea that everything was made up of atoms and empty space—although it was well over 2,000 years before anybody managed to understand what an atom was.


The Natural Philosophers

In the ancient Greek world, these philosophers were all called physiologoi, or “natural philosophers.” Today, they are called the “presocratics” because they came before one of history’s most famous, most complex, and most troublesome philosophers, Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE).

In the next lesson, we’ll see why Socrates is so important and how he made the distinction between appearance and reality and used it to ask new, fascinating questions.


Recommended resources

• The BBC’s In Our Time has a show on the presocratics.

• One of the best introductions to the presocratics is Early Greek Philosophy by Jonathan Barnes.


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