In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Presocratic Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographic Resources
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Journals
  • Source Criticism
  • Topics in Presocratic Thought
  • Origin of Greek Philosophy
  • The Nature of Presocratic Philosophy
  • Cosmology
  • Theology
  • Sensation, Perception, Cognition, and Epistemology
  • Concept Studies

Classics Presocratic Philosophy
Richard D. McKirahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0147


The word “Presocratic” was invented in the 19th century CE and does not represent a category recognized in antiquity. The expression “Presocratic philosophy” is misleading: first, because some “Presocratics” were Socrates’ contemporaries, some of them surviving him by decades, and second, because they did not call themselves philosophers and because the fields of inquiry they practiced extend far beyond what we think of as philosophy. Nevertheless, the label “Presocratic” is commonly applied to the intellectual figures of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE (and a few that lived into the 4th) who dwelt in the Greek-speaking lands from what is now coastal Turkey to Sicily and who are included in this bibliography. Evidence of the influence of Presocratic thought on other areas of culture than philosophy is found in texts ranging from historical and rhetorical works to tragedy and comedy and beyond, to the Hippocratic medical writings and the Derveni Papyrus. Since no original texts of the Presocratics survive entirely, our knowledge of them is based on quotations (“fragments”) from their works and on reports (“testimonia”) about their views, lives, and writings in other authors whose works have been transmitted. Presocratic philosophy is the earliest phase of Greek philosophy; Plato and Aristotle were strongly influenced by the Presocratics and recognized them as their intellectual predecessors. The subsequent interest in the Presocratics in antiquity and in consequence our knowledge of them is largely due to Aristotle. In more recent times, systematic study of them began in the 19th century. Diels’s Doxographi Graeci (Diels 1879, cited under Source Criticism) for the first time permitted a rational reconstruction of much of the testimonial material, and Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Diels and Kranz 1952, cited under Collections of Source Materials; first published in 1903) provided a collection of fragments and testimonia that brought the study of the Presocratics within the range of students and nonspecialist scholars of philosophy, classics, and the history of science. The study of “Presocratic philosophy” has traditionally extended to more subjects than we commonly consider philosophical. It includes topics not only in method, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, cognition, cosmology, and “psychology”—here meaning views about the nature of the psuchē (frequently translated “soul”)—but also examines connections with science and mathematics, and a variety of social practices. Recently this tendency has further expanded to include religious and mystical beliefs and practices, while by no means excluding the philosophical and scientific aspects of Presocratic thought, which remain the dominant topics of research.

General Overviews

Many books on Presocratic philosophy cover the field chronologically, taking each philosopher (or group of philosophers) in turn; some of these (including Burnet 1930; Kirk, et al. 1983; and McKirahan 2011) contain large numbers of fragments and testimonia in translation (some give the original text as well) together with discussion and interpretation. Others (including Barnes 2001 and Waterfield 2000, both cited under Collections of Source Materials) consist mainly of translations, while Warren 2007 is mainly discussion and interpretation, with few texts quoted. Guthrie 1962–1965 is the first two volumes of the six-volume History of Greek philosophy, which although showing its age is still excellent for providing an overall picture of the Presocratics and their period. Taylor 1997, Long 1999, and Curd and Graham 2008 contain essays by leading scholars that cover the entire Presocratic period.

  • Burnet, J. 1930. Early Greek philosophy. 4th ed. London: Black.

    This celebrated history of Presocratic philosophy, influenced by Tannery 1930 (cited under Science), overturned the Hegelian tradition of the history of philosophy. It situates the Presocratic thought outside of any reference to religion and keeps its distance from the thesis of oriental influence, and it puts its emphasis on philosophy of nature.

  • Curd, P., and D. Graham, eds. 2008. The Oxford handbook of Presocratic philosophy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195146875.001.0001

    Essays by leading scholars on specific issues treated by the major Presocratics and on the topics of medicine, cosmology, explanation, epistemology, and theology. The essays are intended for upper-level students and specialists and are not simply overviews.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1962–1965. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 1, Earlier Presocratics and Pythagoreans. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive history of Presocratic thought. For each philosopher a detailed analysis of the biographical data, lists of writings, and doctrines with critical examination of ancient texts and modern interpretations. Volume 1 covers Thales through Heraclitus and the Pythagoreans. Volume 2 (1965) treats the later Presocratics from Parmenides through the Atomists.

  • Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. 1983. The Presocratic philosophers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A famous history of Presocratic thought (known as “KRS,” which replaces “KR,” published in 1957) which foregrounds the interest of the first philosophers in explaining nature. Greek text and English translation of source materials are accompanied by critical commentary and an interpretation of the doctrines of the Presocratics.

  • Long, A. A., ed. 1999. The Cambridge companion to early Greek philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521441226

    Contains essays by leading scholars on major Presocratics and Sophists and on topics including theology, epistemology, sensation, medicine, cosmology, causality, and poetics. The essays are accessible to beginners but are also useful for advanced students and specialists.

  • McKirahan, R. D. 2011. Philosophy before Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

    First edition in 1994. A comprehensive selection of fragments and testimonia of the principal Presocratics and Sophists, translated into English and accompanied by an account of the thought of each of the philosophers covered and a discussion of the principal interpretive issues. The revised edition contains an appendix with translations of three Hippocratic writings and the Derveni Papyrus.

  • McKirahan, Richard D. 2012. Collections containing articles on Presocratic philosophy. Pomona Faculty Publications and Research Paper 93. Claremont, CA: Pomona College.

    This list of collections containing papers on Presocratic philosophy includes many of the sources included in the present article.

  • Taylor, C. C. W., ed. 1997. The Routledge history of philosophy. Vol. 1, From the beginnings to Plato. London and New York: Routledge.

    Contains essays on the principal Presocratics by leading scholars.

  • Warren, James. 2007. Presocratics: Natural philosophers before Socrates. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen.

    An excellent introduction to Presocratic philosophy with frequent references to conflicting interpretations and to recent challenges to older, widely accepted views.

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