Wednesday, November 21, 2018


André Laks, The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Translated by Glenn W. Most. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 137. ISBN 9780691175454. $29.95.

Reviewed by Nicolò Benzi, University of Manchester (

Version at BMCR home site


In this short but extremely rich volume, André Laks examines the origins of the concept of Presocratic philosophy by investigating both its ancient and modern roots. The task is of no minor importance, especially considering how the use of this label has an impact on our expectations about this period of Greek thought and thereby the ways to approach it. In fact, the notion of 'Presocratic philosophy' (or of the 'Presocratics') generates a series of issues that make one wonder even about its legitimacy. It is exactly these issues that Laks presents and analyses throughout the six chapters of his book, in which he skillfully and eruditely navigates the history of the term itself by considering the methodological and philosophical assumptions which have informed ancient and modern views on the beginnings of Greek philosophy.

In Chapter 1, 'Presocratics: Ancient Antecedents', Laks examines the ancient roots of the notion of 'Presocratics', by considering the ways in which the ancients characterized the break within the history of philosophy brought about by Socrates. Laks identifies two main perspectives, namely the Socratic-Ciceronian, according to which Socrates was responsible for the passage from the study of nature to the study of man, and the Platonic-Aristotelian, which sees in Socrates the turning point between the philosophy of things and the philosophy of the concept. These two perspectives are crucially different in that they characterize Socrates' discontinuity with previous speculation respectively in terms of content and method. Most significantly, a discontinuity in method downplays Socrates' rupture with the past, as it implies the belief in a shared philosophical enterprise with his predecessors. Laks observes that eventually it was the first model that prevailed, and so shaped the origins of the notion of 'Presocratic philosophy', as it informed the idea that philosophical speculation before Socrates could be identified, and thus named collectively, as a homogeneous and separate entity.

Chapter 2, 'Presocratics: The Modern Constellation', focuses on the birth of the notion of 'Presocratics' in modern times, starting from the end of the 19th century. In particular, Laks focuses on the pivotal importance of Nietzsche's works on the Presocratics, which liberated them from the teleological perspective that considers them as a preparation for the more developed phase of philosophical thought starting with Socrates. Indeed, such a perspective is one of the issues stemming from the adoption of term 'Presocratic', in addition to the doubts concerning the chronological accuracy of such designation. Despite these difficulties, Laks points out that the term is convenient since it marks Socrates as a turning point in the history of philosophical thought and that it indicates a group of thinkers whose works survive in fragments. Both reasons are disputable: on the one hand, besides taking for granted that Socrates represents a radical change from the past, the term 'Presocratic' is seen as suitable less for the group of thinkers it indicates than what comes afterwards; on the other hand, the fragmentary state of evidence, even if accepted as a criterion, would only justify the adoption of a common designation for these thinkers and not the term 'Presocratic' itself, not to mention that it would be necessary to identify the rationale behind the selection of certain fragments among others dating to the same period. Indeed, Laks himself is very cautious in making these reasons a solid basis for the adoption of the term.1

Chapter 3, 'Philosophy', evaluates the extent to which the Presocratics can be considered philosophers by examining the issue of the birth of philosophy as a discipline through the notion of 'differentiation', which Laks borrows from Spencer. First, Laks considers the differentiation between myth and reason (logos) and secondly that between scientific rationality and philosophical rationality. These are problematic issues that have been widely discussed in scholarship,2 but, by using the concept of 'differentiation' in combination with that of 'functionality', Laks makes a valuable contribution to the debate, which takes into account the complexities surrounding the emergence of philosophy and at the same time does justice to its specific character. Through an engaging analysis of the early occurrences of the term 'philosopher' and cognates, Laks shows that by the end of the 5th century BCE philosophy had come to be perceived as a specific intellectual activity characterized by totalization and argumentation, two parameters that apply to Presocratic speculation and thereby allow us to identify it as philosophy.3

In Chapter 4, 'Rationality', Laks focuses on the issue of the origins of Greek rationality. In particular, he examines Vernant's theory according to which Greek rationality, and specifically philosophy, should be traced to the advent of the polis.4 Even though Laks acknowledges the importance of Vernant's idea and approach, especially as it provides a solution in between the two extreme views—of a 'Greek miracle' on the one hand and complete continuity with the past on the other—he provides good objections against the idea that Greek rationality should be considered as intrinsically political.5 Notwithstanding that there are other extra-political factors that might explain the origins of rationality and philosophy, Laks points out that Vernant's approach makes it impossible to account for the heterogeneous nature of Greek philosophical speculation. In order to overcome such limitations, Laks resort to Weber's views on the emergence of Western rationality and his identification of different 'types' of rationality. Although the recourse to Weber's works is indeed fascinating and promising, I have the impression that the topic is too vast to be compressed in a few pages and a reader not familiar with Weber's thought might find it unclear at times. At any rate, Laks succeeds in showing that the answer to the question about the origins of Greek philosophy requires a comprehensive theoretical framework that reflects the complexity of the phenomenon it tries to explain.

In Chapter 5, 'Origins', Laks discusses the implications, both theoretical and methodological, of the term 'origins'. Due to its being often employed teleologically or in a normative sense, Laks evaluates whether it would be beneficial to adopt the term 'beginnings' instead, as has been proposed in scholarship.6 Laks acutely observes how the distinction between 'origins' and 'beginnings' is more blurred than one might expect and that, in fact, the problem of 'origins' or 'beginnings' is related to the wider one concerning the identification of what marks an historical epoch. As regards this point, Laks considers Blumenberg's notion of 'reference points',7 which can avoid the often misleading search for a fixed—and probably fictive—dividing-line between two different epochs. Despite praising the prudence of this approach, Laks seems reluctant to abandon the idea of 'origins'/'beginnings', as it would deprive crucial events in the history of thought of the importance they deserve. Thus, he proposes a third way based on the notion of 'authorization', which emphasises the active role of an individual or event in making something possible but without any normative implication.

Chapter 6, 'What is at stake', brings together the threads of discussion developed in the previous chapters by focusing on the opposing views on the Presocratics taken by Gadamer and Cassirer, with an explicit preference for the latter. In Laks' view, Gadamer's account of Presocratic philosophy, despite the laudable attempt to free it from the limits imposed by a teleological account, fails to provide a faithful image of the first philosophers as it minimises, if not completely excludes, the dialectical element characterising their speculation. Cassirer's approach is informed by the general category of development, which is seen as an expression of the self-discovery of the logos. Cassirer identifies four stages of development in Presocratic thought, each characterised, differently from Gadamer's view, by internal dialectic and a reaction to the preceding one. The idea that philosophy is a manifestation of the self-discovery of the logos enables Cassirer to account for the variety of interests in Presocratic speculation, which he sees as the manifestation of the act of thinking in the process of giving itself both its content and configuration.

Throughout the chapters, Laks' analysis is engaging and reveals an impressive command of both ancient sources and modern scholarship. The book offers an inexhaustible source of inspiration for further reflection and research, laying foundations for a renewed approach to the Presocratics. It is exactly the 'open' character of the work that makes it so important and fascinating: Laks does not provide definitive answers but rather indicates possible paths of enquiry and equips the reader with the essential tools for navigating the complex field of Presocratic studies. In this light, the book is not only an unmissable point of reference for scholars of early Greek philosophy, but also a study on how to deal with the methodological and interpretative issues relating to the use of historiographical categories. In conclusion, the book is a real pocket treasure that will not cease to instruct and engage readers, and, most importantly, to challenge their assumptions on the Presocratics and the origins of philosophy itself.


1.   In the recent Loeb volumes Early Greek Philosophy by Laks and Most, while the term 'Presocratic' is used very rarely, the fragmentary state of evidence is one of the criteria used by the authors, although they themselves acknowledge its looseness: cf. A. Laks and G. W. Most, Early Greek Philosophy, Volume I: Introductory and Reference Materials, Loeb Classical Library 524 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 6-7.
2.   See, for example, R. G. Buxton (ed.) From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); G. E. R. Lloyd, The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practice of Early Greek Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
3.   Even though these two parameters apply to Presocratic speculation, one wonders whether it is necessary to consider them together, as Laks seems to emphasize, especially when it comes to identify a philosophical fragment. Indeed, many of the fragments that we consider as philosophical do not contain arguments (see, for example, Heraclitus and Xenophanes).
4.   As argued in J.-P. Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought (London: Methuen, 1982).
5.   For another recent criticism of Vernant's position, see M. M. Sassi, Gli inizi della filosofia in Grecia (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2009), 108-10.
6.   In particular, Laks considers E. W. Said Beginnings: Intention and Method (London: Granta Books, 1997), and M. Idel, 'On Binary "Beginnings" Kabbalah-Scholarship' in G. Most (ed.) Historicization/Historisierung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001).
7.   As theorized in H. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.