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Ancient Greek cities on the west coast of what is now Turkey
Ancient Greek cities in southern Italy

As Vorsokratiker be since German Romanticism those Greek philosophers of antiquity called that before Socrates have worked (470-399. Chr.) Or his philosophy had not yet been affected. Western philosophy began with them. They lived in the period from about 600 to 350 BC. The centers of pre-Socratic philosophy were the Greek cities in western Asia Minor and in southern Italy .

Of the numerous writings of the pre-Socratics, not a single one has survived in its entirety. Almost everything that is known today about their lives and their teachings emerges from the writings of later ancient authors who either quote statements by pre-Socratics or summarize or criticize their teachings. The most important of these authors are Aristotle , who called the pre-Socratics “ natural scholars ” (Greek φυσικοί ), Theophrastus of Eresos , who in his teachings of the natural philosophers ( Φυσικῶν δόξαι ) presented the concepts of the pre-Socratics for the first time, and the historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertios .

A main theme of the pre-Socratics was the question of the origin of all things, of the archē , which they answered differently. Other subject areas were ethics , theology and political philosophy . Numerous pre-Socratics also practiced mathematics and natural sciences .

Concept history

In ancient times , the philosophers now called pre-Socratics were called "first philosophers" or "natural philosophers". The term “pre-Socratics” developed from the Latin term ante Socratem , which was used in the Middle Ages and is used by Nietzsche at the latest ; a “pre-Socratic philosophy” can be found as early as 1788. The reason for this concept formation was that the appearance of Socrates marked a radical turning point in the history of ancient philosophy ( Socratic turn ). This was already seen in ancient times; Well-known is Cicero's statement that Socrates brought philosophy from heaven to earth. In the 19th century, since Schleiermacher , the term pre-Socratics became common in research on the history of philosophy . It was finally established when Hermann Diels published The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics in 1903 .


The division of pre-Socratic philosophers into groups or schools is made by different historians of philosophy according to different criteria and therefore varies. A comprehensive list of the pre-Socratics and the people around them can be found at Hermann Diels.

Seven ways

The legendary Seven Sages of Greece can be seen as the predecessors of the pre-Socratics. It is a group of wise men who were mostly politicians and some scholars and philosophers. It is not clearly known who belonged to this group; over twenty names are mentioned in the sources. It is at least certain that Thales, traditionally regarded as the first philosopher, was one of them . Numerous sayings of wisdom have been passed down from the Seven Wise Men, such as “Know yourself” , “Honor the elderly”, “Be moderate”, “Know the right moment” and “Most are bad”.


The west coast of today's Turkey , then settled by Greeks, was the place of origin of Western philosophy. Since the 6th century BC BC Milesian philosophers began to place rational and scientific explanations next to the contemporary worldview shaped by myths and gods. The first philosopher, Thales, is said to have not only practiced mathematics , but also predicted a solar eclipse and tried to explain the floods of the Nile scientifically. In his report on the pre-Socratics, Aristotle comes to the fore that a final reason or first beginning of all things ( arche ) was sought. For Thales, “water” was the primary material, for his student Anaximander, however, it was the immaterial “unlimited” or “infinite” ( apeiron ). Anaximenes, the third prominent Milesian, put the "air" at the beginning. Within the history of philosophy, the Milesians are also referred to as "older Ionic natural philosophers ".


Pythagoras ( Herme , around 120)

Pythagoras of Samos founded in the 6th century BC Chr. In the Greek colony of Croton, today Crotone in southern Italy , the philosophical community of Pythagoreans that spread to other southern Italian Greek cities and also politically-operated. Unlike other pre-Socratics, the Pythagoreans did not look for a primordial material, but dealt with numbers and mathematical relationships, in which they saw the key to a comprehensive explanation of the world. In doing so, they assumed that the basic principles of the universe could be read off in terms of measure, number and proportion and thus became transparent. An example that is often cited is the sound of a vibrating string on a musical instrument. By changing the string length in mathematical proportions, harmonic changes in tone result. The Pythagoreans assumed that the opposites in the cosmos are held together by harmony. The relation of numbers to physical objects was ontologically understood differently in the Pythagorean tradition ; The spectrum of interpretations ranged from a determination of principle through the ratio of numbers to the view that the world actually consists of material numbers.

Pythagoras is considered to be the occidental founder of number theory and the discoverer of musical harmony . The story of Damon and Phintias , from which Schiller took the material for the surety , and the report that Plato, who had got into trouble at the court of the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse , owed the permission for the departure of an intervention by the Pythagorean Archytas of Taranto , illustrate the importance of friendship among the Pythagoreans. Pythagoreanism developed into one of the most influential figures in Greek thought. Pythagorean thought particularly influenced Plato and Euclid . Today's scientific description of the world using numbers and mathematical formulas has a forerunner here. It was Pythagoreans like Philolaos and Hiketas who were the first to adopt the Earth's rotation and reject the geocentric model of the universe then prevailing (albeit without replacing it with a heliocentric worldview ). Copernicus resorted to their views when he looked in ancient sources for evidence of an early rejection of the geocentric worldview.


Heraclitus , detailed view from Raphael's School of Athens (1510–1511)

With Heraclitus (* around 520 BC; † around 460 BC) the pre-Socratic philosophy reached its first climax. Born in Ephesus , he is formally counted among the Ionic philosophers. His way of thinking has been described as polar, dialectical and paradoxical. The words he has chosen have a “double-ended gravitation”. The literary fragments handed down from Heraclitus are sententia-like sentences that show themselves as gnomes . Taking into account his nickname "the dark one", which was already in use in ancient times, this suggests that Heraclitus used a kind of puzzle language.

Characteristic of his philosophy is the hidden unity of opposites, the identity in opposition. Heraclitus states that the same thing shows itself seamlessly as another, completely changes its aspects, or looks very different, even opposite. To make things clearer, he ties in his texts to temporal successions, in particular to sudden, abrupt changes in the phenomena. In Heraclitus' eyes, this shows that the other is always there, even without the change. He emphasizes the constitutive character of the opposing forces. Through these considerations, Heraclitus' gaze is directed both to the cosmos and its objects, as well as to man, his consciousness, his thinking and his language. According to Heraclitus, the constant change of becoming is based on the one and eternal law that he calls logos . It is actually what is constant. The “fire” is the actual symbol of this principle. It is not to be seen as a basic material, as in the older Ionic philosophy, but as the finest, the most spirit-like. It represents the universal structure of all being, ultimately the real riddle of thinking itself. Further symbols are the "lightning" for the sudden change, the "dispute" or "war" for the world principle of the tension between opposing forces and the "dream" for general misunderstanding. Overall, approaches to various philosophical disciplines follow from his basic ideas. Heraclitus did not establish its own school. His philosophy was already taken up in antiquity, for example by Kratylos , whom Plato heard, and has influenced later philosophers up to our time. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel , Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger particularly renewed the high esteem of his teaching .


Parmenides (Herme, 1st century)

The Eleaten, whose school was based in the ancient port city of Elea on the western Italian coast, were philosophers who advocated the doctrine of the unity and immutability of beings and denied the existence of multiplicity, movement and becoming. One of the defining contrasts in ancient philosophy was that between the teachings of the contemporaries Heraclitus and Parmenides . Parmenides considered all becoming to be illusory, the real world itself ( aletheia ) was for him and for the Eleatic school he founded an immortal and immutable being.

It is not known whether Parmenides and Heraclitus knew about each other. The Eleatic school also includes Zeno of Elea , who is best known for his paradoxes , and Melissus . The founding of the school is often mistakenly attributed to Xenophanes von Kolophon. Although he was in Elea, he is no longer counted among the Eleates today. Xenophanes is best known for his criticism of the gods of his contemporaries - he represented the concept of a supreme, non- anthropomorphic god without denying the existence of subordinate gods ( henotheism , not monotheism ). With the often quoted sentence: "If the horses had gods, they would look like horses" and similar statements, he turned against anthropomorphic and culture-specific ideas of gods.

Atomists (younger Ionic natural philosophers)

Unknown philosopher, possibly Democritus

When interpreting the origin and composition of things, atomists think of small particles as the necessary last . Thus, in a renewed elaboration of the archē idea, the primordial matter was determined abstractly, namely as fine, invisible matter that is to be grasped by thinking. This idea on which all mechanical or materialistic world views (see, for example, the corpuscle theory ) are based, was clearly first expressed by the atomists. The founders of the school are Leukippus from Miletus and his student Democritus from Abdera . On the one hand, it is essential to assert that the material process of division finds its lower limit in bodies of finite size and, on the other hand, it follows that emptiness is an inner moment of construction in the physical world. In mediating the opposites of Eleatic and Heraclitic philosophy, the atomists place immutable and eternal atoms instead of unchangeable being, emptiness instead of non-being, movement instead of immobility, and multiplicity instead of unity. This theory makes world events understandable without having to resort to metaphysical assumptions. With the atomists approaches to theories of the impact , the mass attraction , the causal law , the principle of the conservation of matter and the conservation of force , effect and counteraction and the entropy law can be recognized. In particular, the scientific method of the model was established here. Other representatives of atomism were Nessas , Metrodoros of Chios , Diogenes of Smyrna , Anaxarch , Hecataios of Abdera , Apollodoros of Kyzikos , Nausiphanes of Teos , Diotimos , Bion of Abdera , Bolos of Mendes . The basic ideas of the atomists were taken up by Plato and Epicurus .


Empedocles follows the Milesian natural philosophy with his teaching, including Heraclitic, Eleatic and Pythagorean aspects. By bringing together the thoughts of his predecessors and adding the primordial material earth, he formulated the four-element theory . With Anaxagoras , the Ionic Enlightenment came to Athens and spread there through his students Archelaus and Metrodorus . Like Anaximenes, Diogenes of Apollonia , on the other hand, considered air alone to be the basic material of the world.



The sophists are the last pre-Socratics. They did not see people's surroundings as the archē , but rather their culture and ultimately themselves. They offered concrete concepts for a successful and prosperous life by imparting practical and theoretical knowledge in a contemporary manner. In their own words they taught arete . In terms of content, the teachings of the individual sophists differ so much that one can not speak of a uniform sophistry . However, the following can be said about them as something in common: they were experts, wandering teachers, so wandering strangers without citizenship, who carried out knowledge transfer as a business. With them, the human being as an individual becomes the explanatory principle , which is expressed in the Homo-Mensura sentence of Protagoras . In the theory of natural law you emphasize the opposition between nature and convention and the senses of the individual as the basis of knowledge. Although their traditional guiding principles are often vague and vague, they have an enlightening and revealing effect in the course of their work. However, in the end they were concerned with winning the verbal and legal dispute, not primarily with knowledge of the truth. A famous example is the story “Protagoras contra Euathlus”. Another main representative of the Sophists is Gorgias , who tries to prove in a script that nothing exists, or that even if something existed, it would not be recognizable, or that even if something were recognizable, it would not be communicated to another or could be explained. For many sophists, pay played an important role. Because of their wandering activity, they were cosmopolitan . The sophists were and are controversial. The negative assessment goes back to Plato , if not to Socrates himself, who - according to Plato - accused them of pernicious illusion, relativism and skepticism. They experienced an appreciation in the 19th century , for example by Hegel . Today, once again, Plato's judgment has come to the fore. What is certain is that through their activities the Sophists contributed to the dissolution of traditional values ​​in society. It cannot be decided whether they were enlighteners or viable relativists. The sophists also include Alkidamas and Lycophron .


The history of the effects of the pre-Socratics is complex, varied and not very continuous.

In antiquity, starting with Plato or Socrates, through the Hellenistic schools to Neo-Platonism and the Roman period, the pre-Socratics received a great deal of attention. After the Middle Ages, the ancient texts, which were still known or preserved in monastery libraries , in the Arab and Byzantine cultures, were collected through works by Poggio Bracciolini , Henricus Stephanus , Erasmus of Rotterdam and Johann Albert Fabricius . The first pre-Socratics edition appears in 1573. The texts of the early philosophers were simply repeated in handbooks, such as that of Johann Jakob Brucker , until Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hegel began studying the pre-Socratics in modern times. Their popularity grew steadily from the 18th century and for the first time achieved a central position with Friedrich Nietzsche . In the 20th century, reception received important impulses from classical antiquity , especially classical philology , the religious history school , the Heidegger school and philosophical hermeneutics .

The perception of the pre-Socratics is selective and full of presuppositions until the philosophy of the 20th century. They provide a projection surface for later philosophers. This is based on the fact that among the pre-Socratics there are a large number of philosophers who represent very different and sometimes contradicting points of view. In addition, it has the effect that her original works are not preserved or only in fragments. The existing text passages were used to update thoughts, establish mediations or develop alternatives. It is not uncommon for the pre-Socratics to have views ascribed to them, which they did not represent or which they did not represent. Some were made central figures, while others were not seen at all. Overall, the pre-Socratics are no longer studied with the intention of discovering in them the origin of Western rationality and culture. Because the pre-Socratics already drew from the knowledge of earlier times, cultures and peoples. The simplified scheme that Greek thought unfolded by advancing from myth to logos is countered today by the fact that myth already shows itself as logos and logos still as myth. The pre-Socratics have a complex intermediate position. They channeled the traditional and developed it further. In doing so, they also conveyed existing metaphysical ideas and mythical-religious views. On the basis of their archē research, for example, they developed the concepts of the world , being , becoming , number and logos .

In the present, the early philosophy of the Greeks is more relevant than ever before. In addition to the pre-Socratics 'foundations for later thinking, as already outlined, Xenophanes' critique of the anthropomorphic conception of God is present in the critique of religion , the teaching of love and hate of Empedocles in psychoanalysis and the Zenonian paradoxes in physics , mathematics and philosophy. The thoughts of the pre-Socratics affect all areas of human life through poets and writers like Friedrich Hölderlin and Samuel Beckett , social critics like Karl Marx and philosophers like Karl Popper . Thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger , Friedrich Nietzsche or the astronomer Carl Sagan referred positively to the pre-Socratics in a conscious critical demarcation from the later philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In his early work The Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks , which was unpublished during his lifetime , Nietzsche uses the term pre-Platonist instead of pre-Socratic .

Nietzsche and Heidegger saw in pre-Socratic thought an experience of the world that was not guided by reason alone, which occidental metaphysics had displaced since Plato. This view was of great importance for the further reception of the pre-Socratics. Nietzsche makes particular use of Heraclitus' doctrine of becoming, which he uses, in a form he radicalized, for his criticism of a division between the physical and the metaphysical world ( Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks, section 5 ). Martin Heidegger builds on Nietzsche's considerations and interprets pre-Socratic thinking as the forerunner of his own philosophy with regard to the following features, which, according to Heidegger, were neglected by traditional metaphysics, but which were essential for the pre-Socratic: the consideration of being in contrast to beings, which prerequisite for Heidegger's ontological difference is the temporality of being, the analysis of existence under the aspect of death and especially the early Greek conception of truth as unconcealment . Nietzsche and Heidegger's recourse to the pre-Socratics has decisively promoted their recognition in general and as pre-metaphysical philosophers, even if this appreciation on the part of them usually consisted in the utilization or even appropriation for their own thinking.

See also

Source collections

The pre-Socratics are usually cited after the 5th edition of the edition by Diels and Kranz published in 1935.

With German translation
  • Wilhelm Nestle (Ed.): The pre-Socratics translated into selections and published , Diederichs, Jena 1908 (some new editions), ( digitized ) the 2nd edition, 1922
  • Wilhelm Capelle (ed.): The pre-Socratics. Fragments and source reports , Kröner, Stuttgart 1935 (numerous new editions)
  • Jaap Mansfeld (ed.): Die Vorsokratiker , Reclam, Stuttgart 1983 (numerous new editions); extended new edition 2011 with Oliver Primavesi (Ed.)
    • Volume 1: Milesians. Pythagoreans, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides
    • Volume 2: Zenon, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leukippus, Democritus
  • Geoffrey S. Kirk , John E. Raven, Malcolm Schofield (Eds.): The pre-Socratic philosophers. Introduction, texts and comments , Metzler, Stuttgart 1994 (German translation by Karlheinz Hülser; new edition 2001)
  • Laura Gemelli Marciano (Ed.): Pre-Socratics , Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf 2007–2010
    • Volume 1: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, Xenophanes and Heraklit , 2007
    • Volume 2: Parmenides, Zenon and Empedocles , 2009
    • Volume 3: Anaxagoras, Melissos, Diogenes and the Atomists , 2010
With English translation
Arabic sources
  • Hans Daiber (Ed.): Aetius Arabus. The pre-Socratics in Arabic tradition , Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1980


  • Thomas Buchheim : The pre-Socratics. A philosophical portrait . Beck, Munich 1994.
  • Wilhelm Capelle : The pre-Socratics , Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart 1968, ISBN 3-520-11908-0 .
  • Hellmut Flashar et al. (Ed.): Early Greek Philosophy (= Outline of the History of Philosophy . The Philosophy of Antiquity , Volume 1). Volumes 1 and 2, Schwabe, Basel 2013, ISBN 978-3-7965-2598-8 .
  • Hermann Fränkel : Ways and forms of early Greek thought . Beck, Munich 1955.
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer : The beginning of philosophy . Reclam, Stuttgart 1996.
  • Matthias Gatzemeier : pre-Socratics , in: Jürgen Mittelstraß (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. 2nd Edition. Volume 8: Th - Z. Stuttgart, Metzler 2018, ISBN 978-3-476-02107-6 , pp. 358 - 361 (lexicon article with three-page bibliography).
  • Olof Gigon : The Origin of Greek Philosophy. From Hesiod to Parmenides . Schwabe, Basel and Stuttgart 1968.
  • Wolf-Dieter Gudopp-von Behm : Thales and the consequences. On the development of philosophical thought. Anaximander and Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Parmenides and Heraclitus. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2015
  • Uvo Hölscher : Initial questions. Studies in early Greek philosophy . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1968.
  • André Laks : The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Translated by Glenn W. Most . Princeton University Press, Princeton 2018.
  • Anthony A. Long (Ed.): Handbook of early Greek philosophy. From Thales to the Sophists. Metzler, Stuttgart 2001.
  • Ralf Ludwig: The pre-Socratics for beginners. An introduction to reading. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 2002.
  • Hans Georg von Manz: pre-Socratics. In: Werner E. Gerabek u. a. (Ed.): Encyclopedia of medical history. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , pp. 1459-1461.
  • Christof Rapp : pre-Socratics . Beck, Munich 2007.
  • Wolfgang Schadewaldt : The beginnings of philosophy among the Greeks. The pre-Socratics and their requirements . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1978.
  • Gerhard Stapelfeldt : Myth and Logos: Ancient Philosophy from Homer to Socrates . Kovac, Hamburg 2007.
  • Christopher Charles Whiston Taylor (Ed.): From the Beginning to Plato . Routledge History of Philosophy Vol. 1, London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Karl-Heinz Volkmann-Schluck : The philosophy of the pre-Socratics. The beginning of occidental metaphysics . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1992.
  • Léonce Paquet, M. Roussel, Y. Lafrance: Les Présocratiques: Bibliographie analytique (1879–1980) , 2 volumes, Bellarmin, Montreal 1988–1989.
  • Luis E. Navia: The Presocratic Philosophers. An annotated bibliography , Garland, New York 1993.

Web links

Wiktionary: Pre-Socratics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Aristotle , On the Soul 426a20.
  2. Aristotle , Metaphysik 1000a9; 986b14; 1006a2f .; 1071b27; 1075b26f.
  3. First used by Johann August Eberhard : General history of philosophy for the use of academic lectures. Halle 1788, p. 47 ( scan , accessed June 25, 2017).
  4. ^ Cicero , Tusculanae disputationes V 10.
  5. Helmut Hühn provides an overview of the history of the term: Vorsokratisch; Pre-Socratics . In: Joachim Ritter u. a. (Ed.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 2, Basel 2001, Col. 1222-1226. See Laura Gemelli Marciano (ed.): Die Vorsokratiker , Volume 1, Düsseldorf 2007, pp. 373–383.
  6. Hermann Diels, Walther Kranz (ed.): The fragments of the pre-Socratic , Volume 3, Berlin 1960, p. 491 ff
  7. Fragments of the pre-Socratics, Snell 107, Diogenes Laertios 1.87 and 88. Jochen Althoff , Dieter Zeller: The words of the seven wise men , Darmstadt 2006.
  8. Aristotle, Metaphysics XIII 6 1080b 17.
  9. ^ Diogenes Laertios, Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers VIII 79.
  10. ^ Wiebrecht Ries : The Philosophy of Antiquity , Darmstadt 2005, p. 26.
  11. Nikolaus Kopernikus: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium , Nuremberg 1543, here: dedication letter (preface) to Pope Paul III.
  12. ^ A b Wiebrecht Ries: The Philosophy of Antiquity , Darmstadt 2005, p. 29.
  13. Hans-Georg Gadamer: The beginning of knowledge , Stuttgart 1999, p. 61.
  14. Hans Joachim Krämer: Platonism and Hellenistic Philosophy , Berlin 1972, p. 231
  15. ^ Wiebrecht Ries: The Philosophy of Antiquity , Darmstadt 2005, p. 47.
  16. ^ Wilhelm Nestle : Vom Mythos zum Logos , Stuttgart 1975, p. 261.
  17. Volker Steenblock: Small Philosophy History , Stuttgart 2002, p. 36.
  18. Wolfgang Lenzen : Protagoras contra Euathlus (PDF file; 32 kB).
  19. ^ Diogenes Laertios: Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers IX 52; Plato, Meno 91d.
  20. Plato, Meno 91c; Sophistes 232c.
  21. ^ GWF Hegel: The Sophists . In: Lectures on the history of philosophy , Hamburg 1989, pp. 110–127.
  22. Ernst R. Sandvoss: History of Philosophy , Munich 2001, p. 289.
  23. ^ Henri Estienne , Joseph Justus Scaliger : Poesis philosophica , Geneva 1573.
  24. ^ Johann Jakob Brucker: Historia critica philosophiae , Leipzig 1742–1744.
  25. Kurt Nowak : Schleiermacher , Göttingen 2001, p. 188.
  26. Friedrich Nietzsche: The pre-Platonic philosophy . In: Nietzsche: Werke , Berlin 1995, pp. 207–362.
  27. ^ Wilhelm Nestle : Vom Mythos zum Logos , Stuttgart 1975.
  28. Helmut Hühn: Mnemosyne: Time and Memory in Hölderlin's Thinking , Stuttgart 1997, p. 122.
  29. Karl Marx: Difference between the Democritic and Epicurean natural philosophy . In: Marx-Engels-Werke, supplementary volume I, pp. 257–373.
  30. ^ Karl Popper: Back to the Pre-Socratics (1958). In: Popper: Conjectures and Refutations , 1972, pp. 136-165.
  31. Christof Rapp: Vorsokratiker , Munich 2007, p. 227.
  32. Christof Rapp: Vorsokratiker , Munich 2007, p. 230.