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Humanities LibreTexts

1: The Start of Western Philosophy and the Pre-Socratics

  • Page ID
    29867
  • The great Socrates was so seminal in the development of Western Philosophy that all who come before him are collectively referred to as the “Pre-Socratics.” It is with these Pre-Socratics that this work will begin. Socrates’ intellectual grandson, Aristotle, marks another pivotal moment when all that come after him are called “Post-Aristotelian.” The one linking the two, Plato, is unparalleled in contributions to Philosophy. It is thus that the bulk of this course will cover the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, while paying heed to those that came before and those that came after. The great 20th century English Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I first heard this summarized to me as, “if it’s worth saying, Plato has already said it.” Of course, saying “Plato” here really means either Plato or Socrates, as Socrates never wrote anything for himself, since it wasn’t his purpose in life. Plato wrote it all down for him, and then added upon it with his own thoughts and works. Details on how this all came about will be presented in the appropriate chapters. This said, Socrates would not have been possible without the path that was blazed by his predecessors. Their works survive only in fragments and cover many different ideas, and are bizarre, fascinating, confusing, and enlightening.

    As you enter this textbook, remember two of the greatest quotes from Socrates, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing” and “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

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