Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy

Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy

Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy

Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy


Explaining the Cosmos is a major reinterpretation of Greek scientific thought before Socrates. Focusing on the scientific tradition of philosophy, Daniel Graham argues that Presocratic philosophy is not a mere patchwork of different schools and styles of thought. Rather, there is a discernible and unified Ionian tradition that dominates Presocratic debates. Graham rejects the common interpretation of the early Ionians as "material monists" and also the view of the later Ionians as desperately trying to save scientific philosophy from Parmenides' criticisms.

In Graham's view, Parmenides plays a constructive role in shaping the scientific debates of the fifth century BC. Accordingly, the history of Presocratic philosophy can be seen not as a series of dialectical failures, but rather as a series of theoretical advances that led to empirical discoveries. Indeed, the Ionian tradition can be seen as the origin of the scientific conception of the world that we still hold today.


I CANNOT SAY EXACTLY when I began to work on this project. It grew out of a study of the foundations of Greek science, which I pursued while I was a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in 1988–89. There I was privileged to sharpen my understanding of the issues in the company of Geoffrey Lloyd, Malcolm Schofield, David Sedley, and Myles Burnyeat, among others. Previous to this time I had been working mainly on Aristotle. It seemed to me that Aristotle was carrying out a scientific program that had its roots in Plato, who was following Socratic principles in reaction to an earlier conception of science embodied by the Ionians. I had intended to deal with scientific developments from the Milesians to Aristotle, and I even wrote a draft of this study, but it seemed weak and unpersuasive. I came to believe that more work needed to be done to clarify the positions of the Presocratics who pioneered the scientific outlook that in many ways anticipates our present attitude toward the world.

As I worked through the Presocratics and scholarship on them, I was struck by the fact that at one time, scholarly opinion seemed to be converging on something like the view that I advance in this work. But in recent years that view has been not so much refuted as ignored, as scholars tended to go back to the received opinion of the middle of the twentieth century—which happens to coincide in many respects with the interpretation of Aristotle and his school. What I argue for here is a revisionary view that owes much to Harold Cherniss and his criticisms of Aristotle’s historiography, especially as developed by Michael C. Stokes.

The kind of interpretation I criticize in the present study is embodied in two of the leading scholarly works of the English-speaking world: the second edition of G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven’s classic work The Presocratic Philosophers, with Schofield as an added author, and Jonathan Barnes’s book by the same title. These two books, so different in many ways—the former an advanced textbook with an emphasis on philology, the latter a philosophical study of arguments with an emphasis on logical analysis— both support a similar line of interpretation that has been orthodox for most of the twentieth century. The early Ionians were Material Monists whose assumptions were undermined by Parmenides and his Eleatic school. Thereafter, philosophers with an interest in cosmology desperately tried to answer the Eleatics by proposing pluralistic theories which, alas . . .

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