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The Presocratic Philosophers (Arguments of the Philosophers)

by Jonathan Barnes

Buy the book: Jonathan Barnes. The Presocratic Philosophers (Arguments of the Philosophers)

Release Date: October, 1982

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Jonathan Barnes. The Presocratic Philosophers (Arguments of the Philosophers)


A clear, witty, analytic view of the Presocratics

The Kirk, Raven, and Schofield Presocratics tends to be the standard text, but I have to say that Barnes' is a far more readable volume. One can tell from his personal style that he lives with these texts, in much the same way as Barnes' work on Aristotle reveals his affection for the great Macedonian. My "analytic" desciption in the title of this review is a technical term; Barnes' appointment in philosophy at Oxford indicates to the discerning reader Barnes' philosophical committment towards Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and the asides sprinkled liberally throughout the text show Barnes editorializing on these thinkers as only an analytic philosopher with a dry, British wit can. As a matter of fact, in his worse moments he comes across as only slightly less opinionated and certain of his conclusions than does Lord Russell in the latter's often caustic but always enjoyable History of Western Philosophy. Still, it is Barnes' interpretation of these thinkers, more than his style, that ultimately recommends this work. The condition of the Presocratic texts and their profound age allows for nearly any sort of reading (witness Heidegger's important work on Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides in particular), and Barnes tries to situate his subjects within a narrative grouped more around ideas than chronology. The work is in three sections, entitled "Eden" (the earliest of the Presocratics and their ideas about the nature of matte, etc.), "The Serpent" (Parmenides and Zeno), and "Paradise Regained" (Ionian thought, Empedocles, Atomists, et. al.), and there is an "Epilogue" which ties it all together nicely. Since the thing is arranged in terms of ideas rather than names, it can be difficult if one simply wants, say, the chapter that explains Democritus--there is none. Rather, Democritus (for example) shows up throughout the work, whenever his thought becomes relevent to the flow of the narrative. That said, Barnes does go into great detail when discussing the various thinkers, and you come away from the book having thoroughly examined each of the philosophers in a contextual rather than chronological way. The appendices and indexes are exhaustive, and allow for quick location of either a thinker or a specific topic. An excellent book on the Presocratics, even for a Heideggerian like myself. I heartily recommend it.

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