This is a book review of Catherine Osborne’s Very Short Introduction to Presocratic Philosophy.
I have trick when it comes to reading books. I assume there is gold hidden somewhere within. If you read a book with an arrogant attitude – “I already know everything and this book will offer me very little” – then you’ve doomed yourself to get very little out of it. Everybody has at least a slightly different take on things, and it can be eye opening to look at the issues from a different perspective. Go over each sentence twice, and compare the author’s view to your own, and if it’s different, ask yourself why.
In short, I’ve found that I get a lot more out of books I read when I read them believing that there is gold hidden in them, ready to be found if I pay enough attention.
Having said that…
Ever since discovering Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series several years ago, I’ve been an avid fan. I love these little books. Before reading my first Very Short Introduction, I figured they would be superficial. My first Very Short Introduction was on Hegel, written by none other than Peter Singer. Not superficial at all, it showcases Singer’s wonderful communication and instruction skills.
The Very Short Introduction I’m reviewing today, however, is titled “Presocratic Philosophy” and was written by Catherine Osborne (Catherine Rowett now – congratulations). She consciously and quite deliberately takes a different approach to discussing presocratic philosophy. Most noticeably, the philosophers are not introduced in chronological order. Also, (from the Introduction) “we shall not focus on historical relationships.”
She starts out with a verbose and unnecessary discussion of how fragments are discovered and analyzed. This leads into a discussion of Empedocles. Now it seems to me that Empedocles is answering questions posed by his predecessors, and it would be sensible to lay the foundation for the answers by dealing with the questions. But no, we’re dong philosophy the “fun way.”
One major fault of this Very Short Introduction is that it delves into debated areas that are peripheral at best, and meaningless at worse. To touch upon those debates – obscure interpretations of Parmenides v Heraclitus, for instance – would be unnecessary in a very short introduction. To dwell upon those issues at length is entirely inappropriate and does a disservice to the reader. The only purpose it serves is to show off to the reader one’s minute knowledge of these issues.
Another fault is that her exposition is not really insightful at all. Her discussion of Parmenides, instead of bringing the student up to Parmenides’ level, makes Parmenides crawl on all fours to such a degree that he is unrecognizable as Parmenides. Pages 43 was literally nauseating for me.
Parmenides provides any modern philosopher with material for several paradigm-challenging discussions. You’ll find none of that here; her non-critical commentary could only be characterized as mindless.
Catherine Osborne’s treatment of Pythagoras is condescending and narrow minded. She seems to assume that the reader will share her narrow, Western, judgmental attitude toward people who believe in transmigration of souls. This touches on her most annoying tendency to be concerned with the moral character of the philosophers. I really don’t care about the moral character of philosophers. I don’t care about the philosophers at all; I’m interested in arguments. I want to know what the conclusions were, and the premises posited to reached those conclusions.
I don’t want to give the impression that Catherine Osborne’s Very Short Introduction to Presocratic Philosophy is a waste of time. I honestly cannot name one book that is a complete waste of time. I’m merely saying that we ought to be able to expect more signal, less noise in stuff written by professional philosophers. If you’re interested in the Presocratics, I do recommend you read this book. Before you do so, I would recommend you read Bertrand Russell’s history of presocratic philosophy in his History of Western Philosophy (getting your feet wet) then move on to Thales to Dewey by Gordon C Clark for a different approach, and then for more depth read Volume One of Copleston’s A History of Philosophy.
After all that, come back and read Catherine Osborne’s Very Short Introduction to Presocratic Philosophy.