Research Areas - Pre-Socratics


Research questions that the Project will investigate in relation to the Pre-Socratics
On the Power Structuralism hypothesis ancient ontological systems have so far been understood and classified on the basis of the derivative rather than the basic items (i.e. powers or non-powers) that they employ for accounting for what there is. Change and immutability for example are derivative features of the world, not ground-level building blocks in ontology.
But is Heraclitean flux a chain of interacting powers, or is it a succession of properties whose nature is inert, not powerful? Is Parmenidean immutability inertness, or eternal dynamic equilibrium? And if it is inertness, are the immutables disjoint, or thoroughly relational, interdependent on, and interwoven with, one another? Are Democritean atoms inert, or bundles of powers which enable them to ‘struggle’, and ‘collide’ and ‘bind together’ to form what there is in nature?
More generally, the hypothesis that the Project wants to investigate in relation to the Pre-Socratics is this: Can it be that the Pre-Socratics thought that the roots of nature are powers (and only powers)? Or did they think that non-powers, i.e. inert entities divested of any active or passive power, were also needed to build the world?
Challenges that the project will address in investigating the Power Structuralism hypothesis in relation to the Pre-Socratics
The Parmenidean warning about ex nihilo generation, namely that nothing comes out of nothing, and the consequent rejection of the possibility of any change at all, might be thought to be a theoretical stance which stands in the way of the Power Structuralism hypothesis.
It is generally thought (following Aristotle; see Sedley 2008, Guthrie 1965, and Kirk-Raven-Schofield 1983) that the response that Parmenides’ successors gave to his puzzle about generation and change is to introduce into the ontology beings that are incapable of change. If so, it might be the case that the Project’s team will encounter ancient positions which, in their attempt to combine experience with reason in response to the Parmenidian puzzle about change, have accepted ontological commitments that do not support a Power structuralism interpretation.
The most encouraging consideration in addressing this challenge for the Power Structuralism hypothesis is the fact that Aristotle addressed the issue just mentioned, and developed answers that do not commit him to admitting categorical properties in his ontology.
Aristotle’s general strategy was to find stability and immutability by abstracting away from the level of change, either to sub-change or to supra-change elements of continuity. Thus his solution to the problem of how being can come to be out of non-being was that there are local physical continuities of matter in every generation of something. These continuities are found at some level of abstraction, descending into the structure of an object to the level of matter below the changing properties (e.g. gold in the transformation from lump into ring). What survives each generation or change is neither permanent nor immutable in itself, but simply an ontological item that does not change in that particular transformation (see e.g. Physics I 7).
This Aristotelian solution, or variations of them, might not be what other philosophers such as e.g. Anaxagoras or Empedocles opted for in their systems, for which reason the responses to the Parmenides in post-Parmenidean philosophy will be the object of close scrutiny throughout the Project’s development.


More generally, it might be thought that a world without change like the Parmenidean world cannot be structural. But this would be a misconstrued worry, since relational structures can be immutable.
The strategy of identifying immutable relational structures will be applied to explain items in ontology such as the Parmenidean One, which recent scholarship has argued does not exclude pluralism (Palmer 2009; Curd 2004; Nehamas 2002).
A further example that will occupy much of the Project’s research is atomism. Although atoms are immutable, the properties that constitute them seem to be causal powers, which explain the nature of the atomic interactions and the behaviour of all other entities which are composed of atoms.
Scholarly resources on the Pre-Socratics the Project will draw on
In view of the scarcity of information about their doctrines, and the limitations of the scientific and philosophical vocabulary and language of their time, research on the Pre-Socratics focuses on the explication of fragments into theses, and on the relation of the fragments to the doxographic sources.  Impressive scholarship and ingenuity goes into both these research programmes, which enrich us with presentations of Pre-Socratic world conceptions.
One of the debates on the foundations of the cosmos which has attracted attention in the literature on the Pre-Socratics is whether the Milesians were monists or not (e.g. Graham 1997 and 2006; Barnes 1979; Guthrie 1962).
Along the same lines is the question of how early in the Pre-Socratic monists and pluralists one can trace metaphysical distinctions about things having a nature, about there being universals, or about a persisting substratum, and how it is affected by the forces which the Pre-Socratic systems posit to explain the generation of everything (e.g. Primavesi 2008, Curd 2007; Laks 2006; Mourelatos 1987 and 2006; Hankinson 2001; Inwood 1986 and 1992; McDiarmid 1953; Vlastos 1950).
Of particular interest for the current project is the emerging recognition of the contributions of Philolaus to Pythagoreanism and Pythagorean metaphysics (Huffman 2001 and 2009; Zhmud 1998; Schibli 1996). The project’s special interest in Philolaus is in his doctrine of the limiters and unlimiteds, where the structure of the world is number, and we can come to know the world only by knowing number (which suggests a form of epistemic structuralism).
In relation to the atomists, most of the research on powers has centred on causation, enriched by the new work on material found in Herculaneum on the content of Epicurus’ On Nature (e.g. Leone 2002; Laursen 1997 and 1995).
Finally, recent research on the ontology of Parmenides views his monism as addressing the nature of being, rather than its number, thereby allowing qualified pluralism into his world (e.g. Palmer 2009; Curd 2004; Nehamas 2002).
(Anna Marmodoro, 2009)

Please don't cite without permission. 

Some results of the project's research on the Pre-Socratics are now in print here, in Irini Viltantioti's paper, `Powers as the Fundamental Entities in Philolaus' Ontology.'




Anaxagoras Bodleian



Empedocles Orvieto 



Heraclitus and Democritus

Heraclitus and Democritus