Pre-Socratics: A Painless Introduction

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 7, 2010 in Resources

I’ve written a 12-page introduction to pre-Socratic philosophy. I’ve published it via Kindle for 99¢ so it is available on Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry. (You can also download a slightly older version as a free PDF download.)

The first page of the book explains things best:

This is a short book about pre-Socratic philosophers for people who care more about the central questions of philosophy themselves — What exists? How should we live? How can we know? — than they do about the historical matter of pre-Socratic thought. But current research in philosophy often refers to the work of pre-Socratic philosophers, so it is worth knowing a bit about what they thought. My book explains the bare essentials about pre-Socratic philosophy you must understand to do philosophy today.

This book does not assume you know much about philosophy. It does not discuss every aspect or interpretation of a philosopher’s work. It will only tell you what you need to know to engage with philosophy today. Luckily, that knowledge can fit on just a few pages.

If enough people find the book useful, I may continue the series with longer (but still painless!) introductions to Socrates & Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and so on. These books I would probably sell in PDF for the price of a hamburger.

I plan to update this book on occasion, so please do comment with corrections and suggestions for improvement, however minor. Of course, in a “painless introduction” almost everything is left on the cutting board, but I am open to suggestions concerning my selection of what to include.

As with most things on my blog, especially my podcast, my goal with this book is to bring philosophy to the streets; to make philosophy accessible. We are all philosophers in that we think about the big questions of life: What exists? How should we live? How can we know? Our own inquiries can benefit from the wisdom of philosophers who have pondered these questions with more training, rigor, and clarity than we have. But first, their work must be translated and condensed into something non-philosophers can use. Few of us have the time to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, but we are all interested in philosophical questions.


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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Justfinethanks June 7, 2010 at 1:34 pm

These books I would probably sell in PDF for the price of a hamburger.

Price wise, are we talking “In N Out 4 x 4″ or “Jack in the Box Value Menu”?


lukeprog June 7, 2010 at 1:45 pm


Maybe a Habit Burger Double Charburger. :)


Silver Bullet June 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Luke: you are the best.


Bill Maher June 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Hopefully people will take this as an incentive to read about them. Heraclitus and Parmenides make a huge comeback later in Nietzsche and Heidegger’s writings. Also, they show how sophisticated philosophy was very early on.

This is an excellent intro to their thought and is easy enough for anyone to read.


DoAtheistsExist? June 7, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Wow this is great, Luke, thank you very much :)
But there are so many projects you’ve got started up Luke, I’m wondering which ones are ultimately are going to be left behind. For example, what happened to the counter-apologetics podcast?


Bill Maher June 7, 2010 at 2:31 pm

^^^ I was thinking this too. Luke is doing multiple “classes”, his atheist and desirism FAQs, 2 podcasts, and blogging through like 3 books.


lukeprog June 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Yeah, I’ve got a million projects going on. Maybe I really should do an episode of Counter-Apologetics, though, since that’s the one people keep asking for…


Scott June 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm

I love how wacky Pythagoras was.

The Pre-Socs are interesting because they were the first ones to ask recognizably philosophical questions. It’s that same awe as researching how Bacon, Newton, et al. fleshed out the scientific method, but even more fundamental than that.


Rhys Wilkins June 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm

The pre-Socratics were especially interesting. Democritus was one of my favourite pre-Socratic thinkers, but Pythagorus’ theory of the divinity of numbers was particularly worth the time to look at, and an obvious precursor to Plato’s essentialist school of thought.


Bill Maher June 7, 2010 at 5:35 pm


You should do your episode on Fine Tuning and the Anthropic Principle. :) You should have some cool stuff to say being that you have had multiple guest on CFTPB lately talking about it.


lukeprog June 7, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Bill Maher,

I’d like to do more research on it before I say much in response to fine-tuning.


J Wahler June 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Tastefully done Luke, would look great as a physical booklet. Where do we support this site again? No collection plate, no paypal link?


Bill Maher June 7, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I agree with J Wahler.

You need a paypal link in the sidebar luke. I would throw a few dollars your way whenever I could if there were one. I do not think I am alone in this attitude. :)

I would also love to see you do a list of resources for philosophy like Eric Steinhart’s More Precisely and Nicholas Everitt’s Modern Epistemology. My teachers don’t really suggest method books like that and it would really help me prepare for grad school.


lukeprog June 7, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Paypal donate button added. Thanks for your support, gang!


Lee A. P. June 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Luke, this is a fine idea for people like me. I have enough scattered knowledge and have been following this debate on the Internets long enough to understand the discussions had on this blog, but I don’t know any more than the average college graduate about philosophy. Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” would probably make me shit my pants out of boredom.

I had thought about giving myself a decent, broad philosophical education before, but I never knew where to start. Well, here I go.


lukeprog June 8, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Lee A.P.,

Yeah, reading Kant is a very bad way to come to understand Kant. Not recommended! :)


Bill Maher June 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm


You should try to read the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. It is much easier to read than critique and essential says the same thing.


svenjamin June 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Nice short summaries. I think a few entries could use a little more development, like Heraclitus and Democritus. Overall an excellent short production.

Well, except for the part at the end mischaracterizing Indian philosophy. Early Indian philosophy and logic is actually excruciatingly systematic, and the Carvaka school isn’t even on the radar as a candidate for earliest Indian rationalism. Check out:


svenjamin June 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm

To be blunt, as much as I appreciate the pre-Socrates (I have read all extant pre-Socratic fragments, which is not very impressive given how little was preserved), I would have to say that ancient Indian philosophy sort of kicks early Western philosophy’s ass.

Here is a quote from the above linked page on the Nyaya school, c200CE:

“A general methodology of ascertaining the truth (tattva) was described which consisted of describing a proposition (uddesa), the ascertainment of essential facts obtained through perception, inference or induction (laksan or uppa-laksana), and finally examination and verification (pariksa and nirnaya). This process could involve examples (drishtanta), logical arguments (avayava), reasoning (tarka) and discussion (vada) – , intellectual exchange, or interplay of two opposing sides in the process of arriving at a decisive conclusion. A successful application of this method could result in a siddhanta – i.e. established principle – (or in the case of mathematics – a theorem or theory) elucidated through proofs (pramana). Alternatively, it could lead to a rejection of the initial proposition.”


lukeprog June 8, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for the links, svenjamin!


lukeprog June 9, 2010 at 8:32 am


I wrote that section after reading only two books on ancient Indian philosophy and a few articles here and there. But now I will try to track down the books mentioned on those pages, and I’ll revise my booklet on the pre-Socratics. Thanks again!


lukeprog June 9, 2010 at 9:24 am
Atheist.pig June 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm

~Short and sweet like an ass’s gallop.

Nice one.


Teapot June 25, 2010 at 5:32 am

Well if you were looking for further confirmation, I would definitely say that this guide is useful. I wish I’d had it the last time I took a course on Greek philosophy.

I see Aquinas on your list- if you can make scholasticism as straightforward as you have the pre-Socratics, I know I could skip a hamburger for that.


lukeprog June 25, 2010 at 10:00 am




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