The best books on the beginnings of European theorizing

Barry Sandywell Author Of Logological Investigations, Volume 1: Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason
By Barry Sandywell

Who am I?

I'm currently an Honorary Fellow in Social Theory at the University of York, U.K. For more than five decades I've been working to promote more reflexive perspectives in philosophy, sociology, social theory, and sociological research. I've written and edited many books in the field of social theory with particular emphasis on questions of culture and on work in the field of visual culture. Recently these have included Interpreting Visual Culture (with Ian Heywood), The Handbook of Visual Culture, and an edited multi-volume textbook of international scholars to be published by Bloomsbury, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Visual Culture. My own position can be found in my Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms.


I wrote...

Logological Investigations, Volume 1: Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason

By Barry Sandywell,

Book cover of Logological Investigations, Volume 1: Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason

What is my book about?

Logological Investigations is an ambitious, 3-volume project to rethink the nature of social and philosophical inquiry in the light of the radically reflexive nature of human action, temporality, and discursive self-formation. It makes a principled distinction between reflection and reflexivity and argues that future critical thought must develop more dialogical and communicative approaches to the tasks of radical inquiry. Volume 1, Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason explores the historical and theoretical contexts of reflexive inquiry. Volume 2, The Beginnings of European Theorizing: Reflexivity in the Archaic Age and Volume 3, Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse c. 600-450 BC trace the first beginnings and development of critical reflection to Archaic Greece and, more specifically, to the construction of early philosophical discourse over the period c. 600 to 450 BCE.

The books I picked & why

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The Presocratic Philosophers

By G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, M. Schofield

Book cover of The Presocratic Philosophers

Why this book?

The Kirk and Raven translation of the Presocratic Philosophers was one of the first anthologies in English to cover the beginnings of speculation and philosophical discourse in early Greek culture. It essentially made the thought of the Presocratics available to me and, on a broader scale, to an English-speaking audience (drawing upon the German text of Hermann Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker and later editions edited by Walther Kranz (known to scholars as `Diels-Kranz’). While Kirk & Raven has been revised and edited by others it remains for me the first `path’ into ancient Greek thought (and thereby, to ways of thinking about the beginnings of theorizing and philosophy).

In terms of substance the work explores the transition from mythic traditions (Hesiod, Pherecydes, etc.) and Homeric poetry to the Ionian thinkers (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Heraclitus), the radical monistic ontology of the Italian Schools (Pythagoras, Alcmaeon, Parmenides, Zeno, Melissus, and so on), to the Post-Parmenidean systems of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, the Atomists, and Diogenes of Apollonia. This enabled readers to recover something of the vibrant culture and intellectual transformations of the sixth and fifth centuries in Greece and prepare for the great `revolution’ in reflection and self-reflection inaugurated by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The Presocratic Philosophers

By G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, M. Schofield

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Presocratic Philosophers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beginning with a long and extensively rewritten introduction surveying the predecessors of the Presocratics, this book traces the intellectual revolution initiated by Thales in the sixth century BC to its culmination in the metaphysics of Parmenides and the complex physical theories of Anaxagoras and the Atomists in the fifth century it is based on a selection of some six hundred texts, in Greek and a close English translation which in this edition is given more prominence. These provide the basis for a detailed critical study of the principal individual thinkers of the time. Besides serving as an essential text for…


The Beginning of Philosophy

By Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rod Coltman (translator),

Book cover of The Beginning of Philosophy

Why this book?

As a student of both sociology and philosophy I was profoundly influenced by the phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others. One of these inspiring 'others’ was Hans-Georg Gadamer who promoted a radically interpretive or `hermeneutic’ approach to philosophical issues. While his major work is Truth and Method this collection of essays concerns itself with origins and 'beginnings,’ inviting readers to enter a dialogue with some of the key figures and problematics of Greek and thereby of Western European thought and culture. Plato was Gadamer’s great love and Gadamer rejects Heidegger’s reading of the Platonic Dialogues as the first phase of Western metaphysics and commends a reading of Platonic and Aristotelian thought as a spirited rejection of dogmatic thinking and a path toward a dialogical vision of thought and inquiry.

The Beginning of Philosophy

By Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rod Coltman (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beginning of Philosophy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Beginning of Philosophy Gadamer explores the layers of interpretation and misinterpretation that have built up over 2500 years of Presocratic scholarship. Using Plato and Aristotle as his starting point his analysis moves effortlessly from Simplicius and Diogenes Laertius to the 19th-century German historicists right through to Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Gadamer shows us how some of the earliest philosophical concepts such as truth, equality, nature, spirit and being came to be and how our understanding of them today is deeply indebted to Presocratic thinkers. The book is based on a series of lectures delivered by Gadamer in 1967…


Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

By Thomas R. Martin,

Book cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

Why this book?

If Gadamer is an important guide to the hermeneutics of beginnings and the spirit of theorizing, Thomas Martin’s work is one of the most concise, readable, and comprehensive introductions to the social history of ancient Greece and the spiritual origins of Western culture. While there are many fine histories of the period, this book provides access to the whole sweep of Greek history from the beginnings of Hellenic civilization in Indo-European and Mycenaean cultures, to the Archaic age, the beginnings of democracy with the age of the city-state, the collapse of the Athenian Empire at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and the rise of Hellenistic Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms that led to the hegemony of Rome and Latin culture. The work is an exemplary form of what I would call 'configurational’ history as his narrative interweaves military, political, religious, and social history with detailed discussion of the realm of ideas and cultural movements. In short, the ideal text for a student new to the study of the ancient Greek world.   

Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

By Thomas R. Martin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ancient Greece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This compact yet comprehensive history brings ancient Greek civilization alive, from its Stone Age roots to the fourth century B.C.

"A highly readable account of ancient Greece."-Kirkus Reviews

Focusing on the development of the Greek city-state and the society, culture, and architecture of Athens in its Golden Age, Thomas R. Martin integrates political, military, social, and cultural history in a book that will appeal to students and general readers alike. Now in its second edition, this classic work now features new maps and illustrations, a new introduction, and updates throughout. "A limpidly written, highly accessible, and comprehensive history of Greece…


The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change

By Randall Collins,

Book cover of The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change

Why this book?

Collins’ remarkable book is resolutely sociological and global. This path-breaking work formulates questions about the origins of thought and philosophical reflection in a comparative perspective. Avoiding traditional forms of Eurocentrism, Collins locates the Presocratic and Post-Socratic thinkers in social networks of groups and schools and the creative innovations of these schools are situated in a broader historical study of intellectual communities that include Ancient China, Ancient India, and Japan, and in a more recent context the interweaving constellations of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic thought. The work concludes with detailed analyses of the intellectual networks of early modern and modern philosophy (including the Vienna Circle, Analytic Philosophy, Wittgenstein, Phenomenology, Existentialism, and beyond). This work remains one of the great attempts of a social theorist to map the major currents of world thought and intellectual culture. The task first broached by Collins—to reconstruct the global social, political, military, and intellectual contexts of creative thought—continues to motivate and inform the work of significant intellectual figures to this day.

The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change

By Randall Collins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sociology of Philosophies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Randall Collins traces the movement of philosophical thought in ancient Greece, China, Japan, India, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe. What emerges from this history is a social theory of intellectual change, one that avoids both the reduction of ideas to the influences of society at large and the purely contingent local construction of meanings. Instead, Collins focuses on the social locations where sophisticated ideas are formed: the patterns of intellectual networks and their inner divisions and conflicts.


Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks

By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Marianne Cowan (translator),

Book cover of Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks

Why this book?

This early study of the young Nietzsche is probably the most personal choice as it returns me to an earlier self who first encountered Nietzsche as an undergraduate in the 1960s. In one sense this was my first introduction to what later became known as `Continental Philosophy’. But more than this, it demonstrated that there were fundamental issues and problems that were simply evaded and occluded by the standard histories of philosophy and European culture. The passion to return to the ancient world as a way of understanding the modern world has remain with me to the present. Nietzsche’s reflections on tragedy and `the tragic age’ struck me as a vital source of radical questions and pointed toward problems that remain with me to the present day: the Indo-European language roots of the first thinkers, the seminal role of Homer and Homeric poetry within the problematics of thought, the rejection of academic `Hellenism’ as a bloodless ideology, the place of tragedy in society and culture, the reflexive problem of how to critically recover these seeds of thought without simply repeating them or indulging in abstract exegesis, philology, and so on. For Nietzsche, the writings of the Presocratics represent the birth of transgressive philosophizing and `untimely’ thought that remains even more urgent in the present global age.

Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks

By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Marianne Cowan (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For Nietzsche, the Age of Greek Tragedy was indeed a tragic age. He saw in it the rise and climax of values so dear to him that their subsequent drop into catastrophe (in the person of Socrates - Plato) was clearly foreshadowed as though these were events taking place in the theater. And so in this work, unpublished in his own day but written at the same time that his The Birth of Tragedy had so outraged the German professorate as to imperil his own academic career, his most deeply felt task was one of education. He wanted to present…


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