Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2016


One-year Embargo

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Ronald Polansky

Committee Member

Timothy S Quinn

Committee Member

Michael Harrington


Nature, Presocratics, Purpose


Few conceptual discoveries rival the impact of the idea of nature on the development of ancient Greek philosophy. The famous φύσις-νόμος debates of the fifth-century B.C. pit nature against custom as the ultimate guide to human life. Plato’s timeless theory of justice is grounded on a conception of nature dictating what is best. Aristotle likewise develops his systematic understanding of the natural world according to the idea that nature is an inner principle of motion and rest that acts as a final cause. In each of these cases, nature is understood as teleological, i.e. oriented toward an end. But the idea of nature as a way to explain the existence of the cosmos and the identity, growth, and behavior of the entities within it emerges in Greek philosophers that precede Plato, the so-called Presocratics. How did the earliest philosophers conceive of the idea of the nature of things? And to what extent, if any, do the earliest conceptions of nature display purposive features?

This dissertation tells the story of the origins and development of the idea of purposive nature in early Greek philosophy. Over the course of six chapters, I develop accounts of substantially different conceptualizations of nature found in ten of the earliest Greek philosophers. Contrary to long-standing scholarly opinion, I argue that no single “Greek concept of nature” in fact exists among the Presocratics, but rather that the idea of nature emerges more dynamically, evolving through critical debate as different thinkers put forth competing theories about what nature is and what it implies. In each theory, however, the unique facets of these different conceptions of nature are marked by elements of purposiveness. Far from being anti-teleological, then, the Presocratic polysemous concept of nature serves as a vital first step in the development of early forms of purposiveness in nature into the more robust teleological conceptions found in Plato and Aristotle. As my account demonstrates, the idea of nature becomes more explicitly purposive over the course of the Presocratic period. Finally, this reading of the early Greek period paints a picture of the way the Presocratic engagement with nature leads to the various “corrupted” views of nature in the φύσις-νόμος debate among the Greek sophists, and ultimately to the suggestion that the Platonic and Aristotelian defense of the value of philosophy is grounded in a defense and development of the idea of purposive nature.