Home > Philosophy, Science > ‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment One: The Presocratics. Pt 1.

‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment One: The Presocratics. Pt 1.

Topic: ‘What role did the theory of elements play in the Presocratics’ account of cosmic order?’

In any discussion of the Presocratics it might aid us if we first begin by defining the term; Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge Simon Blackburn states that it “ought” to refer to any Greek philosopher from “c.600 BC to c.400 BC, the last year of Socrates life” (Blackburn, 2008, p. 289), although he cautions that this definition should not include all thinkers within that time. It is generally reserved for those thinkers from several different schools: the Milesian or Ionian (hereafter Ionian), the Eleatic schools, the Pythagoreans, what Blackburn calls “the post-Eleatic atomists as well as Empedocles and Heraclitus” (p. 289) – who, when thought of collectively, make up the term ‘the Presocratics’. They were interested in inquiry regarding “systematic cosmologies” with a concern toward “the nature of physical reality” (p. 289), more deeply their philosophical inquiry burgeoned close to what we would call now scientific. Investigations were done into the nature of physical substances, the existence of the void (as in the case of the atomists), the nature of temporal change (as in the case of Zeno) and the nature of physical substances (p. 289). In today’s paper we will be focusing on two specific Presocratic thinkers: Anaximander (c.610BCE –547BCE) and Empedocles (c.495BCE-435BCE) in order to tease out the role of, not just their views in regards to their particular theories of the elements in relation to the cosmic order, but also the difference in thought between the Ionian and Eleatic schools, which were separated by roughly a century.

Philosophical thought during the Presocratics time, particularly in the early Ionian schools incorporated elements of a previous interpretation of the working of the world known as mythos. It is defined roughly as a likely story, or account, of the cosmos, usually tied up with flexible religious notions of the time, and adopted from thinkers before them (such as Hesiod). This way of thinking allowed the Presocratics to scrutinize their most basic beliefs and turn away from their myths to understand the world in a way known as logos, which could be viewed as a rational account of nature. From this then, two issues became of importance to them, (1) cosmogony, which arises as Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Smith states from the merging of the words “cosmos and genesis (birth or coming into being)” and (2) cosmology, which he cites as being “(cosmos plus logos) the attempt to find unified accounts of the structure of the cosmos.” (Smith, 2008, p. 4) Different Presocratics sought to find and engage with ideas relating to the underlying physical material out of which the cosmos was made coherent – the elements.      For the most part they viewed different elements (fire, water, air and earth) as fundamental to the composition of the cosmos and attempted to explain how they did so, although we will see, as with Anaximander below, there was difference and conflict in thought. (Smith, 2008)

Anaximander was a special Presocratic in that his cosmological views were somewhat contra to those stated above such that he was critical of thinkers who came before him, including his teacher Thales (another Ionian thinker). In line with the other Presocratics he denied that nature and the universe is in a state of chaos, yet still sought to find order in the natural world, the logos. He also thought that it is ordered and unified as a cosmos, but to Anaximander it was a mistake to identify the underlying material of the universe with any of the elements; instead he opted for a different fundamental principle, that was divine,  “boundless and infinite” (Kenny, 2008, p. 12) otherwise known as “apeiron”. Prominent English philosopher Anthony Kenny states that apeiron is roughly translated as “the Infinite” (p. 12) which he concedes might go too far; to Anaximander it might have meant that his principle was extended eternally in space. What we do seem to understand viz. Kenny is that apeiron did not have a beginning or end, and “did not belong to any particular kind or class of things.” (p. 12) It is important to note as stated in Smith, and eluded to in Kenny, there is debate about what exactly Anaximander’s term meant, for example Smith states it to mean “indefinite” (p. 17).To Smith apeiron while not one of the elements was still a material something as the basis for all things: “the idea of aperion seemed to be that it was endless in special context so much that it was indefinite in its characteristic and makeup.” (p. 17). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy explains aperion as:

(the boundless) by a process of separating off; a disk-shaped earth was formed, surrounded by concentric heavenly rings of fire enclosed in air. At “breathing holes” in the air we see jets of fire, which are the stars, moon, and sun. The earth stays in place because there is no reason for it to tend one way or another. (Audi, 1999, p. 28)

Aperion could have even been another element, or indeed a mixture of them, from which the other elements of air, earth, fire and water would come, and ultimately return (p.17). This was a strange conception when we think of the two thinkers in closest relation to Anaximander in terms of geography and chronology:  his teacher Thales and his student Anaximenes who respectively thought that water and air were the fundamental principles of the cosmos.

However as Dirk L.  Couprie states on The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Anaximander’s astronomy contained poetic language of the elements to explain an already formed universe as we see here:  “a germ, pregnant with hot and cold, was separated [or: separated itself] off from the eternal, whereupon out of this germ a sphere of fire grew around the vapor that surrounds the earth, like a bark round a tree” (Diels and Kranz cited in Couprie, 2005). From this we see Anaximander’s views were quite idiosyncratic among his compatriot Ionian thinkers, in that the elements were not exclusively fundamental to the structure of the cosmos, but were considered secondary to him. He still used the elements to explain the structuring and workings, as a secondary characteristic of the cosmos, or even something that came from his principle aperion, which would have been the basis for the creation of the formal structures of the cosmos, and from which the elements came.

We will continue to Empedocles’ portion, a comparison of the two thinkers and a conclusion in part two.


Categories: Philosophy, Science
  1. April 8, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Rob, Rob, Rob, Rob, Rob.
    We. Need. To. Talk.

    • April 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      Uh oh, feel like I’m in trouble? Can you quickly outline what’s wrong with the essay?

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