Monday, March 21, 2011

'All things have a portion of everything' - Anaxagoras

To: Edvard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'All things have a portion of everything' - Anaxagoras
Date: 9 May 2001 08:59

Dear Edvard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 26 April, in response to my comments on your Parmenides essay, and also for your e-mail of 2 May, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, on the question, '"All things have a portion of everything" - Describe the logical steps that led Anaxagoras to assert that paradoxical claim. Is his view coherent?'

Your explanations of the points arising from the Parmenides essay are admirably clear - I especially liked your simile, 'signs...of Being are not a kind of nice decoration of some abstract idea (like a bracelet on a beautiful lady)'. If you decide to enrol for the Associate Diploma, these should definitely be added to the essay. Difficulties of English aside (which are truly much less than one might expect) the main issue is that you should always imagine as your reader someone who knows very little philosophy. Take the time to explain.

You may be wrong about the 'plenum of possibilities' interpretation. It is a powerful idea. But, as you say, it does look rather too close to the 'third way' which Parmenides rejected.

In the program, I suggest an interpretation of Parmenides which is reasonably well backed by the texts. I would not claim that it is the only possible interpretation. It is very difficult to make Parmenides' argument appear to contemporary philosophers as the serious challenge it was once taken to be.


I remember as a first year student encountering Anaxagoras (my teacher was Professor David Hamlyn, author of "Metaphysics" in the Pathways Book List). The idea that there is 'a portion of everything in everything' seemed totally absurd. Take a piece of bread. In the bread there is bone, bread, flesh, wood etc. So it is not really 'bread'. Then take the portion of bread that is in the original 'bread'. In that portion there is bone, bread, flesh, wood etc. So that portion is not really 'bread'. Take the portion of bread from that portion, and you find that's not really 'bread' either. This has all the appearance of a vicious regress. However much you throw away, you will never find a portion of actual *bread*.

When I wrote the Presocratics program, twenty-five years later, that scepticism was still uppermost in my mind. I expected to find a really hard task ahead of me. But I was wrong. This time, everything clicked together. Anaxagoras' theory seemed admirably coherent!

In your essay, you have largely followed my interpretation. So there is no point in repeating it. When I wrote the unit, I deliberately did not look at the interpretations by Presocratic scholars - Barnes, McKirahan, Kirk et al. I just read the fragments, over and over again. Not all the jig-saw pieces are there. You will have noticed points where I have had to make the most plausible conjecture in order to fill the gaps. But the result is, in my view, highly coherent.

You remark in relation to your mother's favourite saying, 'As it stands that each thing is good for something, the ideal view then should be that everything is a part of everything or anything has something of everything?' A nice idea, although I am not sure how seriously you mean it. From a logical point of view, I don't see how it follows either that (a) if everything is good for something then everything is a part of everything, or that (b) if everything is a part of everything then everything is good for something. But I appreciate this little snippet of autobiography.

I have not overlooked your own original contribution, which is to explain how it is that 'Nous' which is evenly distributed throughout the physical world, apparently has more effect on some physical things (animals, people) than it has on others (trees, rocks). On the face of it, this seems a flat-out contradiction. Surely, every individual thing, containing the same concentration of 'Nous' should be equally animate? The explanation is that 'the different grades of intelligence we observe in the animal and vegetable worlds depend entirely on the structure of the body. the Nous was the same, but it had more opportunities in one body than another.' It is obvious, when you think of it. But I hadn't thought of it. Excellent!

Hopefully, when I come to revise the Pathways programs, I will be able to incorporate that point. Thank you for that.

I have attached unit 15 of your program - the last unit - together with the fifth and last selection of essay questions. Enjoy!

All the best,