Thursday, March 31, 2011

Anaximander versus Anaximenes

To: Karolos G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaximander versus Anaximenes
Date: 21 June 2001 13:35

Dear Karolos,

Thank you for your e-mail of 11 June, with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'In the light of the controversy concerning the relative strengths of the theories of Anaximander and Anaximenes, how do you assess the achievements of these two philosophers?'

I liked your elegant explanation of why Anaximenes was led to posit air as the basis substance. According to you:

1. "There is an intellectual gap in the process through which the apeiron, indefinite both in extent and in quality, starts to create definite qualities. We should point out also, that it is not clear how the principle of movement is inherited from the infinite to the definite. I think that this was the very weak point that Anaximenes tried to remedy."

2. "Anaximenes found that air offered a unified principle of matter and life, since it was inexhaustible, contained all sensible objects and at the same time could be used as synonymous to breath and soul."

I would claim that 'movement' for Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes has a purposive, teleological element. Their theories were not models of a universe governed by strictly efficient causation. (I realize that you disagree with this, at least with regard to Anaximander, but I am going to deal with that question below.) It doesn't follow that things 'choose' which way they are going to move in the way that animals or human agents would do.

That is why I am not so sure about your claim that for Thales "a soul, or spirit, may choose...to move towards a certain direction even if it is equally possible for it to move in the opposite direction." Water does what it is natural for water to do, e.g. flow down hill. Fire does what it is natural for fire to do. The different substances or opposites have characteristic ways of moving, as well as ends towards which they move, which is part of their insentient nature.

The difficulty for Anaximander is that we appear to have sources of movement on two different levels. The Apeiron, the ultimate mover, imposes its 'justice' on the interactions between the finites, each one of which moves in its own characteristic ways. The resulting picture is complex, and strikingly reminiscent of the relation between the state and the citizen. We each 'move' according to our own needs and desires, while the laws imposed on us by the state keep things in check and maintain an overall balance.

What Anaximenes saw was a way of simplifying this picture enormously. Instead of two sources of 'movement', there is only one. The threatened incoherence involved in reduplicating sources of motion is overcome.

I was somewhat puzzled by your account of Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth.

It is clear enough what you are trying to show. Anaximander, you want to say, had grasped the notion of a 'natural law' whereas Thales is still operating with the idea of principles of motion analogous to 'laws governing life in a society'. I would argue that the principle of sufficient reason can be applied just as easily to efficient, causal explanation and purposive or teleological explanation. Let's change the example of the ass to make it similar to that of the fly. If two men approach the ass from opposite directions waving sticks, will the ass move or not? If it does move, that has got to be because the ass has certain decision-making capacities which the fly lacks (something analogous to 'mentally spinning a coin').

If 'law' is understood as basically teleological or purposive, does Anaximander still have a valid explanation for the stability of the earth? On your account, he would not. It is essential, you seem to think, to Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth in terms of the absence of a reason to go one way rather than another, that in a world governed by natural law, things do not move unless something makes them move. It is true that human laws are not like this. The law does not dictate very movement I make with my fingers in typing this letter. But that is the wrong contrast. The contrast we should be looking at is between causal laws and psychological laws. Causal laws govern non-purposive movement of inanimate things, while psychological laws govern the purposive movement of beings who have beliefs and desires. People do not move themselves unless they have the belief that by moving they will obtain F, and the desire for F, for some suitable 'F'.

In that case, even if Anaximander's conception of law was still teleological and purposive, analogous (although not equivalent) to psychological law rather than to causal law, he would still have a valid explanation to give for the stability of the earth.

All the best,

Geoffrey