Friday, March 18, 2011

Milesian philosophers on the primary substance

To: Laura K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the primary substance
Date: 11 April 2001 10:47

Dear Laura,

Your first essay on the Presocratics, which you sent on 2 April, was one of four pieces of coursework on my desk this morning. I've just sent off my reply to the first, to our Brother Andre (at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu New Mexico) who sent me his notes on Anaxagoras.

'Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked, and an improvement in the answers given to those questions. - Discuss.'

What a clunky, leaden question! And you have managed to do so much with it! This is undoubtedly the best thing you have written for me.

Your essay is 'deep', in the best sense of the word. We sometimes associate deep with the murk, with what is unclear, with what threatens to suffocate. 'He got in too deep.' 'I'm out of my depth.' But what is deep can also be clearly thought out, illuminating. The depth is the result of a layering of ideas, enfoldment, the concentration of much reasoning in a small compass.

I wasn't entirely convinced by your first paragraph, at least on a first reading. I think this is because philosophers at least are used to the idea that progress in philosophy can involve getting deeper into a question, seeing more in it than one's predecessors saw. At the same time, I recognize that there is certainly a conflict in philosophy between the practitioners of 'clarity at any price', the philosophers who would like to put on white coats and look to science and technology as the model of progress in human knowledge, and those that recognize that 'Clarity is not Enough' (the title of a book by H.D. Lewis).

The white coated philosophers would be more likely to see Anaximenes as their hero. His theory is clearer, explains more. Anaximander, on the other hand, worries at the idea that any 'stuff' that we come across, like air or water, could be the 'ultimate' stuff of which things are made. This is not 'mystery-mongering' as Jonathan Barnes seems to suggest in 'The Presocratic Philosophers', the positing of an obscure and inexplicable principle in order to hide your ignorance, but rather the expression of due respect for the magnitude of the task of explaining all earthly existence.

I like the way that you have succeeded in bringing together the history of philosophy and the history of the written word. I found this illuminating. It does seem that the production of books had a profound effect not only on the course of philosophy but also on the way 'the philosopher' was perceived. The impression was not altogether a flattering one. In one of Plato's dialogues, a certain Presocratic philosopher's book is mentioned as being available in the marketplace at the cut price of 3 Drachmas (I wish I could remember which dialogue this is from!). As soon as philosophy was put in books, it became a product that could be bought and sold. Philosophers were in competition with one another to see how many books they could sell.

I wonder whether, in the eyes of some (like Aristophanes?) the latest cosmological theory was viewed in the same way as a sceptic might view the latest book by Von Daniken or Ron Hubbard.

The dramatic power of Plato's dialogues brought a new dimension of depth to philosophical book production. The aim of the dialogues is to teach us how to philosophize about the ultimate questions. This is the point, I suspect, when many of the sceptics stopped and listened. Plato's dialogues are works of art, they also encapsulate for the first time the essence of the verbal tradition of dialogue, dialectic.

I'm drifting off the point.

The key question is what is progress in philosophy and how is it exemplified in the history of the presocratic philosophers. One thing I haven't mentioned is the idea of theory, 'theoria'. Coming up with a better theory, a theory that explains more, illuminates more, is undoubtedly progress. This is the aspect of philosophy which most easily adapts to the scientific model (though it doesn't necessarily justify the 'white coated' approach). Taking the argument, the dialectic, further can also be progress, even though this might involve introducing a sceptical note of uncertainty, and so in that sense decreasing our 'knowledge'. The third aspect of progress is the most difficult to describe, though I sense that this is the one that means the most to you, and that is progress in wisdom.

All the best,

Geoffrey