Monday, March 21, 2011

Philosophical development of the Milesian school

To: Wilfredo C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical development of the Milesian school
Date: 30 April 2001 12:39

Dear Wilfredo,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 April, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, '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.

You have done well to cover all the main issues in the philosophical development of the Milesian school. The essay as a whole is well balanced and well judged.

In looking at the question whether Thales 'discovered' philosophy or 'invented' it, I particularly liked the part where you say:

'If philosophy was indeed discovered, then philosophy becomes a way of learning how reality, on it's own terms unfolds, extends and in quantum moments is visible, discernible and understandable. When philosophy discovers the structures of reality their inherent patterns reveal their relational modality, their complex variety to the wonderer, whose mind is amazingly structured similarly to this reality.'

One thing I might have emphasized more strongly in the units is the way that the early Greek philosophers' wonderment at the universe's inherent rationality, its accessibility to thought, finds expression in the belief that the ultimate principle, water, or air, or Apeiron, is not merely inert physical 'stuff', but possesses the quality of 'mind'. When we come to know the universe through constructing a theory about it, it is as if one part of this 'mind' comes to know another.

This is a theme that would be very familiar to students of the philosopher Hegel. But it is not confined to Hegelian philosophy. One of my students in the USA, an ex-marine living out in the wilds of Washington state, sent me a book 'The Science of God' by Gerald L. Schroeder which explores amongst other things the theme of a universe 'designed' to be capable of being known and understood by the conscious beings whose existence it gives rise to in the course of its development.

I have also had more thoughts about my account of Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the Earth. I wonder whether I may have made the explanation more complicated than it need be. The question is, Did Anaximander consciously appeal to the principle of sufficient reason? Was that necessary? It seems to me that all he needed to say was this:

1. It is an observed fact that all (dense) objects fall to Earth. It is just a fact, we don't know the reason for it.

2. There is no second 'Earth' for the Earth to fall to.

3. So if you put the Earth in space there is *no more reason* for it to move than there is for it to stay still, in 'equilibrium'.

4. Therefore, the Earth stays still.

- This, it seems to me, is a more empirical approach to the problem, which does not require that one formulate any such abstract, universal principle as the principle of sufficient reason. Of course, it is true that if you accept this explanation you are well on the way towards accepting the principle of sufficient reason. All I am saying is that being 'on the way' towards recognizing a universal principle is not the same as actually getting there.

Another of my students, who is also following the Presocratics program, recently pointed out to me that a special reason for admiring Anaximander's theory of the 'Apeiron' is that Anaximander is alone, out of the three Milesian philosophers, in recognizing the possibility of an explanatory principle that is not visible in the physical world. This is the precursor of modern physical theories, which posit all sorts of unobservable entities, as the 'best explanation' of the observed phenomena.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that, being unobservable, the Apeiron might be seen to involve a retreat to the mystification of mythical, pre-rational world views. Perhaps this is how Anaximenes saw it, as a retreat rather than an advance. Only we are in a position to see that Anaximander was in fact ahead of his time.

Again, there is a criticism that Jonathan Barnes makes in his book 'The Presocratic Philosophers', that what is unscientific about Anaximander's Apeiron is its sheer unknowability. One should be suspicious of any principle that explains so much, so easily. Here there is a clear contrast with Anaximenes 'neat' theory (as you say) where the mechanisms of change are clearly laid out and described. And, of course, we should not forget that for the Greeks it was an important and exciting discovery that invisible intangible 'air' was something, and not merely nothing, a substance with physical properties just as water, earth, fire are substances with physical properties.

- Good work!

All the best,

Geoffrey