Friday, March 18, 2011

Progression in Milesian thought

To: Robert A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Progression in Milesian thought
Date: 21 April 2001 10:01

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your e-mail of 10 April, with your essay for units 1-3 of the Ancient Philosophy program, on the topic, 'Progression in Milesian thought on the nature of the primary substance'.

This is a careful and well-judged piece of work with which I can find few disagreements. If in what follows I seem to be picking holes (or nits) it is merely for the sake of an interesting discussion!


One question which you do not raise is whether Thales did actually hold that everything IS water. It is possible that he held merely that all things 'come from' water through a process of growth, like a plant from a seed. Physical theories of change seem on the face of it totally inadequate to account for biological phenomena. This is one point I would stress if I were writing the unit now. It makes the amazing transformations attributed to 'water' more understandable, but at the same time throws the achievement of Thales' successors into greater relief. Anaximenes clearly believed that the biological could ultimately be explained in terms of basic physical processes like freezing and evaporation, compression and rarefaction.

I am not entirely convinced that one needs to invoke remnants of the mythical attitude to explain Thales failure to supply an explanation of how things come from water. It's plain to see. One only has to look around the natural world. This is just the way the world works, Thales would have said.


According the biological model, one criticism that might justifiably be levelled at Thales is that, while water is clearly required for life, it plays a very different role from eggs and seeds, the things that life is generally observed to come from. The process of growth is irreversible, whereas water can change to ice or steam and back again. This notion of the 'arche' as that which physical things come from would seem to require a material or stuff that is different from physical things, which lacks their definite characteristics. Hence the Apeiron?

'Giving birth' is a process that can be understood in an intellectual as well as a biological sense. People give birth to ideas. In Anaximander's notion of an indefinite and undefined element, there is a powerful mix of ideas derived from our everyday experience. Biological growth, human creativity, as well as cyclical phenomena such as weather and the change of seasons which suggest the notions of cosmic justice and law. An altogether too powerful mixture for some!

You say, 'Anything can be attributed to it without risk of contradiction since inferences can only be drawn where the subject is in some way defined.' We are dealing with something unknown and so it would be true to say that we cannot say what is, or is not possible. All we have to go on are analogies, metaphors. I don't think, however, that it is altogether fair to imply that Anaximander is attributing to the Apeiron mythical or magical powers. He is taking the observed phenomena for what they are (just as Thales does with magnetism) and not offering mythological or magical pseudo-explanations of those phenomena. That is the crucial difference. Things grow. The mind conceives of ideas. That is the given. The source of the cosmos must therefore be something analogous to this. In other words, he is offering an inference to the best explanation: a similar cause is responsible for producing similar effects.


I like what you say about Anaximenes, 'His example is convincing, and the absence of other instances to support the idea and the presence of counterexamples may not have been as disturbing to Anaximenes as one might suppose.' When a theory is that good, in other words, one does not fret too much about the lack of experimental verification. A good theory is worth protecting against apparent counter-examples. There are examples of this again and again in the history of science. This is exactly what any scientist worth their salt would do today. Of course, you don't protect a theory at any price. The rule is that you don't throw it out unless you can think up something better.

So, once again, I am not altogether sure that it is fair to talk of the 'influence of long ingrained mythical thinking'. Theorizing is a different activity from myth spinning. It is true, no doubt, that the Milesians were relatively incautious theorizers. One can put this down to sheer enthusiasm as much as anything. As I note in the units, at this stage in the history of philosophy scepticism had not yet raised its ugly head.

All the best,