Thursday, April 7, 2011

Anaxagoras and Hegel: the universal mind

To: Wilfredo C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaxagoras and Hegel: the universal mind
Date: 18 November 2001 10:29

Dear Wilfredo,

Thank you for your e-mail of 6 November, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, "'Anaxagoras' theory of the universal Mind was the precursor to Hegel's idealist theory of the Absolute' - Discuss".

My family are away in Manchester for the weekend, which means rare peace and quiet to get on with philosophy. After the launch of the new PhiloSophos web site, and an endless list of administrative tasks, it is good to be thinking about the Presocratic philosophers again.

I hope you are well. There is a contribution to the new PhiloSophos Gallery of philosophy lovers from Tearlach Mac A'Phearson, a Philosophical Society member who works as a prison chaplain in Calgary, Canada which you might be interested to see.

This is a thoughtful and perceptive essay which not only takes in the relation between Anaxagoras' theory and Hegel's conception of the Absolute, but also acknowledges the relation between Anaxagoras and his forerunner Anaximander, as well as the notable correspondences between Anaxagoras' theory and the philosophy of Vedanta.

If you are interested in investigating the relation between Anaxagoras and Hegel further, I would recommend Hegel's masterpiece, 'Lectures on the History of Philosophy', volume I, where he acknowledges his debt to Anaxagoras.

As you correctly note, the key concept in Hegel's philosophy is teleology. For Anaxagoras, as for Heraclitus, the key concept is process. I was a little surprised that you included the atomists amongst the process-philosophers: "The Milesians...argued for the product or stuff of reality. Anaximander, Heraclitus, the atomists and Anaxagoras, tended toward some variation of process as their explanation for the presence and meaning of the cosmos."

My first thought was, Isn't the philosophy of the atomists a philosophy of substance, rather than process? Their atoms are unchanging nuggets of reality, just like the air of Anaximenes, or the water of Thales.

However, on second thoughts, it becomes apparent that the term 'process philosopher' (which is now used to denote followers of Alexander North Whitehead's philosophy as laid out in his magnum opus 'Process and Reality') can mean two quite different things, depending on which of two contrasts one has in mind:

A. Process versus substance. Heraclitus denied the existence of unchanging substance, claiming that the backbone of reality is the Logos, the law that governs all change.

B. Process versus teleology. Here the contrast is between change without any ultimate direction, such as Heraclitus' fire 'kindling in measures and going out in measures' or the atomists' ceaseless movement of atoms colliding, clumping together, falling apart, and change which starts at one point and aims for another point. Here Empedocles comes to mind, although, on the most plausible account, Empedocles' cosmic cycle has no final resting point - rather like the 'steady state' cosmology of contemporary physics.

Those are not the only relevant contrasts. One could also look at the contrast between materialist (or 'realist') and idealist theories of existence. Atomism is the paradigm of a materialist theory, yet Empedocles' four elements are also material. In other words, materialism is consistent with either continual process or, perhaps surprisingly, with teleology. In recent times, the most notable proponent of a realist teleological theory is Samuel Alexander, in 'Space, Time and Deity' based on his 1916-18 Gifford lectures, a book which was the main inspiration for Whitehead's more widely read work a decade later.

I liked your simile of Anaxagoras' Mind as "like the skin of the body that senses the changes within and stretches and tightens, responding to gain or loss. There is correspondence and indeed influence one on the other". The point to make here is that Anaxagoras theory of mind and matter is just one of a long line of theories - through Plato and Aristotle, to Descartes and Spinoza - that attempt to explain how these two fundamentally different categories of existence relate to one another. The idealist solution to this puzzle is to deny the ultimate reality of matter. For philosophers, like Anaxagoras, who do not take that idealist step, there is the baffling question of where to place thoughts, feelings and experiences in relation to the world of material bodies in space and time. Anaxagoras' solution is the simplest: Mind is like a stuff in being located in the material world, while at the same time unlike all other stuffs in that its concentration never varies.

- A most interesting read.

All the best,