Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Progression in the thought of the Milesian philosophers

To: Matan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Progression in the thought of the Milesian philosophers
Date: 8 August 2003 13:22

Dear Matan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 1 August, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question,

'Examining the theories of the Milesians 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.

Full marks for an excellent first sentence. In the same paragraph, however, you seem to go on to talk of a 'progressive clarification' in our *interpretation* of the [testimonia and] fragments of the Milesians, which is a different question. That is confusing to the reader.

It is accepted that the interpretations of the theories of the Milesians are open to debate, given the paucity of evidence. It would be OK to say, for example, that there is more or less of a progression in the question asked from Thales to Anaximander, depending on whether one agrees with Aristotle's interpretation of Thales' theory as a theory of the 'arche' of the cosmos.

You could say more about Aristotle's statement that 'there must be some natural substance...from which the other things come-into-being, while it is preserved'. This explains the significance of the move (if there is a move) from talking about the origin of things to talking about their 'substance'.

A case could be made that Thales reported assertion, 'all things are full of gods', the purposefulness of the Apeiron which 'steers all things', and Anaximenes' view of air as the soul of the universe are highly relevant to the question asked about substance as well as the answer given. (One of your sections is entitled 'The Breathing Soul' but you do not say anything more about 'breath' or 'soul'!) It is not just a question framed in Aristotelian terms about the identity of an underlying substrate, but also a question about the place of mind in nature. A third aspect to the question is the connection between 'cosmos' and intrinsic purpose. (So we have at least three of the four Aristotelian 'causes' here.)

Why move from a definite substance like water to the indefinite? How is that an improvement in the answer given? and to what question? It is tempting to see Anaximenes theory of condensation and rarefaction as succeeding where Anaximander failed, because it replaces a seemingly magical transformation by a recognizable process. Or is it the other way round? Did Anaximander see something which Anaximenes missed?

Towards the end of your essay, in an important paragraph you respond to the question, 'Improvement in the answers?' However, I felt unsatisfied by your statement, 'Thales answer was lacking both the why and how arguments; Anaximander answered why, while leaving the how mysterious; and Anaximenes gave a genuine answer for how but left the why in doubt.'

Going back to the beginning, it appears that the 'why' question concerns the explanation for choosing arche X over arche Y, while the 'how' question concerns the proposed mechanism (in the formation of the cosmos or in the process of physical change).

It would appear that your evidence for saying that Anaximenes leaves the why in doubt, is that he does not answer the question, 'Why choose air rather than fire?' But how important is it, given the structure of Anaximenes' theory, to give this or that *name* to the one thing that condenses and rarefies?

One possible answer you could have supplied yourself, 'the breathing soul'. One could say that it was natural for Anaximenes to choose that particular form, out of the various forms in which the One appears, which gives the most perspicuous representation (?) or corresponds most closely (?) to the soul which animates the universe. Mind answers the *teleological* question 'why' (= for what purpose). The cosmos is ordered because its substance is mind, and mind seeks order.

- I confess I puzzled over your analogy/ story of the Kings and Students!

You have given a creditable answer to the question set, and defended your adequately. As I have indicated, there are points where you could have said more. I appreciate that you were already well over the maximum word length. You might have considered dropping things like, 'The Milesian philosophers, flourished 6th century BC...', 'Since we do not have the answers the Milesian philosophers gave...' etc. etc.

You asked me to comment on the 'package'. Really, there is little to criticize. The most important thing I would advise you to do is to answer the question, and avoid at all costs anything that is not doing work of supporting your argument. Cut to the chase. That way, you will give yourself as much space as possible to explore the philosophical issues.

All the best,

Geoffrey