Lesson One - Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes

The Beginnings of Philosophy

Nature is Rationally Intelligible - The first Pre-Socratics philosophers lived in a town called Miletus in the province of Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were the first to step a little bit past the mythological past and into a worldview which was more rationally based. Up until that time, understanding the cosmos was something relegated to mythology and attempting to understand and appease the gods. But here, in the 6th century B.C., a change is occurring. These men didn’t clearly distinguish between philosophy, astronomy, navigation, engineering, mathematics, and mythology. Rather, they focused on finding the cause of things without fully understanding all the distinctions which would come later. And thus, since they did not totally discount mythology either, some of their explanations include divine intelligence or forces as causes for the realities they were observing.

Either way there is something like a rudimentary version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason at work in their thought. They had a strong sense of justice and law, and applied this to their thinking about the governing the universe. Whether involving the gods or the elements, there must be a rational balance in which causes and effects correspond to one another. In so many word, reality had to be intelligible to the rational mind.

The Nature of Nature - And so philosophy begins as an investigation into Nature as a whole (physis, "growing thing," the world around us that is living and growing as a whole organism). It begins with the premise that there is a nature, an intelligibility or logos, behind the working of the world around us. "But what set philosophers apart was the idea that nature's orderliness was no fluke. Nature (physis), they thought, was a kosmos (a unified and orderly arrangement of parts) with a logos (a rational account including an explanation of its orderliness)." What are the laws, principles, or realities behind the intelligibility of nature? This is where the discussion, disagreement, debate, and differences between the Pre-Socratics come in. What they can agree on though, are the first puzzles or stumbling blocks that need to be resolved in the quest for the nature of Nature.

The Fundamental Puzzles About Nature - First among these "puzzles" is the problem of understanding the difference between appearance and reality. Just think about your own experience, often the sense experience of the world can be be different than the reality of things rationally understood. Something appears to be one way, only to turn out to actually be another. And so there's a natural desire in everyone to move from appearance to reality.

An example of this is the problem of change and stability. The Ionian philosophers were profoundly impressed with the fact of change in Nature. There is birth and growth, decay and death, light and dark, Spring and Autumn, childhood and old age, coming-into-being and the passing-away. These were the obvious and inescapable facts of the universe. They were very conscious of the dark side of our existence on this planet, for against the background of sun and joy, they saw the uncertainty and insecurity of mans’ life, the certainty of death, and the darkness of the future.

These many cycles within life bring to the forefront two fundamental realities to nature, both that of change, and that of stability. “How can we explain the processes of change that occur all around us?” ... i.e. the appearance of things. But also, “What are things really like then despite the changes?” ... i.e. the reality of things.

Take, for example, the famous puzzle of Theseus' ship. You have a large wooden ship which sails the seas for many years. Each year certain planks of wood need to be replaced. Over time more and more of the ship is replaced with new wood, until finally the whole ship is made up of wood that wasn’t the original ship. Is it still the same ship? The same thing could be said for the cells in our bodies and brains, are we still the same people? There is a sense that things are changing, but yet they have the same identity; they are the same things. If that is the case, what could things be made up of that would allow them to change, but yet also be the same? 

The Turn Toward Monism - The earliest philosophers turn towards an answer of "monism". They search for an answer by seeking to identify one fundamental element in nature which was responsible for being the reality beneath the change and multiplicity of everything else. The first three attempts at monism result in explanations of: water, the boundless, and air. This can also be understood as the fundamental identity which all things share.

Thales and Water - Thales was an all around wise man from Miletus (see map above) who lived in the first half of the 6th century B.C., and probably died around the year 545 B.C.. He could be thought of as something like a proto-scientist, in that he was concerned with explaining the world around him using rational means instead of purely mythological means, as mentioned above. For example, it is said that he predicted a solar eclipse in the year 585 B.C., and even foresaw the coming of an abundant olive crop before it happened. Plato recounts that, one time, Thales fell into a well because he was walking and looking up at the stars as an astronomer.

Thales was the first to introduce the question regarding the nature of what things are made up of ultimately. What’s the one fundamental element that makes up everything in its stability, but also change? He thinks that it is water. Why water? Well, water can be seen in all living things in their growth. The oceans of water is necessary to hold the land afloat. Water can also take on different forms as a liquid, solid, and vapor. All these things convinced him that everything is made of water, though just in different states. More importantly than claiming water was the fundamental reality behind nature was his recognition that in the diversity of change there also had to be some unity in it.

Anaximander and "The Boundless" - Anaximander is thought to have been a student of Thales. Anaximander does make progress in giving a sufficient answer to the question brought up by Thales as to the fundamental unity behind the change that goes on in nature. Anaximander was similarly an all around wise man like Thales. He built a sundial, and also created a map of both land and sea. His philosophical insight is a realization that if the fundamental reality of nature is a particular element, then why would that particular form of the element dominate all the rest? He thinks of the relationship of the cosmos and the elements in terms of justice. If one element outnumbers another, then it would destroy it. Therefore, there must be some substance beyond the elements. He comes up with this idea of the “infinite boundless,” or “apeiron,” in Greek. It is an indeterminate and infinite substance which surrounds the earth. It mediates the justice of the elements, and if they become out of balance then more elements are split off from the indeterminate to equal things out. This is some infinite cycle, or "eternal return," and could possibly include the creation of other worlds. 

Anaximenes and Air - Just like Anaximander was a student of Thales, Anaximenes is thought to have been a student of Anaximander. He moves away from the boundless, and returns back to the idea of one of the four basic elements (air, earth, fire, water) as the fundamental reality of Nature. This time, though, he considers air in a different way, as being infinite like the boundless. He thinks that the indefinite boundless is too abstract, and that air can give a better answer. This is because air can be thickened and also thinned. When air is thinned it can become the lightest of substances, that of fire. But if air is thickened, then it will become other substances like “wind, water, earth, and rock.” If any of the other substances were infinite in nature then we would be able to see it, so it must, therefore, be air. The earth, likewise, must be floating on infinite air. The fundamental insight of Anaximenes is that the quality of things can be explained by the quantity of condensation of air. The human person, as well, can be explained by air because the soul is made of air, and expressed in man’s breath. The Milesian school comes to an end with the fall of Miletus in the year 494 B.C..

"The One" - There are many takeaways from this early stage of philosophy, but one particular one of importance is the idea of "The One." The Ionians introduced this notion that what is most real about nature, is that which is most universally behind the appearances in Nature. For them, it was certain elements, but this phrase will be continually used throughout the duration of Ancient Greece to denote that which is most universal and real. If one drills down beyond appearances, beyond change, beyond this or that entity, one comes closer and closer to the nature of Nature, to that which is most real, to that which is stable and unchanging ... to The One. The dichotomy between the multiplicity of things and appearances compared to the One becomes later in the history of philosophy to be dubbed as "the One and the many."

Lesson 1 - What is Philosophy_ (1).pdf

Take Away Points From Lesson One:

  • Know that philosophy in every age has always been centered around the question, "What is it?"
  • Understand the first philosophical controversy in Ancient Greece regarding the nature of Nature.
  • Recognize the fundamental dichotomy in Nature of "change and stability"; realities which call out for an explanation.
  • Be familiar with the first three of Greece's philosophers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, and how they posed fundamental elements as the nature of Nature.
  • Have the basic foundation of terminology set in order to continue in the study of the Pre-Socratics.

Key Terminology From Lesson One:

  • Nature (Physis) - From the Greek word for "to grow," Nature refers to the unity of all things growing together. An ordered and living entity.
  • Element - The most basic stuff that Nature is made of. Traditionally considered to be fourfold: Air, earth, fire, and water. Another way to understand it is as the matter from which everything is constructed.
  • Intelligibility (Logos) - The idea that there is a causal order to reality which the rational mind can apprehend.
  • Principle (Arche) - The cause from which or the origin from which another comes.
  • Change (Kinesis or Metabole)- The principle or process by which all things in nature are undergoing transformations.
  • Stability - The rational identity which remains in a thing through its changes, and gives it a consistency of being.
  • Monism - The idea that the paradox of change and stability in Nature can be explained by the claim that there is one fundamental reality which exists beneath all the changes.

Video Lecture - What is Philosophy?

  • In the video lecture below I talk more about the nature of philosophy as a discipline, and how the Pre-Socratics set up a question which has generated 2,000+ years of discussion and debate.

Reading Assignment

Lesson 1 Readings.pdf


Test Your Knowledge - Quiz 1

Discussion Board:

Of the three thinkers who began philosophy, who do you agree with most? Comment Below.

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