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Milesian philosophers on the primary substance


To: Leonidas M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the primary substance
Date: 30 May 2001 17:49

Dear Leonidas,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 May 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

The first question we have to ask is what work the notion of a 'primary substance' was required to do. Aristotle gives an account, in his historical evaluation of the contribution of the Milesian school, which is arguably coloured by his own philosophy of ‘four causes’, formal, material, efficient and final. As you render it, the primary substance is 'the one from which everything comes, from which they are composed and in which they end, while it remains imperishable and just transforms, taking various shapes.'

You are right to pay careful attention to this question. There is, however, a problem, as I indicate in the program, with attributing the Aristotelian notion of a primary substance or 'arche' to Thales. Did he say that everything really is water, or only that everything comes from water? Apart from the lack of textual evidence, we should ask ourselves whether there might not have been 'progressive clarification' in the very notion of the requirements that a primary substance was expected to meet.

You follow the explanation given in the program of Thales assertion that 'All things are full of gods'. As I may have mentioned to you, I wonder whether that is the whole story. In appealing to the powers of inanimate things, why did Thales pick examples of action at a distance? (the magnet, the amber)? Do we possess these godlike powers? We speak, and as result of our speaking things happen ‘at a distance’ from us, but that hardly seems to be the same kind of thing.

Can we say that what Thales needs for his primary substance is something with the power to transform itself? When we boil water, the water does not cause itself to change into steam; we make the change happen, by applying fire. Thales’ water, however, is not merely passive but active. There does seem to be an unclarity here, not just with Thales but also with the other Milesian philosophers, about the difference between spontaneous, 'self-caused' change, and change brought about by an external cause, between final and efficient causation.

What we can say is that all three thinkers recognized that an adequate cosmogony - an account of the formation of the cosmos - relies on self-caused change at the heart of the process. This gives rise to a third explanation of, 'All things are full of gods'. Human actions are self-caused, goal directed. External circumstances also cause us to move in various ways. This is merely an instance of the universal duality inherent in the primary substance as such. 'Gods', Mind, Soul are just different names for the same underlying idea, namely that the universe exhibits a fundamentally *teleological* structure.

You say regarding Anaximander's fertile idea of 'punishment and retribution' that the periodic regularity is 'seems to be asserted (imposed) somehow from Apeiron'. There does seem to be a difference in the way we would understand this, depending on what role is played by Apeiron after the 'initial stage of cosmology, when the opposites separate from it'. Is the law imposed on ordinary things from without, or do they carry it within?

With the clarification and simplification introduced by Anaximenes' process of condensation/ rarefaction, there no longer seems to be the worry about 'where' the cosmic law is located. We are well on the way towards Heraclitus and the eternal Logos. Yet there remains the fuzziness over the different roles of causation - efficient and final - which Aristotle was the first to clearly distinguish.

All the best,