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Milesian philosophers on the primary substance


To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the primary substance
Date: 23 January 2002 17:05

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 12 January, 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 improvement in the answers given to those questions.' Discuss.

I have tried to glean from your essay, your thoughts about the 'progressive clarification of the questions asked, and improvement in the answers given'.

According to your account, Anaximander's theory improved on Thales' theory in two ways:

1. There are physical laws that animate and inanimate objects have to obey.

2. The Apeiron theory explains more things than the water theory.

That's good for a start. But here would have been an opportunity to point out that Anaximander is also working from an improved formulation of the question, 'Why is there a cosmos? (i.e. why order rather than disorder). While Thales merely asks, 'What are all things made of, and what makes them go?' Anaximander poses the further question, 'Why do the comings and goings happen in an orderly way?' The answer: because of 'cosmic justice'.

When we come to Anaximenes, a further advance was made. That might not have been the case. In antiquity Anaximenes, was regarded more highly than Anaximander. So there is room for some debate on this question.

According to you, 'Anaximenes' notion that the universe formed by a process of condensation and rarefaction left fewer gaps to be filled by ad hoc hypotheses.' It would have been a good idea at this point to have identified aspects of Anaximander's theory which involved ad hoc hypotheses, showing how Anaximenes' theory was an improvement.

So, now we have a third criterion for what makes a good theory, 'Having fewer ad hoc hypotheses'. What is an ad hoc hypothesis? That is also something that might have been explained.

You note that Anaximenes proposed a mechanism for change involving condensation and rarefaction, but you miss the opportunity to point out that this was itself an improvement on the Apeiron theory which has no account to give of how the Apeiron is able to take on different forms. It seems that Anaximenes has asked a question which Anaximander failed to ask, so that once again we have an illustration of 'progressive clarification of questions asked'.

What makes one cosmological theory better than another? That is one way of answering the question, 'What is this wonderful concept called 'theory' which the Milesian philosophers invented?'

We have laws, mechanisms, explaining more things, and having fewer ad hoc hypotheses. Something could be said about each of these revolutionary concepts, and how they relate to one another.

- Although I have pointed out places where you could have said more, this is not at all bad for a first attempt. What I would like you to do in your second essay is focus on the question set, and make your case, i.e. persuade the reader that your response to the question is the correct one. Imagine a sceptical voice saying things like, 'No, I think Anaximander's theory has fewer ad hoc hypotheses, not more,' or 'I think that returning to Thales' idea that the earth rests on something was a backward, not a forward step.'

All the best,