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Milesian philosophers on the nature of the primary substance


To: Serguei R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the nature of the primary substance
Date: 10 April 2002 12:31

Dear Serguei,

Thank you for your e-mail of 2 April, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, and also for your e-mail of 4 April with your questions on unit 4.

'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.

This is a gem of an essay which answers the question clearly and concisely. I just checked the word count: very near to 800 words. This is a hard question to cover in such a short space!

I do think that Thales had a kind of 'revelation'. 'Probably their contemporaries were amazed and may even [have been] terrified but hardly convinced by their wisdom.' Yes indeed. There is evidence for one popular view of philosophers in the comedy 'Clouds' by Aristophanes. My impression is that, in time, the presocratic philosophers became celebrities, like poets and playwrights. By the time Socrates and the sophists appeared, 'philosophers' seemed a lot less strange and terrifying.

The idea that 'all things are full of gods' or that the primary principle has the character of 'mind' involves several different ideas. First, there is the idea that later became clarified in Aristotle's notion of the 'form' of a substance. On the Aristotelian view, there *cannot* be a hidden, mechanical explanation for why, e.g., ice melts (which was why he was so opposed to the atomist philosophy). Melting is just one of the things that ice does, just as growing into a plant is what a seed does, thinking is what a man does etc. Things act, change and move in characteristic ways which do not have any deeper explanation than, 'things of that kind behave in that way'.

There is also the idea that purposiveness, teleology is part of the structure of the cosmos itself. This was not questioned until the atomists came along. It is difficult for us now to grasp the idea that purpose can be built in to the universe without thinking of a creator god who made it for that purpose. Yet the idea of an intrinsically teleological universe is actually an advance on the theistic idea.

Finally, there is the observation of things apparently acting at a distance. Thales uses the examples of magnetised iron and rubbed amber to show that natural things can do what previously it was thought only Gods can do. They can do this because in reality the stuff that does the 'doing' is everywhere. So action at a distance, though apparent, is not real.

I liked the way you demonstrate the advance made by Anaximenes in his empirical 'synthesis', while at the same time giving due credit for the imaginativeness of Anaximander's theory.

I agree that the theories of the Milesians were a revolution, but they were not exactly a scientific revolution in Kuhn's sense, because there was no previous 'science' to overturn. However, we can think of the mythological view of the world as fulfilling the same role, sociologically, as Kuhnian 'normal science'.

Unity 4

The point you raise, comparing Heraclitus saying what 'cannot be said' with Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, is a profound one.

First, we need to think about the difference between a physics based on the rejection of fundamental 'particles' as described in F. Capra's book, and a metaphysical theory according to which events, not spatio-temporal particulars, are the primary entities that make up reality, such as the theory of A.N. Whitehead in 'Process and Reality'.

In his book 'Individuals: a theory of descriptive metaphysics' (1959) P.F. Strawson argues that thought and language are possible only on the condition that our language picks out identifiable and re-identifiable particulars. So talk of 'things' with 'properties' is the necessary conceptual framework for human discourse. Strawson argues that events cannot themselves be identified except in terms of things *to which* the events happen, so events cannot be logically prior to spatio-temporal particulars as Whitehead believed.

However, it would be consistent with Strawson's 'descriptive metaphysics' to hold that, in physical reality, this requirement breaks down at the fundamental level. What this entails is that when we try to use language to describe how things are at this basic level, we cannot say what we 'mean'. Thus, Heraclitus can only talk in metaphors, or express himself 'dialectically', because the nature of language subverts what he is trying to say.

All the best,