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Sources of metaphysics in Presocratic philosophy


To: Jurgen L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Sources of metaphysics in Presocratic philosophy
Date: 13 February 2003 14:28

Dear Jurgen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 February, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'Sources of Metaphysics in Presocratic Philosophy' and other e-mails and essays (on death, Kant, Fichte part I and II).

My original, naively optimistic plan, was to respond to all four (five) pieces today. But after reading your fine piece on the 'Arche and Apeiron', I think it would be better to take one at a time. Tomorrow, I will look at your essay on death, then Kant and Fichte at the beginning of next week.

A note on length. The Presocratics piece is the only one that comes near to being within the word limit. Looking at the other pieces, I can't see what purpose would be served by forcing you to cut them down (generally, when 'students' write at too great a length, trimming can be relied on to produce a improvement). However, if you want to submit a portfolio for the Associate award, you must keep to an upper limit of 3500.

Arche and Apeiron

I suppose one can start with asking, What is the question?

Here are some alternatives:

- What did Anaximander mean by 'Apeiron'?
- What were his reasons and/or motives for introducing it?
- How was the idea received by his immediate successors?
- How has the idea subsequently been received in the history of philosophy?

There is a great temptation to attribute to Anaximander more finely worked or sophisticated reasoning for his arche than he himself recognized or intended.

Contemporary students of the Presocratics like Barnes are quite happy to take an idea and develop its logical ramifications far beyond what the originator could reasonably be expected to have conceived. I want to stress that I don't see anything wrong in this approach, which has become standard practice in English speaking academic philosophy. I would like to plead that there is still some value in asking the most accurate interpretation of a thinker's thought. Admittedly, very difficult, given the sparse evidence that has survived concerning the Presocratics.

When a philosopher has more than one argument for a theory, one begins to get suspicious. You give four:

1. The concept of the apeiron was 'initially devised as a means of defusing the risk of empirical refutation of a specific substance to represent the origin of things.'

2. An arche like water, 'having a determinate form, cannot undergo all the manifold transformations required of it...what is really required is a substance not determinate, not differentiated.'

3. '[A]s attributes are the constituents of both things and creatures, neither thing nor creature possessing attributes can be considered as the source of principle of creation.'

4. 'As a primal substance it must preserve neutrality, for the emergence of one element presupposes its natural animosity to all others: thus without the eternal justice which controls their expansionary drive, that element would long ago have acquired exclusive dominance.'

- I recognize 4. as an argument cited by Aristotle (Barnes §15, p.30). Interpretation 1. relies on a anachronistic (typically Popperian) notion of empirical refutation. Interpretation 2. also worries me, for historical reasons. Anaximenes proposed a mechanism for air (condensation and rarefaction), and so, apparently, the problem was solved. Did Anaximander simply fail to consider the possibility of Anaximander's elegant solution? Or would he (as I like to think) have rejected it on a priori grounds? Interpretation 3. looks like a non-sequitur: 'All things and creatures have attributes. The arche is not a thing or creature. Therefore the arche does not have attributes' (??). (If you change the first premise to *all and only* things and creatures have attributes, then you are simply restating the conclusion.)

Here are two suggestions of my own:

5. 'Making the material principle the Apeiron...coheres better with the centrepiece of Anaximander’s theory, his account of change in terms of time-governed processes of physical justice and retribution. The emphasis on justice implies that whatever oversees the processes and changes which occur in the world must itself be completely impartial, and so cannot be identified as one of the kinds of thing between which changes occur. If everything were ultimately made of water, there does not appear to be an equal reason for water giving way to fire, as there is for fire giving way to water.'

6. 'In line with Anaximander’s philosophical explanation for the stability of the Earth, one might simply argue that if one is prepared to discount the apparent evidence of sense perception and assert that air, fire, earth, water are in reality one substance, or formed from one substance, what reason could there be for that one substance to be water, rather than air, or fire, or earth?'

(Quoting from unit 2 of the Presocratics program.)

The 'no more reason' (ou mallon) argument seemed to have been very popular with the Presocratics.

Interpretation 5. raises another issue I wanted to discuss, concerning the famous quote, '...for they are answerable to and must atone for offending against the just decrees of time'. All the evidence points to Anaximander talking about *the opposites* here, not individual things. What you say about 'the protest of the emergent' looks much more like an idea provoked by Anaximander's concept than one that he ever intended.

My third (and last) comment concerns the reception of Anaximander's theory by his immediate successors. The Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus has an argument for a duality of 'limiters' and 'unlimiteds' which is heavily indebted to the notion of Apeiron. (For the fragments, see Barnes §277-9, p. 384-6.) Philolaus presents a picture of the universe as logically divided into two aspects, number and that to which number is applied. Neither can exist on its own (because any actual stuff, however diffuse or unformed has qualities which are more such than such). This is the perfect response to Anaximander's hypostatization of the unlimited as a separable and separate entity.

All the best,