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Milesian progression in the idea of primary substance


To: Richard P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian progression in the idea of primary substance
Date: 1 November 2007 11:54

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Milesian Progression in the Idea of Primary Substance'.

This is an illuminating and well thought out explanation of the debate between Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes over the nature of the arche, or material substance underlying all things.

Before going any further, I should apologize for using - or rather misusing - Aristotle's term 'primary substance' which in his philosophy has a specific meaning of an individual, such as a particular man or horse. Individual primary substances are identified under 'sortal concepts', which have the special property of defining criteria for spatio-temporal continuity. For example, to fall under the sortal concept 'man' implies certain essential properties, such as having a mind or being alive, in the absence of which the object in question cannot 'exist', as well as accidental properties - such as being skinny or fat - which can change over time.

However, there is an interesting connection worth bringing out, between the problem of how an individual, a spatio-temporal particular or Aristotelian primary substance, is able to retain its identity through change, and the more fundamental problem of identity as addressed in the theories of the Milesians.

When a man dies, that individual ceases to exist, although the matter of which the man's body is composed continues. However, matter too can change. The body is cremated and flesh, blood and bone is converted into smoke and ash. Is there anything that we can identify 'in' the smoke and ash which was previously flesh, blood and bone? Or, to consider the matter from a more radical standpoint, should there be?

Admittedly, it is not clear that Thales asserted that water IS the arche in Aristotle's sense, i.e. the matter that remains the same through every possible change. Aristotle imposed a scheme of interpretation on the work of his predecessors which does not necessarily fit the facts. However, if we look at how the argument might have gone, as you do, then it is very tempting to say that this is what Thales believed. The flesh and the ash are both really 'water'.

Strictly speaking, Anaximander's theory of 'injury and retribution' is not part of his theory of the Apeiron. We would still be discussing his contribution to the debate over the arche if he had never made the famous quoted statement about 'paying penalty'. However, in the course unit I do suggest that some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason might have persuaded him that there is 'no more reason' for the primary substance to be water rather than air, or air rather than earth and so on. Admittedly, this is little more than speculation. It is plausible that he might have thought that way. I don't know of any fragments or testimonia which provide any further support to my claim.

You say earlier that the accounts of the Milesians are characterized by the 'absence of mystical themes'. One of the charges laid at Anaximander is that his notion of the Aperion is 'mystical', in that there is no attempt to relate the properties of the Apeiron to experience - as Thales and Anaximenes both do with their arche. As you say, he 'leaves more questions than answers'.

One thing you missed out in your account of Anaximenes, in relation to his improvement over the two previous thinkers is the postulation of a mechanism of change - compression and rarefaction - based loosely on observation. (Although it has been pointed out that if Anaximenes had been more systematic in his observations, he would have realized that compressing air causes it to heat up rather than cool down.)

In other words, not only is Anaximenes' theory better from the point of view of Ockham's razor, it also is richer in explanatory content because it gives a mechanism for change whereas the other two theories posit change without explaining the mechanism.

It is not uncontroversial that there is progression in the idea of arche in these three thinkers. In antiquity, Anaximenes was regarded most highly of the three, yet to some modern readers, Anaximander seems more philosophically profound in the questions that he asked, even if Anaximenes was the better 'physicist'.

You suggest that the discussions of the Milesians was the 'earliest beginnings of the idea of universals, albeit in a materialistic form'. Universals provide another example of 'one in many', which is not concerned with identity in change but rather with the notion of multiple instantiation, by contrast with the proper name of an individual. Logically, there can be only one 'Julius Caesar' but there can be many 'emperors'. Socrates is generally credited with being the first philosopher to specifically address the problem of universals, in his quest for 'Socratic definitions'. There is a connection with the Milesians, but it is somewhat distant.

All the best,