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Anaxagoras: all things have a portion of everything


To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaxagoras: all things have a portion of everything
Date: 12th September 2008 13:21

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your email of 3 September, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''All things have a portion of everything.' - Describe the logical steps that led Anaxagoras to assert that paradoxical claim. Is his view coherent?'

You have had a really good go at this question. Starting from the premise that Anaxagoras accepted Parmenides' view about the impossibility of change, yet also accepted the evidence of our senses, you arrive had his theory of 'a portion of everything in everything' through a series of deductions.

A key stage in the argument is the recognition that a specific property, e.g. the property of 'dirt', cannot come into existence from 'what is not'. Whatever changes water undergoes, for example, it will never become dirt. You can't take out what you didn't put in. To get the property of dirt, you have to mix properties which have aspects of the dirt property -- its darkness, graininess, etc.

On any theory which identifies one or more substrates -- air, or water, or (as in Empedocles) air, fire, earth and water -- we have to accept the 'miracle' of new properties appearing when these elemental substances combine and recombine. But how can that be, if Parmenides is right that any existing property X cannot ever cease to be X? Such a view is unacceptable to Anaxagoras.

You are right when you say that Anaxagoras resists making the kind of 'appearance-reality' distinction that his predecessors made. We fully accept today that a table is 'really' made of 'colourless' subatomic particles, so that its 'real' properties have little or nothing in common with the properties we perceive. This is what Empedocles and the atomists in different ways both held. Combination and recombination of the basic stuffs produces new properties. The stuffs do not change but the properties do.

But Anaxagoras doesn't accept this, because it goes against the spirit of Parmenides. If stuffs cannot change -- if we accept that whatever stuffs exist must always have existed -- then the same must hold of properties: any property that exists must always have existed, in some form.

Dirt is a composite property, as we have seen. This implies that there are simpler properties which are the true basis of all composites, although it is not clear exactly what Anaxagoras thought these were. The examples he gives, 'flesh, blood, bone' all seem to be composite properties.

Leaving that problem aside, the crucial question concerns the 'particulate' view of matter. Here, there seemed to be some unclarity in your essay. If the particulate view is correct, then this surely contradicts the view that there is a 'portion of everything in everything', since when you get down to the particles themselves, you would encounter the 'pure' stuffs which are unmixed. The alternative is to deny that there exist particles, which implies that the possibility of division goes on forever. There are no smallest particles of matter, which is diametrically opposed to the view taken by the atomists.

The result is the theory you describe as 'a proportion theory and not a particulate theory'. The world is not made of elements or entities, however small, but rather of properties -- blackness, blueness, hardness, softness etc. etc. -- as many properties as are needed to describe the multifarious things we see. Everything has every property (so no property goes in or out of existence) but things differ in the proportions of each property that they contain.

As you note, the role of mind presents a problem in this view. Anaxagoras did not want mind to share the fate of all the other properties, which leads him to embrace a form of dualism.

You also note that, 'The idea of force, mind in his theory, was a leap from the theological and mystical as a theory of origin to a natural theory. At first blush this seems a great leap forward and a powerful aspect to add to the coherence of his theory.'

There is an important point here about how we conceive of 'mental causation'. In the normal way of talking, 'A did X because he wanted Y' implies a teleological form of explanation, in terms of the 'end' of an action, the end state at which it aims. 'God created the universe to be the best of all possible worlds' would be another example of a teleological explanation.

However, as contemporary philosophers such as Donald Davidson have argued, if we accept that mind is active in the world, then we have to see a person's intentions and desires not only in teleological terms -- in terms of a future state at which they aim -- but also as efficient causes. So that in the example, 'A did X because he wanted Y',' the desire Y is an efficient cause of A's doing X.

In these terms, Anaxagoras' Nous is not just a teleological principle but an agent in the world capable of brining about effects through efficient causation. How exactly it does this is of course another question. It is the same problem that Descartes faced, in his mind-body dualism: how something non-physical can exercise a causal influence on something physical.

All the best,