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Milesians as philosophers and Xenophanes on knowledge


To: Cornell J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesians as philosophers and Xenophanes on knowledge
Date: 22nd January 2009 11:28

Dear Cornell,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Milesians as Philosophers', your email of 16 January with your additional comment regarding Thales' assertion, 'all things are full of gods', and your email of 22 January with your query regarding Jonathan Barnes' discussion of Xenophanes views on knowledge and true belief.

Your essay is a very readable and competent survey of the main views of the Milesians. Considering the amount of material, the essay is remarkably concise, and successfully identifies the major themes. Apart from commenting that Anaximenes differed from his predecessor Anaximander in considering the 'how' rather than the 'why', you do not say anything which is liable to raise controversy.

What exactly is the difference between 'how' and 'why'? Consider the questions, 'How does a cigarette lighter work?' and 'Why does a cigarette lighter produce a flame when you flick the button?' The question, 'how' looks for a mechanism or series of steps which elucidate the process in question. When you flick the button, the flint wheel turns and scrapes against the flint. At the same time gas is released, etc. etc. This is the same answer you would give to 'Why'.

Maybe one way to explain the difference between Anaximenes and Anaximander would be to say that both philosophers are concerned to explain a number of 'whys': why is there a 'cosmos' (and not chaos), why do things change in predictable ways, etc. Anaximenes, however, supplies something additional, a mechanism of change (condensation/rarefaction).

That is correct so far as it goes but it misses the point that I think you wanted to make, that there is a 'why' question which Anaximander tries to answer but Anaximenes ignores. Why are there 'elements' or 'opposites' at all? It is tempting to see this as evidence of a deeper metaphysical insight -- the realization that there is more to 'explaining the world' than mere physics (although Barnes scoffs at this in his treatment of Anaximander's 'apeiron' referring to it as a mystical 'tohu bohu', in other words a regressive step rather than a progression). Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth is notable, however, for being a priori and therefore, as I comment in the unit, recognizable as a philosophical rather than a merely physical explanation.

In your note, you do introduce a question which is highly controversial. Not only that, the question is absolutely central to the way we understand the thinking of the Milesian philosophers.

You say that,

'it is only necessary to look at the vast majority of the world's peoples today who readily accept revelation as their authority even with the vast font of now 'accessible knowledge'. With so much less "scientific" information available to the ancients one would have to assume at least some reliance on the supernatural for unexplainable events. I therefore think that the fragment regarding 'little gods' could just as readily be taken at its face value.'

Although the Milesians are credited with inventing 'physics', their science was very different from the scientific materialism that rules today (and which claims its roots in the atomism of Democritus). The very existence of a cosmos was considered evidence that in addition to matter and its changes there exists a 'nous' or mental agency which has a purposive aspect (i.e. it is not merely a product of physical processes). For Anaximander, this takes the form of 'cosmic justice' maintaining the balance of opposites. It is harder to see this in Anaximenes, yet he too regarded his arche has having mental as well as physical properties.

When Thales describes things as being 'full of gods', one explanation is, as you say, that he literally believed that there were little demons at work, which e.g. make the magnet attract iron filings. One problem with this view is the regularity and predictability of magnetism, as with other phenomena. It looks as if these little demons have no choice but to act in exactly the way they do, time and again.

My view of this in the unit is that what Thales is really implying is that human action isn't fundamentally any different. Our purposive movements are a species of natural purposiveness of which magnetism is just another example. This turns the primitive view on its head, putting man firmly in the natural world, as just another phenomenon which is ruled by the laws of nature.

Of course, I can't be certain of this view. All we have is a short enigmatic remark. However, one has to consider that this remark comes down to us because it was thought to be worth preserving, which in turn implies that Thales was saying something challenging, not merely echoing traditional views.

Finally, regarding the discussion of 'true belief' in Barnes pp. 140-1. This is not difficult to unravel, although Barnes makes a bit of a meal of it because he is concerned to challenge the interpretation offered by Sextus.

You can believe something, and your belief can be true, even though it would not be correct to say that you know. Many of the things that we believe, we are not sure of; our beliefs are merely hopeful guesses, or are based on faulty evidence or reasoning. Despite this, by lucky chance, a significant number of these beliefs (even if it is only 50 per cent) are in fact true. You wouldn't call that 'knowledge'.

The traditional view is that what makes a true belief count as knowledge is the possession of adequate justification. When you have adequate justification your belief can be relied upon to be true. When your belief is true, it is not merely an accident that it is true.

According to Xenophanes, even when philosophers 'get lucky' and hit on the correct explanation this isn't knowledge because they don't have a god's eye view. Their justification falls short of what is required for knowledge because it is merely hypothetical (what would now be termed 'inference to the best explanation'). Today we would regard this as too strict -- it would rule out most scientific knowledge.

According to Barnes, Sextus gets this wrong. He seems to think that all Xenophanes is saying is that we need to know what it is that we believe. I find that rather odd. Obviously, you can know that you believe, and your belief can be true, but it is not knowledge, for the reasons given above.

In the 60's a short paper by Edmund Gettier, 'Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?' upset the apple cart, arguing that there are occasions when even fully justified true belief can fail to be knowledge. A large proportion of recent debate in Epistemology revolves around 'Gettier counterexamples' and the various theories of knowledge put forward in the attempt to get round them. Look up 'Gettier' in Google.

All the best,