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Anaximander's theory of the 'Apeiron'


To: Richard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaximander's theory of the 'Apeiron'
Date: 3rd February 2010 13:17

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email of 24 January, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'Seeking the arche of the world: Anaximander's modest response.'

Your argument that the Apeiron of Anaximander is a philosophical advance over the water of Thales or air of Anaximander is summed up in your final paragraph: 'By seeking to make the ultimate cause intelligible and itself the object of explanation, we run the risk of making its ability as an explanatory cause of all that exists unintelligible. Anaximander's contribution was to introduce metaphysical restraint and [circumspection] in trying to understand what it is that makes up the basic stuff, the arche, of the world.'

I like this thought, because it takes what is at face value a criticism of Anaximander's theory and turns it on its head, so that it becomes its chief virtue.

Jonathan Barnes remarks pungently of Anaximander's 'hinting darkly of a huge primordial tohu-bohu... supported by a sketchy argument... It is no diminution of his genius to say that his contribution to metaphysical philosophy was of less moment' (Presocratic Philosophers, p.37). Barnes is consciously reacting to a tradition of over-enthusiastic commentary on Anaximander, in effect putting the case for a revisionary view of the relative merits of Anaximenes and Anaximander more in line with the way these philosophers were viewed by their contemporaries.

What Anaximander has been (wrongly, in Barnes' view) praised for is the supposed depth or profundity in the notion of an unlimited, indescribable, unknowable source of all that is. But there is nothing meritorious in this. Modest scepticism is one thing: but to take the very thing that cannot be known or described and make it into your primary explanatory principle reduces science to mystery-mongering. Everything you see around you is a manifestation of 'the unknowable force' -- whoooo!

On your alternative take, Anaximander is critiquing the notion that the arche is something that we can readily identify in the world around us. There's nothing wrong, when we formulate a theory, in admitting that our knowledge of the primary explanatory principle is limited. In contemporary terms, that is the whole point of hypothetico-deductive explanation. If there is a substance such as Anaximander describes, then it would behave like THIS. Of course, that does not rule out that we will find out more about this hypothetical entity or substance when we do further investigation.

Why is it so bad to hold that we can identify the arche in the world around us? As you say, physics and cosmology for the presocratics was about describing the reality that accounts for appearances. Thus, for Thales, Water is 'reality' while wood and fire are mere 'appearances' (of water). But that seems rather odd. As Aristotle in the passage you quote remarks, heat and cold, wet and dry etc. are 'opposites'. Imagine a cosmos consisting entirely of water; what possible reason or mechanism could account for the emergence of fire?

However, I think that this criticism has less force against Anaximenes. That is because his theory of condensation and rarefaction effectively demolishes the 'old' (pre-philosophical) notion of opposites as existing as substances or entities in their own right. Cold-hot, wet-dry are points on a continuum defined by the mechanical process of condensation and rarefaction. Things appear to our senses as opposites, but the reality is different.

Your case for Anaximander can also be interpreted as an argument for the necessity of a metaphysic. Anaximenes' theory is physics, pure and simple. Why do we need a metaphysic? What kind of problem or question does metaphysics solve that physics does not? I think this is the bit that is possibly missing from your argument.

The subsequent history of philosophy has exhibited the contrast between physics and metaphysics in various forms: for example, in Plato's theory of forms, or Kant's theory of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. And of course in Aristotle's account of 'Being qua being'. One of the things that is so attractive about Anaximander (and which was less attractive to his contemporaries who were more impressed with Anaximenes) is the fact that his theory lends itself to a metaphysical reading, even though he does little more than supply a 'hint'.

Anyway, this is a good effort. I can see that you have put in some deep thought here and come up with a interpretation of Anaximander which is both simple and plausible.

All the best,