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C. Ancient Philosophy: 1st Student Essay

Serguei Reznikov

'Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked, and an improvement in the answers given to those questions.' — Discuss.

The ideas of Thales concerning primary matter were at the same time very abstract and incredible.

According to Thales there is one 'stuff', water, from which everything else is composed including human consciousness. This stuff is not dead or passive, it is alive and active ('all things are full of gods').Though the ideas of Thales could be seen to be rooted in religion and the culture of the region, all in all he had an unprecedented intuition of the universe as a whole that can be even called revelation. His vision however was not distinctive and clear, and there were a lot of questions that could be thought through. Thales did not speak about this first 'stuff' in any detail or about the process which gave birth to other things. This was the direction in which Anaximander and Anaximenes improved on Thales ideas.

Aristotle criticized the Milesian philosophers from his own position for not distinguishing matter and form (cause of movement). Indeed, the Milesian philosophers never questioned the basic view of Thales that things were full of gods, which implied that souls were also composed of the same primary stuff, and all things had souls. Simply they did not see there was any problem with this idea and they did not explore it further. They were concentrated on the nature of primary stuff and on the mechanism by which other things emerged from the basic thing including the cosmos in whole.

Anaximander rejected water as the primary 'stuff' and introduced his Apeiron. It was unlimited and unqualified. Probably for the first time idea of unlimited was mentioned in scientific context. Anaximander thought that in case if primary matter was something concrete there could not be the reason for existence of other things and they would be annihilated by overwhelmingly strong and active primary thing. It is not a purely logical argument, it is clearly his intuition. Of the same origin was his idea that first of all Apeiron gives birth to Hot and Cold. All other things emerge from these two. Though Anaximander was a very creative thinker his ideas including his cosmology were very far from empirical plausibility.

The crucial breakthrough made by Thales and Anaximander was their method of connecting very broad an bold abstract principles and creative imagination in one vision. That such a 'fantasying' about the universe could be fruitful became clear only later. Probably their contemporaries were amazed and may be even terrified but hardly convinced by their wisdom. We know that Anaximander even dressed and behaved himself in such a way to stress his closeness to gods. We suspect that there were a lot of people in Miletus who mocked at Thales and Anaximander and thought they were charlatans.

Anaximenes managed to interpret the ideas of Thales and Anaximander in such a way that they became much more plausible and connected with reality. His teaching can be considered a first scientific theory even according to modern standards. Maybe for this reason Anaximenes was so highly respected in Greece, more than his teacher Anaximenes.

Anaximenes came to conclusion that there was no reason to introduce unqualified primary 'stuff' and that an air could well be such a primary matter. Also he proposed a very empirically understandable mechanism of the emergence of new things from the air by condensation and rarefaction.

What is really amazing in his work is the elegance with which he made main ideas of Thales and Anaximander are empirically interpreted in a kind of a syntheses. His basic stuff is an qualified matter as in the theory of Thales, But it is also unlimited as was Apeiron of Anaximander and it is a very natural suggestion in the case of such a thing as air. All other things emerge from the air through condensation and rarefaction. At the same time rarefaction means heating of the air and condensation means freezing. Though the first 'derivations' of air are fire, water and stone, the process of giving birth to the fire is heating and those of producing water and stone is freezing. The abstract idea of Anaximenes (about Hot and Cold) was not rejected but empirically interpreted (to certain extent of course).

Milesian philosophy of the 6th century BC can be considered a first scientific revolution, at least the first known. (I am using the term of Thomas Kuhn). But unlike other scientific revolutions what was discovered by Milesian philosophers was not only a concrete paradigm of scientific explanation but a way of producing scientific paradigms in general. For the first time in known history a person — Thales — had a vision which was at the same time rational, intuitive and abstract. It was a syntheses of imagination and reasoning. Probably the ability of a human being to have such a vision was most striking discovery of the Milesian school.