Anaximander, a Greek philosopher (c.622 - c. 547 BC), thought it unnecessary to fix upon air, water, or fire as the original and primary form of body. He preferred to represent it as simply a boundless “something” from which all things arise and to which they all return again. He believed that the world presents us with a series of opposites: hot and cold, wet and dry, etc. If we look at things from this point of view, it is more natural to speak of the opposites as being 'separated out' from a mass that is as yet undifferentiated than it is to make any one of the opposites the primary substance.

Anaximander argued that Thales made the wet too important at the expense of the dry. His view of the world was a curious mixture of scientific intuition and primitive theory. He believed that the Earth hung freely in space and was shaped like a short cylinder. He also believed that all life came from the sea, and that the present forms of animals were the result of adaptation to a fresh environment (evolution?). He also attempted to prove that man had been descended from another species.

“Things give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice, as is appointed according to the ordering of time.”

“The young of the human species require a prolonged period of nursing, while those of other species soon find their food for themselves. If, then, man had always been as he is now, he could never have survived.”

Thanks to Tem42 for providing me with Anaximander's dates.

Anaximander was born in Miletus around the year 611 BCE. The Milesian school of philosophy had its roots in Anaximander's older associate: Thales. Anaximander was surely influenced by Thales, but did not follow closely in his footsteps. In fact, Anaximander's ideas seem a blatant contrast and a reaction to Thales' philosophy.

What we know about Anaximander is a more clear than what we know of Thales. Fragments of a prose work written by Anaximander in the Ionian dialect still remain today, whereas we having nothing but second-hand testimony from Thales. From the fragments we still have from Anaximander, it is clear that Anaximander rejected Thales' claim that the primary substance is Water, from which all thing rise. Anaximander claimed that the original and primary substance from which all things are born and pass into is Infinite and Boundless. Anaximander thought that the world is composed of dynamic opposites, which are 'separated out' from the Formless and Infinite primary mass of the Cosmos. Anaximander felt that Thales put too much emphasis on the 'wet', as opposed to the 'dry.' Likewise, he would have likely said that his pupil, Anaximenes, erred in putting too much emphasis on Air. This idea of the natural ordering of dynamically opposed forces seems to pervade Anaximander's philosophical activity. Anaximander's views of other problems, such as justice follow this pattern, as well: 'Things give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice, as is appointed according to the ordering of time.'

As Thales had done before him, Anaximander constructed a 'scientific' view of the Earth. He rejected Thales' model of the Earth as a disc that floated upon water. Anaximander claimed the Earth came into its being by the 'separating out' of opposites. He felt that there must not be anything to make the Earth fall in one direction or the other, because he felt that there is neither an 'absolute' up nor down, so instead he proposed the Earth to be a 'short cylinder,' swinging freely in space.

Anaximander's views on the origin of mankind seem to give some weight to Thales' philosophy, for Anaximander claimed that living beings emerged from the sea and adapted to the new environment, giving them new forms.

Why should we care about these ancient philosophers, and cosmologies that aren't scientifically accurate? Well, if you want to take the opinion of a classical philologist, try reading the essay "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks," written by Friedrich Nietzsche. It discusees the unrivalled greatness of these men and how they serve as archetypes of philosophical thought until this very idea. Nietzsche's eternal recurrence was not even totally his own, for already had its birth in Pre-socratic thought.

Also, since people shared the same name alot in ancient Greece it is important to give their full name like "Anaximander of Miletus" instead of just "Anaximander," when you are talking about them formally, or else it would just be a big free-for-all then wouldn't it? I decided to do this for clarity. Is clarity not vital when constructing an information database. Its like when you refer to David Hume - you use the full name and not just David or Hume, because there are many people who share those names.

Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek philosophy

History has recorded Anaximander as one of the first of the Ancient Greek philosophers, preceded only by his teacher Thales. Anaximander lived around 2600 years ago, in the large Ionian city of Miletus, which can be found on the West coast of modern day Turkey. Anaximander is famous, together with his teacher Thales and his own student Anaximenes for being the first Greeks to begin a tradition of philosophy.

Philosophy as explanation

Although this idea of a philosophical tradition is vital for appreciating those first philosophers, it is far from clear what exactly it entails. To put it another way: why do we call Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes "the first philosophers"? And what exactly did they invent and discover? The knee-jerk response is to say that they obviously were the first people to discuss those ideas which eventually became known as philosophy. It follows that those things they began to discuss would later become subsumed under the heading of philosophy as understood by philosophy giants like Plato and Aristotle. What sorts of things did they discuss? Thales introduced the problem of matter - at the most basic level, what is everything made of? - which he answered by saying that everything is water. Anaximander in a similar vein said that everything is made out of an undifferentiated substance called apeiron (Greek for boundless), and later Anaximenes would say that everything is made of air.

And if we stop there we end up with a nice simple story. But the quarrelsome among us might then ask for some clarification. Didn't some of the Greeks before Thales and Anaximander also explain what matter was? Weren't there myths that similarly aimed to explain the world?

Philosophy as argument

One popular, and apparently successful explanation for the beginning of philosophy has been to point out that Thales and colleagues were the first to offer rationalized defenses for their explanations. So while myths had provided explanations for the various phenomenon of the world, they did not explain their own rationale. Mythology could certainly be rationalized - stories could be given natural explanations or could be interpreted non-literally - but they did not themselves provide any such arguments.

Generally what we mean by argument is some idea that is defended. So when Anaximander said that the Earth is suspended in air, he appears to be making a statement is that is both unintuitive and absurd. However what makes Anaximander's statement about the Earth brilliant and genius is precisely his ability and willingness to provide it with an argument: the Earth remains in the same place because of its indifference, because it exists equidistant (at equal length) from everything else (presumably because it is in the very center of the cosmos) and so has no more reason to go fall in one direction than another.

Philosophy as criticism

So why call this "Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek philosophy"? Shouldn't it be "Thales and the beginnings of Greek philosophy" instead, since it was Thales who provided the first rational explanations? Yes and no.

If there was one particular characteristic which could be held responsible for the amazing heterogeneity of philosophical opinions in ancient Greece it would have to be their forming a tradition of criticism. So suggests the twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper*. Although it is often mentioned that Anaximander's ideas on matter were a response to the ideas put forward by his teacher Thales, it is never expressed with any surprise.

It is because the idea of independent thinking is parroted so often by modern society that we don't find this surprising. What happened is worth re-stating: Thales was the first person to prominently offer an alternative to the traditional myths. Instead of talking about titans and horny gods he talked about the material composition of the world and considered how that in turn was responsible for the world as we know it. He offered the first theory of matter, that everything is water at its most basic level, and the different substances we see are actually different transformations of water. This was all quite incredible. Thales was fortunate enough to have a neighbor who found his theorizing interesting and whom he took on as a student. This was of course Anaximander. Anaximander learned everything he could from his teacher, from the very first great philosopher, and then instead of repeating Thales' ideas and trying to spread them as far as possible he made up his own ideas! He analyzed Thales' ideas, considered what phenomenon they were useful for explaining and which parts of the theory were problematic and then went on to form his own theory of matter. That Anaximander's theory of matter feels like it should have been written a couple of centuries later is a testimony to his ability to draw on previous teachings without dogmatizing them, and then redevelop them.

The greatest achievement of the Milesian philosophers was to develop a tradition of criticism. Anaximander studied the ideas of the first philosopher and then improved them in accord with their limitations. Anaximander had his own student who too used his teacher's ideas only insofar as to improve upon them. We will never know precisely who was responsible for this tradition. What we can and should say is that Anaximander was the first philosopher to form an intellectual link built upon criticism. This is his legacy.

* I've written the above in order to try and communicate the significance of Anaximander to the beginnings of Greek philosophy. For this reason I haven't really provided a proper summary of his ideas. I should also note that the narrative I offer here - of the different ways of interpreting the beginnings of philosophy - is by no means the only one, and was selected precisely because it highlights Anaximander's importance. In Hahn's book (listed below) he suggests that there have been three avenues for explaining the incredible beginnings of Greek philosophy: (1) as an achievement of rationality over the senses (this is the favored explanation of Plato and Aristotle); (2) as an introduction of rationalized explanations that contrast with mythical explanations (this is the most traditional modern explanation); and (3) as an outcome of technological and sociological transitions which were occurring at that time (this is the explanation favored by Hahn). The importance of criticism is taken directly from Popper, as indicated in the text.


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