Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Pre-Socratics

History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Pre-Socratics
(based on Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture series)

The Milesians: Problem of Matter

Central Question (s): What is the world made of? How do we account for unity in midst of diversity?

The Milesians attempted to find out what is the ultimate stuff of which the world is made of. Related to that, they also attempted to find out how all the diversity of features in the world fit together. There are three main Milesian philosophers: Thales, Anaximander and Anaximines.

The Milesians can be organized into four groups:
Monism: reality is made up of only one substance
1. Corporeal Monism: ultimate reality is physical and one (Thales)
2. Incorporeal Monism: ultimate reality is nonphysical and one

Pluralism: reality is made up of a pluraity of substances
3. Corporeal Pluralism: ultimate reality is physical and more than one (Empedocles, Anaxagoras)
4. Incorporeal Pluralism: ultimate reality is nonphysical and more than one

These four groups can be reduced to these two issues:
1. Is ultimate reality physical (corporeal) or nonphysical (incorporeal)?
2. Is ultimate reality one (monism) or more than one (pluralism)?

Thales (625-545BC)
Thales is regarded as the first philosopher. His assumption about the nature of reality was monistic; he believed reality consisted of only one kind of substance. He argued that everything was made of water and it served as the unity of all things. He came to this conclusion by observing the natural world. Thales found that all things come in various sizes, shapes and colors, and that they appear in one of three states: solid, liquid or gas. He found that water was able to freeze into ice or vaporize into gas. His approach to philosophy was empirical– the view that all knowledge is dependent upon observation, experience or sense perception. He wanted to find some natural observational basis for his answers. However, Thales’ view that ultimate reality is water isn’t enough, because everything changes. If everything is just one substance, then how do we account for all the fluctuation and diversity in the world? Thales posited hylozoism as his answer. It is the idea that everything is full of life and that there is an active agent within all material things.

Anaximander (610-545BC)
He is troubled with the idea that everything is water. Not everything looks like water. Take a rock for example, if you break it open, there is no water in it. If everything is water, then everything that which is not water, is water. This is a contradiction, which bothered him. Anaximander, realized if he posited another element of the world such as fire, wind or earth to give an account of what things are made of, then he would run into the same problem as Thales. There are things that are not fire, not wind and not earth. He said if there is an underlying stuff of which everything in the world is made, it cannot be particular. Anaximander looked for something that transcended the world and was not bounded. He said the stuff of which the world is made must be without defining characteristics. He called this stuff “the boundless” or “the apeiron.” The “boundless” is un-originated, undestructable and it has an eternal motion. As a result of the motion, particular substances were separated. Unlike Thales who looked around and just concluded that everything was made of water, Anaximander reasoned about it.

From Thales and Anaximander, we get the two schools of philosophy of Empiricism and Rationalism. Rationalism says some knowledge is independent of observation, experience and sense perception. Empiricism says all knowledge is dependent upon observation, experience or sense perception.

Anaximander’s metaphysic was deterministic. He knew that there was a process of change occurring in the natural world. He said, “From what source things arise, is to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed.” The process of change is a patterned and necessary one. Determinism is the view that there is no contingency, for every event is necessary according to some laws. Modern determinism teaches that every event is theoretically predictable because if it happens necessarily according to some laws, then if we could learn those laws and the factors that went into anything, then we could predict what would take place. They would say, “If I knew all of the conditioned response mechanisms that worked upon you and your childhood upbringing, If you knew all of the factors that go into your brain and body, your emotional structure etc., then I could predict who you would vote for president.”

He was the first person known to be an Evolutionist. In the beginning, earth was in a fluid like state, but when everything tried up, living creatures emerged. Humans were first enclosed in a fish-like covering and lived in the water; they emerged when they evolved sufficiently to support themselves on land.

Anaximenes (585-525BC)
He had problems about Anaximander’s theory. What is this boundless? On the one hand it is particular– it is that stuff from which everything else arises. Yet, it is not particular, because it is nothing in particular– It has no defining characteristic. He questioned, “What is the unity that underlies the diversity of human experience?” Anaximenes differed from Anaximander in that Anaximines thought the primary substance is not something infinite without exact definition, but in agreement with Thales, has defined qualities.

He proposes that all is air because it is “boundless” in a continual state of motion and change, but it is also has defined quality. He thought air has a certain quality about it that you don’t find in earth, fire, water or other things. Air has a density, it can be heavy or light, which is to say, air can change quantitatively. It can be compressed and expanded. Maybe these quantitative changes account for the qualitative changes that we see in the world, such as hot and cold or hard and soft. Everything is one, but it is an expandable and contractable kind of one. He has proposed a quantitative reductionism. Everything has a quantitative account for how things differ from one another.

Pythagorean: Blunder of Order

Pythagoras (570-497BC)
Pythagoras had a strong interest in study mathematics. In the study of math, he concluded that what deals with form and essence is more important than the material. The intellect or spiritual is more important than the physical. He and his followers discovered that sound can be broken into numerical ratios and mathematical proportions to produce music. Pythagoras also subjected medicine to mathematics as well. Bodily health is determined by the balance between hot and hold and the balance between the bodies chemical functions. He also applied mathematics to astronomy by seeking the “harmony of the spheres” in order to predict the motion of the sun, moon and planets. He posited that the explanation of reality must be explained mathematically. Ultimate reality consists of numbers and geometric shapes. The physical appearance of things are determined by mathematical relationships. The physical world around us is changing, but through this constant process of change, the numbers and geometric shapes don’t change. Laws of nature are mathematical principles.

He believed the aim in life was to be freed from the circle of births and enter into a state of divine bliss through ascetic practice, abstinence from sensuality, intellectual pursuit and the practice of vegetarianism. Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of the soul in which a one’s reincarnation depended upon the life he or she previously lived. The highest grade of existence was that of a bard, physician or prince. He held to the brotherhood of all living things. All animals and plants were embodiments of souls of men. This lead to vegetarianism and the belief that women were equal to men. He had a view of world harmony. If we practiced equality and vegetarianism, then there would be peace and harmony in the world.

Hericlitus vs. Eliatics (Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno): Problem of Identity and Change

Eliatics were philosophers who gathered around Elia in Greece. Heraclitus’ outlook opposed Eliatics. They both addressed the problem of identity and change. How does the basic one which we rationally assume change into the many which we encounter in ordinary experience? Many means we find all sorts of diversity in human experience. They attempted to answer the metaphysical question, “What is the one and how does it become he many?” and the epistemological question, “How do I relate what my mind tells me to be the case with what my senses perceive about the world?” The first deals with accounting for unity and diversity and the nature of change, and the second deals with whether we take an empirical or rational route to obtaining knowledge.

Hericlitus (540-480BC)
He thought that everything was always in a state of flux. Everything is in a state of becoming instead of being. Heraclitus famously declared, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Once you put your feet in the river and take it out, the river flows on and erosion occurs. However, whatever is still changing is still something. Reality is not simply diversity; there is still a unity. He said that everything is a metaphorical “eternal fire.” This thing is not material; it is constantly in flux but still orderly. This thing is changing by degrees and measure. Because there is a pattern of change, we don’t recognize the change itself. Heraclitus called “the eternal fire” a “logos.” It is a reason or matter of thought. There is something that gives reason for how and why things change. This a primitive development of “natural law.” Nature is changing, but it changes according to a reason. God is “the logos” flowing through the constant change, but this God is an impersonal force. Heraclitus was looking for a purpose that would provide order and harmony in a world of change– something that would give unity to diversity. He accounted for strife and violence in the world through the conflict of opposites. Conflict is eventually resolved in the logos of things.

Xenophanes (570-478 BC)
He seeked to continue to answer, “in what way doth multiplicity and variety of the individual beings arise from the One which is the basis of everything?” He had pantheistic view of the world; he said that the unity of everything was the All-One. This All-One was also deity, which was eternal. This All-One inseparable from the world, but it is different from the Greek gods. The All-One is self-sufficient and in need of nothing. He wanted to naturalize everything the Greeks had been saying. Instead of believing that there were many gods, he said everything was god. He wanted a sense of unity in reality.

Parmenides (510BC)
He said everything is one. The universe is a single permanent substance. It is uncreated, it is indestructable and unchangeable. The premise from which he deduced these conclusions is that there is no nothing. Everything that you can think about has an existing objective reference. We can think about trees and there are trees. We can think about unicorns and they exist in thought. Everything you can think about must exist. An inconceivable object cannot exist.

Can we think about nothingness? Nothingness is non-being. If we can think about non-being, then non-being has being, but this is contradictory. So therefore, non-being is nothing. If there is no nothing, then the world cannot have come out of nothing, therefore, the world must be eternal. Maybe it could go out of existence, but if it goes out of existence but then it becomes nothing, but nothing cannot exist so it cannot go out of existence. Not only is it uncreated, it is indestructable. If there is no nothing from which the world could come, and no nothing into which it could go, then there is no nothing from which one thing could be and not be–that is, change. What would change be? Let’s say one thing changes from hot to cold, but this can’t happen because if it is cold but not previously cold, then cold came out of nothing. Cold could not have from hot because those are contradictory. It could not have come from nothing because it doesn’t exist so it didn’t become cold. He concluded that reality is a single permanent substance in which there is no change– no beginning and end. Being does not consist of different elements, it consists of the same substance. He denied the reality of change and motion. Reality is unchanging. From a Christian standpoint, if there is no motion, then there cannot be thought changing from one thing to another. There cannot be philosophizing either.

Hericlitus and Parmenides had this in common. They both distinguished between reality and appearance. They said you can’t trust your senses. If you take the empirical approach to knowledge, it will mislead you. You must take the rationalist approach, however, they came to radically different conclusions. They disagreed in that Hericlitus said everything is changing and Parmenides said nothing changing.
Zeno (450BC)
He developed parodoxes to support his teacher Parmenides in showing the impossibility of motion. He also argued that the senses only deal with appearances and not with reality. He set forth four arguments or paradoxes to support his beliefs. To refute the pluralists who believed the world was divisible, Zeno gave the illustration of a racetrack. In order for the runner to circle the entire racetrack, he needs to traverse an infinite number of points in a limited number of moments. The runner would need to reach the halfway point. Then he would need to run half of that half way point and half of that half way point and all the way to infinity. He argued against motion in the same way using an arrow illustration. Let’s say we are going to shoot an arrow at a target 3 yards away and I’m standing here. If motion really is real, the arrow needs to go half-way to the target before going all the way. If it is to get to the half-way point, it needs to travel through half of that. It also must go half of half of half the way and so on. We can keep halving the distance for eternity. There is an infinite number of halves between me and the target. If the distance is infinite, then the arrow cannot traverse it, so there could be no motion. Reason conflicts with perception. Reason tells us its impossible for the arrow to move. Our perception tells us the arrow is moving. We are to trust reason, than perception.


Empedocles (495-435BC)
Empedocles was a pluralist. He rejected that there was only one underlying substance; he posited that the world consisted of a plurality of immutable and eternal particles. The particles possess being and do not change unlike Parmenides view. The objects composed of the particles however do change, as they undergo changes in their composition. He said reality is made of four different roots: earth, air, fire and water. These chance combinations of earth, air, fire and water make up the things of this world; however, not all the chance combinations survive and work out well. He explained that these elements are mixed and separated through two kinds of motion: Uniting Motion of Love and Separating Motion of Strife, which attract and repel one another. The world process of love and strife was considered god, which is a personal attribute of “mind.” On the one hand, the world is in a chance process of things but on the other hand, he wanted to say “mind ” flashes through all of reality. This is a more personal and rational view, which is not very consistent.

Anaxagoras (500-428BC)
The many constitutes reality over against the one, the many is an infinite diversity of qualitatively different seeds or “spermata.” To search for a rational principle to bring order and harmony to the seeds to posited the concept of a kind of motion called, “mind” or “nous.” This “nous” was an impersonal power or force which was the purposeful principle of reality. Originally, everything was in a homogenous mixture. All of these seeds were so well distributed, that nothing in particular was noticeable. Nous enters the picture and makes all of the infinite seeds turn in a circular motion. Some of the seeds clump together and separates out in various groups such as frogs, humans, fishes, plants etc. There are seeds of all kinds of things.

four major atomists: Leucippus-450BC, Democritus-425BC, Epicurus, Lucretius

Democritus (425BC)
Democritus believed that the universe is composed of un-divisible, solid and indestructable atoms which existed in the void. They are the fundamental building blocks of reality and they have no qualities such as color, texture and smell. However, atoms are defined by quantitative measures: shape, arrangement and position. Atomists taught that qualities are dependent upon the interaction of the atoms of the world with the atoms of our body. There are qualitatively different things because of the mechanical arrangement of atoms. They are the same atoms, but arranged differently. In terms of their epistemology, they said that atoms are too small to perceive by the senses. Senses are also person relative so they are unreliable, but we can still use them learn about secondary qualities. Truth can be arrived at by the use of reason. What happens when your intellect is working? Is the intellect nothing more than brain tissue? He is inconsistent here because he says there is a function of reason that is not the same as the brain. There is a divine activity accounted for by refined fire atoms.

Democritus taught that the ethical goal is happiness. True happiness is not found through sense experience; it is found through reflection and self-control which will lead to tranquility.

He is a dualistic is his metaphysic, epistemology and ethic. His metaphysic teaches that reality is composed of matter, but he allows for intellectual activity of the fire atoms. His epistemological view is that we can learn the secondary quality (texture, color) of things though our senses, but we can also learn things through our intellect. His ethical theory taught that some people seek happiness through hedonistic activity; others seek happiness through intellectual activity.


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