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> Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE), The 'Boundless' as principle
post Feb 11, 2006, 04:43 PM
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Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE)

Anaximander was the author of the first surviving lines of Western philosophy. He speculated and argued about 'the Boundless' as the origin of all that is. He was the second of the physical philosophers of Ionia, a citizen of Miletus, a companion or pupil of Thales, and teacher of Anaximenes of Miletus. He originated the world-picture of the open universe, which replaced the closed universe of the celestial vault.

Anaximander asserted that the primal being of the world was state of indefiniteness. In accordance with this, anything definite has to eventually pass back into indefiniteness. In other words, Anaximander viewed "...all coming-to-be as though it were an illegitimate emancipation from eternal being, a wrong for which destruction is the only penance." (Ibid., § 4) The world of individual objects, in this way of thinking, has no worth and should perish.

The 'Boundless' as principle

According to Aristotle and Theophrastus, the first Greek philosophers were looking for the 'origin' or 'principle' (the Greek word 'archê' has both meanings) of all things. Anaximander is said to have identified it with 'the Boundless' or 'the Unlimited' (Greek: 'apeiron', i.e. 'that which has no boundaries'). Already in ancient times, it is complained that Anaximander did not explain what he meant by 'the Boundless'. More recently, authors have disputed whether the Boundless should be interpreted as spatially or temporarily without limits, or perhaps as that which has no qualifications, or as that which is inexhaustible. Some scholars have even defended the meaning 'that which is not experienced', by relating the Greek word 'apeiron' not to 'peras' ('boundary', 'limit'), but to 'perao' ('to experience', 'to apperceive'). The suggestion, however, is almost irresistible that Greek philosophy, by making the Boundless into the principle of all things, has started on a high level of abstraction. On the other hand, some have pointed out that this use of 'apeiron' is atypical for Greek thought, which was occupied with limit, symmetry and harmony. The Pythagoreans placed the boundless (the 'apeiron') on the list of negative things, and for Aristotle, too, perfection became aligned with limit (Greek: 'peras'), and thus 'apeiron' with imperfection. Therefore, some authors suspect eastern (Iranian) influence on Anaximander's ideas.

The arguments regarding the Boundless

It seems that Anaximander not only put forward the thesis that the Boundless is the principle, but also tried to argue for it. We might say that he was the first who made use of philosophical arguments. Anaximander's arguments have come down to us in the disguise of Aristotelian jargon. Therefore, any reconstruction of the arguments used by the Milesian must remain conjectural. Verbatim reconstruction is of course impossible. Nevertheless, the data, provided they are handled with care, allow us to catch glimpses of what the arguments of Anaximander must have looked like. The important thing is, however, that he did not just utter apodictic statements, but also tried to give arguments. This is what makes him the first philosopher.

The Boundless has no origin

Aristotle reports a curious argument, which probably goes back to Anaximander, in which it is argued that the Boundless has no origin, because it is itself the origin. We would say that it looks more like a string of associations and word-plays than like a formal argument. It runs as follows: "Everything has an origin or is an origin. The Boundless has no origin. For then it would have a limit. Moreover, it is both unborn and immortal, being a kind of origin. For that which has become has also, necessarily, an end, and there is a termination to every process of destruction" (Physics 203b6-10, DK 12A15). The Greeks were familiar with the idea of the immortal Homeric gods. Anaximander added two distinctive features to the concept of divinity: his Boundless is an impersonal something (or 'nature', the Greek word is 'phusis'), and it is not only immortal but also unborn. However, perhaps not Anaximander, but Thales should be credited with this new idea. Diogenes Laërtius ascribes to Thales the aphorism: "What is the divine? That which has no origin and no end" (DK 11A1 (36)). Similar arguments, within different contexts, are used by Melissus (DK 30B2[9]) and Plato (Phaedrus 245d1-6).

The origin must be boundless

Several sources give another argument which is somehow the other way round and answers the question of why the origin should be boundless. In Aristotle's version, it runs like this: "(The belief that there is something Boundless stems from) the idea that only then genesis and decay will never stop, when that from which is taken what has been generated, is boundless" (Physics 203b18-20, DK 12A15, other versions in DK12A14 and 12A17). In this argument, the Boundless seems to be associated with an inexhaustible source. Obviously, it is taken for granted that "genesis and decay will never stop", and the Boundless has to guarantee the ongoing of the process, like an ever-floating fountain.

The 'long since' argument

A third argument is relatively long and somewhat strange. It turns on one key word (in Greek: 'êdê'), which is here translated with 'long since'. It is reproduced by Aristotle: "Some make this (viz. that which is additional to the elements) the Boundless, but not air or water, lest the others should be destroyed by one of them, being boundless; for they are opposite to one another (the air, for instance, is cold, the water wet, and the fire hot). If any of them should be boundless, it would long since have destroyed the others; but now there is, they say, something other from which they are all generated" (Physics 204b25-29, DK 12A16).

This is not only virtually the same argument as used by Plato in his Phaedo (72a12-b5), but even more interesting is that it was used almost 2500 years later by Friedrich Nietzsche in his attempts to prove his thesis of the Eternal Recurrence: "If the world had a goal, it would have been reached. If there were for it some unintended final state, this also must have been reached. If it were at all capable of a pausing and becoming fixed, if it were capable of 'being', if in the whole course of its becoming it possessed even for a moment this capability of 'being', then again all becoming would long since have come to an end." Nietzsche wrote these words in his notebook in 1885, but already in Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen (1873), which was not published during his lifetime, he mentioned the argument and credited Anaximander with it.

The fragment

The only existing fragment of Anaximander's book (DK 12B1) is surrounded by all kinds of questions. The ancient Greeks did not use quotation marks, so that we cannot be sure where Simplicius, who has handed down the text to us, is still paraphrasing Anaximander and where he begins to quote him. The text is cast in indirect speech, even the part which most authors agree is a real quotation. One important word of the text ('allêlois', here translated by 'upon one another') is missing in some manuscripts. As regards the interpretation of the fragment, it is heavily disputed whether it means to refer to Anaximander's principle, the Boundless, or not. The Greek original has relative pronouns in the plural (here rendered by 'whence' and 'thence'), which makes it difficult to relate them to the Boundless. However, Simplicius' impression that it is written in rather poetic words has been repeated in several ways by many authors. Therefore, we offer a translation, in which some poetic features of the original, such as chiasmus and alliteration have been imitated:

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
- The condemnation for the crime -
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

In the fourth and fifth line a more fluent translation is given for what is usually rendered rather cryptic by something like "giving justice and reparation to one another for their injustice."

We may distinguish roughly two lines of interpretation, which may be labeled the 'horizontal' and the 'vertical'. The horizontal interpretation holds that in the fragment nothing is said about the relation of the things to the Boundless, whereas the vertical interpretation maintains that the fragment describes the relationship of the things to the Boundless. The upholders of the horizontal interpretation usually do not deny that Anaximander taught that all things are generated from the Boundless, but they simply hold that this is not what is said in the fragment. They argue that the fragment describes the battle between the elements (or of things in general), which accounts for the origin and destruction of things. The most obvious difficulty, however, for this 'horizontal' interpretation is that it implies two cycles of becoming and decay: one from and into the Boundless, and the other caused by the mutual give and take of the elements or things in general. In other words, in the 'horizontal' interpretation the Boundless is superfluous. This is the strongest argument in favor of the 'vertical' interpretation, which holds that the fragment refers to the Boundless, notwithstanding the plural relative pronouns. According to the 'vertical' interpretation, then, the Boundless should be regarded not only as the ever-flowing fountain from which everything ultimately springs, but also as the yawning abyss (as some say, comparable with Hesiod's 'Chaos') into which everything ultimately perishes.

The suggestion has been raised that Anaximander's formula in the first two lines of the fragment should have been the model for Aristotle's definition of the 'principle' (Greek: 'archê') of all things in Metaphysics 983b8. There is some sense in this suggestion. For what could be more natural for Aristotle than to borrow his definition of the notion of 'archê', which he uses to indicate the principle of the first presocratic philosophers, from Anaximander, the one who introduced the notion?

It is certainly important that we possess one text from Anaximander's book. On the other hand, we must recognize that we know hardly anything of its original context, as the rest of the book has been lost. We do not know from which part of his book it is, nor whether it is a text the author himself thought crucial or just a line that caught one reader's attention as an example of Anaximander's poetic writing style. The danger exists that we are tempted to use this stray text - beautiful and mysterious as it is - in order to produce all kinds of profound interpretations that are hard to verify. Perhaps a better way of understanding what Anaximander has to say is to study carefully the doxography, which goes back to people like Aristotle and Theophrastus, who probably have had Anaximander's book before their eyes, and who tried to reformulate what they thought were its central claims.

The origin of the cosmos

The Boundless seems to have played a role in Anaximander's account of the origin of the cosmos. Its eternal movement is said to have caused the origin of the heavens. Elsewhere, it is said that "all the heavens and the worlds within them" have sprung from "some boundless nature". A part of this process is described in rather poetic language, full of images, which seems to be idiosyncratic for Anaximander: "a germ, pregnant with hot and cold, was separated [or: separated itself] off from the eternal, whereupon out of this germ a sphere of fire grew around the vapor that surrounds the earth, like a bark round a tree" (DK 12A10). Subsequently, the sphere of fire is said to have fallen apart into several rings, and this event was the origin of sun, moon, and stars. There are authors who have, quite anachronistically, seen here a kind of foreshadowing of the Kant-Laplace theory of the origin of the solar system. Some sources even mention innumerable worlds (in time and/or in space), which looks like a plausible consequence of the Boundless as principle. But this is presumably a later theory, incorrectly read back into Anaximander.
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