The Presocratics – The Ionians

Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 107.jpgThales of Miletus “the first philosoher”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The very first of the Greek thinkers — the Ionians — lived in Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey. They were speculative natural philosophers. Thales, who Aristotle considered the first philosopher, speculated that the various distinct objects of the world all had the same substratum. Underneath the appearance of division in the world, there was a basic material unity: All things were comprised of water. While this is a scientific statement about what comprises reality, it is also a metaphysical statement. It is maintaining a basic unity among diversity.

We do not know precisely why Thales speculated that the common substance of all things was water. Aristotle speculated that it was because water is necessary for all living things. Water could also take the forms of solid (as ice), gas (as steam) and liquid (as water). In any case, what is remarkable about Thales’ view is not really the specific answer that he provides to the question. It is more the approach he initiates to address questions. He is not like the religious poet who comes bearing a message from the gods — his thoughts are not gifts of Hermes. Rather, he is speculating posting natural causes and using natural reason.

What Thales begins, various Ionian philosophers after him continue. Anaximander goes further than Thales, positing views about the origin of the diverse things in the world from a primordial unity. In the beginning was the Apeiron, the boundless or unlimited, a nondifferentiated unity. Out of it, the many things of the world emerge. Decisive here as a break in the explanatory model of the Greek religious-mythical thinkers, the emergence of the world does not occur because of the action of the gods. Neither Zeus nor Prometheus is involved. Rather, it is fundamentally the interaction of two factors — hot and cold — that are at work as the world emerges out of the unlimited. Animals are born from moisture heated by the sun. Humans originate from similar processes — natural and lawlike, even if not so clearly articulated as we might like.

Anaximenes continues reflections on these same issues. He proposes views contrasting with those of both Thales and Anaximander. Not water, he thinks, is the substratum, but air, aether. Following Anaximander, he appears to wonder that if all were comprised of water, how we would account for fire. Yet, in contrast to Anaximander, he posits a clearer mechanism through which the many arise from the original unity. The starting point for the development of the world was not the unbound but was chaos. Out if it, from a primordial breath, the many arise.

One of the main characteristics that we see in these earliest Ionian thinkers is that they do not take the authority of their tradition as a starting point for their reasoning. While they are undoubtedly influenced by that tradition, they set out to reason on the basis of what they experience …

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8 thoughts on “The Presocratics – The Ionians

  1. Absolutely wonderful application of a universal truth we humans rediscover over and over again. Oh how I wish I had even a little bit of your discipline to write regularly. Sharing well reasoned reflections are both gift and inspiration. All Best, my buddy. And remember, you can’t make old friends. Diane

  2. Ancient speculations are not necessarily less valid than ‘modern’ speculations concerning the origin of the Cosmos.

  3. Thales sounded like a kindred spirit, so I was interested to learn from Wikipedia that his “principal occupation was engineering” But he was much more than that, being a true polymath of his day.

    This discussion somehow led me to a wonderful lecture on the Origin of the Universe by the late Stephen Hawking. In this lecture, Hawking combines a little philosophy, history, scientific reasoning and humor. His occasional use of simple examples from every-day life to help illustrate his points is reminiscent of Prof. Daniel Dennett’s explanatory style. For anyone interested in both science and the age-old question of the origin of the universe, it is well worth the reading.

  4. thanks, Jim, I’ll take a look. As for the Presocratics, I taught them as a grad student and there are many interesting ideas to be found in their thinking. JGM

  5. “We do not know precisely why Thales speculated that the common substance of all things was water.”

    It is a fact, though, that hydrogen makes up 75 percent of the mass of the known Cosmos.
    [As an aside, what interests me most re this sort of topic, is the notion of the Cosmos being a simulation. A theory:: going too far in ‘hacking’ the code of the sim could conceivably result in auto-destruction of the known Cosmos.]

  6. Thanks for the comments, all! Thales indeed was interesting and mutli-faceted. The stories offer a mixed depiction. In one story, he is described as having his head so much in the clouds that once, busy staring into the skies while walking, he is said to have fallen into a well. By contrast, in another story he is depicted as setting out to prove that a philosopher could also make money, applying a practical intelligence to business. Predicting a bumper olive crop, Aristotle tells us he put a deposit on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chio to be able to rent them should his prediction come true. When the bumper crop came, he rented them all and made considerable profit, able to sell the oil at a high price. Thales enjoyed considerable renown in Ancient Greece. He was the only philosopher counted among “the seven sages,” all individuals who otherwise showed a practical intelligence.

  7. I thank Dr. Arnold for his replies and of course for his insights into the Presocratics. JGM

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