Ionian Philosophy and It’s Influence on Greek thought.

In A History of Philosophy:Vol. 1, Frederick Copleston ruminates on Ionian Philosophy.  Coming from a Thomist position himself, he sees much value in an awareness, understanding and deep appreciation for the roots of philosophy.  According to him, to be a good philosopher is to have a knowledge of the historical context of philosophy, a “sympathetic” or intimate knowledge of the inner workings of any given philosopher’s life as well as the language he or she use(d) and the implications of what was said or written.

Trying to embody this himself, Copleston moves onward to enumerate different beliefs of the earliest philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.  In describing their efforts to greater understand the nature of reality, Copleston presents some information that will be of no surprise to the advanced philosophy student, but is of great help to newer students approaching the history of philosophy.

In the midst of an effort to reduce all that exists and find commonality these philosophers arrived at differing views.  For instance, Thales viewed that the one common element of all of reality was water.  He believed the earth floated like a disc on water.  In trying to discover the source of Thales belief, Aristotle said that he got “the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it.  He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and water is the origin of the nature of moist things.”

On the other hand, Anaximenes believed the primary stuff underlying all to be air and supported this conclusion with the proofs of “condensation” and “rarefraction”.  He knew that air was not seen but that it could take the form of water under certain circumstances.  Moreover, when “condensed: even further it would take the form of a solid.  However, when air became “rarefied” it became warmer and would eventually would lead to fire.

Finally, Anaximander took a different route by proposing the primary element was “indeterminate”.  Whatever it was that was indeterminate was the source out of which things like water, fire, earth, and air came.  Copleston notes that Anaximander was the first to speak of this as the “material cause.”  “It is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but a nature different from them and infinite, from which arise all the heavens and worlds within them.”  This concept has been called the “indeterminate infinite.” It was further described as “the substance without limits, Eternal and ageless”, and it “encompasses all worlds.”

While all three of these options were of interest to me, of particular interest was Anaximander’s option.  To me this sounds a lot like the unmoved mover that I from a Judeo-Christian background would hold as the first cause.  Is it the case that later philosophers drew on this idea of Anaximander?  If so, is there any documentation or sources that mention this possibility?


3 Responses to Ionian Philosophy and It’s Influence on Greek thought.

  1. Xavier says:

    This reminds me of Aquinas’ comment in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

    We should love both: those whose opinion we follow and those whose opinion we reject. For both have applied themselves to the quest for the truth and both have helped us in it.

    I too think there are seeds of an argument for the origin of the cosmos in Anaximander’s “boundless” or “infinite” concept. The world (or at least elements) has its origin not from any of its members but from something “outside”, the eternally moving “boundless.” Depending on how you interpret the cryptic passage attributed to him by Simplicius, the world is also ultimately destroyed in the “boundless.”

  2. Clint says:

    I like that comment. One reason Copleston gives for the need to study history of philosophy is that even if all philosophies have been refuted (which surely not all have), mistaken philsophies are still instructive.

  3. Keith says:

    Similar to heretics and historical theology (i.e., our orthodoxy wouldn’t be nearly so clear without Pelagius, Arius, etc.).

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