Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of

Philosophy Made Lighter, Fourth Edition

Donald Palmer

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Looking at Philosophy The Unbearable Heaviness of

Philosophy Made Lighter


Donald Palmer Professor Emeritus at College of Marin



For Katarina & Christian

Published by McGraw-Hill, an imprint of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Copyright © 2006, 2001, 1994, 1988 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be repro- duced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., includ- ing, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning.

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Wittgenstein once said that a whole philosophy book could be written consisting of nothing but jokes. This is not that book, nor does this book treat the history of philosophy as a joke. This book takes philos- ophy seriously, but not gravely. As the subtitle indicates, the goal of the book is to lighten the load a bit. How to do this without simply throwing the cargo overboard? First, by presenting an overview of Western philosophy from the sixth century B.C.E. through most of the twentieth century in a way that introduces the central philosophical ideas of the West and their evolution in a concise, readable format without trivializing them, but at the same time, without pretending to have exhausted them nor to have plumbed their depths. Second, following a time-honored medieval tradition, by illuminating the mar- gins of the text. Some of these illuminations, namely those that attempt to schematize difficult ideas, I hope will be literally illuminat- ing. Most of them, however, are simply attempts in a lighter vein to interrupt the natural propensity of the philosophers to succumb to the pull of gravity. (Nietzsche said that only the grave lay in that direction.) But even these philosophical jokes, I hope, have a pedagog- ical function. They should serve to help the reader retain the ideas that are thereby gently mocked. Thirty years of teaching the subject, which I love—and which has provoked more than a few laughs on the part of my students—convinces me that this technique should work.




I do not claim to have achieved Nietzsche’s “joyful wisdom,” but I agree with him that there is such a thing and that we should strive for it.

Before turning you over to Thales and his metaphysical water (the first truly heavy water), I want to say a word about the women and their absence. Why are there so few women in a book of this nature? There are a number of possible explanations, including these:

1. Women really are deficient in the capacity for sublimation and hence are incapable of participating in higher culture (as Schopenhauer and Freud suggested).

2. Women have in fact contributed greatly to the history of philosophy, but their contributions have been denied or sup- pressed by the chauvinistic male writers of the histories of philosophy.

3. Women have been (intentionally or unintentionally) system- atically eliminated from the history of philosophy by political, social, religious, and psychological manipulations of power by a deeply entrenched, jealous, and fearful patriarchy.

I am certain that the first thesis does not merit our serious attention. I think there is some truth to the second thesis, and I may be partially guilty of suppressing that truth. For example, the names of at least seventy women philosophers in the late classical period alone have been recorded, foremost of which are Aspasia, Diotima, Aretê, and Hypatia. (Hypatia has been belatedly honored by having a journal of feminist philosophy named after her.) Jumping over cen- turies to our own age, we find a number of well-known women con- tributing to the history of philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, including Simone de Beauvoir, Susanne Langer, and L. Susan Stebbing.

However, no matter how original, deep, and thought-provoking were the ideas of these philosophers, I believe that, for a number of reasons (those reasons given in the second and third theses are probably most pertinent here), none of them has been as historically significant as the ideas of those philosophers who are discussed in this book. Fortunately, things have begun to change in the past few

iv ◆ Preface



years. An adequate account of contemporary philosophy could not in good faith ignore the major contributions to the analytic tradition of philosophers Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, G. E. M. Anscombe, and Judith Jarvis Thompson, nor those contributions to the Continental tradition made by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Furthermore, a new wave of women phi- losophers is already beginning to have considerable impact on the content of contemporary philosophy and not merely on its style.

So, despite the risks, I defend the third thesis. I truly believe that if women had not been systematically excluded from major par- ticipation in the history of philosophy,1 that history would be even richer, deeper, more compassionate, and more interesting (not to mention more joyful) than it already is. It is not for nothing that the book ends with a discussion of the work of a contemporary woman philosopher and with a question posed to philosophy herself, “Quo vadis?”—Whither goest thou?

The fourth edition proceeds with the refinement of presentation begun in the second edition and with the addition of new material ini- tiated in the third edition. I have had some help with all four editions of this book. For suggestions with the earlier editions, I am grateful to Timothy R. Allan, Trocaire College; Dasiea Cavers-Huff, Riverside Community College; Job Clement, Daytona Beach Community College; Will Griffis, Maui Community College; Julianna Scott Fein, Mayfield Publishing Company; Hans Hansen, Wayne State University; Fred E. Heifner Jr., Cumberland University; Joseph Huster, University of Utah; Ken King, Mayfield Publishing Company; Robin Mouat, Mayfield Pub- lishing Company; Don Porter, College of San Mateo; Brian Schroeder, Siena College; Matt Schulte, Montgomery College; Yukio Shirahama, San Antonio College; Samuel Thorpe, Oral Roberts University; William Tinsley, Foothill College; James Tuttle, John Carroll University; Kerry Walk, Princeton University; Stevens F. Wandmacher, University of Michigan, Flint; Andrew Ward, San Jose State University; and Robert White, Montgomery College. I would also like to thank my colleague David Auerbach at North Carolina State University for having read

Preface ◆ v



and commented on parts of the manuscript. Jim Bull, my editor at Mayfield Publishing Company for the first two editions, had faith in this project from its inception. For excellent suggestions concerning this fourth edition I thank Robert Caputi, Trocaire College; Janine Jones, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Amber L. Katherine, Santa Monica College; James Lemke, Coker College; and Kirby Olson, SUNY Delhi. For the new edition, my editor at McGraw-Hill has been Jon-David Hague. My editorial coordinator, Allison Rona, has been exceptionally helpful. Also at McGraw-Hill I am indebted to Leslie LaDow, the production editor, and copyeditor Karen Dorman. My wife, Leila May, has been my most acute critic and my greatest source of inspiration. She kept me laughing during the dreariest stages of the production of the manuscript, often finding on its pages jokes that weren’t meant to be there. I hope she managed to catch most of them. There probably are still a few pages that are funnier than I intended them to be.


1. See Mary Warnock, ed. Women Philosophers (London: J. M. Dent, 1996).

vi ◆ Preface



Preface iii

Introduction 1

I. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.E. 10

Thales 13

Anaximander 16

Anaximenes 22

Pythagoras 24

Heraclitus 27

Parmenides 31

Zeno 33

Empedocles 36

Anaxagoras 38

Leucippus and Democritus 41

II. The Athenian Period Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. 48

The Sophists 48

Protagoras 49

Gorgias 50

Thrasymachus 51

Callicles and Critias 52

Socrates 54

Plato 59

Aristotle 72





III. The Hellenistic and Roman Periods Fourth Century B.C.E. through Fourth Century C.E. 91

Epicureanism 91

Stoicism 95

Neoplatonism 100

IV. Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy Fifth through Fifteenth Centuries 104

Saint Augustine 108

The Encyclopediasts 113

John Scotus Eriugena 115

Saint Anselm 118

Muslim and Jewish Philosophies 121

Averroës 123

Maimonides 124

The Problem of Faith and Reason 126

The Problem of the Universals 127

Saint Thomas Aquinas 130

William of Ockham 142

Renaissance Philosophers 146

V. Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries 154

Descartes 154

Hobbes 173

Spinoza 177

Leibniz 182

Locke 188

Berkeley 196

Hume 201

Kant 210

VI. Post-Kantian British and Continental Philosophy The Nineteenth Century 227

Hegel 227

Schopenhauer 237

viii ◆ Contents



Kierkegaard 246

Marx 258

Nietzsche 271

Utilitarianism 280

Bentham 280

Mill 285

Frege 288

VII. Pragmatism, the Analytic Tradition, and the Phenomenological Tradition and Its Aftermath The Twentieth Century 299

Pragmatism 299

James 300

Dewey 307

The Analytic Tradition 312

Moore 313

Russell 318

Logical Positivism 325

Wittgenstein 331

Quine 343

The Phenomenological Tradition and Its Aftermath 353

Husserl 353

Heidegger 357

Sartre 366

Structuralism and Poststructuralism 380

Saussure 380

Lévi-Strauss 383

Lacan 388

Derrida 394

Irigaray 398

Glossary of Philosophical Terms 407

Selected Bibliography 423

Index 433

Contents ◆ ix



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The story of Western philosophy begins in Greece.





The Greek word “Logos” is the source of the English word “logic” as well as all the “logies” in terms like “biology,” “sociology,” and “psy- chology,” where “logos” means the theory, or study, or rationalization of something. “Logos” also means “word” in Greek, so it involves the act of speaking, or setting forth an idea in a clear manner. “Logos,” therefore, designates a certain kind of thinking about the world, a kind of logical analysis that places things in the context of reason and explains them with the pure force of thought. Such an intellec- tual exercise was supposed to lead to wisdom (Sophia), and those who dedicated themselves to Logos were thought of as lovers of wis- dom (love = philo), hence as philosophers.

What was there before philosophy, before Logos? There was Mythos—a certain way of thinking that placed the world in the con- text of its supernatural origins. Mythos explained worldly things by tracing them to exceptional, sometimes sacred, events that caused the world to be as it is now. In the case of the Greeks, Mythos meant

tracing worldly things to the dra- matic acts of the gods of

Mount Olympus. The narra- tives describing these ori-

gins—myths—are not only explanatory but also morally exemplary and ritualistically instruc- tive; that is, they pro- vide the rules that, if followed by all, would create the foundation of a genuine community of togetherness— a “we” and an “us” instead of a mere con- glomeration of individu- als who could only say

2 ◆ Introduction

You will wear your baseball cap backward because the gods wore theirs backward!

What’s baseball?

Explaining Ancient Greek Customs



“I” and “me.” Hence, myths are often conservative in nature. They seek to maintain the status quo by replicating origins: “So behaved the sacred ancestors, so must we behave.” Myths had the advantage of creating a whole social world in which all acts had meaning. They had the disadvantage of creating static societies, of resisting innovation, and, many would say, of being false. Then, suddenly, philosophy hap- pened—Logos broke upon the scene, at least according to the tradi- tional account. (There are other accounts, however, accounts that suggest that Western Logos—philosophy and science—is just our version of myth.) But let us suppose that something different did take place in Greece about 700 B.C.E.1 Let’s suppose that the “first” philosopher’s explanation of the flooding of the Nile River during the summer (most rivers tend to dry up in the summer) as being caused by desert winds (desert winds, not battles or love affairs among gods) really does constitute novelty. Natural phenomena are ex- plained by other natural phenomena, not by supernatural events in “dream time”—the time of the ancient gods. In that case, Greece truly is the cradle of Western philosophy.

Why Greece, and not, for example, Egypt or Judea? Well, let’s be honest here. Nobody knows. Still, a number of histori- cal facts are rele- vant to the explana- tion we seek. For one, there was a very productive contact between ancient Greece and the cultures of the east- ern Mediterranean region—Persia,

Introduction ◆ 3

Once, many many years ago, there was a big bang. But great fathers Galileo and Newton were not dismayed. They conferred and said, “It is good.”

A Modern Myth?



Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Cyprus, southern Italy, and Egypt, among others. The Greeks were a well-traveled group and were extremely adept at borrowing ideas, conventions, and artistic forms from the cultures they encountered and applying these elements creatively to their own needs. There is also a controversial theory that Greek cul- ture derives greatly from African sources.2 It is at least certain, as one historian of Greek ideas has recently said, that “the cultural achievements of archaic and classical Greece are unthinkable without Near Eastern resources to draw upon,”3 and eastern North Africa fits into this map.

Also, unlike the case in some of the surrounding societies, there was no priestly class of censors in Greece. This observation does not mean that Greek thinkers had no restrictions on what they could say—we will see that several charges of impiety were brought against

4 ◆ Introduction



some of them in the period under study—but that they were able nevertheless to get away with quite a bit that went against prevailing religious opinion.

Another historical fact is that the Greek imagination had always been fertile in its concern with intimate detail. For example, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield takes up four pages of the Iliad. In addition, the many generations of Greek children who grew up on the poems of Homer and Hesiod4—two of the main vehicles that transmitted Greek religion—recognized in them their argumentative, intellectually combative, and questioning nature. The polemical nature of Greek drama and poetry would find a new home in Greek philosophy.

A final component of the world into which philosophy was born is the socioeconomic structure that produced a whole leisured class of

Introduction ◆ 5



people—mostly male people—with time on their hands that they could spend meditating on philosophical issues. It is always jolting to remember that during much of Greece’s history, a major part of the economic foundation of its society was slave labor and booty from military conquests. This fact takes some of the luster from “the Glory that was Greece.”

Still, for whatever reasons, the poetry and drama of the Greeks demonstrate an intense awareness of change, of the war of the opposites—summer to winter, hot to cold, light to dark, and that most dramatic change of all, life to death.

Indeed, this sensitivity to the transitory nature of all things sometimes led the Greeks to pessimism. The poets Homer, Mimner- mus, and Simonides all expressed the idea “Generations of men fall like the leaves of the forest.”5

6 ◆ Introduction



But this sensitivity also led the Greeks to demand an explanation— one that would be obtained and justified not by the authority of reli- gious tradition but by the sheer power of human reason. Here we find an optimism behind the pessimism—the human mind operating on its own devices is able to discover ultimate truths about reality.

But let us not overemphasize the radicalness of the break made by the Greek philosophers with the earlier, mythical ways of thinking. It’s not as if suddenly a bold new atheism emerged, reject- ing all religious explanations or constraints. In fact, atheism as we understand it today was virtually unknown in the ancient world.6

Rather, these early Greek philosophers reframed the perennial puzzles about reality in such a way as to emphasize the workings of nature rather than the work of the gods. For instance, they tended to demote cosmogony (theories about the origins of the world) and promote cosmology (theories about the nature of the world).

This new direction represents the beginnings of a way of thinking that the Greeks would soon call “philosophy”—the love of wisdom. We

Introduction ◆ 7



can discern in these early efforts what we now take to be the main fields of the discipline that we too call philosophy: ontology (theory of being); epistemology (theory of knowledge); axiology (theory of value), which includes ethics, or moral philosophy (theory of right behavior), and aesthetics (theory of beauty, or theory of art); and logic (theory of correct inference).

In fact, the theories put forth in ancient Greece could be called the origins of Western science with as much justification as they can be called the origins of Western philosophy, even though at that early period no such distinctions could be made. Roughly, I would say that science deals with problems that can be addressed experimentally by subsuming the observable events that puzzle us under the dominion of natural laws and by showing how these laws are related causally to those events. Philosophy, on the other hand, deals with problems that require a speculative rather than an experimental approach. Such problems often require conceptual analysis (the logical scrutiny of general ideas) rather than observation or data gathering. Consider these questions, paying special attention to the italicized words:

Can we know why on rare occasions the sun darkens at midday? Is it true that the moon’s passing between the earth and the

sun causes such events? Can there be successful experiments that explain this


These questions are scientific questions. Now compare these ques- tions to the following ones, paying attention again to the words in italics:

What is knowledge? What is truth? What is causality? What is value? What is explanation?

These questions invite conceptual analysis, which is part of philosophy. But we are moving too fast and looking too far ahead. As I said,

such distinctions had not yet been clearly drawn in the ancient world.

8 ◆ Introduction



The thinkers there were satisfied to have asked the kinds of ques- tions that were foundational both to philosophy and to science.

Topics for Consideration

1. Pick some observable phenomenon, such as what we now call the eclipse of the sun, and explain it from the perspective of science, and then again from some system of myth. (You may have to visit the library for this exercise.) Then use these two “stories” to demonstrate the difference between Logos and Mythos.

2. Think about your own patterns of belief. Are there any of them that you would acknowledge as Mythos rather than Logos? Here are two exam- ples: (A) If you have religious beliefs, how would you characterize them in terms of this distinction? (B) What would it mean to assert that science itself is simply an instance of Western Mythos?


1. I have chosen to use the new dating coordinates B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the older B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or The Year of Our Lord) because the attempt to gauge the whole of human history from the perspective of a particular religious tradition no longer seems tenable. But let’s face it: This new system is a bit artificial. Probably there is some- thing arbitrary about all attempts to date historical events. At least I am not fol- lowing the lead of the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who pro- claimed, “History begins with my birth.” (We’ll study Nietzsche later.)

2. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1, The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785–1985 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Uni- versity Press, 1987).

3. Robin Osborne, “The Polis and Its Culture,” in Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 1, From the Beginning to Plato, ed. C. C. W. Taylor (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 14.

4. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Michael Reck (New York: IconEditions, 1994); Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998); Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days, trans. Dorothea Wender (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976).

5. This sentiment can be found in the poems published in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, ed. and trans. Andrew M. Miller (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1996), 27, 117, 118.

6. See Catherine Osborne, “Heraclitus,” in From the Beginning to Plato, 90.

Notes ◆ 9



The thinkers who were active in Greece between the end of the seventh century B.C.E. and the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. are known today as the pre-Socratic philosophers, even though the last of the group so designated were actually contemporaries of Socrates.


1 The Pre-Socratic

Philosophers Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.E.



(Socrates was born in 469 and died in 399 B.C.E. We look at his thought in the next chapter.) What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos (kosmos is the Greek term for “world”) not simply by repeat- ing the tales of how the gods had created everything, but by using observation and reason to construct general theories that would explain to the unprejudiced and curious mind the secrets behind the appearances in the world. Another commonality was that all the pre- Socratic philosophers stemmed from the outlying borders of the Greek world: islands in the Ionian Sea or Greek colonies in Italy or along the coast of Persia (in today’s Turkey). Knowledge of these thinkers is tremendously important not only for understanding the Greek world of their time, but—as I have argued in the Introduc- tion—for grasping the origins of Western philosophy and science.

The problem is that in fact very little is known about the pre- Socratic philosophers. Most of the books that they wrote had already disappeared by the time that the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) tried to catalog and criticize their views. Today’s understanding of the pre-Socratics is based mostly on summaries of their ideas by Aristotle and by later Greek writers who had heard of their views only by word of mouth. Many of these accounts are surely inaccurate because of distortions caused by repetition over several generations by numerous individuals. (Have you ever played the game called Telephone, in which a complicated message is whis- pered to a player, who then whispers it to the next player, and so on, until the message—or what’s left of it—is announced to the whole group by the last player in the circle?) Also, these summaries often contained anachronistic ideas, that is, ideas from the later time projected back into the earlier views. Only fragments of the original works remain in most cases today, and even those few existing passages do not always agree with one another. Remember, these “books” were all written by hand on papyrus (a fragile early paper made from the crushed and dried pulp of an Egyptian water plant), and all editions of these books were copied manually by

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers ◆ 11



professional scribes. Furthermore, the meaning of many of the frag- ments is debatable, both because of the “fragmentary” nature of the scraps—key words are missing or illegible—and because of the obscure language in which many of these works were written. Never- theless, a tradition concerning the meaning of the pre-Socratics had already developed by Aristotle’s time, and it is that version of their story that influenced later philosophers and scientists. Aristotle is not the only source of our information about the pre- Socratics, but unfortunately most of the additional information comes from post-Aristotelian commentators giving interpretations of Aristotle’s remarks. We do not know to what extent the material provided by these other sources is informed by extraneous sources. So Aristotle appears to be our real source, and we have no clear idea of his accuracy because he paraphrases the various pre- Socratics.1 Therefore, the tradition that I report here is flawed and distorted in many ways.

12 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Did Billy Anders sight a toad? Did he find a thimble on the way?

She says ’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe





Philosophy makes its first self-presentation in three consecutive gen- erations of thinkers from the little colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor—today’s Turkey—in the sixth century B.C.E. The first recorded philosopher is Thales of Miletus (ca. 580 B.C.E.). Apparently, he did not write a book, or if he did, it is long lost.

If we can trust Aristotle and his commentators, Thales’ argu- ment was something like this:

If there is change, there must be some thing that changes, yet does not change. There must be a unity behind the apparent plurality

Thales ◆ 13

What substance must underlie grass to allow it to be transformed to milk?




of things, a Oneness disguised by the superficial plurality of the world. Otherwise the world would not be a world; rather, it would be a disjointed grouping of unrelated fragments.

So what is the nature of this unifying, ultimately unchanging substance that is disguised from us by the appearance of constant change?

Like the myth makers before him, Thales was familiar with the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. He assumed that all things must ultimately be reducible to one of these four—but which one?

Of all the elements, water is the most obvious in its transfor- mations: Rivers turn into deltas, water turns into ice and then back

14 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers



into water, which in turn can be changed into steam, which becomes air, and air, in the form of wind, fans fire.

Then water it is! All things are composed of water.

Thales’ actual words were: “The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”2

This obviously false conclusion is valued today not for its con- tent but for its form (it is not a great leap between the claim “All things are composed of water” and the claim “All things are com- posed of atoms”) and for the presupposition behind it (that there is an ultimate stuff behind appearances that explains change while remaining itself unchanged). Viewed this way, Thales can be seen as the first philosopher to introduce the project of reductionism. Reductionism is a method of explanation that takes an object that confronts us on the surface as being one kind of thing and shows that the object can be reduced to a more basic kind of thing at a deeper but less obvious level of analysis. This project is usually seen as a major function of modern science.

Thales ◆ 15



I regret to say that I must add three other ideas that Aristotle also attributes to Thales. My regret is due to the capacity of these ideas to undercut what has seemed so far to be a pretty neat foun- dation for future science. Aristotle says that, according to Thales,

(A) The earth floats on water the way a log floats on a pond. (B) All things are full of gods. (C) A magnet (loadstone) must have a soul, because it is able

to produce motion.

The first of these ideas, (A), is puzzling because it seems gratuitous. If everything is water, then it is odd to say that some water floats on water. (B) shows us that the cut between Mythos and Logos is not as neat in Thales’ case as I have appeared to indicate. (C) seems somehow related to (B), but in conflicting ways. If according to (B) all things are full of gods, then why are the magnets mentioned in (C) any different from everything else in nature? No surprise that over the years scholars have spilled a lot of ink—and, because the debate still goes on, punched a lot of computer keys—trying to make sense of these ideas that Aristotle attributes to Thales.


Several generations of Thales’ followers agreed with his key insight— that the plurality of kinds of things in the world must be reducible to one category—but none of them seems to have accepted his formula

16 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers



that everything is water. His student Anaximander (ca. 610–ca. 546 B.C.E.), also from the city of Miletus, said that if all things were water, then long ago everything would have returned to water. Anaximander asked how water could become its deadly enemy, fire—how a quality could give rise to its opposite. That is, if observable objects were really just water in various states of agitation—as are ice and steam— then eventually all things would have settled back into their primor- dial liquid state. Aristotle paraphrases him this way: If ultimate real- ity “were something specific like water, the other elements would be annihilated by it. For the different elements have contrariety with one another. . . . If one of them were unlimited the others would have ceased to exist by now.”3 (Notice that if this view can be accurately attributed to Anaximander, then he subscribed to an early view of the principle of entropy, according to which all things have a tendency to seek a state of equilibrium.)

For Anaximander, the ultimate stuff behind the four elements could not itself be one of the elements. It would have to be an un- observable, unspecific, indeterminate something-or-other, which he called the Boundless, or the Unlimited (apeiron in Greek). It would

Anaximander ◆ 17



have to be boundless, unlimited, and unspecific because anything specific is opposed to all the other specific things in existence. (Water is not fire, which in turn is not air, and air is not earth [not dirt and rock].) Yet the Boundless is opposed to nothing, because every- thing is it.

Anaximander seems to have imagined the Boundless as originally moving effort- lessly in a great cosmic vortex that was interrupted by some disaster (a Big Bang?), and that disaster caused oppo- sites—dry and wet, cold and

hot—to separate off from the vortex and to appear to us not only as qualities but as the four basic elements: earth, water, air, and fire.

Anaximander wrote a book in prose, one of the first such books ever written. But papyrus does not last forever, and only one passage remains that we can be fairly certain comes from his book. However, that passage is a zinger.

And from what source things arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed, for they suffer punishment and make repara- tion to one another for their injustice according to the order of time.4

There are many possible interpretations of this amazing state- ment. According to the most dramatic interpretation, the whole

18 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers



world as you and I know it is the result of a cosmic error. Creation is an act of injustice. But justice will be done; the world will eventually be destroyed, and “things” will return to their boundless source and revolve eternally in a vortex. This interpretation, which contains at least as much Mythos as Logos, exhibits a bizarre kind of optimism about the triumph of justice.

A less radical, less mythical, and more likely interpretation would be this: Once the four elements were created, they became related to one another in antagonistic ways, but their opposition to one another balances out in an ecological harmony. If one element dominates at one period (say, water in a time of flood), it will later be compensated by the domination of another element at another period (say, fire in a drought). So the original unity of the Boundless is preserved in the apparent war of the opposites.

A very important part of this passage is the claim that the events described occur “of necessity . . . according to the order of

Anaximander ◆ 19

I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that the world is going

to end . . .



time.” This process, then, is not due to the whims of the gods, and the “punishment” and “reparation” for the “injustice” is not reprisal against individual humans by angry divinities. Natural laws are govern- ing these processes with inevitability. If the working out of these laws is described by Anaximander in the moral and legal language of the old myths, his description simply shows, as the eminent pre-Socratic scholar Malcolm Schofield says, “that Anaximander is a revolutionary who carries some old-fashion baggage with him. That is the general way with revolutions.”5 In any case, the cause of these processes— the apeiron—is immortal and indestructible, qualities usually associ- ated with gods, as Aristotle points out.6 Again, we see that pre- Socratic philosophy has not completely divorced itself from its religious origins.

Other striking ideas have been attributed to Anaximander: (1) Because the same processes that are at work here are at work everywhere, there is a plurality of universes. (2) The earth needs no support (remember Thales’ “floating like a log in water”). Because the earth is right smack in the middle of the universe (well, our universe), it is “equidistant from all things.” (3) The four elements concentrate in certain regions—in concentric circles—of the cosmos, with earth (the heaviest) in the center, surrounded by a circle of water, then another of air, then one of fire. A wheel of fire circles our slower earth. What we see as the stars are really holes in the outer ring, or “tube- like vents,” with fire showing through.

This last cosmological picture painted by Anaximander had an amazingly long life. Merrill Ring quotes the sixteenth-century British poet Edmund Spenser as writing:

The earth the air the water and the fire Then gan to range themselves in huge array, and with contrary forces to conspire Each against other by all means they may.7

And in the early seventeenth century, Miguel de Cervantes relates a heroic adventure of Don Quixote and Sancho in which a group of bored aristocrats trick the knight and his squire into blindfolding them-

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selves and mounting a wooden horse, Clavileño, which they are told is magic and will fly them to the outer reaches of the world. The under- lings of the Duke and Duchess blow winds upon our heroes with great billows as they reach the “realm of the air.” Turning the wooden peg in the horse’s head that he believes controls the horse’s speed, Don Quixote says, “If we go on climbing at this rate we shall soon strike the region of fire, and I do not know how to manage this peg so as not to mount so high that we shall scorch.”8 Their tormentors then brush their faces with torches to convince them that they have indeed reached the realm of fire at the edge of the cosmos.

Anaximander ◆ 21



This magical episode “takes place” some two thousand years after the death of Anaximander and sixty years after the death of Copernicus, so people might have come to realize by then that Anaxi- mander was wrong.


Some of Anaximander’s followers asked, “How much better is an ‘unspecific, indeterminate something-or-other’ than nothing at all?” They decided that it was no better, that in fact it was the same as nothing at all, and knowing that ex nihilo nihil (from nothing comes nothing), they went on searching for the mysterious ultimate stuff.

The next philosopher, Anaximenes (ca. 545 B.C.E.), thought it was air.

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The air that we experience (“commonsense air”) is a halfway house between all the other forms into which “primordial air” can be transformed through condensation and rarefaction. The commenta- tor, Theophrastus, says:

Anaximenes . . . like Anaximander, declares that the underlying nature is one and boundless, but not indeterminate as Anaximander held, but definite, saying that it is air. It differs in rarity and density according to the substances [it becomes]. Becoming finer it comes to be fire; being condensed it comes to be wind, then cloud, and when still further condensed it becomes water, then earth, then stones, and the rest come to be out of these.9

With the idea of condensation and rarefaction, Anaximenes con- tinued the project of reductionism. He introduced the important claim that all differences in quality are really differences in quantity ( just more or less stuff packed into a specific space), an idea with which many scientists would agree today.

These first three philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaxim- enes, are known as the Milesians because they all came from the Greek colony of Miletus on the Per- sian coast and because they con- stitute the first school of philoso- phy. Despite the differences among them, they shared a number of characteristics, some of which would eventually become part of the Western scientific tradition: a desire for simple explanations, a reliance on observation to sup- port their theories, a commitment to naturalism (the view that natural phenomena should be explained in terms of other natural phenomena), and monism (the view that ultimately there is only one kind of “stuff”).

Anaximenes ◆ 23



The School of Miletus ended when the tenuous peace between the Greek outpost and Persia collapsed and the Persians overran the city, leaving behind much destruction and death. According to the historian Herodotus, the Athenians were so distressed at the fall of Miletus that they burst into tears in the theater when the playwright Phrynichus produced his drama “The Capture of Miletus.” The government banned his play and fined the author one thousand drachmas for damage to public morals.


The Milesians’ successor, Pythagoras (ca. 572–ca. 500 B.C.E.), from the island of Samos, near Miletus, did not seek ultimacy in some material element, as his predecessors had done. Rather, he held the curious view that all things are numbers. Literally under- stood, this view seems absurd, but Pythagoras meant, among other things, that a correct description of reality must be expressed in terms of mathematical formulas. From our science classes we are familiar with a great number of laws of nature, all of which can be written out in mathematical formulas (for example, the law of gravitation, the three laws of motion, the three laws of thermodynamics, the law of reflection, Bernoulli’s law, Mendel’s three laws). Pythagoras is the great-great-grandfather of the view that the totality of reality can be expressed in terms of mathe- matical laws.

Very little is known about Pythagoras himself. Nothing he wrote has survived. It is almost impossible to sort out Pythagoras’s own views from those of his followers, who created various Pythagorean monastic colonies throughout the Greek world during the next sev- eral hundred years. He seems to have been not primarily a mathema- tician but a numerologist; that is, he was interested in the mystical significance of numbers. For instance, because the Pythagoreans thought that the number 10 was divine, they concluded that what we

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would today call the solar system had ten members. This theory turns out to be roughly correct—the sun and nine planets—but not for Pythagoras’s reasons.

Nevertheless, he anticipated the bulk of Euclid’s writings on geometry and discovered the ratios of concord between musical sound and number. From this discovery he deduced a mathematical harmony throughout the universe, a view that led to the doctrine of “the music of the spheres.” The ten celestial bodies move, and all motion produces sound. Therefore, the motion of the ten celestial bodies—being divine—produces divine sounds. Their music is the eternal background sound against which all sound in the world is contrasted. Normally, we hear only the “sound in the world” and are

Pythagoras ◆ 25



unable to hear the background harmony. But a certain mystical stance allows us to ignore the sound of the world and to hear only the divine music of the spheres.

The influence of Pythagoras was so great that the School of Pythagoreans lasted almost 400 years. The spell he cast on Plato alone would be enough to guarantee Pythagoras a permanent place in the history of philosophy. (We shall see that Plato turns out to be the most important philosopher of the Greek period and that he was a fine mathematician as well.) With hindsight, we can now look at Pythagoras’s work and see those features of it that mark him and his followers as true philosophers. Nevertheless, it is only artificially that we distinguish that portion of Pythagorean thought that we declare to be philosophical. We should not ignore the less scientific aspect of Pythagoras’s teachings, which to him were all part of a seamless whole. He was the leader of a religious cult whose members had to obey a strict number of esoteric rules based on asceticism, numerology, and vegetarianism.

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Despite their vegetarianism, Pythagoreans had to forswear eating beans because eating beans is a form of cannibalism. A close look at the inside of a bean reveals that each one contains a small, embryonic human being (or human bean, as the case may be).


The next philosopher to demand our attention is Heraclitus (ca. 470 B.C.E.) of Ephesus, only a few miles from Miletus. Almost 100 trust- worthy passages from Heraclitus’s book remain for our perusal. We know more about what Heraclitus actually said than we know about any other pre-Socratic philosopher. Unfortunately, we don’t necessar- ily know more about what he meant. Like Anaximander, Heraclitus wrote in prose, but he chose to express himself in aphorisms—short, pithy outbursts with puzzling messages that seem to dare the

Heraclitus ◆ 27



reader to make sense of them. Rather than review the great varieties of scholarly effort in recent years trying to convey the many possible meanings of Heraclitus’s fragments, here I concentrate on the meaning attributed to Heraclitus’s views by the generations that followed him in the Greek and Roman world in the years after his death. The picture that emerges from the com- mentators of that early period is fairly uniform, if perhaps misguided, but after all, that picture has guaranteed Heraclitus’s fame for centuries and has been influential in the history of ideas.


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