Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek philosophy

History has recorded Anaximander as one of the first of the Ancient Greek philosophers, preceded only by his teacher Thales. Anaximander lived around 2600 years ago, in the large Ionian city of Miletus, which can be found on the West coast of modern day Turkey. Anaximander is famous, together with his teacher Thales and his own student Anaximenes for being the first Greeks to begin a tradition of philosophy.

Philosophy as explanation

Although this idea of a philosophical tradition is vital for appreciating those first philosophers, it is far from clear what exactly it entails. To put it another way: why do we call Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes "the first philosophers"? And what exactly did they invent and discover? The knee-jerk response is to say that they obviously were the first people to discuss those ideas which eventually became known as philosophy. It follows that those things they began to discuss would later become subsumed under the heading of philosophy as understood by philosophy giants like Plato and Aristotle. What sorts of things did they discuss? Thales introduced the problem of matter - at the most basic level, what is everything made of? - which he answered by saying that everything is water. Anaximander in a similar vein said that everything is made out of an undifferentiated substance called apeiron (Greek for boundless), and later Anaximenes would say that everything is made of air.

And if we stop there we end up with a nice simple story. But the quarrelsome among us might then ask for some clarification. Didn't some of the Greeks before Thales and Anaximander also explain what matter was? Weren't there myths that similarly aimed to explain the world?

Philosophy as argument

One popular, and apparently successful explanation for the beginning of philosophy has been to point out that Thales and colleagues were the first to offer rationalized defenses for their explanations. So while myths had provided explanations for the various phenomenon of the world, they did not explain their own rationale. Mythology could certainly be rationalized - stories could be given natural explanations or could be interpreted non-literally - but they did not themselves provide any such arguments.

Generally what we mean by argument is some idea that is defended. So when Anaximander said that the Earth is suspended in air, he appears to be making a statement is that is both unintuitive and absurd. However what makes Anaximander's statement about the Earth brilliant and genius is precisely his ability and willingness to provide it with an argument: the Earth remains in the same place because of its indifference, because it exists equidistant (at equal length) from everything else (presumably because it is in the very center of the cosmos) and so has no more reason to go fall in one direction than another.

Philosophy as criticism

So why call this "Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek philosophy"? Shouldn't it be "Thales and the beginnings of Greek philosophy" instead, since it was Thales who provided the first rational explanations? Yes and no.

If there was one particular characteristic which could be held responsible for the amazing heterogeneity of philosophical opinions in ancient Greece it would have to be their forming a tradition of criticism. So suggests the twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper*. Although it is often mentioned that Anaximander's ideas on matter were a response to the ideas put forward by his teacher Thales, it is never expressed with any surprise.

It is because the idea of independent thinking is parroted so often by modern society that we don't find this surprising. What happened is worth re-stating: Thales was the first person to prominently offer an alternative to the traditional myths. Instead of talking about titans and horny gods he talked about the material composition of the world and considered how that in turn was responsible for the world as we know it. He offered the first theory of matter, that everything is water at its most basic level, and the different substances we see are actually different transformations of water. This was all quite incredible. Thales was fortunate enough to have a neighbor who found his theorizing interesting and whom he took on as a student. This was of course Anaximander. Anaximander learned everything he could from his teacher, from the very first great philosopher, and then instead of repeating Thales' ideas and trying to spread them as far as possible he made up his own ideas! He analyzed Thales' ideas, considered what phenomenon they were useful for explaining and which parts of the theory were problematic and then went on to form his own theory of matter. That Anaximander's theory of matter feels like it should have been written a couple of centuries later is a testimony to his ability to draw on previous teachings without dogmatizing them, and then redevelop them.

The greatest achievement of the Milesian philosophers was to develop a tradition of criticism. Anaximander studied the ideas of the first philosopher and then improved them in accord with their limitations. Anaximander had his own student who too used his teacher's ideas only insofar as to improve upon them. We will never know precisely who was responsible for this tradition. What we can and should say is that Anaximander was the first philosopher to form an intellectual link built upon criticism. This is his legacy.

* I've written the above in order to try and communicate the significance of Anaximander to the beginnings of Greek philosophy. For this reason I haven't really provided a proper summary of his ideas. I should also note that the narrative I offer here - of the different ways of interpreting the beginnings of philosophy - is by no means the only one, and was selected precisely because it highlights Anaximander's importance. In Hahn's book (listed below) he suggests that there have been three avenues for explaining the incredible beginnings of Greek philosophy: (1) as an achievement of rationality over the senses (this is the favored explanation of Plato and Aristotle); (2) as an introduction of rationalized explanations that contrast with mythical explanations (this is the most traditional modern explanation); and (3) as an outcome of technological and sociological transitions which were occurring at that time (this is the explanation favored by Hahn). The importance of criticism is taken directly from Popper, as indicated in the text.