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Early Greek Philosophy

Page history last edited by Marek 14 years, 4 months ago

 Summary of Early Greek Natural Philosophy


     It is widely argued that the beginning of science as a concept of the philosophy of nature was established by the early Greek Monist philosophers.  The Monists believed that the world was run in a predictable and orderly manner; the orderly aspects of the world were called kosmos while the unorderly aspects of the world were called chaos.  No direct evidence exists concerning the earliest of these philosophers, but what evidence there is suggests that they were among the first to consider the natural philsophy of science without any divine iterations.


Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Ionian School)


     The pre-Socratics appeared sometime around the fifth or sixth century BC(E) in a number of cities, mostly around the town of Miletus (which was in present day Turkey).  However, no complete work of any of these philosophers has survived to the present.  The current body of knowledge on the pre-Socratics has largely been derived from quotes, paraphrases, and references within the surviving works of subsequent philosophers.  The Milesians began to observe nature critically, and inquired about the causes and possible explanations of phenomena devoid of deistic rationalizations.  During the exchange of ideas that took place, the formulation of rules for argumentation and proof began. The pre-Socratics dealt with the origin and composition of the world(s), the understanding of change, the ways of obtaining knowledge – through observation and reason.


The Fundamental Substance


     The first known pre-Socratic philosopher was Thales. He was primarily concerned with the fundamental substance that all material objects are composed of - what Aristotle, in his description of the first Greek scientists, called arche.  Thales' view was that the arche is water. This was in accordance with his hypothesis, that the Earth is a disk floating on an ocean of water. The disk would just be water, which condensed to form a crust.  Anaximenes, a contemporary of Thales, believed in turn that air is the fundamental substance. Air seemed a better choice, since it is more dynamic, allows for change through rarefaction or condensation. It could also serve as a form of ether, filling what would otherwise be a void in celestial models of the cosmos.


     Anaximander criticized the single element approach. It seemed impossible to him that such opposing elements as fire and water would be composed of the same worldly substance. He devised then an indefinite substance which he called apeiron to be the arche. From this mass all things have their beginning and when the end of their existence comes, they return to it. Anaximander hypothesized that the universe originated through the seperation of opposites in the apeiron. The universe will end when the opposites are again reconciled.


     These ancient Greek philosophers, due to their belief in a single, underlying substance, which was a principle part of all things that existed, are now called Monists. From the Monists come a few advancements toward scientific thought:

1) Citing natural causes for natural events.

2) Rational criticism of the thoughts of other philosophers.

3) The universe is an orderly place (kosmos), and is governed by natural laws.

4) Everything in the universe is composed of the same principle substance.



The Search for the Unchangeable


     The question that arises in the quest for the eternal, unchangeable, fundamental element of the universe is how one accounts for change. The notions of change, motion, beginning and end in a world composed entirely of a single, uniform substance seem unapproachable, impossible to contemplate. How does one account for all the diversity? Motion and change also create problems, because they contain contradictions, opposites coexist. For example, consider a tomato; when it is ripe it is red, but before this it is green. While the tomato ripens then, it is both red and green. How does one resolve this?


     One of the earliest philosophers to address this problem was Heraclitus. As the arche he chose fire. This choice is a metaphor of his description of reality, which for him had no stable elements. Heraclitus trusted that the senses can reveal truth about the surrounding world, although they must be checked by reason. Since change is so apparent in the universe, it must be real. In fact, Heraclitus argued that there is nothing but change. An aphorism for his philosophy might be the statement that one never enters the same river twice (Lindberg 32) or the phrase panta rhei – everything flows. This is a stronger statement than a simple illustration of the passing of time. The interpretation is in fact, that nothing really is or is not. An object continuously forms and dissolves. Even what we may isolate as a state of equilibrium contains underlying change in the form of opposing forces or a balancing of opposites.


     Parmenides took the opposite approach to Heraclitus and did away with change altogether. The definition of a being is that it is consistent with itself, devoid of any contradictory descriptions, so change is impossible. His philosophy is built upon the axiom that being exists and non-being does not exist. These ideas are detailed in his works, “The Way of Truth” and “The Way of Opinion”.  From them Parmenides showed that there is in fact only one, uniform, eternal, immovable, indestructible and continuous being. There is only one and now. For example, if there were two beings, one must be what is so what of the other? Non-being does not exist – hence what exists is one. There is no time, since if now exists, what of the moment that just passed? It cannot not-exist. One arrives at the other conclusions similarly. This is very sophisticated argumentation. Of course, Parmenides must have been aware of the observable changes around him. He decided however, that knowledge is arrived at only through reason. Since he arrived at his conclusions through rational arguments, it must be that the senses are unreliable. Change is just a pleasant illusion. His emphasis on the impossibility of change altered the course of Greek philosophy, which now had to attempt to rationalize change.  Incidentally, Parmenides had a pupil still famous today for his paradoxes of motion: Zeno, who constructed these paradoxes to further the argument against change.


Zeno’s Paradoxes

1) Arrow. An arrow is shot from a bow. At every moment the arrow is at rest. Hence it rests during its entire motion. So is it moving or at rest?

2) Dichotomy. In order to traverse a distance we must first travel half the distance. Before this we must cover half of the original half and so on ad infinitum. There are infinitely many segments, and each must be covered in some very small, but finite amount of time. Thus we cannot finish the journey (Tatarkiewicz, “History of Philosophy”).


     Empedocles answered Parmenides’ challenge by introducing four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, all of which are by their nature unchanging.  He saw the changes we experience as really being the shifting of combinations of these eternal elements, which are held together by a force he called Love (attraction), or pulled apart by Strife (repulsion).  Contrary to other philosophers, Empedocles did not discard the senses as a means of understanding nature. He believed different sense experiences could be compared and from them truths can be extracted by reason. His views had a powerful influence on medieval scholars, and different forms of Empedocles' theory were sustained well into the 16th century.




     In the midst of all these arguments centering around the defense or denial of existent change, Democritus put forth his theory that the world and everything in it is composed of an infinite number of immutable, invisible particles, which move around in an existent void. Changes we perceive with our senses are not true changes, but products of the rearrangement of these particles, which he called atoms (from the Greek atomos, meaning indivisible). This theory is known as atomism.


     The indivisibility of particles at some lowest level counters Zeno's dichotomy paradox, since there is a point at which further division is impossible. All of the material world is composed of these atoms. The objects we see, smell, hear or touch are aggreagates of atoms. The atoms themselves, however, according to Democritus, only have shapes and sizes. The other qualities we attribute to things, such as color, taste, temperature are secondary. According to Democritus secondary qualities should not be assigned to the aggregates of atoms, because the atoms themselves do not have such qualities. Sensory experiences then do not describe reality. They may be explained by the motion of the atoms. There is no force behind this motion. In the atomist view "reality is a lifeless piece of machinery" (Lindberg p.31), lacking of mind, soul, divinity. The atoms do not come into or go out of existence. There is only a natural motion of atoms brought about by their collisions. Hence Democritus' world is devoid of purpose, and his theory may be described as atheistic and deterministic - atoms follow straight lines from collision to collision.


     In order to allow for the motion of atoms, Democritus had to postulate the existence of non-existence, an existing nothingness which we call the void. This is in opposition to the view championed earlier by Parmenides, but is necessary, the atoms must have a place to move to. This later proved to be the source of many arguments. There are two ways for understanding the nature of the void. One explanation is that the void is a background in which the atoms move, of a sufficiently distinct nature that the two do not exclude each other - the void is also where the atom is. Another explanation supposes that the void is a mere potentiality - a place an atom might occupy, but until it occupies it, it doesn't exist.


     The atomist view of nature also creates many empistemological concerns. If sensory experience cannot be trusted to reflect the real world, only reason is left as a means of obtaining knowledge. However, there exists only a natural motion of atoms. The mind must therefore also be under the influence of these colliding atoms, moving purposely in a void. We must therefore approach our knowledge of the world with much skepticism.





     The next great change in Greek natural thought came with the arrival of Socrates on the scene, and subsequently his pupil Plato. Plato's works were influenced by Socrates, the Sophists (specifically Protagoras), and the Pythagoreans.  The Sophists held that truth is relative, and as such, true knowledge is impossible.  Plato endeavored to argue against this and produced his famous epistemological ideas as a result.  The Pythagoreans were convinced that nature is numerical (mathematics is the way toward true knowledge), citing the musical scale, and did much work with geometry.  Their influence is seen in Plato’s description of the elements. While much of what Plato wrote was concerned with epistemology, ethics, and theology, he also explored natural philosophy in his work, Timaeus


     In Timaeus, Plato lays out his ontology along with a story of creation.  It is a theological and teleological work. A Demiurge emerges, an intrinsically good but not all-powerful being, which creates the world from raw matter guided by knowledge of Forms - the essence of objects.  An analogy might be a carpenter making a table. First he has the idea in his mind and then tries to form the wood to match his conception. So the Demiurge too formed the cosmos from existing matter. The objects he filled this cosmos with are representations of Forms or Ideas, which exist in the eternal realm. The material objects are imperfect replicas, because the Demiurge was constrained by the properties of matter. The cosmos he creates is alive, and possesses a soul responsible for its movement. It contains purpose and design. This puts Plato at odds with former philosophers. The order in the world does not arise from within, but is impressed upon the world by a deity (gods become a source of order, not chaos). Plato also postulates the world has a purpose, which sets him against the atomists. 


     Plato also believed that the Empedoclean elements existed, represented by what we now call the platonic solids.  Earth was the cube (made up of 6 squares), fire the tetrahedron (made up of four triangles), air the octahedron (made up of 8 triangles), and water the icosahedron (made up of 20 triangles). The dodecahedron represented the cosmos as a whole.  Within this system of thought, one of the elements could separate and form others (for example, water could break into its 20 triangles and form one unit of fire and two of air), only Earth was excluded from transmutation. This shows the influence the Pythagoreans had on Plato. All things can be decomposed to triangles (not corpuscles of the particular shapes, but real triangles). The world is thus reduced to mathematical first principles.


     The foundation of Plato’s philosophy lies in his theory of Forms. The true reality, Plato claims, is not in the material world we observe with our senses, but in an eternal, changeless realm of Forms. These Forms are perfect ideas, holding the essence of all objects and properties existing in the material world. Horses for example all have certain characteristics they share, but they differ one from another as well. Plato claims what we call a horse is precisely the Form of “horseness.” The horses we observe on the other hand are the imperfect replicas of this Form. Forms do not only correspond to objects, they can correspond to qualities as well. Objects may possess the quality of being good for example, but Goodness in itself also exists (from this kind of thinking comes the problem of universals). By placing reality with the changeless realm of Forms, Plato solves the problem of change. Change becomes one of the imperfections of the material realm, which is transitory.


     The allegory of the cave, presented in Plato’s Republic, gives a good summary of Plato’s epistemology. The prisoners held in a cave, see only shadows of figures that move behind them. Not having experienced the outside world, they believe these shadows to be the real figures. As these prisoners observe the shadows, so our souls imprisoned in bodies observe the material world. We see only “shadows” or projections of the immaterial Forms onto matter. The problem of discovering the Form then, is similar to observing a statue. From which side should I look at the statue to be satisfied that I am observing the whole? It is impossible to gain knowledge about reality, while being part of the world. Even if we do gain some insight about the realm of Forms, however, it can be a problem to communicate this knowledge. Since any descriptions will share the imperfections present in the world, how can one describe the Forms, which are perfect?


     Plato was not against the use of the senses altogether (else he might have had no contribution to make to the continuation of natural philosophy, as a study of material things).  He believed that the senses could be used for recreational use, or for the observation of certain objects that could serve to direct the soul toward nobler objects in the realm of Forms.  Plato also believed that the senses could help stir the memory and remind the soul of Forms it knew in another existence, stimulating a process of recollection that will lead to actual knowledge of the Forms. 


     Astronomical achievements were not foreign to Plato either. He viewed the Earth as a sphere at the center of the cosmos. He knew the planets and the Sun make spirals around the Earth (the combination of the 24 hour orbit and the movement along the Zodiac gives a spiral). He seems to have also had knowledge that the irregularities in the motion of heavenly bodies can be explained by combining uniform circular motions (Lindberg p.42).


     Plato’s philosophy is different from others in that it is stated through key ideas, with a discussion of the problems as well. Plato seemed to view philosophy as something that has no end, and constantly needs to be reflected upon and updated. Philosophers after him would have a very different approach.




Primary Sources


--"And what need would have impelled it,

later or earlier to grow--if it began from nothing?

Thus it must either altogether be or not be."

                                             --from Parmenides' The Way of Truth (handout 9/2)

This source explains why Parmenides believes change is perceptive illusion.


--"And what comes into being or changes must do so we said, owing to some cause. ... If the world is beautiful and its maker good, clearly he had his eye on the eternal."

                                             --from Plato's Timaeus (handout 9/2) 

This refers to Plato's Demiurge and his (Plato's) argument for creation from Forms.


--"For it is necessary that there be some nature, either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being saved... Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water."

                                             --from Aristotle's Metaphysics

Aristotle talks about the fundamental substance (the object being saved) and Thales' belief that it was water. 


"That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle (arche) of things that are."

                                            --from Aristotle's Metaphysics

Here Aristotle defines what it is he means by arche (principle).


Pre-Socratic Philosophers: Most of their works come down to us in the form of fragments and mentions by other philosophers from which scholars have reconstructed texts. Their work was primarily written in poetry, rather than prose.


Plato: We have nearly all of his original works; for the pruposes of this class, his epistemology is detailed in The Republic, while his natural philosophy and ontology are available in Timaeus. He selected dialogues as his writing style.




Key Terms and Definitions


monism                  -idea that everything material is made up of a single principle substance

arche                      -the underlying component of all material objects. Its perceivable properties may change, but it remains always "saved" in the object.

atoms                     -from the Greek atomos, unperceivable, indivisible particles of certain shapes and sizes, which all matter is composed of (proposed by Democritus)

atomism                 - the idea that all matter is composed of tiny unchangeable particles known as atoms.

primary qualities    - real properties of objects, such as shape, size, movement

secondary qualities - observed, illusory properties, such as smell, colour, temperature

teleological            -describes thought concerned with aspects of purpose in existence

sophism                 - philisophical skepticism

idealist                   - true reality exists outside of the world

apeiron                  - according to Anaximander, a primordial substance, from which all objects originate

Platonic Solids       - The five geometric figures (tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, cube, and dodecahedron) that according to Plato were the fundamental building blocks of all matter.

Demiurge               -Plato's divine craftsmen who created all from Ideals using imperfect materials (not all-knowing). 


Relevant Links


(internet encyclopedia of greek philosophy)


(Timeline of the PreSocratic Philosophers)


(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)



Comments (20)

Keriann Collins said

at 4:45 pm on Sep 2, 2008

Aagghh!! Sorry, guys, the summary is a lot longer than Dr. Ramberg specified. I cut out everything I could think of and still leave it a summary... we've covered a lot. I didn't touch Plato's epistemology (the myth of the cave was sorely tempting), or any number of other early philosophers, so somebody, have at it. :)

Alyson Collins said

at 5:40 pm on Sep 2, 2008

Just added a bit about a couple of the philosophers.

Alyson Collins said

at 5:50 pm on Sep 2, 2008

I added a link to an encyclopedia of Greek philosophy. Though, i haven't read it all it was used in my Classical Civilizations class last semester.

Grant Berry said

at 7:59 pm on Sep 2, 2008

I tossed in some stuff about Plato and the mathematical view of the elements, as well as an explanation of why the atomic theory didn't violate the logic of Paraminedes.

liz mastroianni said

at 9:33 pm on Sep 2, 2008

the additions i made were just a couple of things that i thought were important and should be added

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 3:02 am on Sep 3, 2008

I simply added a little more on Parmenides, brief primary source information, and a defintion.

Alyson Collins said

at 11:53 am on Sep 3, 2008

I corrected some grammar/typos, and added some more info from my notes.

Garrett McCormack said

at 6:29 pm on Sep 3, 2008

I added a little more about about Plato's cave story and added a few definitions as well.

jonathan stutte said

at 6:58 pm on Sep 3, 2008

tried to condense a few things and break up the heavy paragraphs...but alas i just got tired by the last monster.

Garry Polley said

at 10:19 pm on Sep 3, 2008

I added a definition. I believe it will help.

Douglas Elliott said

at 11:49 pm on Sep 3, 2008

I added a passage a few sentences to the opening under the title, "The Presocratic Philosophers." I mentioned where and when historians believe the presocratics originated. I also stated that no complete work of any of these philosophers has survived to the present; I felt that the preceeding introductory paragraph, which used the word "evidence", did not convey this thought directly enough and that a concise statement would clarify the introduction. In addition, I conveyed that the surviving works of later philosophers have largely shaped our understanding the the presocratics.

This is a very thorough summary. Great job!

Kristy Carey said

at 12:15 am on Sep 4, 2008

I expanded a bit more on Plato's influences, added a line or two, and tweaked some wording in the Plato portion.

Alyson Collins said

at 9:44 am on Sep 4, 2008

i corrected some more grammar/typos/spelling, addad some connecting words/shifted some sentences to make it more clear. i also equalized spacing between sentences, and split apart a paragraph, and possible more odds and ends but i can't remember :)

Marek said

at 10:32 pm on Sep 4, 2008

I didn't like the word "stuff" so i searched a little on wikipedia and found that Aristotle used the term arche in describing the Milesians' philosophy. The order of Anaximander and Anaximenes was also switched, since the latter is closer to Thales, and so it is easier to mention them in one paragraph. I added 2 quotes from Aristotle and changed some definitions, deleted those which I thought were unnecessary.

Peter Ramberg said

at 9:15 am on Sep 5, 2008

Just a couple of quick comments that you can apply to future pages. Overall, the summary looks great--perhaps a bit more insight from Lindberg could be added (future days will have more sources). The passages and key terms sections are a bit confusing, but only in formatting. There needs to be some spacing between paragraphs, and some minor reformatting.

Peter Ramberg said

at 9:16 am on Sep 5, 2008

In the primary sources section, it's also unclear what the passage is and what the commentary is, so some minor formatting changes would be useful.

Marek said

at 2:15 am on Sep 6, 2008

Changed the formatting to try to accomodate dr Ramberg's suggestions. I added one paradox of Zeno and made an attempt at explaining Parmenides' and Heraclitus' arguments for and against change. I tried to insert some of Lindberg's insights about rationalism vs empiricism in the ideas of the pre-Socratics.

Grant Berry said

at 7:18 pm on Sep 9, 2008

I added a list of the presocratic philosphers that might be helpful.

Marek said

at 11:48 pm on Sep 12, 2008

Added definitions of primary and secondary qualities. Also expanded on the atomists.

Marek said

at 3:39 pm on Sep 13, 2008

Rehashed the part about Plato. I think it's much clearer now.

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