Philo
Sophos
·org

philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy



PhiloSophos knowledge base

Philosophical Connections

Pathways to Philosophy programs

University of London BA

Pathways web sites

Philosophy lovers gallery

GVKlempner: complete videos

PhiloSophos home

Pathways to Philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


ANAXAGORAS

(c. 500 — 428? B.C.)

 

MATERIALISTIC DUALISM

Although born in Clazomenae in Ionia Anaxagoras spent most of his life in Athens. He returned to Ionia about 450 after he had been condemned for alleged impiety by the political opponents of his famous pupil Pericles. He was influenced by both the Milesians and the Eleatics; and his philosophy may be regarded as an attempt to reconcile these two schools of thought.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] Anaxagoras rejected the idea of a coming into existence out of nothing and the cessation or destruction of Being. Change, he said, is real, but there is no change of quality [a]. But he also said that individual things could not have come into existence from other things: "How could hair come into existence out of non-hair, or flesh out of non-flesh?" [fr. 10]. He supposed there to have been an original mixture (constituting unitary Being) of an infinite number of eternal elemental things or 'stuffs' (chremata). It is as a result of the rearrangements of things through combination and separation that change occurs [b]. These 'stuffs' included opposites [c] such as hot and cold, moist and dry; earth, air and aither (that is, upper air); and innumerable 'seeds' (spermata) different from each other — wood, bone, gold, blood, and so on [see fr. 4]. (Aristotle later called some or all of these stuffs 'homoiomere', which means 'similar parts' [see Physics A4, 187a23; On the Heavens Γ3, 302a281].) Anaxagoras said that air and aither were the greatest in so far as they were present in the greatest quantities and held the others in subjection [fr. 1]. The others would not have been distinguishable in the original mixture because of their smallness [fr. 4]. All stuffs are infinitely divisible [fr. 3] [d]. He argued further that "all things are in everything"; "everything contains a portion of everything" [fr. 6] [e]. Anaxagoras seems to have meant that each different stuff contains portions of all the other stuffs in small quantities, each of which in turn contains portions of the others. Thus a piece of wood, for example, contains portions of gold, ash, bone, etc., although the wood stuff predominates in the mixture. And he rejected the idea that these stuffs can exist separately from the homogeneous mixture which constitutes a thing:

And since too there are equal portions of great and small in quantity, for this reason also everything is in everything; nor can they exist separately, but everything shares a portion of everything. Since the least cannot be, things cannot be separated nor come to be by themselves, but as in the beginning, so also now everything is together. [Fr. 6]

[2] As for the world as a whole, Anaxagoras said that it comes into being as a result of a rotation of the boundless (apeiron) [a]. The primary controlling substance of the cosmos is termed nous, that is, 'mind' or intelligence [b]. It is through its agency that opposites separate out from the boundless into individual things, nous itself being pure and unmixed [fr. 13]. Individual minds or souls are supposed to be made up of this same substance [c], though what Anaxagoras believed the relationship between these minds and nous to be is not made clear. Nous seems to be a material rather than a spiritual principle, "albeit the thinnest of things".

 

KNOWLEDGE

[3] While allowing for the possibility of error in our perception of the world, Anaxagoras does not accept that our experience is totally illusory. We can gain some knowledge of it through the senses: "Appearances are a glimpse of the obscure" [fr. 21a]. His theory is that sensation occurs when unlikes act on unlikes [a]. Thus we can experience a warm object when our hand is relatively cold.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Anaxagoras's idea of 'seeds' is of course original and interesting. It has been objected that his theory is not coherent because it involves an infinite regress: all stuffs are made of other stuffs each of which contains all the others, and so on. But this regress can probably be avoided if his idea of predominance is emphasized. While the gold, ash, and so on which make up the wood are themselves made up of other stuffs, the gold stuff is called gold, and the ash stuff is called ash, because it contains more of that than the other stuffs. Nevertheless this would seem to commit Anaxagoras to making a distinction between the seed gold and a stuff gold; and it is debatable whether this can be reconciled with his idea of infinite divisibility.

There are also problems with his notion of the nous. Plato and Aristotle criticized him for using the concept as a stop-gap — and perhaps for not being sufficiently radical. Quite apart from the question whether it is spiritual or 'thinly' material (it is probable that even in Anaxagoras's day no such clear distinction had been made), there is the problem of how the nous can remain pure and unmixed if it in some sense permeates the individual mind.

 

READING

G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, ch. XII.

R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates, ch. 13.

M. Schofield, An Essay on Anaxagoras.

See also essays by G. Vlastos (in Mourelatos, and Furley and Allen); and by C. Strang (in Furley and Allen).

 

CONNECTIONS

Anaxagoras

 

[1a]

Being eternal and indestructible; change and plurality real (but no change of quality)

   Parmenides

   Empedocles

Democritus

   Plato

Aristotle

[1a 1c 1d]

[1a b]

[1a e]

[1c 3a]

[12e]

 

[1b] Ultimate 'elements', 'stuffs' constituting Being; rearrangement accounts for change

   Heraclitus

   Parmenides

Democritus

   Empedocles

Plato

   Leibniz

[1i]

[1a]

[1a]

[1b]

[5c]

[2a]

 

[1c] Opposites (of 'similar parts')

   Anaximander

   Heraclitus

   Pythagoras

[1b]

[1d]

[1c]

 

[1d] Divisibility of 'stuffs'

   Zeno

Democritus

   Leibniz

[1c 1c]

[1a]

[2a]

 

[1e] "All in all"

   Proclus

   Nicholas of Cusa

[2f]

[2h]

 

[2a] Unlimited ('boundless')

   Anaximander

   Anaximines

[1c]

[1a]

 

[2b]

Mind (nous) and cosmic motion

   Heraclitus

   Empedocles

Democritus

Socrates

Plato

Aristotle

[1f]

[1c]

[1b]

[1a]

[5a d]

[12e]

 

[2c]

Soul as aspects of nous

   Heraclitus

Empedocles

Democritus

Plato

Aristotle

[2a]

[3b]

[2c]

[9a]

[15a]

 

[3a] Experience not totally illusory; perception through unlikes on unlikes

   Empedocles

   Plato

[2a]

[2a]