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The Origins of Western Thought

Philosophical Thinking

Philosophy as a discipline isn't easy to define precisely. Issuing from a sense of wonderment about life and the world, it often involves a keen interest in major questions about ourselves, our experience, and our place in the universe as a whole. But philosophy is also reflectively concerned with the methods its practitioners employ in the effort to resolve such questions. Emerging as a central feature of Western culture, philosophy is a tradition of thinking and writing about particular issues in special ways.

Thus, philosophy must be regarded both as content and as activity: It considers alternative views of what is real and the development of reasons for accepting them. It requires both a careful, sympathetic reading of classical texts and a critical, logical examination of the arguments they express. It offers all of us the chance to create and adopt significant beliefs about life and the world, but it also requires each of us to acquire the habits of criticical thinking. Philosophy is both sublime and nitpicking.

Since our personal growth in these matters naturally retraces the process of cultural development, study of the history of philosophy in our culture provides an excellent introduction to the discipline as a whole. Here our aim is to examine the appearance of Western philosophy as an interesting and valuable component of our cultural heritage.

Greek Philosophy

Abstract thought about the ultimate nature of the world and of human life began to appear in cultures all over the world during the sixth century B.C.E., as an urge to move beyond superstition toward explanation. We focus here on its embodiment among the ancient Greeks, whose active and tumultuous social life provided ample opportunities for the expression of philosophical thinking of three sorts:

Beginning with clear examples of thinking of the first two sorts, we will see the gradual emergence of inclinations toward the third.

Milesian Speculation

During the sixth century, in the Greek colony at Miletus, a group of thinkers began to engage in an extended exploration of the speculative issues. Although these Milesians wrote little themselves, other ancient authorities recorded some of their central tenets. Their central urge was to show that the complex world has a simple, permanent underpinning in the reality of a single kind of stuff from which all else emerges.

The philosopher Thales, for example, is remembered as having asserted that all comes from water. (Fragments) Although we have no record of the reasoning that led Thales to this conclusion, it isn't hard to imagine what it might have been. If we suppose that the ultimate stuff of the world must be chosen from among things familiar to us, water isn't a bad choice: most of the earth is covered with it, it appears in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms, and it is clearly essential to the existence of life. Everything is moist.

Thales's student Anaximander, however, found this answer far too simple. Proper attention to the changing face of the universe, he supposed, requires us to consider the cyclical interaction of things of at least four sorts: the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet. (Fragments) Anaximander held that all of these elements originally arise from a primal, turbulent mass, the the Boundless or Infinite {Gk. απειρων [apeirôn]}. It is only by a gradual process of distillation that everything else emerges—earth, air, fire, water, of course—and even living things evolve.

The next Milesian, Anaximenes, returned to the conviction that there must be a single kind of stuff at the heart of everything, and he proposed vapor or mist {Gk. αερ [aer]} as the most likely candidate. (Fragments) Not only does this warm, wet air combine two of the four elements together, but it also provides a familiar pair of processes for changes in its state: condensation and evaporation. Thus, in its most rarified form of breath or spirit, Anaximenes's air constitutes the highest representation of life.

As interesting as Milesian speculations are, they embody only the most primitive variety of philosophical speculation. Although they disagreed with each other on many points, each of the thinkers appears to have been satisfied with the activity of proposing his own views in relative isolation from those of his teacher or contemporaries. Later generations initiated the move toward critical thinking by arguing with each other.

Pythagorean Life

The Greek colony in Italy at the same time devoted much more concern to practical matters. Followers of the legendary Pythagoras developed a comprehensive view of a human life in harmony with all of the natural world. Since the Pythagoreans persisted for many generations as a quasi-religious sect, protecting themselves behind a veil of secrecy, it is difficult to recover a detailed account of the original doctrines of their leader, but the basic outlines are clear.

Pythagoras was interested in mathematics: he discovered a proof of the geometrical theorem that still bears his name, described the relationship between the length of strings and the musical pitches they produce when plucked, and engaged in extensive observation of the apparent motion of celestial objects. In each of these aspects of the world, Pythagoras saw order, a regularity of occurrences that could be described in terms of mathematical ratios.

The aim of human life, then, must be to live in harmony with this natural regularity. Our lives are merely small portions of a greater whole. (Fragments) Since the spirit (or breath) of human beings is divine air, Pythagoras supposed, it is naturally immortal; its existence naturally outlives the relatively temporary functions of the human body. Pythagoreans therefore believed that the soul "transmigrates" into other living bodies at death, with animals and plants participating along with human beings in a grand cycle of reincarnation.

Even those who did not fully accept the religious implications of Pythagorean thought were often influenced by its thematic structure. As we'll see later, many Western philosophers have been interested in the immortality of the human soul and in the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

During the fifth century B.C.E., Greek philosophers began to engage in extended controversies that represent a movement toward the development of genuinely critical thinking. Although they often lacked enough common ground upon which to adjudicate their disputes and rarely engaged in the self-criticism that is characteristic of genuine philosophy, these thinkers did try to defend their own positions and attack those of their rivals by providing attempts at rational argumentation.

Heraclitus and the Eleatics

Dissatisfied with earlier efforts to comprehend the world, Heraclitus of Ephesus earned his reputation as "the Riddler" by delivering his pronouncements in deliberately contradictory (or at least paradoxical) form. The structure of puzzling statements, he believed, mirrors the chaotic structure of thought, which in turn is parallel to the complex, dynamic character of the world itself.

Rejecting the Pythagorean ideal of harmony as peaceful coexistence, Heraclitus saw the natural world as an environment of perpetual struggle and strife. "All is flux," he supposed; everything is changing all the time. As Heraclitus is often reported to have said, "Upon those who step into the same river, different waters flow." The tension and conflict which govern everything in our experience are moderated only by the operation of a universal principle of proportionality in all things.

Against this position, the Eleatics defended the unity and stability of the universe. Their leader, Parmenides supposed that language embodies a logic of perfect immutability: "What is, is." (Fragments) Since everything is what it is and not something else, he argued in Περι Φυσις (On Nature), it can never correct to say that one and the same thing both has and does not have some feature, so the supposed change from having the feature to not having it is utterly impossible. Of course, change does seem to occur, so we must distinguish sharply between the many mere appearances that are part of our experience and the one true reality that is discernible only by intellect.

Other Eleatics delighted in attacking Heraclitus with arguments designed to show the absurdity of his notion that the world is perpetual changing. Zeno of Elea in particular fashioned four paradoxes about motion, covering every possible combination of continuous or discrete intervals and the direct motion of single bodies or the relative motion of several:

  1. The Dichotomy: It is impossible to move around a racetrack since we must first go halfway, and before that go half of halfway, and before that half of half of halfway, and . . . . If space is infinitely divisible, we have infinitely many partial distances to cover, and cannot get under way in any finite time.
  2. Achilles and the Tortoise: Similarly, given a ten meter head-start, a tortoise can never be overtaken by Achilles in a race, since Achilles must catch up to where the tortoise began. But by then the tortoise has moved ahead, and Achilles must catch up to that new point, and so on. Again, the suppostition that things really move leads to an infinite regress.
  3. The Arrow: If, on the other hand, motion occurs in discrete intervals, then at any given moment during its flight through the air, an arrow is not moving. But since its entire flight comprises only such moments, the arrow never moves.
  4. The Stadium: Similarly, if three chariots of equal length, one stationary and the others travelling in opposite directions, were to pass by each other at the same time, then each of the supposedly moving ones would take only half as long to pass the other as to pass the third, making 1=2!
The patent absurdity that results in each of these cases, Zeno concluded, shows that motion (and, hence, change of any sort) is impossible. (Fragments)

What all of this raises is the question of "the one and the many." How can there be any genuine unity in a world that appears to be multiple? To the extent that a satisfactory answer involves a distinction between appearance and reality and the use of dialectical reasoning in the effort to understand what is real, this pursuit of the Eleatics set important standards for the future development of Western thought.

Empedocles and Anaxagoras

In the next generation, Empedocles introduced the plurality from the very beginning. Everything in the world, he supposed, is ultimately made up of some mixture of the four elements, considered as irreducible components. The unique character of each item depends solely upon the special balance of the four that is present only in it. Change takes place because there are two competing forces at work in the world. Love {Gk. φιλια [philia]} is always putting things together, while Strife {Gk. νεικος [neikos]} is always tearing them apart. The interplay of the two constitutes the activity we see in nature.

His rival, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, returned in some measure to the Milesian effort to identify a common stuff out of which everything is composed. Matter is, indeed, a chaotic primordial mass, infinitely divisible in principle, yet in which nothing is differentiated. But Anaxagoras held that order is brought to this mass by the power of Mind {Gk. νους [nous]}, the source of all explanation by reference to cosmic intelligence. Although later philosophers praised Anaxagoras for this explicit introduction of mind into the description of the world, it is not clear whether he meant by his use of this word what they would suppose. (Fragments)

Greek Atomism

The inclination to regard the world as pluralistic took its most extreme form in the work of the ancient atomists. Although the basic outlines of the view were apparently developed by Leucippus, the more complete exposition by Democritus, including a discussion of its ethical implications, was more influential. Our best source of information about the atomists is the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the later Roman philosopher Lucretius.

For the atomists, all substance is material and the true elements of the natural world are the tiny, indivisible, unobservable solid bodies called "atoms." Since these particles exist, packed more or less densely together, in an infinite empty space, their motion is not only possible but ineveitable. Everything that happens in the world, the atomists supposed, is a result of microscopic collisions among atoms. Thus, as Epicurus would later make clear, the actions and passions of human life are also inevitable consequences of material motions. Although atomism has a decidedly modern ring, notice that, since it could not be based on observation of microscopic particles in the way that modern science is, ancient atomism was merely another fashionable form of cosmological speculation.

The Sophists

Fifth-century Athens was a politically troubled city-state: it underwent a sequence of external attacks and internal rebellions that no social entity could envy. During several decades, however, the Athenians maintained a nominally democratic government in which (at least some) citizens had the opportunity to participate directly in important social decisions. This contributed to a renewed interest in practical philosophy. Itinerate teachers known as the sophists offered to provide their students with training in the effective exercise of citizenship.

Since the central goal of political manipulation was to outwit and publicly defeat an opponent, the rhetorical techniques of persuasion naturally played an important role. But the best of the Sophists also made use of Eleatic methods of logical argumentation in pursuit of similar aims. Driven by the urge to defend expedient solutions to particular problems, their efforts often encouraged relativism or evan an extreme skepticism about the likelihood of discovering the truth.

A Sophist named Gorgias, for example, argued (perhaps ironically) that: (a) Nothing exists; (b) If it did, we could not know it; and (c) If we knew anything, we could not talk about it. Protagoras, on the other hand, supposed that since human beings are "the measure of all things," it follows that truth is subjectively unique to each individual. In a more political vein, Thrasymachus argued that it is better to perform unjust actions than to be the victim of the injustice committed by others. The ideas and methods of these thinkers provided the lively intellectual environment in which the greatest Athenian philosophers thrived.

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History of Philosophy

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Last modified 12 November 2011.
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