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Advantages and Disadvantages of the Materialist Aproach of Presocratic Philosophers

By mwingapo Nov 08, 2010 1701 Words
Greek Philosophy: materislistic approach of the presocratics advantages and disadvantages

The advantages and disadvantages of the materialistic approach of the pre Socratic philosophers. Please support your points by referring to the texts in Kirk and Raven, and discuss at least three philosophers . The pre Socratic philosophers marked an epoch in human ideas. Although it might seem stupid to suggest that everything is made of water or that the earth floats on a cushion of air, these ideas came from the people who are responsible for the way we see the world today. The advances that the materialistic approach of the pre Socratic philosophers made to humanities understanding of nature was considerable to say the least. This essay will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the materialistic approach of the pre Socratic philosophers. It will start by dealing with Thales who Aristotle called the first philosopher. He can be seen as the catalyst of philosophy in ancient Greece. The essay will also deal with Thales’s friend and student Anaximander time and finally it will discuss Heraclitus. But first a look at something at the cutting edge of modern science that the pre Socratics paved the way for.

At a place known as Cern in Geneva there is a machine called a large hydron collider. A machine that is expected to detect the Higgs Boson or God Particle as it is often called. This is the only standard model particle not yet to be observed and one believed to explain the origin of mass in the universe. You might wonder how this ties in with philosophy in 624 B.C., but it was here that people began their search for the Higgs Boson, although we did not know it by that name at the time. It was the pre Socratics who suggested that there was a basic substance from which all things are made and they who tried to explain what this basic substance was. Considering the lack of facility in around 500 B.C. to experiment and find what this material is made of, it is nothing short of astounding to see how close to the truth some of these philosophers got by using reason and their intellect.

The idea that there is a single substance out of which everything is sourced known as material monism. It claims that the source of nature is something physical and that there is only one such thing. It was in Ionia that material monism began.

The Ionians
“Within the space of a century Miletus produced Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, each dominated by the assumption of a single primary material, the isolation of which was the most important step in any systematic account of reality”[1] The first of the Ionians was Thales of Miletus. The advantages of Thales’s materialistic approach were as follows: He revolutionised the way the ancient Greeks thought. He got them to recognize rational argument over all other sorts of authority and separated the natural world from the supernatural world.[2] Before Thales explanations of natural events were merited on aesthetic sensibility. The authorities for knowledge were poets like Homer who explained natural events with mythology. They claimed that divine muses inspired them and people believed that divine humanoid creatures known as the gods controlled nature[3]. Thales however understood that there were laws and routines that nature abided by and that events in the natural world could be predicted by observing the nature and using the information you receive understand it. Thales’s famous prediction of a solar eclipse convinced people to believe that there were patterns in nature which came about from natural events that could be rationalised. One of Thales main philosophical concerns was to find out what the basic substance of the world was. He believed it to be water. Why he believed this can only be speculated. We might see this as naïve but

“From Thales onward, all inquiry into the nature of phenomena tended towards one end: The answer to the question, what is the nature of the whole? That is, what is the nature of the reality behind the phenomena? For Aristotle and therefore for us also, science and metaphysics begin together with Thales, the first man to have attempted to answer this question, and attempt an answer to this question, and therefore the first man known to have posed it”[4]

To begin the search for a rational behind the natural world as Thales did was a giant leap for man kind. His ideas were refined by another Ionian who was probably a student of Thales. A man called Anaximander.

Anaximander took the basic frame of Thales’s thought and put his own ideas into it. By this I mean he also believed that there was a source substance. However Anaximander’s materialistic approach had an advantage over Thales’s by “separating his explanatory entity from the entities that need explaining”[5]. Anaximander’s physis did not face some of the problems that Thales’s did, such as how is fire explained if everything is water? His explanatory entity was the focal point of his thought. He called it the unbound or apeiron. We cannot observe the Unbound but its existence Anaximander infers because of its explanatory role. This idea of the Unbound had solutions to two problems faced by Thales’s physis: 1) How does the basic substance give rise to the plurality of objects we observe around us? and 2)How does the world maintain itself?. His solution to problem 2) was: “the natural manifestation of physical law, imposing a lawfulness upon continually struggling opposites, and thereby maintaining equilibrium within the cosmos”[6]. And 1) “In Anaximander’s system the apeiron is both the source out of which everything derives and also the unifier within nature”[7]. I would like to also note startling evidence of Anaximander’s genius is his work in zoogony. “His intelligent observation that man (with nine months gestation and many years helplessness) could not have survived the primitive conditions without protection of some kind”[8] Shows for sight to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This essay will now deal with Heraclitus as his approach to answering what the nature of the universe was slightly different. The advantage of his philosophy was that it shed light on ideas that hadn’t been considered before. Heraclitus theory was that there was a law by which all things abided which he called the logos. He believed that everything was in opposition the strife between these opposites was what kept balance making all things one. He also claimed that everything was in a constant state of change, like a river is constantly flowing or in constant flux it is always the same river but always completely different. “Heraclitus’ thought possessed a comprehensive unity which seems completely new. Practically all aspects of the world are explained systematically, in relation to a central discovery that natural changes of all kinds are regular and balanced, and that the cause of this balance is fire, the common constituent of things that was also termed their Logos.”[9] It is this idea of fire being that is the main disadvantage of Heraclitus’s approach. It is like taking a step forward with the logos and then going to steps back to the idea that one of the elements is the basis of all things. Although the idea of an all consuming fire does describe his Logos well it works better as a metaphor to describe the Logos than fire being the Logos itself. Conclusion

To conclude the materialistic approach of the pre Socratics had many advantages. It was the catalyst for modern thought and it can be seen as the beginning of philosophy and science as we know it today. The use of rational argument over super-natural forms of authority showed that people’s thoughts could be progressed and altered by people to come after them. It is true that philosophy is a continuous dialogue that continues through the generations which has created a subject that can be said to define humanities search truth. The progression of thought because of this approach has lead to how we think today. The essay has outlined how Thales, Heraclitus and Anaximander made observations about the world that showed rational approaches to describe what the temporal world is. We still use this approach to find the Higgs Boson however we have the equipment to test our theories. It was a disadvantage of the pre Socratics that their theories were often far beyond their means of testing. But in conclusion the materialistic approach of the pre Socratic philosophers was a step in the right direction for philosophy.


• Kirk and Ravin, The Presocratic Philosophers A Critical History With A Selection of Texts (Cambridge University Press, 1957SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009) • Kathleen Freeman The Pre-Socratic Philosophers A Companion to Diels, “Fragmante der Vorsackratiker” (Oxford Basil Blackwell 1946) • Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers Vol. 1 Thales to Zeno (Routledge and Kegan Ltd 1979)

[1] Kirk and Ravin, The Presocratic Philosophers A Critical History With A Selection of Texts (Cambridge University Press, 1957) .p.73 [2] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009). [3] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009). [4] Kathleen Freeman The Pre-Socratic Philosophers A Companion to Diels, “Fragmante der Vorsackratiker” (Oxford Basil Blackwell 1946) [5] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009). [6] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009). [7] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Presocratics.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. (accessed October 23, 2009). [8] Kirk and Ravin, The Presocratic Philosophers A Critical History With A Selection of Texts (Cambridge University Press, 1957) .p.142 [9] Kirk and Ravin, The Presocratic Philosophers A Critical History With A Selection of Texts (Cambridge University Press, 1957).p.212

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