The Problem of Cosmology:
The Development of Greek Philosophy (Part 1)
In this series of posts, I am going to present the history of the development of Greek philosophy. I argue that the teaching of the core subject Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person in senior high schools in the Philippines requires the discussion on the historical development of philosophy because it is through knowing and understanding the historical development of philosophy that students will be able to have full grasp of the course.
Another important reason for the need to know the historical development of Western philosophy is that philosophy major students and philosophy teachers (especially in senior high schools in the Philippines) who do not have a strong background and orientation in philosophy will know how to situate a specific philosopher in a specific time and context. As I observed, some philosophy students and teachers in the Philippines do not know where to situate a philosopher in a specific epoch. For example, in discussing ancient Greek philosophy, some teachers simply lumped philosophers together to the point that one doesn’t know where and when, for instance, Socrates entered the scene, and what specific problem that he attempted to address or respond to. Thus, in this post, I will specifically highlight the philosopher’s point and time of entry, as well as the problem that he attempted to responded to.
The whole discussion on the historical development of Greek philosophy is divided into 4 parts, namely: 1) The Problem of the World (cosmology), 2) The Problem of Knowledge (epistemology), 3) The Problem of Freedom, and 4) The Problem of Religion.
It must be noted, however, that I will only schematically trace the development of philosophy in these periods because the main concern here is just to know the origin of Western philosophy and its development. Thus, I will not discuss in great detail the specificity of each period of philosophy.
In the first part of this series of posts, I will focus only on the problem of the world, which is the first problem that the ancient Greek philosophers attempted to address.
The Problem of the World (Cosmology)
The first problem of Greek philosophy was about cosmology, that is, the explanation of the nature of the world as it was experienced by the perceiving mind. Thus, the first question being posed was:
What is the basic material of which the world is formed?
This question was answered by the three most illustrious philosophers of Ionia, namely: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.
Thales (c. 620 BCE – c. 546 BCE), the acclaimed first philosopher of the Western world, claimed that the basic stuff or material of which the world is formed is water. Thus, for Thales, “all is water” and that everything comes from and arises out of water.
Again, as I already mentioned, I will not present the details of Thales’s (and other philosophers discussed here) philosophy because my concern here is simply to trace the historical development of philosophy. For a detailed discussion on the life and works of Thales, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/thales/.
Anaximander (c. 610 BCE – 546 BCE), who was known to be one of Thales’s students, was not convinced that water is the basic stuff of the world. For this philosopher, the basic material upon which the world is formed cannot be determined. Anaximander calls this Apeiron, the Greek word for that which is “unbounded” or “indefinite” or “infinite”. For more on Anaximander’s life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/anaximan/.
Anaximenes (d. 528 BCE), also known to be another student of Thales, disagreed with Anaximander and argued that the basic stuff of the world can be determined; yet it is not water, as Thales would have us believe. For Anaximenes, “all is air”, and that everything comes from and arises out of air. Anaximenes argued that the life of the universe resembled that of man, that air, the breadth of life which the human soul is made, is its principle. For more on Anaximenes’s life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/.
As we can notice, the first question of philosophy deals with matter only, that is, again, the basic stuff of the world. It did not address the question concerning substance, that is, the principle upon which order or creation is based. Thus, the second question was posed:
In what consists its fundamental form, its principle of order?
This is where Pythagoras (c. 570 BCE – c. 495 BCE) came in. To be specific, this was the question that Pythagoras attempted to address, and not simply the basic material upon which the world is formed. Again, this is what I meant when I said above that we need to know the intellectual history that surround a particular scholarship, that is, we need to know the historical development of philosophy so that we will know where to situate a particular philosopher in a specific context and time. In this way, we do not just lump philosophers together in discussing their philosophies in a specific historical period. To reiterate, all philosophers are addressing a specific problem or problems in a specific time and context.
For Pythagoras (and, of course, the Pythagoreans), the essential reality of things can be completely expressed in numerical terms. Thus, the formal order of the universe can be conceived mathematically. For Pythagoras, therefore, “all is number.” In other words, numbers are the principle of order (of the universe). Thus, for Pythagoras, everything can be explained in numbers. It is also important to note that the Ancient Egyptians also conceived numbers as the underlying principle of all things. For a detailed discussion on the life and works of Pythagoras, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/pythagor/.
Now, the combination of the first two questions in philosophy necessarily led to the third one:
How do things arise?
This question relates to world-process, that is, the origin of the world. This is a necessary question for the ancient Greek philosophers because when the principle and the real ground of all things are determined, the next question would be “How do things result from their real ground and principle?”
This is precisely where Heraclitus and Parmenides entered in the scene. Heraclitus attempted to address this problem of world-process, while Parmenides (and the Eleatics, such as Xenophanes and Zeno) denied the idea of the world-process.
Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE) argued that Logos-Fire, that is, fire or perpetual change, is the universal principle. Logos-Fire, therefore, is the cause of order, proportion, harmony, and rationality in the continual flow of things. As is well known, Heraclitus said that everything is change, that “we cannot step twice in the same river”. Thus, for Heraclitus, the world arises out of the Logos-Fire.
Some scholars would say that for Heraclitus, the basic stuff or material of which the world is formed is fire. I argue that this is a mistake because Heraclitus’s concern was not to determine the basic stuff of the world, but to determine the principle that could explain the arising of things, that is, world-process.
However, for Heraclitus, we cannot exactly know the specificity of the arising of things. He simply claimed that the world-process or the arising of things is governed by the principle of Logos-Fire. For more on Heraclitus’s life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit/.
Parmenides of Elea (Late 6th century – to Mid 5th century BCE), unlike Heraclitus who claimed that everything is change, that nothing is permanent, argued that change is impossible. For Parmenides, reality is one. He said that “what is, is and it is impossible for it not to be.” This is is existing fully and completely; and if it is full and complete, it is impossible for it to change. Thus, for Parmenides, this is is the real One, which remains forever and immovable. Finally, for Parmenides, therefore, the idea of world-process is an illusion for nothing can come out of that which is. For a detailed discussion on Parmenides’s life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/parmenid/.
Heraclitus and Parmenides’s thoughts on the issue of world-process did not satisfy the inquiring mind. Hence, Heraclitus’s answer to the problem of world-process and Parmenides’s reaction did not suffice. The problem of philosophy after them was still occupied with the world-process as nature. Thus, for the inquiring mind, this problem must be solved: the world-process, and the origin and formation of all things must be explained once and for all.
This is the reason why Empedocles, the Atomists, and Anaxagoras came into the fore. They insisted that the problem of the world-process needed to be pushed further.
The basic contention of Empedocles, the Atomists, and Anaxagoras is that there is something that lies at the foundation of world-process, which has not and cannot become; something, therefore, that is original and unchangeable.
Empedocles (c. 492 BCE – c. 432 BCE) attempted to explain the world-process and its derivation. For Empedocles, the world-process is derived from the combination of the four basic elements, namely: fire, water, earth and air. Empedocles calls these four elements as the Fundamental Materials of the world. Thus, for Empedocles, the world-process and the formation of things resulted from the combination of these four elements. For more on Empedocles’s life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/empedocl/.
The Atomists, particularly Leucippus (5th century BCE) and Democritus (460-370 BCE), found that the four elements of Empedocles are changeable and divisible. Therefore, they cannot be the primary beings that lie at the foundation of world-process. Hence, Leucippus and Democritus argued that atoms, which are numberless, are the primary beings that lie at the foundation of the world-process. In fact, for these philosophers, mechanical motion in the world-process resulted from the weight of the combined atoms. For more on the life and works of Luecippus, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/leucippu/. For the life and works of Democritus, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/democrit/.
Finally, if mechanical motion results from the weight of the combined atoms, the question of Anaxagoras (c. 500 BCE – 428 BCE) was: what is the explanation of the form and order of things? Thus, Anaxagoras argued that there must be a primordial being that is responsible for the form and order of things. For Anaxagoras, this primordial being is Nous or Mind. According to Anaxagoras, this Nous is the law-giving motion, without which motion in the universe is impossible. This is likened to Hegel’s notion of “Reason” as the driving force of history.
Now, it is important to note that with Anaxagoras, the first period of Greek philosophy naturally closes. This period, which is usually called as the period of natural philosophy―because it addresses the problem of world-material, that of the world-order, and world-process―has so far thought of the problem of the world, and from its answers, Mind necessarily resulted.
Just a final note. As we can notice, the ancient Greek philosophers did not ask the question as to who created the world, as we normally do today. The notion of a Creator, at least in the history of philosophy, was picked up later by the Medieval thinkers, particularly St. Augustine, the acclaimed philosopher of the Medieval period. This is exactly what makes this intellectual endeavor truly philosophical: it used reason in explaining reality.
Below is the front cover of our book in philosophy of the human person, a core subject in senior high schools in the Philippines. Chapter 1 of this book discusses the problem of the world, that is, cosmology. If you are interested to purchase the book, you may contact the publisher at email@example.com. For more on the basic information of this book, please visit this link: http://philonotes.com/index.php/2017/11/24/textbook-iphp-k-12/
DR. JEFFRY OCAY
Professor of Philosophy