Anaximenes -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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The last of the great trio of Ionian materialists was Anaximenes (c. 585-528 B.C.). He is said to have been born when Thales "flourished," and to have "flourished" when Thales died. He was younger than Anaximander. Unlike Anaximander, and following Thales, he took a single element—"air"—as the absolute substance, from which everything comes forth and to which everything is ultimately reduced. In fact, Anaximenes’ use of the word "air" (aer) differs substantially from the modern usage. It includes vapour, mist and even darkness. Many translators prefer the word "mist."

At first sight, this idea represents a step back in comparison to the position of matter in general arrived at by Anaximander. In fact, his world-view was a step forward.

Anaximenes attempted to show how "air," the universal substance, becomes transformed through a process of what he called rarification and condensation. When it is rarefied, it becomes fire, when condensed, wind. By further condensation, we get clouds, water, earth and stones. But although in details his view of the universe compares unfavourably with that of Anaximander (he thought the world was shaped like a table, for instance), nevertheless, his philosophy represented an advance, inasmuch as he tried to move beyond a general statement of the nature of matter. He attempted to give it a more precise determination, not only qualitatively, but quantitatively, through the process of rarification and condensation. In the words of professor Farrington:

"Observe, in following this succession of thinkers, how their logic, their stock of ideas, their power of abstraction, increase as they grapple with their problem. It was a great advance in human thinking when Thales reduced the manifold appearances of things to one First Principle. Another great step was taken when Anaximander chose, as his First Principle, not a visible form of things like water, but a concept like the Indeterminate. But Anaximenes was still not content. When Anaximander sought to explain how the different things emerged from the Indeterminate, he gave a reply that was a mere metaphor. He said it was a process of ‘separating out.’ Anaximenes felt that something more was needed, and came forward with the complementary ideas of Rarification and Condensation, which offered an explanation of how quantitative changes could produce qualitative ones." (B. Farrington, op. cit., p. 39.)

Given the existing level of technique, it was impossible for Anaximenes to arrive at a more precise characterisation of the phenomena under consideration. It is easy to point to the deficiencies and even absurdities of his views. But this would miss the point. The early Greek philosophers cannot be blamed for failing to provide their world picture with a detailed content, which was only possible on the basis of over 2,000 years of subsequent economic, technological and scientific advance. These great pioneers of human thought rendered humanity the unique service of breaking away from the age-old habits of religious superstition, and thereby laid the foundation without which all scientific and cultural advance would have been unthinkable.

Moreover, the general view of the universe and nature elaborated by these great revolutionary thinkers was in many respects close to the truth. Their problem was that, given the level of development of production and technology, they did not have the means of testing their hypotheses, and putting them on a solid footing. They anticipated many things which could only be fully worked out by modern science, resting on a far higher development of science and technique. Thus, for Anaximenes, "air" is only shorthand for matter in its simplest, most basic form. As Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of modern physics shrewdly remarked: "Had he said dissociated hydrogen gas," (which he could hardly be expected to say), "he would not be so far from our present view." (Quoted in A. R. Burn, op. cit., p. 131.)

The earlier Ionian philosophers of nature had probably gone as far as they could to explain the workings of nature by means of speculative reason. These were truly great generalisations, which pointed in the right direction. But, in order to carry the process further, it was necessary to examine things in greater detail, to proceed to analyse nature piece by piece. This was later begun by Aristotle and the Alexandrine Greek thinkers. But an important part of this task was to consider nature from a quantitative point of view. Here the Pythagorean philosophers undoubtedly played a major role.

Already Anaximenes had pointed in this direction, in attempting to pose the question of the relation between changes of quantity and quality in nature (rarification and condensation). But this method had by now reached its limits and exhausted itself. As J. D. Bernal puts it: "The triumph of the Ionian school was that it had set up a picture of how the universe had come into being and how it worked without the intervention of gods or design. Its basic weakness was its vagueness and qualitative character. By itself it could lead nowhere; nothing could be done with it. What was needed was the introduction of number and quantity into philosophy." (J. D. Bernal, Science in History, p. 122.)

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