(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Anaxagoras held that the universe is infinite in extent and composed of mind and matter, but mind is a special kind of matter. There is no empty space.

Anaxagoras: Fragments Matter

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Matter is not composed of primary units; it is infinitely divisible. “Nor is there a least of what is small, but there is always a smaller; for it cannot be that what exists should cease to be by being cut.” If you take a piece of a certain kind of matter—a hair, say, or a steak—and begin cutting, no matter how finely you cut it the pieces will still have the characteristics of hair or flesh. “How can hair come from what is not hair, or flesh from what is not flesh?”

Nevertheless, we eat bread, and the bread (we say) becomes hair and flesh. This is not accurate, Anaxagoras says: “The Greeks follow a wrong usage in speaking of coming into existence and passing away; for nothing comes into existence or passes away, but there is mingling and separation of things that exist. Therefore, they would be right to call coming into existence mixture, and passing away separation.” The “coming into existence” of the hair is really mixture, then, and the “passing away” of the bread is separation. However, this prompts one to ask: Mixture and separation of what? Any crumb of bread, however tiny, has all the properties of the whole loaf. Bread is not made of bits of hair and flesh. Likewise a hair is not separable into microscopic breadcrumbs. How then can hair be a “mixture” into which bread enters, while at the same time it cannot “come from what is not hair”?

The answer is that “The things that are in one world are not divided nor cut off from one another with a hatchet.” Although bread contains no particles of hair, it nevertheless contains...

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Anaxagoras: Fragments Mind

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Mind, like blackness or the smell of bread, is a real stuff; consequently, it has location (“it is certainly there, where everything else is”) and occupies space (“it is the thinnest of all things and the purest”). Although this seems sufficient evidence to make it a kind of matter, it must be remembered that Anaxagoras does not make a distinction between stuff and the qualities of stuff; indeed, refusal to make this distinction is the key to his philosophy. Mind has or is the properties that in our experience we find it to have: It is conscious and cognitive (“it has all knowledge about everything”) and powerful, manifesting itself as will power or élan vital in living things (“mind has the greatest strength; and it has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have life”). It is unique in not entering into mixtures: “All other things partake in a portion of everything, while Mind is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing but is alone, itself by itself.” Anaxagoras argued that “if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself.” The thought seems to be that if mind mixed, it would lose its peculiar power just as the blackness in snow or the...

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Anaxagoras: Fragments World Creation

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Like every other Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras held that nothing can come from nothing, nor can anything utterly vanish. The totality of world stuff is fixed: It is “all,” and “we must know that all of them are neither more nor less; for it is not possible for them to be more than all, and all are always equal.” However, the world of moving, changing, differentiated things that we know is not eternal. Anaxagoras postulated a primeval condition of homogeneity and motionlessness:All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them were plain, because of their smallness. . . . But before they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any color plain; for the mixture of all things prevented it—of the moist and the dry, and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each other.

It is perhaps permissible to think of this initial condition as a gray, dim, damp, tepid, dirty vastness, or if you prefer, a luminosity: “Air and fire prevailed over all things, being both of them infinite; for amongst all things these are the greatest both in quantity and size.” That is, a homogeneous mixture of all things would look like air and fire, because those are what are most plentiful.

At some point in this mass, mind started a whirl: “And Mind had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning; but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still.” We see the whirl of the heavenly bodies still going on overhead.

The centrifugal force of the whirl caused separation out of the homogeneous mass, “as these things revolve and are separated off by the force and speed. And the speed makes the force. Their speed is not like the speed of any of the things that are now among men, but in every way many times as fast.” He continues, “And when Mind began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Mind set in motion was all separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more.”

The separation resulted not just in...

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Anaxagoras: Fragments A Thorough Rationalist

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Anaxagoras was aware of the Italian philosophers—the Pythagoreans, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Zeno—and in some respects adopted their views (concerning eclipses), in others made concessions to their arguments (in rejecting a vacuum), and sometimes argued against them (his doctrine of infinite divisibility seems to stem from an attempt to refute Zeno). Primarily, however, Anaxagoras was the continuator of the Milesian school. His conception of the “beginning” and of the process of world formation, for instance, was an elaboration of Anaximander’s. Like the Milesians, he was a thorough rationalist: There is no trace of mysticism in his work, and if he had any emotional reaction to his vision of the nature of things, no report of it has come down to us. The Milesians still talked of “god” and “the divine” in connection with the cosmic process, although these terms had become mere abstract labels for stuffs and mechanisms. In Anaxagoras, on the other hand, even the words have disappeared. Nor was his mind an object of worship; it was not a personality, and (as Socrates complained) it was not even a cosmic designer. It was just the projection of human cognition and will (“known” in experience as initiator of motion) without any moral or religious attributes.

In one respect, Anaxagoras’s explanation of things was more consistent than that of any of his predecessors: Having postulated that nothing can come from nothing, and that...

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Anaxagoras: Fragments Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1993. Includes a chapter on Anaxagoras, reconstructing his philosophy from a careful examination of the fragments.

Davison, J. A. “Protagoras, Democritus, and Anaxagoras.” Classical Quarterly 3 (1953): 33-45. Establishes Anaxagoras’s position vis-à-vis other Greek philosophers and shows his influence on the “atomist” school that succeeded him. Also contains some information on his early life not available elsewhere in English and argues for an early date for his exile from Athens.


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