Article abstract: Anaximander realized that no ordinary physical element could be the source of the world’s diversity; instead, he saw that the fundamental stuff must be an eternal, unlimited reservoir of qualities and change.
Anaximander was a fellow citizen and student of Thales, the Milesian usually credited with having inaugurated Western philosophy. Thales, some forty years older than his protégé, put none of his philosophical thought in writing and maintained no formal pedagogical associations with pupils. Yet Thales’ cosmological views (as reconstructed by historians) doubtless inspired Anaximander, and Anaximander finally expanded on Thales’ ideas with innovative leaps in conceptual abstraction.
Anaximander was known in his day for his practical achievements and his astronomical discoveries. Anaximander is said to have been chosen by the Milesians as the leader for a new colony in Apollonia on the Black Sea. He traveled widely and was the first Greek to publish a “geographical tablet,” or a map of the world. The map was circular and was centered on the city of Delphi, because Delphi was the location of the omphalos, or “navel” stone, that was thought to be the center of Earth. Anaximander is also said to have designed a celestial map and to have specified the proportions of stellar orbits. In addition to the celestial map, he built a spherical model of the stars and planets, with Earth located at the center and represented as a disk or cylinder whose height was one-third its diameter. The heavenly bodies were rings of hollow pipe of different sizes that were placed on circling wheels in ratios of three to six to nine, in proportion to the magnitude of Earth. This model was dynamic; the wheels could be moved at different speeds, making it possible to visualize patterns of planetary motion. Anaximander is also credited with inventing the sundial, or gnomon, and with having discovered the zodiac.
All these eclectic interests and discoveries illustrate, with elegance, Anaximander’s particular genius, namely, his rational view of the world. This way of thinking was quite an innovation at a time when both scientific and protophilosophical thought took their content from the mythical and literary traditions and thus were marked by vagueness and mystery. Anaximander viewed the world as steadily legible; he had the expectation of its rational intelligibility. His map of the world and his model of the heavens show his anticipation of symmetry and order. Earth, he argued, remained at rest in the center of the cosmos by reason of its equidistance at all points to the celestial circumference; it had no reason to be pulled in one direction in preference to any other. He projected the celestial orbits in perfect and pleasing proportions, and he anticipated regular motions.
Anaximander’s mapping and modeling techniques themselves were products of his rationalistic thinking. Models and maps relocate some set of unified phenomena into a new level of abstraction. Implicit in map and model design is the assumption that the abstractions will preserve the intelligible relationships present in the world that they reproduce. Thus Anaximander’s introduction of models and maps represents a tremendous and utterly original conceptual leap from the world “seen” to the world’s operations understood and faithfully reproduced by the abstracting human mind.
Anaximander’s rational view of the world received its fullest and most innovative expression in his philosophy of nature. Here one finds the first unified and all-encompassing picture of the world of human experience in history that is based on rational deduction and explanation of all phenomena.
In order to understand Anaximander properly, his terminology must be put into its historical context. What Anaximander (and Thales as well) understood by “nature” is not quite the same as its modern sense. In Ionian Greece, physis denoted the process of growth and emergence. It also denoted something’s origin, or source, that from which the thing is constantly renewed. Nature, in the Ionian sense of physis, had nothing to do with matter; even Aristotle was mistaken in thinking that it did. In fact, no word for matter even existed in Anaximander’s day. It is also important to note that Anaximander’s thought is reconstructed entirely from ancient secondary sources. The one extant fragment of Anaximander’s own words is the quotation of an ancient historian. Thus, any explication of Anaximander’s thought is to some extent conjectural and interpretive.
Anaximander’s philosophy of nature arose in part as a response to Thales’ ideas on nature. Thales held that water was the nature of everything. This meant, in the light of the ancient idea of physis, that water was the origin of everything, that everything was sustained by, and constantly renewed from, water. This notion does not have any allegorical or mythical connotations in Thales’ formulation. Water is the ordinary physical stuff in the world, not some engendering god such as the Oceanus of Thales’ predecessors. That is...
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