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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2137

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 why Thales is the first philosopher: He had a theory about the origin of things that competed with ancient creation myths.

Anaximander agreed with Thales that the origin of the things of the world was some common stuff, but he thought that the stuff could not be some ordinary element. He rejected Thales’ conception on purely logical grounds, and his reasoning was quite interesting. How could any manifestly singular stuff ever give rise to qualities that pertained to things differently constituted, such as earth and fire? What is more, if water were the source of things, would not drying destroy them? Thus, reasoned Anaximander, the thing with which the world begins cannot be identical with any of the ordinary stuff with which humans are acquainted, but it must be capable of giving rise to the wide multiplicity of things and their pairs of contrary qualities. What therefore distinguishes the source from the world is that the source itself is “unbounded”: It can have no definite shape or quality of its own but must be a reservoir from which every sort or characteristic in the world may be spawned. Therefore, Anaximander called the source of things this very name: apeiron, Boundlessness, or the Boundless. Anaximander designated the Boundless an arche, a beginning, but he did not mean a temporal beginning. The Boundless can have no beginning, nor can it pass away, for it can have no bounds, including temporal ones.

Thus the eternal source, the Boundless, functions as a storehouse of the world’s qualities, such that the qualities that constitute some present state of the world have been separated out of the stock, and when their contrary qualities become manifest, they will, in turn, be reabsorbed into the reservoir. When Earth is hot, heat will come forth from the Boundless; when Earth cools, cold will come forth and heat will go back. For Anaximander, this process continued in never-ending cycles.

The cause of the alternating manifestations of contrary qualities is the subject of the single existing fragment of Anaximander’s own words, the remains of the first philosophy ever written. Out of the Boundless, Anaximander explains, the worlds arise, but

from whatever things is the genesis of the things that are, into these they must pass away according to necessity; for they must pay the penalty and make atonement to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of Time.

History has produced no consensus of interpretation for this passage and its picturesque philosophical metaphor for the rationale of the world. Anaximander was probably thinking of a courtroom image. Each existing thing is in a state of “having-too-much,” so that during the time it exists it “commits injustice” against its opposite by preventing it from existing. In retribution, the existing thing must cede its overt existence for its opposite to enjoy and pay the penalty of returning to the submerged place in the great Boundless reservoir. This cycling, he added, is how time is ordered or measured. Time is the change, the alternating manifestation of opposites.

Here is the apotheosis of Anaximander’s rational worldview. The world’s workings are not simply visible and perspicuous, but neither are they whimsical and mysterious. The hidden workings of things may be revealed in the abstractions of the human mind. The world works, and is the way that it is, according to an eternal and intelligible principle. What is more, this world and its workings are unified, indeed form a cosmos. The cosmos, in turn, can be understood and explained by analogy with the human world; the justice sought in the city’s courts is the same justice that sustains everything that human perception finds in the universe.


Classical antiquity credited Thales with having pioneered philosophy. Anaximander, with his scientific curiosity and his genius for abstract insight, poised philosophical inquiry for new vistas of exploration; his new philosophical approach inaugurated penetrating, objective analysis. His principle of the eternal Boundless as the source of the world’s multifarious qualities and change forms the conceptual backdrop against which twenty-five centuries of science and natural philosophy have developed.

Two particular innovations of Anaximander have never been abandoned. First, his extension of the concept of law from human society to the physical world continues to dictate the scientific worldview. The received view in Anaximander’s time—that nature was capricious and anarchic—has never again taken hold. Second, Anaximander’s invention of the use of models and maps revolutionized science and navigation and continues to be indispensable, even in people’s daily lives. All scientific experiments are models of a sort: They are laboratory-scale contrivances of events or circumstances in the world at large. Purely visual three-dimensional models continue to be crucial in scientific discoveries: The so-called Bohr model of the atom played a crucial role in physics; the double-helical model was important to the discovery of the structure and function of DNA. Maps are taken for granted now, but if human beings had relied on verbal descriptions of spatial localities, civilization would not have proceeded very far.

Thus, Anaximander’s innovations and influence persist. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a world without his contributions. Anaximander himself could hardly have seen all the implications of his discoveries, for even now one can only guess at the future direction of abstract thought.

Additional Reading

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1993. This book includes a chapter on Anaximander, focusing on his evolutionary theory, his account of the stability of the earth, and his view of the apeiron, or the Boundless.

Brumbaugh, Robert S. The Philosophers of Greece. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964. This volume contains a short chapter on Anaximander’s life and accomplishments. Emphasizes cartography and engineering. Includes a reproduction of the first map designed by Anaximander.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. 4th ed. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1945. A detailed scholarly analysis of Anaximander’s thought in the context of comparisons with, and influences on, other pre-Socratic philosophers.

Guthrie, W. K. C. The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Vol. 1 in A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. This is the best work to consult for a thorough, dependable, and readable overview of Anaximander’s philosophy. It focuses on Anaximander’s cosmology and his view of the apeiron.

Kahn, Charles H. Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1994. Surveys the documentary evidence for Anaximander’s views, reconstructs a detailed cosmology from documentary texts, and devotes an entire chapter to analysis and interpretation of Anaximander’s fragment.

Kirk, Geoffrey S., John E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. One chapter contains a scholarly account of Anaximander’s philosophy; includes Greek text of his fragment and testimony.

Seligman, Paul. The Apeiron of Anaximander: A Study in the Origin and Function of Metaphysical Ideas. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975. Originally the author’s University of London dissertation, this book includes numerous chapters focusing specifically on Anaximander’s view of the apeiron and the meaning and role of adikia (injustice). It presupposes no prior knowledge on reader’s part but is very scholarly and detailed in its examination of the texts.

Taylor, C. C. W., ed. From the Beginning to Plato. Vol. 1 in Routledge History of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1997. Contains a chapter on the Ionian philosophers, in which Anaximander’s cosmology is examined. This section on Anaximander is brief, readable, and very accessible to the nonspecialist.

West, M. L. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Contains a substantial chapter examining Asian elements in the philosophy of both Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Wheelwright, Philip, ed. The Presocratics. New York: Macmillan, 1966. A primary source. Contains the Anaximander fragment in translation. Also contains testimonies from Aristotle and other Greek and Latin sources who read and commented on Anaximander’s treatise.

Bibliography updated by Priscilla K. Sakezles

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