Saturday, December 11, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing Chapter 11: Part 2

No single interpretive schema will do anything but reduce our various examples to a categorical imposition which is anathema to our discourse. We offer essential repeating patterns which are born from the texts themselves. We treat criticism as religion, and science as criticism; we criticize science and religion with the same arguments, we refuse to compartmentalize, and refuse to boil things down to their essences, doing sometimes both, and often neither.

It will be here then that we re-enter the philosophical debates of the pre-Socratics who, having inspired the dialectic born out of Plato and Aristotle, have done much to color our perspective on the nature of reason.

It is part of the nature of the western mind, that those luminaries of thought initially existed in a state of confusion. They were scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, and mathematicians who wanted nothing more than to understand the mind of gods. It would be later that religion became religion, math became math, science became science. Only philosophy retains this primordial confusion, and thus it is of particular interest to our discourse.

Let us begin (again) then in Miletus.

Miletus was an ancient Turkish city which acted as a center of trade, and as such, became the breeding ground for the exchange of ideas. Stories were traded as well as material culture, and the diffusion of notions resulted. Thales, who became the first in the line of Miletusian thinkers, collected these stories and attempted to bring them into a unity, to find some principle that described or accounted for the various accounts of gods and godesses and the trials and tribulations that resulted therein. According to Thales all things are filled with gods and water, the gods pervade nature; they are themselves forces of nature. Lacking formal training in mathematics, Thales' was a qualitative approach, ontologically committed to qualities, which were themselves the basis for categorization. Bertrand Russell's Set Theory is contained in the embryo of Thales' insight. So from Thales we get attributes which are sets, and also actions, or dynamis, motion, for "to ask what a thing is involves asking what it does." So at the advent of proto-philosophy, you get water, gods, fullness, and soul (which amounts to motion).

Then comes Anaximander, who is reputed to have invented the first sundial. He correctly guessed that earth was a sphere that "hung" in the sky. His insight was that all things seem to change from one state into their opposite. Night turns into day. Darkness turns into light. Life turns into death. Thus the transformative nature of reality, it is constantly in flux. Anaximander believed that when the day passed out of being, it was stored in a great warehouse of potencies he called the apeiron, (Greek for boundless); that in fact all things were stored in this warehouse, this storehouse of potencies or potentialities and that the day willingly sacrificed itself so that the night could come into being; that in fact, all life partook in this sacrifice so that things could pass in and out of being, and that without this opposition there could be no dynamis, or change.

Anaximenes abstracted the serial order of the elements, (Earth/Water/Wind/Fire) to a fourfold series of relations, thereby making a principle of the sequence itself. The guiding principle of the order was defined by weight. The heaviest things settled lowest. Therefore Earth was at the base, water next, wind and then fire. He postulated that Wind was the pervasive principle because breath is associated with life.

This partitioning of things in a few basic principles is by necessity the impulse of metaphysics. The abstraction of the principle will guide Greek reason and it still facilitates the potency of Western metaphysics. It is from these insights, that the alignment of nature with man, and man with ethics is guided. For the rules that applied to the external world, were seen as indicative of the right way to govern our own actions, and this tradition endures all the way to Hume's skepticism, which argues that we can never know what should be from what is.

The key ontological issues are physis (nature), and pervasiveness. These will guide the pre-Socratics and the post-Socratics, in their attempt to come to terms with life and nature. They also will form the foundation of the metaphysical knot that humankind will spend perhaps its entire existence trying to unwind.

One key point to be made here, is that the philosophical tradition is necessarily antagonistic to the secular mythic tradition of "the people". The two are not necessarily antagonistic, that is to say, they could be aligned with each other, but the philosopher here is seeking to define his own strategies of truth in contradistinction to what is held to be true by custom.


All info on pre-Socratics is taken from Phillip Wheelwright's "The Presocratics"

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