BMCR 2007.08.65

Response: Beall on Sisko on Daniel Graham, Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy

Response to 2007.07.64

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The thrust of Daniel Graham’s book is to propose certain revisions in our understanding of the development of the naturalistic tradition in Presocratic thought from the Milesians to Diogenes of Apollonia, and John Sisko’s review covers the matter handily. However, the review does not consider a secondary, but important point: what Graham says on the (at least) 200-year old debate as to whether the alleged beginning of philosophy with the Milesians actually embodied a clean break with the mythical-religious representations attested in Homer and Hesiod.1 Given that this is a matter of interest to many prospective readers, and that, as Sisko says, the book will likely be prominent in discussion of the material for some time to come, it is important to note that in this aspect it is all but entirely conventional, and as such is inadequately argued.

Graham first attempts to validate the break with myth in his opening chapter on “The Ionian Program.” Here he acknowledges that some have pointed to aspects of continuity with Hesiod, and that there are differences with modern science, but is concerned to detail the ways in which, based on the ancient testimonia, the second Milesian Anaximander but not Hesiod held views “with scientific features.” Namely, he says (pp. 5-14), Anaximander’s scheme involves explanantia and explananda that are purely “natural” events or things as opposed to something including the gods as well in Hesiod; that these therefore constitute a “closed system of natural explanation”; that the thinkers said things were made from “simple” materials; that they wrote in prose; and that they appealed to experience rather than the Muses.

But Graham’s caveats aside, this is essentially the old idea of Milesian philosophy as a type of dry run for modern physics: the by now familiar appeal to surface resemblances between the two bodies of thought, abstracted from their differing historical contexts. The position has not silenced those who doubt a fundamental distinction from Hesiod, possibly because its points can be countered: the bald opposition of the Muses to experience, for example, by suggesting that experience was not the primary authority for the Milesians, while there is surely some experience in the background of Hesiod’s idea that one must have principles like Chasm, Earth, and Love before anything else can exist.

Lest one think that this is simply an expression of Graham’s orientation for introductory purposes, rather than an attempt to argue a case, he speaks in similar terms later in the book. In particular, he is concerned to argue that the Milesians, especially the third of them Anaximenes, held what Graham calls the Generating Substance Theory rather than the conventional Material Monism.2 In the process, especially within the fourth chapter (at pp. 93-98), he juxtaposes the generation of primal entities in Theogony 116-41, as representative of “the standard view of the world” that the Milesians met (cf. 33), to Anaximenes’s theory of condensation and rarefaction of air, that is, to a “mechanical explanation” and a “physical” one; allows that one might demythologize Hesiod’s account to yield a cosmogony of sorts, but insists that it is “primarily” a theogony; and repeats the earlier claim of opposition between experience and the Muses.

Here I will only note that, to the extent that the proper point of comparison is indeed the Hesiodic poems,3 Graham does not notice that many commentators have now eschewed the older approach whereby they were assumed to have been composed by, in effect, a bumpkin,4 because he nowhere cites Hesiod scholarship later than 1966. This is in contrast to his careful treatments of the relations between philosophers later in the book,5 and leaves one to conclude that the volume simply gives a well argued position in a debate over details of the philosophical aspects of early Presocratic thought, carried out by people who do not take the possibility of other significant aspects seriously.

Still, Graham does offer an original contribution to understanding how our primary witness Aristotle may have gotten the Milesians wrong to an extent, and thereby unwittingly suggests how the error might have been even greater. He proposes that Aristotle mistakenly assimilated Anaximenes’s view of air being an originative substance to Diogenes of Apollonia, who felt that it remained a permanent constituent (pp. 292-93). The insinuation has a ring of truth, since, as Graham says, the theory of Diogenes, but not the much earlier ideas of the Milesians, will have been familiar to Aristotle, and since the latter’s purpose was not to give an historian’s account with the care that that implies, but to highlight how earlier theories were incomplete because they did not specify all the types of cause he recognized. But of course this suggests that Aristotle could well have mistakenly assimilated a less rational Anaximenean theory as well to Diogenes, perhaps extending the misunderstanding to the other Milesians, and thereby falsely leading to our modern belief that they were the first true philosophers.


1. Graham (p. 10 n. 25) cites some views dating from the middle of the last century that there was essential continuity between Hesiod’s Theogony and Milesian theories. More recently, see, e.g., Walter Burkert’s contribution to From Myth to Reason?, ed. R. Buxton (Oxford, 1999), 87-106, which argues that logic also accrues to overtly mythical cosmogonies. Or on the Milesian side, Ivan Gobry, La cosmologie des Ioniens (Paris, 2000), 23-59, holds that Anaximander’s apeiron principle (which he says should be transliterated rather as apiron) resembles the initial tohuwabohu state of Genesis 1:1. Earlier, although such views were largely suppressed in the 19th century in the wake of Hegel’s endorsement of the Aristotelian account, some held them in the 18th; see my article in Classical and Modern Literature 13 (1993), 241-56, at 247-49.

2. It seems to me that, expressed in simpler terms, Graham deletes stoicheion from Aristotle’s report upon which the conventional understanding of the Milesians is based, i.e., that they held a single material substance to be the stoicheion (“element”) and archê (“principle”) of things ( Metaph. I 3, 983b10-11). If so, the book follows a recent tendency to jettison stoicheion as a component of Milesian thought, as in Keimpe Algra’s contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, ed. A. A. Long (Cambridge, 1999), 45-65, at 51. To be sure, the usual interpretation championing equivalence for archê and stoicheion also continues unabated, most recently in Edward Hussey’s contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Ancient Philosophy, eds. M. L. Gill and P. Pellegrin (Oxford, 2006), 3-19, at 8.

3. Alternatively, some have thought that a more natural comparison is with Oriental thought. In particular, the approximately contemporary henotheist movement in India unified the world including the anthropomorphic deities under a single principle, at times taking the form of positing the mystical âtman principle, but at others a material entity like water or air if possibly still with mystical overtones. If this was indeed a source for the Milesians as is sometimes suggested, one would need to consider the possibility that a mystical aspect was retained in their thought but was not recognized by Aristotle and the doxographies dependent on him.

4. Thus Jenny Strauss Clay’s generally acclaimed Hesiod’s Cosmos (Cambridge, 2003), 15-20, esp. 19-20, is only the latest work (she gives references) to treat what is important about the original nominal deities in the theogony proper of Hesiod’s Theogony as if they were principles at a certain level of abstraction.

5. Another model might be the careful treatment of Solon’s relation to Hesiod in the social sphere by Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (Ithaca, 1995 [1949]), 107-23. In general, the notion that the primary locus of rationality in the 6th century, B.C.E. was in thought about nature needs re-examination with the possibility in mind that it unduly imports the relative importance of the various sciences after the Industrial Revolution.