Thursday, 1 August 2019

On The Presocratic Philosopher Anaximander

Representation of Anaximander
in Raphael’s Painting
A significant part of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle has survived—this could be one of the reasons why the philosophy of Ancient Greece is closely identified with them. Both were strongly influenced by the philosopher-scientists that we know as “Presocratics” and the fifth century Sophists.

Not a single work of the Presocratics and the Sophists has survived, but we can draw a picture of their teachings by the few fragments of their quotations that have come down to us, and from the questions and paraphrases of their words, and the summaries of their theories, that we find in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and a few other Greek philosophers.

Greek philosophy began in Miletus in the early sixth century—the first philosophers were Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. These three philosophers raised important questions about the nature of reality and the place of human beings in it. From the short fragments and references that have come down to us, it seems that they did not manage to find the right answers, but by raising the right questions, they helped in the development of a philosophical way of thinking.

Richard D. McKirahan, in his book Philosophy Before Socrates, offers the following perspective (in chapter 5, "Anaximander of Miletus") on the ancient references which seem to suggest that Anaximander could be the father of the theory of evolution:
Particularly striking is Anaximander’s recognition and solution of a problem arising from the helplessness of human infants. The first humans could not have come into this world as babies or they would have died before reaching an age at which they could propagate the race. How, then, did they come into being? This “first generation problem” can be answered by positing a god who creates adult humans or by asserting that the world and the human race have always been in existence. However, both these solutions conflict with basic features of Anaximander’s system. Accordingly he takes an original and ingenious approach, having the first humans nurture in other animals until self-sustaining.  
For his claims that animals arose in the sea before they emerged to live on dry land and that they developed from fish, and for recognizing the need for a different original form for humans and the difficulties of adapting to different habitats (perhaps implicit in the short lives of the animals who first moved onto dry land), Anaximander is sometimes called the father of evolution. This interpretation is wrong, however, since he says nothing about the evolution of species. His problem of how to account for the first generation of each kind of animal, how to get each kind of animal established once and for all, is different from Darwin’s. Moreover, he makes not mention of such Darwinian mechanisms as natural selection. 
Anaximander was the student of Thales and the teacher of Anaximenes—it is possible that Pythagoras too was one of his students. Anaximander’s comprehensive and systematic ideas had a seminal impact on the Greek thinkers (including Plato and Aristotle) who followed him. In Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, Anaximander is represented leaning towards Pythagoras on his left.

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