Fjordman: The Ancient Greeks and the Invention of Natural Philosophy

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at the Brussels Journal. Some excerpts are below:

A turning point in history was the ancient Greek invention of scientific theory, or “natural philosophy.” This process began on the then-fertile western coast of Anatolia or Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), in the region known as Ionia. It is traditionally said to have started with Thales of Miletus, who flourished in the decades after 600 BC. Authors James E. McClellan and Harold Dorn elaborate in Science and Technology in World History, second edition:

“We do know that he came from Miletus, a vibrant trading city on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, and that he was later crowned as one of the seven ‘wise men’ of archaic Greece, along with his contemporary, the lawgiver Solon….Thales’s claims about nature were just that, his claims, made on his own authority as an individual (with or without other support). Put another way, in the tradition stemming from Greek science, ideas are the intellectual property of individuals (or, less often, close-knit groups) who take responsibility and are assigned credit (sometimes by naming laws after them) for their contributions. This circumstance is in sharp contrast with the anonymity of scientists in the ancient bureaucratic kingdoms and, in fact, in all pre-Greek civilizations.”

Anaximander of Miletus was a Greek philosopher in the sixth century BC and a pupil of Thales. He wrote treatises on geography and cosmology and believed eclipses to be the result of blockage of the apertures in rings of celestial fire. Anaximenes of Miletus was another prominent Pre-Socratic philosopher and a younger contemporary of Anaximander. Together they contributed to the transition from magical explanations of nature to non-magical ones in ancient Greece. Anaximenes thought that the Earth was flat, a view that was challenged before 500 BC by the mathematician Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans.

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The Milesian thinkers used logic and reason to criticize the ideas of other individuals and saw the need to defend their theories, thus beginning a tradition of rational and critical assessment which remains alive to this day. It appears as if these pioneering Ionian philosophers identified the basic structure of the universe as material. Thales seems to have suggested that there must be something underlying matter in the universe, out of which everything else is composed. His ideas were developed further by his successors. Thales suggested that water was the primary substance whereas Anaximenes believed air to be the primeval element.

The philosopher Heraclitus flourished in the years before and after 500 BC. According to him the heavenly bodies are bowls filled with fire; an eclipse occurs when the open side of a bowl turns away from us. He argued for a world without beginning or end, of constant change as well as stability. According to Plato, Heraclitus was the first person to compare our world to a river and the inventor of the famous maxim that we can never step into the same river twice.

Heraclitus held that change is perpetual, that everything flows. Parmenides, a Greek philosopher from Elea in southern Italy, in the decades after 500 BC countered with the radical notion that change is an illusion. Parmenides held that the multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are simply different appearances of a single eternal reality. He adopted the radical position that change is impossible. His doctrine was highly influential; others felt compelled to argue against it. The Heraclitean-Parmenidean debate raised fundamental questions about the senses and how we can know things with certainty.

Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.

One thought on “Fjordman: The Ancient Greeks and the Invention of Natural Philosophy

  1. Fjordman,

    Interesting and informative.

    McClellan and Dorn mention the “anonymity of scientists in …. all pre-Greek civilizations”– a more likely explanation is that there weren’t any scientists in those civilizations.

    I doubt if Leucippus or Democritus would have regarded what modern scientists, rather prematurely called “atoms” as satisfying their criteria. I have no idea as to what particle physicists will determine as the basic building blocks of matter(strings perhaps)but these will correspond with the “atoms” of the ancient philosophers.The search for the true indivisible “atom”is not finished.

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