Category Archives: Philosophy

An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin

An Interlude to Anaximander

Someone must have already stated this elsewhere so for lack of citation let me reiterate, there are many academics but few scholars. Scholars attain a breadth of mastery that few academics ever realize. Analogously, most folks are philosophers in one way or another but few find concrete paths from philosophy to existentia, actual existence. This why philosophers in modernity from existentialists to post-existentialism has focused philosophy on the concrete fact of death. Of course, death, itself, also holds the possibility for abstraction. This is why Heidegger, for example, is swift to frame death in terms of “my death”. Death is not just an end but in non-negotiable ways “my end”. When limit is thought in terms of ‘mineness’, something passionate and irreplaceable comes to the fore. Religions are also able to harness this ‘something’ in concrete displays of passion and ‘faith’. For Kierkegaard, faith is the absolute passion of existence. While academic philosophers, spurred on by the quest for recognition and therefore, economic reward, are goaded by the continuing requirement for sustenance, they are also pricked by the constraints of their specific traditions. Their freedom must end in the horizon of other’s genius. Thus, the academic is born. However, existence persists and places on each the necessity of an existential answer. However, this ‘answer’ takes form, as religion, science, morality or polis/political, denial, it must be responded to, existence therefore evokes. Evocation has long fascinated the phantasma of human imagination as magic, sorcery, desire, wish-fulfillment and even love.

In undertaking this philosophy series, I am continually facing the prospects of pure academia or existentialism. For me, philosophy dies in pure academia. Philosophy finds value and virtue in its fundamental evocation. Whenever philosophy becomes instantiated in ‘isness’ or perhaps as Levinas might sway us to, il ya, it can become obsession or insomniac. It loses a certain kind of weightiness, a certain kind of necessary ‘evocativeness’ is deferred. In the loss of limit, the bounds of ‘mineness’ can be displaced, and thus, the possibility for radical alterity. The ‘end’, this peras, was also noted by Anaximander and many before including Hesiod. Peras, simply translated as end or limit is only the beginning of its etymological intonations. The early Greeks as many archaic traditions recognized change, transition, mutation of form. The Ionians were fascinated with the notion that transitions were not magical apparitions, popping in and out of existence but had some substratum, some basis of mutability. Science and religion have been intrigued ever since. Anaximander, perceptively enough also echoing other archaic traditions thought of these limitations as intensified by re-occurrence of some sense of the same, the dissolution and reemergence of like forms. Iteration, when amplified infinitely by a notion of the same, persistence and unity through time, becomes a-peras (apeiron), the negation of limitation. It becomes intense, imposing, non-negotiable…existential as my being-towards-an-end which cannot grab hold of what this means. This inability to be able is cast without limit, without understanding in the midst of understanding. This type of overflowing itself could be thought as a beckoning of exteriority. This intensity thought in Greek terms is kairos. Kairos as the beckoning moment of answer, necessitates and requires, completion, finality, condensation, movement and action. As such, it is qualitative. It overflows itself as qualitative. In this moment, existence is borne and born.

The urgency and necessity of this evocation did not escape the keen observations of the Greeks. Nor has it yet escaped the gaze of science’s Orphic vision. Necessity is certainly embodied in biological evolution. Survival, as utmost, is dependent on successful adaptations. Could it be that habit as specific to an individual organism, the repetition of successfully completed iterations where ‘success’ is thought in terms of survival, of tarrying to the next iteration, can find some genetic bridge over successive generations of ritualistic practice into what we think as ‘instinct’. Can ‘instinct’ be ingested into DNA? Just as Nobel Prize winner Barbara Mcclintock found the cellular reflection of environment into itself as equally primordial to the cells’ internal structure, could it be that ‘adaptation’ is the innate struggle (polemus) of the internal and the external to come to stasis, to a temporal completion of ‘moment’ when neither impose its form on the other but mutually respond and co-habitat with the other. In genetic encoding then this moment becomes ‘physical’, ‘biological’ and ‘chemical’. It also becomes ‘physics’ as atomic or better sub-atomic.

In modern physics we have the notions of isolated, closed and open systems. Isolated systems can neither pass energy or matter. Closed systems can pass energy but not matter. Closed systems in classic mechanics would be considered an isolated system in thermodynamics. Isolated systems do not exist in actuality. Open systems can pass both energy and matter. In isolated physical systems we say that momentum is conserved. In an isolated system we can account for change, transition, mutation and thus energy is conserved. However, in an open systems we have a loss of accountability we call entropy that shows itself as error. The isolated system is thought yet again as the Hegelian dialectic of internal and external, the particular and the universal. The isolated system demonstrates a kind of respite, a cessation of strife, of the temporal tearing, incessant bubbling of sub-atomic particles, a transformation (aufhebung), where, what Hesiod termed, a ‘yawning gap’, chaos, subsides and the moment of archy, of origin, of birth, opens up genesis, genetics, genet’. This moment is a kind of equilateral-ism, congruency, a pause thought as stasis. Aristotle’s discussions of actuality (actualitas Latin, energeia Greek) or work as what persists and potential (potentia Latin, dunamis Greek) or possibility as what could be, find their stasis in motion or kinetic (kinesis) as the actuality of potentiality, as the persistence of possibility. Temporality and motion, known in Classic Greece, is conserved and preserved by persisting through time by limitation, by form. A temporal wholeness or completion as ousia, being, is evoked from apeiron, perhaps Hesiod’s ‘before the gods’ of chaos. Of necessity, this temporal pause to the incessant change of form, is first made possible by a terminus, a telos, a limit or boundary. The existential weight of evocation, the ‘must’ of action, cannot be ignored or denied without only re-affirming it. Any turning away is yet again a turning towards as the existential moment of existence must obey a call from without as a singularity, as a persisting form cast upon the void, the yawning gap.

The isolated system in physics is always a kind of existence creating moment. It is imposed by boundary and limit, arrangement and designation. However, closed systems, as the perfect triangle, are idealizations. Any isolated system in reality leak and absorb information in the larger context of an open system. Isolated systems in the real world are intrinsically and essentially effected by externality, they have entropy. Information cannot be completely recovered in an isolated system. Information must be truncated in the idealization of an isolated system. The loss is irretrievable in an isolated system context. Typically, the universe is thought in the motif of a closed system. A closed system universe could interact with other energies, perhaps from bubbling multi-verses or multi-dimensional factors but not with any ability to transfer mass. This then gives rise to a metaphysical question, is the notion of the absolute open, closed or isolated? Or, could it be that, the notion of the absolute is an iteration, a singularity, a tautology of a primordial limit in an isolated system context? Some might say this question, devoid of existential import, may as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

In modern physics, a singularity such as the infamous ‘black hole’ is a margin from the isolated system con-text. It is a parenthesis, a deferment until logos, understanding, can finally recover its enigma. Is information conserved or lost in a black hole? Has physics reached an absolute limit in a black hole? The black hole is a unity. It is not a solely a swarming buzz of sub-atomic particles popping in and out of existence. It is not a formless chaos. It is in stasis, driven by necessity to be, and yet it’s being is an absolute limit in a multitude of ways…more importantly, to understanding, the very possibility of understanding. Physics has in recent times brought to the fore more and more staggering limitations of itself with the ‘God Particle’, super-symmetry, multi-verses, higher order dimensions, dark matter and dark energy and brought with these, reflective questions of knowledge itself. Not that there is an alternative to knowledge but it has brought to the fore the necessity of knowledge and at the same time it’s absolute limit. Absolute limitation in physics mathematically become singularities. Singularities are nonsensical, Alice in Wonderland. While ‘bad science’ is thought to end in a proliferation of singularities, they cannot be ignored as they pose fundamental questions which defy ‘reality’, the light of, even the possibility of, knowledge and as such convey an unsettling existential angst.

Mass and energy are inextricably linked just as Aristotle’s thinking of actuality and potentiality are linked. Now with the proof of the Higgs Boson we have a particle ‘field’ whose origin appears in the first moments of the Big Bang which determines and necessitates mass. It transforms massless energy to relative degrees of stickiness, of clumping, of resistance, weightiness; mass. This boson imposes an ir-refusable limit to matter. Thus, the name ‘God Particle’.

The point of this divergence into modern phusis is to show that the import of ‘my death’ never achieves an ‘outside’. It can only converge in upon itself into a singularity. It cannot retain information without irretrievable loss. Even more so, we see this phenomena everywhere we look in phusis. This is the setting in essence of ancient Greek inquiry. The Greeks did not have the apathy of centuries of abstractions into being. They felt the import originally with other archaic cultures and the interruption of the raw gap, the chaos, not yet historically named but recognized in imposing enigma. They understood the transformations of forms as mutations of hot and cold, damp and dry, atom and void. They thought with resoluteness and determination the absolute connotations of limitation, of death, of knowledge. These differences could not easily rest in stasis as being and nothingness, self and other, as pure, self-determining Idea. These differences brought them to the abyss that looks back into our souls, beyond Dread to a gap, an otherness not captured by thought but intensified as the moment of dissolution and birth, of limit in which even light cannot penetrate or escape.1

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity


1 The next installment in this series will probably take some more time for research and thought as the topic of Anaximander brings with it enormous scholarly attention and far reaching possibilities for departure. There may be more preliminary discussions before I really start with the textual, philological and canonical discussion.

The Work of Days (revisited)

This started as a footnote to the previous post but ‘grew’…

I would also suggest that this ‘stuff’ we call ‘matter’ may have an exteriority which, as the history of science demonstrates, resists our most concerted efforts to finally understand it, to know it in totality. Could it be that we can learn something about ‘knowing’ from this observation? ‘Knowing’ tends toward totalizing. In the Greek sense of telos, knowing aims and is directed in advance by the desire to understand. Under-standing is desire for arche, for origin. It seeks foundation, founded-ness, to arrive and yet, in view of the history of science or metaphysics, never arrives.

Never arriving is an exteriority to the desire for knowing. Never arriving is an essential teleological characteristic of knowing. Thus, the desire and the impossibility of the desire generate anxiety. Anxiety results in totality and historical metaphysics. Historical metaphysics’ telos aims at first philosophy. However, its history shows us much unapologetic failure. Totality is permeated by historical metaphysics just as historical metaphysics is permeated by totality. Thus knowing wants to ‘take account’ of exteriority, of error, and exteriority is violently appropriated by knowing. In both cases totality desires to take precedence, to understand, to rest. However, for desire to be desire it can never terminate; it can never complete itself in its object. Thus, desire is endless by necessity. The ancient Greeks called this struggle peras and apeiron, simplistically translated form and chaos (void).

Peiron in ‘a-peiron’ is the Ionic Greek for boundary or limit. The older form of this, peras, meant ‘beyond’ or ‘further’. Thus, a-peiron in Ionic Greek from Anaximander is the alpha privative, the privation of boundary and limit or without boundary or limit. Even in the much earlier archaic period of the Greeks, in Hesiod, we have Uranus (father sky) and Gaia (mother earth). Sky suspends, stands off, provides perspective. Sky is the son and husband of earth. Therefore, earth is generative. As the first of the gods, Earth is yet to be differentiated, it is undifferentiated.1 Earth is the origin of sky. Thus, Earth is arche. In Hesiod, Earth, what we now call ‘matter’, was the first of the gods. Yet, Hesiod’s Muses tells us that first of all was khaos, chaos. Chaos means the ‘yawning gap’, a void. Thus, chaos differentiates and separates (the heaven and the earth). Earth is permeated through and through with chaos, undifferentiated but fertile and generative.

The Ionic Greeks further refined this notion to what post modernism might call the “play of difference” (differance [sic] in Derrida). The play of differentiation and a-differentiation, without difference, is not a confusion of differences or a tautological identity of sameness but an exterior to difference. According to Heidegger Phusis, through Latin, got translated as natura (or the modern word nature) and lost the original meaning of the word which is to grow, to emerge, to unfold. Phusis is generative. Heidegger calls this emerging-abiding sway. He maintains that phusis was the original Greek idea of being. Thus, differentiation, the earliest beginnings of science, of phusis (later physis, later physics) gives context to the already understood (pre-cognitive) notion of ‘is’. Yet, even earlier, we have chaos which is the necessary condition, “first of all”, and by absolute exteriority conditions and generates growth, differentiation and physics by chaos, a yawning gap. What was lost from the archaic period of Hesiod was the gap, the anarchy, which cannot be captured, totalized, brought into the light of knowledge or, as Plato may have written, “the good beyond being”.

In meta-physics we do not have the beyond as later Latin thinkers would have us believe. Aristotle does not use that title since it came much latter. His work currently titled and typically understood by the Latin word Metaphysics is really τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά” and may have been added by an editor. Aristotle claims the work was about “first philosophy”.2 Heidegger thought it was Aristotle’s exploration into Being, ontology. It was not beyond or contrary to phusis but an inquiry into the ‘first’ of phusis. Perhaps we could think it as the great question of Hesiod, “what came first”. As such, the depth and richness of this question begins science; it begins physics, not transcends it. Earth generates sky but undifferentiating does not generate differentiation, it separates it. This separation or gap excludes a middle, an ever mediated in-between. This suggests that what always and ever grows seeks it telos, its completion, in bridging the gap, completing the difference, the error, in a unified totality. However, it can only ever, like Sisyphus push the rock uphill to have it roll down again. The Desire cannot be complete as it would no longer be Desire but the loss of Desire as sameness, totality and Error.

When the place of absolute exteriority is lost in totality and interruption of the other is taken as the same, as the already understood of ‘is’ (materialism, dualism, pluralism, stuff, thing, substance, atom, etc.), the otherness of the other, radical exteriority, can only be effaced. The effacement of the other in its most radical form is genocide. Ethics leaves the gap, the first as other and has always been at work in metaphysics, in the notion of God and gods. The problem is that so has the work of totality. Metaphysics errs by assuming the other as substance just as science can err. However, the virtue found in science is the deference to error, the possibility of falsifiability. To be sure, science can also be defiant and dogmatic as well but its health comes from its recognition of error. Metaphysics as religion has a tendency to forget its propensity for error. Its error then seems to be the error of dogmatism and denial, of another substance called God. The play of alterity in the history of science and metaphysics is what validates or what fails to validate particular differentiations.

The endless play of difference as Desire can never end in totality, the Truth. It can only bridge the yawning gap in violence, in totality and thus fail to achieve ethics. Desire as Eros can never find completion but it can find work. The work of physics-first philosophy as differentiation and the telos of differentiation as completion, fulfillment and wholeness desire finality. Ethics resists finality as totality. Only death as the possibility of the impossible can finalize Desire. Death as the radical alterity of the other overtakes us from without, from an exterior which can never be conquered. We can never have power over death. We can only be absolutely passive beyond all passivity in the face of death. Death is the answer to phusis not totality. Our telos is not in power or truth but in absolute exteriority. As such exteriority is the ethic of Desire. Since finality can never achieve totality, ‘archy’ (arche; origin) can never achieve an-archy. Arche can never find light, meaning, logic or value in anarchy. Anarchy can never ‘make sense’ to arche but it can always interrupt arche and provide the gap which keeps arche from totality, science from absolute knowledge, religion from false god-hood (idolatry). Anarchy is the openness of phusis which comes from without. It makes science and religion possible.

Ethics as Desire is the embodied of work. The work of days achieves value and meaning in ethics. Ethics in this sense stands back from purity or the proper, the achievement of totality. It recognizes limit and boundary. It grows from error and does not die in dogmatism. Totality is the premature termination of Desire, the facade, the semblance. In the play of Desire, what the Greeks termed Eros, we encounter the gap, the absolutely excluded in-between, which is neither mortal or divine. The work of Ethics gives value, meaning and place to the stranger, the wanderer, the homeless, the errant with dignity which can only be reserved for the gods.


1 See Reading Hesiod’s Theogony (with Notes and Questions)

“But I want to ask again, do we need to make this assumption of such a “pre-existing undifferentiated field”? I do think it is called for by Hesiod’s words.” Page 13, Heidegger and the Greeks: Interpretive Essays, Drew A. Hyland, ‎John Panteleimon Manoussakis – 2006, See this

2 τὰ μετὰ [in the midst of, among, after] τὰ φυσικά [physics] If the editor, Andronicus of Rhodes [50 BC], placed this title on Aristotle’s work, it may simply have meant that he physically placed the material after Aristotle’s books, the Physics. See this and this.

In Metaphysics A.1, “Aristotle says that “all men suppose what is called wisdom (sophia) to deal with the first causes (aitia) and the principles (archai) of things”” (981b28), and it is these causes and principles that he proposes to study in this work. Aristotle’s Metaphysics, First published Sun Oct 8, 2000; substantive revision Mon Jun 11, 2012



Philosophy, Evolution, Chris Hayes and Punk Rock

Last night on the MSNBC program “All In with Chris Hayes” he had an interesting discussion with Gregg Graffin, punk rocker of Bad Religion and PhD in Zoology.1 He thinks of himself as a naturalist. He has written books concerning evolution, God and atheism. Last night he was discussing what he termed “dualism” and “materialism”. The initial story on MSNBC was about some comments the Pope had made reconciling evolution and the big bang to Christianity. Gregg thought that folks that did this were dualists. He made the claim that scientists were materialists. While I am sympathetic with his views on evolution and science, I found the discussion in terms of dualism and materialism to be very anachronistic. These terms have been discussed in philosophy for hundreds of years. These terms have been retrofitted as far back as Plato and Aristotle. While they may oversimplify and fail to capture the Greek differences in Plato and Aristotle, they probably started coming into their own in Neo-Platonism in Rome, Constantinople and Christian Scholasticism. These modern philosophical notions really came into play with Rene Descartes in terms of Cartesian Dualism. They were in vogue in the days of Charles Darwin and most recently for Karl Marx and historical materialism. However, with regard to contemporary philosophy, the use of these terms reflect a kind of naiveté of where philosophy has subsequently traversed. Of course, in the history of philosophy they are still discussed just as medieval literature, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton’s “aethereal medium” for the transmission of light, along with the struggle of the Royal Society with alchemy are still discussed in academia.

Framing contemporary arguments with these historical motifs is tantamount to trying to talk to a physicist in terms of atoms. Of course, the atom has a historical paradigm and certainly is useful for teaching students new to physics but physics has traversed quite a ways from the Greek notion of Democritus’ atom. Likewise casting the net of dualism and materialism over science and theism forces the discussion into anachronistic dispersions. The fact is, just as science has paradigm shifts as Thomas Kuhn discussed in the sixties in “The Structures of Scientific Revolutions” so does philosophy. As Kuhn points out, the semantic certainties of science are not some kind of self-evident, a priori, ‘truth’ content but have roots in history, politics, economics as well as accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and ‘fruitfulness’. Contemporary philosophy has long since left the binary oppositions of dualism and materialism. These concepts may have historical significances and utilitarian virtues but they also fail to convey richness, value and truth just as Nietzsche’s aphoristically declared “God is Dead” and ether was finally dismissed in Einstein.

The error in dualism or materialism is in the metaphysic of ‘substance’. In the notion of substance a whole history of what philosophy calls ‘ontology’, being-logos or the study of being, is already understood and assumed. The assumption cannot help but think2 of what ‘is’ is, is-ness, in terms of ‘thing’ or what Heidegger termed ‘thing-ness’. So ontologically synonymous terms such as ‘reality’, matter, mind, spirit and even ‘is’ equivocally and already (pre-cognitively) understand what ‘is’ in easy terms of stuff, thing and substance. All that is required after that is to categorize this stuff in terms of one (materialism or idealism), two (dualism) or more (pluralism). In the modern occident, materialism and dualism are most prominent. In 20th century phenomenology, what this capacity for en-framing shows is not what it pretends, the actual stuff of ‘is’, but a certain capacity of who we are as ‘historical’. We cannot help but think in these historical motifs because our language, our thinking, is already formed by a certain history of ontology. In the 20th century, philosophy has reawakened the thought of being, what was thought in the Pre-Socratics as phusis, from where we get our modern word physics. Just as sub-particle physics now thinks the atom in terms of quanta, current philosophy has tried to stratify content and ‘meaning’ in historical terms. What this does is open up a kind of externality to the already understood notion we have of being, existence, substance, matter, etc. and asks if the notion we have of the early Greeks is really the sealed, hermetic space, classical philology imagines or if there is an excess that has been overlooked in what those early Greeks were asking.

Once ‘is’ has been incased in terms such as ‘matter’ a whole history comes along with that which even the history of science has abundantly demonstrated cannot be what it appears as. Simplistically, the ‘scientific method’ makes claims to a certain kind of anarchy (without origin) of the direction of thought. It claims to be guided by whatever ‘truth’ may come along to upset current convention. Sure enough, the history of science is replete with such examples or what Kuhn terms ‘paradigm shifts’. However, as he also shows, that movement is not simply a movement of ‘truth’ guided by mere materiality but also brings with it histories of content not merely reducible to ‘matter’ but essentially dependent on politics, economy, culture, etc. Likewise, a certain kind of anarchy also betrays the common notions of philosophy and I would dare say theology as well (but that is another topic). What betrays us is a certain kind of myopia or what Socrates characterized as shadows cast on a cave wall. Rather than deny or affirm the individual tenants of our sight, in contemporary philosophy, we should turn the question towards what is it about us that conditions us for such wanderlust? What shows itself in the unimpeachable certainties of our determinations? How is it we can encapsulate entire histories with widely varied, forgotten and even undiscovered possibilities in such as simple word as “is”? What can this capacity tell us about language, about truth, about matter? On the apex of dark energy and dark matter where physics itself has put its truths in essential question how can we not be thrown back on the anarchy of thought, a radical exteriority which must always remain a ‘yet’? What is more, in physics as in philosophy the whole question of temporality has once again been brought to the fore.

Heidegger calls the notion of sequential, linear ‘now’ moments the vulgar notion of time. For Heidegger it is an abstraction. It may have pragmatic and utilitarian advantages but as we know in Einstein such a notion was essentially made relative to the speed of light and thus the notion of time was entangled in the permeability and contingency of matter and energy. Time, in physics, is no longer understood in Newtonian absolute categories but as having stretch and even termination. Likewise, Heidegger recognizes a stretch in the way we experience temporality where, for example, anxiety or boredom may slow down time and exhilaration or joy may make time fly by. Of course, our history has once again given us convenient categories for explaining this in terms of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ but as we have seen, the historical capacities we have may cover over as much as we think they reveal. For example, now we think time in physics as relative and with a stretch which we put in categories of matter. When we think time in terms of the human experience of time we put that in categories of subjectivity. However, for both the dynamic is very similar and we supplement that dynamic with convenient historical categories of matter and subjectivity.

This detour into current philosophy was to make apparent underlying metaphysics of such easily tossed about notions as dualism and materialism where ‘is’ has already been explained and understood in terms of substance, matter, ‘thing-ness’. It was also to show a kind of philosophical contemporaneousness where the alternative to endlessly debating the merits of dualism and materialism gets enveloped in a certain way in which we ‘are’ or what Heidegger called ‘da-sein’ (the ‘there’ of being). Finally, the allusions to radical exteriority discussed in Emmanuel Levinas and highlighted here in the radical contingency of science, of ‘truth’, even of ontology would bring us full circle to an anarchic origin of a possible notion of God and the absolutely suspended and founding place of metaphysics. The negation of knowledge or ‘truth’ stops short of the alterity of excess, of otherness, as it agnostically decries the possibility of alterity whereas in Levinas the anarchical beginning, the origin of all our meanings is in the face of an unbridgeable, untraceable disruption of the other. This he terms anarchic3, without origin, which also finds a voice in the earliest Greek writings of Hesiod:

Tell me all of this, you Muses who have your homes on Olympus, from the beginning, tell who first of them (the gods) came-to-be.

First of all Chaos came-to-be; but then afterwards…4


1 Talking God and evolution with a punk legend

2 An assumption which we ‘cannot help but think’ could otherwise be known as ‘truth’.

3 See The Work of Days (revisited)

4 Hesiod, Theogony. See my yet to be completed philosophy series starting here, Prelude to the Philosophy Series.

Modernity and the Contradiction of Values Dilemma (Updated 10/6/14)

Everyone has values. Values always have a temporal setting. Temporality, as Heidegger would remind us, has a stretch1. The root of crime is incongruent2 values. Incongruent values result in self-destruction and other-destruction. The work of life and the highest goal of thinking is congruency. Temporality certainly brings with it contemporaneous themes but also, universal themes. By universal themes I specifically mean the body. Not just the human body but body in the broader sense of organized (organically, physically, etc.), essentially interdependent and fundamental boundary conditions. In this sense, congruency means harmony. As such, human kind has completion, wholeness, telos3 in the Greek sense as fundamentally constitutive. Therefore, harmony is our ‘from which’ and also ‘to which’ of existence. As long as we exist, we are founded as origin (archê)4 and telos. However, equally co-constitutive with body is entropy. Entropy is cacophony. Entropy is the tear of temporality. It is radical alterity, exterior to body. Entropy is anarchy, without origin, anachronous5. For Anaximander:

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

We also have in Hesiod, writing of the origin, “First of all chaos came to be…”6

Therefore, values as congruency is temporized as the middle voice, as not mortal or divine as Eros, as harmony and cacophony, as interiority and exteriority, as being and radical other, impenetrable transcendence. Upon this plight, thought as existence: work.

Work is the movement of peras and aperion7, form and void (chaos as yawning gap). Body is the motion of work. As such, value is the promise of harmony and the yawning gap of cacophony. Neither can be without the other. Yet, if meaning is to be found in existence, if body is to be inherent, coherent, intact value is not optional. Death is the destruction of body, at least with regard to organism, to human body. However, body is overlapping bodies. As human body we live in historical, setting body. Human body also lives in matter, physics body. Human body belongs to political, community, labor bodies etc.. Body necessarily connotes “in”. By “in” we mean indeterminate, interwoven bodies. This aspect we call intermediate. Both harmony and cacophony are mediated, essentially and irrevocably. What this means is that there is never simply a binary totality except in utility and intermediacy. Some may call binary totalities ‘illusion’ in grander schemes but if that is the case, it is a necessary illusion in the semantic of utility. Grammar as the interplay of syntactic and semantic, sign and symbol, is body also which reflects harmony and cacophony, congruence and “in”-congruence. In grammatology, we also find the middle, the intermediate, the play of the same and other, body and bodies.

To radically shift modes…

I recently reflected on discussions I have had with Austrian Economists8. The Austrians are fundamentally devoted to radical laissez-faire capitalism. They reflect some of the current libertarian and right wing views in the United States. They believe that when ‘free market’ capitalism fails, systemically, it is because of government intervention. The only way to emphatically prove their point would be to eradicate government which would be an impossibility or, short of that, make it “small enough to drown in a bathtub” as some of them have stated. In this case, we have the body of enterprise, of a certain kind of market economy, which has been given an elevated status, a reified status of the proper over and against the body politic. Their belief is that laissez-faire body maintains itself more efficiently in the microeconomics of capital dynamics than the macroeconomics of large government regulation. One downside I have pointed out to them is that non-governmental body9 can have small companies and extremely large multinational corporations. Systemically, this means that extremely large multinational corporations can suffer from the same woes as large governments which regulate. They can also be bureaucratic and inefficient. They can also monopolize and regulate the market in every sense of the word10. Likewise, governments can be small like Switzerland or Austria with relatively large tax bases but distribute social services as efficiently as small companies would in the laissez-faire capitalism. Even very large governments like the United States can systemically be organized as large multinational corporations, as conglomerates or independent business units which give them the same type of systemic advantage as smaller companies. The National Park System, the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) and many other departments in the U.S. government provide ample proof of this.11 In effect what we have are intermediates at work in the body politic and the body market. The binaries break down except in the minds of dogmatically committed enthusiasts.

The Austrians believe that voting in the body politic is not at all like ‘free market’ competition. This, in spite of the fact that corporate boards are voted in, in large corporations. Perhaps, again the argument could be made that the small number of participates in corporate governance makes the process more efficient than general voting in, say a large government like the U.S., and therefore less likely to accrue professional politicians but anyone that has worked in a large corporation will readily tell you about politics in those corporations. It has occurred to me that, while the Austrians will not say it, they really do not believe in democracy. They believe that the reins of power in economics operate most efficiently when they are held by the few or by fewer folks than when many folks are involved. They hurry past the issues of body politic in body corporation and also wise corporate governance such as in conglomerates. They have setup binaries which define their most basic value system. While these binaries may be illusory and lead to far too reductionist conclusions, the real question is, could Austrian Economics serve as a protectionist strategy for the few? If we dismiss democracy as a viable means for governance aren’t we really left with the mercantilism that folks like Thomas Jefferson were so vehemently opposed to? Can democracy work? Can we have large governments with efficient social services just as large corporations can have efficient conglomerates? Sure we can also have inefficiencies in large government, large corporations and even small governments and small businesses. Perhaps less or more likely depending on the independent and dependent variable we setup in our statistical measurements.

To be fair, power does not necessarily reduce to elitism. It is commonly thought that money is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well, Christians do not think the power of God corrupts and according to them, God is absolute. After all, Plato thought that the philosopher king would be the best answer to politics. Personally, I prefer everyone evolve to the level of philosopher king. In any case, there certainly has been examples in history of wise leaders, wise corporate leaders, etc.. However, without knowing any actual statistical studies on this, I would think that there is greater effects with corruption in greater concentrations of power12. I am not sure there is statistically any greater percentage of corruption with greater power. Many small businesses cheat on their taxes. Many folks lie with ease. The macro effects of these vices could only be corrosive on a large scale by way of accumulation. Examples of this would be countries where corruption is widespread and laws are commonly broken by average citizens. Those that control concentrated pockets of power and are corrupt can have great, catastrophic, macro effects as history is replete with examples. If my suspicions are correct, it follows that if corporations are people too (but not government curiously enough)13 and since they typically have more power, these concentrations of power would lend themselves to greater statistical negative effects from corruption. Of course, this can apply to governments as well.

The problem with the laissez-faire capitalists is that on one hand, when it comes to the ‘free’ market, they appear to completely ignore the effects of corrosive power on systemic capitalism and on the other hand seem to suggest that the government is the embodiment of absolute power and absolute corruption. This dichotomy is not mitigated in their analysis by intermediate factors such as when power is systemically used wisely as many Americans ‘say’ is embodied in the U.S. Constitution or when market players corrupt the competitive advantage (i.e., monopolistic tendencies). In the U.S. Constitution there are checks and balances against elitists consolidating power and corruption. The whole system is based on a representative democracy. If you believe that the U.S. government is a complete failure, it follows that you believe the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution are negated by the corrosive effects of power. The laissez-faire capitalists oppose any corrective market intervention such as regulation. They offer no checks and balances to monopolistic tendencies by private corporations except the “competition of the market”. They believe that the only checks and balances needed in capitalism are completely inherent to the market itself. They typically ignore the same kind of regulatory effect that large, monopolistic multinational corporations have on the market. To eliminate competition, they believe that price fixing and collusion, supply side manipulation, buying or driving the competition out of business is a legitimate enterprise in big business. They would have vigorously defended the “robber barons” such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The would have opposed the crony capitalism practiced by these folks as an example of government deformation of the natural business cycle. However, they appear to blame government for these deformations not the “robber barons”. They would never blame the capitalistic system which allowed these folks to acquire vast money and power and enabled them to buy off the government. How could they afford the government payoff before they obtained a high degree of wealth to even start down the path of cronyism? Could it be that they were corrupted by the capitalistic system before the government was ever implicated? This one-sidedness is exactly what shows the Austrian’s hypocrisy and blind dogmatism.

The fallacy of their analysis is that when it comes to large, multinational corporations, competition is systemically and artificially diminished by great wealth and great power regardless of laissez-faire-government interaction. In view of this, “competition of the market” becomes a kind of mantra which cannot be intrinsically corrupted from within the system, the ‘free’ market can only be corrupted from without, by governmental regulation. This kind of binary reduction makes fair competition a variable which, for them, cannot be diminished or increased except from within proper and legitimate laissez-faire capitalism. In other words, there are no unfair competitive advantages which are systemic to laissez-faire capitalism as long as government regulation is excluded. In their opinion, the Gilded Age was not an effect of laissez-faire capitalism but crony capitalism. The Great Depression was a result of government intervention in the stock market not a stock market free-for-all where the ‘all’ was the few. For them, true laissez-faire capitalism would have prevented these historical atrocities.

Competition cannot decidedly be corrupted from within but chiefly from without, the government. This myopia of the notion of competition has and will allow corrupted, concentrations of power to go unchecked. The Austrians fancifully and unrealistically believe that the ideal of laissez-faire ‘competition’ cannot be systemically, over the long term, compromised from within. This kind of blind dogmatism is what I refer to as elitism. It is a contradiction of values which cannot be brought to the light of day. This value cannot be made coherent by Kant’s categorical imperative. What kind of person would defend no limitations to absolute power, to pure economic Darwinism, to absolving absolute power of any blame as long as it triumphed competitively without government coercion. What kind of human value system could be harmonized with a ‘legitimate’ totalitarianism as long as it is acquired by ‘competitive’ laissez-faire capitalism.

Of course, the Austrians would claim that ‘real’ competition would prevent such an outcome. They would protest that monopolies were the result of corrosive government intervention into the market not any ability of the marketers to systematically and intrinsically manipulate the market and eventually the government, to obtain their empire. If the government did not exist or barely existed in pure market terms, the “robber barons” would have failed from market competition. For the Austrians, it would be impossible for laissez-faire capitalism to effectively become the government, to acquire that kind of power. It would be impossible for the government to be a byproduct of laissez-faire capitalism. For them, the original beast is the government. In the case of the United States, the government can only corrupt laissez-faire capitalism. It can never enhance the market. Representative democracy can only interfere and thwart ‘free’ enterprise. Freedom is not a result of government, it is a result of market dynamic. This reduction allows no intermediation, no checks and balances, no voting, no democracy. Democracy only sets the stage for government corruption and therefore, market deformation. In Austrian Economics’ terms, checks and balances are solely from within, intrinsic, the “in” without considerations for legitimate external contingencies. The market admits no exterior, no other, no proper and valid interruption outside its hermetically sealed body. In vernacular, this reduction allows the rich to get richer and the poor get poorer as long as the fittest survive without cronyism. Laissez-faire capitalism can only be corrupted by government, it can never be systemically, over time, corrupted from within due to pure market competition.

If this is the case, do we all to easily give up on democracy? Do we favor heroic elitism, triumph of the fittest, over common populism? I ask the reader, are these binaries beginning to show themselves in their artificiality? This is where critical thinking must and should come in. If, as Kant would have us think, our maxim of elitism were to be the universal law of ‘bodies’ human, would we be ok with laissez-faire capitalism as the Austrians envision it? Didn’t we and Thomas Jefferson crawl out of that kind of dark economic age? Are we all too willing to go back there? Why would it be different this time around? Here is where congruency, given the many different bodies, weighs most heavily. The work which thought places on us, which values require of us, is not to hide or apologize for our secretive values which cannot reach the light of day but to harmonize what we believe internally with what we think should be the maxim of society, of body politic, of value as coherent and congruent with body.

The artificial reduction of values into disparate, cacophonous binaries may simplify and stupefy the work of congruence, of allowing, defending and justifying dogmatic ‘differences’ without explicitly endorsing contradictions but letting them remain implicitly (albeit, convenient for some). The work of thinking is in proportion and magnitude as Aristotle would instruct us. Every time we vote each of us has that work laid upon us not from without but from who we are. That is what democracy is about. We are called to the work of democracy, harmonizing constitutive bodies from which we exist and allowing interruption from the other for which we have no already understood dogma or reduction. If we fail this, the elitists will be all to happy to do the work for us.


1 See A Brief Introduction to Being and Time

2 not corresponding in structure or content

3 See Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

4 See Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

5 See Thoughts on Heidegger and Levinas, also Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Emmanuel Levinas

6 See Philosophy Series 4 – Hesiod

7 See Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

8 See An Email to Paul Krugman, Steve Horwitz and’Free Market’Fundamentalism, Theoria and Austrian Economics [from what I can see], Fundamentalism in Market Economy: The Austrian School, Fundamentalism in Market Economy: The Austrian School and Regulation

9 I use this grammatical rendition purposely to refer back to the previous discussion.

10 See The Free Market Ideal

11 See Free Market Either/Or Government?

12 There are those that believe power, whether used wisely of corruptly, is absolutely reductive of existence as one reading of Nietzsche might suggest. This analysis sets up and reifies another binary dichotomy as for example power and powerlessness and refuses the absolute interruption of the other. I think of this as yet another example of an enlarged amygdale. See The Conservative and Liberal Brain

13 See Formalism: When a Lie Becomes Truth (really)

Reflections on “Being and Time”, Heidegger and Levinas

Thinking over Heidegger’s work “Being and Time”, I am coming back again and again to the setting of authenticity. Contrasts are continually made between authentic and inauthentic, resoluteness and everyday-ness. Fleeing in the face of thrown nullity according to Heidegger is being dragged along in the present. Heidegger’s setting is one’s ownmost, the possibility for one taking hold of one’s existence instead of being tossed about to and fro. The call one must heed, ‘to be’ authentically, is toward a kind of rootedness, resolute standing in the face of thrown nullity. A power rooted in the wellspring of authenticity maintains itself actively and not passively as in the they-self. The stark there-is-ness can be faced without fleeing via authentic resoluteness.

For Levinas, what we flee in the face of is not thrown nullity but the other. The face of the other refuses our power over it, our authentic and resolute empowerment. The other is an absolute end to mine-ness as the possibility for authenticity and inauthenticity. The other refuses the neutrality of stark there-is-ness. The interruption of the other refuses my circumspection, my solicitude as evocative. To recover one’s authenticity through guilt is to appease one’s guilt, the debt which refuses payment and anarchically results in a kind of reverse substitution. When we substitute one, Being, for the other we thereby take on the guilt of murder. For Levinas, we are unable to be able in the alterity of the face of the other with a passivity beyond all passivity.

For Heidegger, we are powerless as inauthentic, fleeing thrown nullity and thereby inviting guilt which opens the possibility of authenticity. For Heidegger, in taking hold of one’s ownmost the other is the they- self in inauthenticity as fallen and being-with as the there of being (dasein) as authentic. In both cases the other is taken as constitutive of dasein. For Levinas, the other is transcendent to being, an absolute alterity which cannot be brought under the rubric of dasein‘s temporality in the structure of care (Sorge). The act of totalizing the other into ontology covers over the radical interruption of the other in a murderous act of auto-affection. History is the story of leveling off the rupture of the other.

The relentlessness of authenticity for Levinas may be more like the resoluteness for the there-is, the il ya. In declaring our freedom as mineness we obliterate any interruption of the other. My death as sacrifice in the face of the other is transformed in Heidegger as the authentic possibility of the impossibility of death as thrown nullity. Resoluteness, given by the possibility of Being, can face sheer is-ness in taking hold of its ownmost possibility for authenticity. Ontos, being , is the final banishment of alterity and conquering moment of vision for what is left, nothingness emerging as metaphysic, as suspended over nothingness, as the proper mode (dwelling, abode perhaps) of mineness. For Levinas, metaphysics taken over historically by ontology nevertheless retains a trace of the desire for the other.

What rationality as the Concept (Begriff) failed to conquer in absolutizing self-determinination, Heidegger lays hold of in the existential of Being as authentic. Yet, what remains in such empowerments, archical, synchronicities of Idea or Being, loses the radical and unequivocal interruption of the face of the other in a solemn neutrality which goes counter to Ethics in Levinas and denies any possibility for the impossibility of Being in the face of the other.

Here’s a thought…

What if the universe thinks?

This may sound quite mad but,

what if thoughts and intelligence are not simply invented by us and trapped in our heads as a by-product of the culmination of evolution’s Homo sapiens but thoughts required the universe to be.

What if we did not invent thoughts but thoughts invented us by necessity?

Analogously, as frequencies (logical, ordered thoughts) and radiation noise (chaotic, random thoughts), thoughts as light is ‘transmitted’ from source to sink.

Perhaps, we do not have a clue as to what the ‘medium’ of thoughts could be just as we recently discovered dark matter and dark energy make up most of the universe and we do not have a clue as to what they are.

Perhaps, ‘gray matter’ is a receptor, a sink for a universe of transmitted, sourced, thoughts.

Is the universe the ‘mind of God’?

If so, we are trying to transmit and look for transmitted signals from aliens with radio waves?1 Wouldn’t this be quite comical? Higher intelligence, lower intelligence permeates the universe and here we are trying to send and receive smoke signals.

If thoughts are ‘real’ why do we have to think we invented them? Could they have been around from the beginning, the arche, or even before the beginning? Could they have required the universe to be?

Well, if you believe the ancient Greeks the arche, the origin, is chaos, the gap of indeterminate and determinate. The logos, pitifully transmitted as ‘word’, is a gathering, an ordering, of thoughts, determinate, determining, conceiving, ‘circumspecting’, which is bounded by disorder, chaos, the indeterminate, the apeiron. Logos is the form, the forming, which thinks. Humans are the animal that speaks, that has the forms of thought which culminates in speaking, communicating, transmitting ideas.

Or, if you believe Christianity, “In the beginning was the word.”2, the logos. The logos is the mind of God. The universe is the actual ‘gray matter’ of God. Jesus was the perfect ‘receptor’ of the thoughts of God. We are receptors too and can ‘heed’ the word of God.

Need I say for Hegel there is the Concept, the Begriff, the Idea.

We can receive thoughts and transmit them with speech but also in other ways. Ladies seem to have a keen receptor for picking up certain erogenous ideas from men. We can sense when someone is dangerous or, in this case, mad.

Even more, when cave men threw spears they received the idea of the ‘laws of motion’. True, their reception was bit crude and more refined reception was given by Newton but the ideas were there. Even animals can receive these precepts of their environment and respond accordingly. The physics, phusis, of the macro-universe is ordered and cohere while the bad boys of the quantum-universe dis-order, disrupt, fill all origins with noise.

From the beginning of ‘consciousness’ we perceived the lived stretch of time Heidegger discusses.3 When we are happy ‘time flies’. When we are bored time slows to an unbearable pace. Physically, Einstein more eloquently thought a time-space continuum, a ‘law’ of nature where space and time are two sides of the same coin so to speak. But we felt it, lived it, long before it found ‘scientific’ words.

As thought receptors, we can distort and truncate thoughts. We are capable of Error as Kierkegaard thought. We might call this ignorance or crude or bizarre or dangerous. We may historically fence off a canonical, approved domain, of logos we call sanity and expel insanity to the nether regions as Foucault may have suggested, symbiotically related. Are these de-ranged thoughts dangerous in themselves or simply the defect or ‘frequency limiting’, filtering, of the receptor? I suppose this could give credence to those that ‘hear voices’ or believe they had transmitters implanted in their heads; perhaps, these defective receivers cannot ‘own’ the thoughts they receive.

Could it be that we are not locked up in an existential aloneness but all our lives receiving and transmitting a small portion of an infinite universe of thoughts. We cling to some ideas as ‘us’ or ‘I’. We attach to some thoughts as mine-ness. We own them but perhaps they own us. Perhaps they require the universe to be to actuate them, to flesh them out, to give voice to them in ever more profound ways. What would the universe be without them? How would a universe even get perceived, understood, known, observed without an observer, a receptor and transmitter, source and sink of universal ‘math’, its order, its language, its Forms.

What of the idea of infinity? We truncate it, filter it, of necessity but it always exceeds our truncations as Descartes perceived. Infinity is the perception of the spectrum, the frequencies, of thoughts from crude to profound, highly ordered to chaotic. The background noise of the universe is noise in the receiver, the inability to ever make thought concrete even though it concretizes us, nature, phusis (physics). It is the meta-phusis, metaphysics, which allows being to be. Its absolute indeterminacy determines what ‘is’.

And here we are going around trying to talk or listen to aliens with radio waves. We live in sea of thought and we transmit radio waves to aliens like smoke signals or shadows cast on a cave wall, all the while thinking the shadows are the reality of the sun. This is quite comical in the preceding light. Perhaps what we are really looking for is others as unintelligent as ourselves. The universe is intelligent and the only ignorance lies in something we forget or neglect. Could it be that the universe looks upon us as ‘proof’ that there is unintelligent life in the universe?




2 1 John 1:1

3 A Brief Introduction to Being and Time

The Free Market: Capitalism and Socialism – Part 1

Adam Smith, an Enlightenment thinker, thought of humans as fundamentally self-interested as contrasted to Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes thought that selfishness worked as a kind of glue for society. His idea was that people are selfish; fundamentally concerned only with themselves. This meant that each person wanted to thrive based on their personal wants and needs without regard to ideals like the greater good or the plight of others. However, as selfish people, they want security at any cost. In order to obtain security, people subject themselves to the state, to laws. While individuals would freely rape, murder and plunder without concerns of conscience they do not because they do not want to be on the receiving end of their brutish desires. The free subjugation of themselves to the state is called ‘social contract’ theory.

Adam Smith lived hundreds of years after Hobbes. He was also a social contract theorist. He was concerned with how self-interested individuals create commerce. In “The Wealth of Nations”, Smith writes:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”[1]

He thought that when self-interested individuals compete, the process of competition resulted in the most optimum allocation of resources because competition resulted in the lowest average cost of goods or services. In this way, he thought that self-interest served the greater good. He thought that any time the government or monopolies intervened in this process it prevented the process from working as it should and kept costs artificially higher thus interrupting the normative operation of a free market. It is important to note that Adam Smith’s ideals of the free market only work on the basis of competing individuals not market monopolizing corporations or governments. Market monopolies interfere with competition and defy the ideal of a free market.

“The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest that can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion indeed, but for any considerable time together. The one is…the highest which can be squeezed out of the buyers…The other is the lowest which the sellers can commonly afford to take…. The monopoly price is most often sustained by “the exclusive privileges of corporations (65)”[2]

“Smith uses the terms “self-interest” and “private interests” always in opposite ways. For former, his most famous statements are “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest (20),” and, “by directing [his] industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention (351)”. Concerning “private interests,” Smith is not so sanguine; these private interests constitute the “spirit of monopoly (371)” which Smith so much detests. It should be clear by now, from what has been said before, that Smith is well aware of the dangers of avarice and especially so since the interests of capitalists diverge, in Smith’s view, so much from the interests of the general public.”[3]

Capitalism (a term he never uses), as Adam Smith thought, is depended on private property and private ownership. The self-interested individual had complete legal and sole rights to their property. Without private property there would be no motivation for individuals to compete and increase their property ownership, their wealth.

Socialism believes that individual interests are served better when they cooperate with each other and not compete. Socialism believes in social ownership. In effect, this means workers own production (also called the means of production). Production is not owned privately but by a group. There are many forms of socialism. Some forms of socialism believe that the workers in a factory own the factory, but everything else in the economy is ‘free market’ and private property. There is no government ownership is this type of socialism. Some forms of socialism simply pay a social dividend based on factory profitability. Some forms of socialism nationalize factories but still maintain private ownership. Social democrats use a progressive tax system and government regulation within a private market economy. There are also anarchist and libertarian forms of socialism. Socialists tend to believe that when the individual is elevated above the group, normal human interaction and group identities tend to get ignored. Language[4] is a perfect example of how humans are fundamentally collective. People do not have ‘private languages’. Communication is only possible by sharing a language that we individually did not make up. People are not hermits. We form governments, churches and social communities.

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the laborer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the license to gather them; and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labor either collects or produces. This portion, or, what comes to the same thing, the price of this portion, constitutes the rent of land, and in the price of the greater part of commodities makes a third component part.

The real value of all the different component parts of price, it must be observed, is measured by the quantity of labor which they can, each of them, purchase or command. Labor measures the value not only of that part of price which resolves itself into labor, but of that which resolves itself into rent, and of that which resolves itself into profit.”[5] -Adam Smith

It is important to note that a ‘pure’ socialism or capitalism has never existed on any large scale. Every world historical economy has always been a mixture. For example, consider the notion of rent in capitalism.

“For the purposes of economics, Smith divides society into three economic classes: the landlords, the laborers, and the merchants and manufacturers (448), or those who live by rent, those who live by wages, and those who live by profit (217). Now the interests of the first two classes are tied to the prosperity of the nation; economic expansion raises the value of land and increases the demand for labor and hence its wages. But exactly the opposite is the case with the third class, those who live by profit:

But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with prosperity, and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin. The interest of this third order, therefore, has not the same connection with the general interest of the society as that of the other two (219).

Thus the interests of the third class run contrary to the interests of the other two; expansion actually raises the cost of labor and rent and increases competition, thereby lowering profits, so much so that the ruination of a country is actually in the best interests of the third class”[6]

It is interesting to note here that economic expansion “raises the value of land” but it is uncertain how long the values of land can go higher and how exactly the profits increase unless the property owner is the sole owner, i.e., already paid for and not obtained by a loan. It would seem that profit is “high in poor countries”. Adam Smith takes this an indicator of “ruination of a country”.

A property owner allows a tenant to live in their property for a fee. The renter does not own the property and if the renter quits paying rent they are not allowed to live in the house. Likewise, a mortgage is ‘ownership’ on paper but the bank allows a mortgagee to live in the house as long as the mortgage is paid. In both cases, ownership is not sole or absolute – it is contingent on paying a periodic fee. So, the landlord or the bank cooperates with the individual in the interest of capitalizing on the financial arrangement. It should also be noted that the bank and the landlord are likely to be indebted themselves to the third class, “those who live by profit”; the financiers, that Adam Smith writes of above.

We can see that the renter or the mortgagee is not a property owner in Adam Smith’s notion of property ownership. However, the aspiration of the renter or mortgagee is for property ownership. Since the aspiration of sole ownership is not reality, a group arrangement is made that allows an individual to have shelter until their aspirations can be obtained. However, it is certainly true that most individuals today will never own their house outright. Therefore, in reality they will live their whole lives working and cooperating in group economic, arrangements.

In finance, leverage is the ability of an investor to increase their ‘paper’ holdings based on loans. Again, a group economic arrangement allows investors to obtain securities that they would normally not be able to afford. As such, the investor is obligated to a group, cooperative arrangement to leverage their holdings. The question of fees and profit is actually an ancient issue. The Bible explicitly forbids interest or profit on loans (Exodus 22:25–27, Leviticus 25:36–37 and Deuteronomy 23:20–21). These passages state that interest is exploitative. In this sense, those that base their faith on these books would be in perfect agreement with the writings of Karl Marx (at least on this specific topic) and Adam Smith. Exploitation with higher and higher fees for loans on rental and mortgaged property are examples of how the wealthy class, the real property owners, has increased their wealth at the expense of those that are not wealthy. This exploitation has been going on from the beginning. Even Adam Smith recognized the exploitation of labor. This excerpt is from an essay on The Wealth of Nations:

“However, in the negotiation of wages, the worker is at a distinct disadvantage. In the first place, the law prevented him from joining with his follows to bargain (71, 151). Further, the law always favors the masters over the workers (151). Workers are prevented from joining in unions to raise wages, but the masters are not forbidden to unite to lower them; indeed, the law encourages them to do so. This legal inequality particularly angered Smith, who noted that, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices (137).” But when the workers attempt to meet, it “generally end[s] in nothing, but the punishment or ruin of the ringleaders (71).” The inequality is so great that:

Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counselors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favor of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters (151).”[7] –Adam Smith

Socialism also recognizes the tendency for exploitation of the worker and tries to address it.

In both socialism and capitalism dues must be paid to benefit. For Christianity[8], capitalism and socialism[9] a main tenant is “He who does not work shall not eat”. Paying your dues is not an option in socialism or in capitalism. Fees are required to participate in the group. The main difference is that in capitalism, according to the ‘theory’ of Adam Smith, individualism as self-interest reigns supreme. The ideal is that the individual worker benefits with private property ownership not the financier. In socialism, the individual worker benefits as well but socialists want to formally recognize ownership of production in a group context – the laborer not the financier. Depending on the type of socialism, the group could mean anything from share holders in a factory to nationalism of a factory. In theory, the individual should benefit in both systems. However, socialism wants to take precautions to ensure that the group of laborers benefit and capitalism viz. Adam Smith acknowledges that in some cases the financiers will benefit at the cost of the laborers. Both systems distribute wealth in one way or another. The fundamental problem that Marx wanted to address with socialism was how the wealthy, the financiers, ended up with all the real private property ownership while the workers, in effect, ended up as indentured slaves barely able to pay their bills. Additionally, in both systems classes are set up in practice.

[1] Adam Smith, Wealth Of Nations, [WN I.ii.2)

[2] The Forgotten Agrarian: Re-Reading Adam Smith, John C. Médaille,, parenthetical numbers refer to section numbers in the cited Adam Smith work

[3] ibid

[4] Alas, you too young, free-market libertines who rail against the socialists in your rabid individualism – you too are a product of ‘group-think’ – it is called language – you just don’t know your indebtedness yet…

[5] Adam Smith, Wealth Of Nations, [WN p 67]

[6] The Forgotten Agrarian: Re-Reading Adam Smith, John C. Médaille

[7] ibid

[8] II Thessalonians 3:10

[9] In accordance with Lenin’s understanding of the socialist state, article twelve of the 1936 Soviet Constitution states:

In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

In Lenin’s writing, this was not so much directed at lazy or unproductive workers, but rather the bourgeoisie. (Marxist theory defines the bourgeoisie as the group of those who buy the labor-power of workers and engage it in the process of production, deriving profits from the surplus value thus expropriated. Once communism was realized, that is, after the abolition of property and the law of value, no-one would live off the labor of others.),_neither_shall_he_eat

The Free Market: Capitalism and Socialism – Part 2

Karl Marx, the founder of communism, thought there was a higher and lower form of communism[10]. Engels and Lenin called the lower form of communism, socialism. Socialism is not egalitarian. Egalitarianism means everything is shared equally. Marx described socialism like this:

“But one man is superior to another physically or mentally, and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is therefore a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.”[11]

Karl Marx thought that communism would eventually replace socialism not by force but by natural progression. Communism is egalitarian. Communism thinks that wealth should be distributed equally among equals. Individuals should not be singled out according to class, wealth, natural abilities, etc. but should work cooperatively for the greater good of society. Communism does not believe in private property. Private ownership and competition is thought to favor the rich and; necessarily, put less wealthy individuals at a competitive disadvantage. Private property is what gives rise to a class stratified society. In communism the ideal is one of egalitarianism; that all people are equal and should receive the benefit of their labor equally.

For communism, individual ownership is not allowed but that does not restrain class stratification. The administrators of shared wealth, the government, become the de facto upper class. Wealth gets disproportionately distributed according to this class structure in communism as well. In practice, capitalism, socialism and communism cannot claim a classless society nor can they claim that the individual is the sole beneficiary of the toil of their labor as property owners.

What follows from this is that the group or the individual is not normative for these economies but ideals. Class is inevitable for capitalism, socialism and communism – it is utopic to think otherwise. A class is group comprised of individuals. Mitt Romney is part of a class, a wealthy class. Most of us will realistically never be in his class. However, humans are aspirational – being human is being towards a future. In this way capitalism offers the promise of a possibility – the possibility for success, the chance to be in the wealthy class. For those that extol the virtues of capitalism, it does not seem to matter as much that the vast majority of these aspirations will never be fulfilled. What matters is the place for the dream, the drama of the ideal. As individuals, we need aspiration just after the need for food and shelter. We need to think we are or will be a part of the wealthy class. The goal of this aspiration is for membership in a group, a communal hope shared in capitalism. We are ready to use our collective language, our economic group arrangements, our families, societies and affiliations to aid us in our goals – the envisioned absolute wealth of our freedom. The dream that imagines itself as self-interested individualism is all the while prefaced, perforated and dependent on the other, the group, the community – our shared language. This is what socialism recognized and tried to articulate in its economics. What communism lost was the aspirational; the value we place on the desire for moving towards a future.

In reality, there never is an isolated individual that can cleanly be separated from a collectivity. Additionally, the dream of accumulating more and more sole property ownership based on the system of self-interested individuals appears to reach practical limits as a result of the third group Adam Smith writes of, the financiers. None of us are hermits and make up private languages as we go through our daily lives. The notion of an Adam Smith styled individualism is what many philosophers think of as metaphysical (meta-phusis as beyond physics or beyond the physical). The aspiration I have referred to is desire for the metaphysical individual. It does not reflect our lived reality but necessarily participates in our sense of meaning and hope as an ideal. Aspiration is essential for meaning. To aspire is to see beyond the hum drum, the daily grind and meaningless repetition – perchance to dream. How does the state, the government, figure into our aspirations?

For Adam Smith the state is the guarantor of our security. It is responsible for the military. It also is responsible for enforcing the law. It holds the promise of reprisal for violations of law. It is also responsible for public works projects and certain public institutions where profit is not possible.

“According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign [government] has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understanding: first the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”[12]

Contrary to popular belief, Adam Smith was not opposed to government regulation. He spent 100 pages in the “Wealth of Nations” discussing banking regulations. As has already been mentioned he knew the financiers in a society had a corrosive effect on society. They had a tendency for exploitation and government regulation was needed to hold them in check.

For Adam Smith, self-interest is good for those that live by ‘rent’ and ‘wages’ but not for those that live by ‘profit’ as previously mentioned. Smith thought those that live by profit had a destructive influence on society. This is why Smith favored regulations for those who live by profit. The government certainly plays an essential role for ensuring a fair market. Of course, he recognized the issues with capricious regulations and the way they interfered with the normal market operation of efficient competition. However, he would have never given financiers carte blanch, deregulated access to the market. Adam Smith would have said, “I told you so” when the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, deregulated financial services. It repealed part of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that prohibited a single institution like a bank from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company. Basically, the repeal allowed banks to use customer deposits for risky financial ventures. It also allowed banks to have conflicts of interest by ‘advising’ its customers to use its financial services and products without regard to more competitive and valuable investments. Additionally, the government was implicated in these risky investments as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) backed up customer deposits. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act tried to restore financial oversight of banks and financial institutions and consumer protections. One thing it did was to allow the government to liquidate these institutions that are covered by the FDIC in order to keep these institutions from having large scale failures that would jeopardize the ability of the U.S. government to bail them out. Regulations not only provide a fair market but also protect the government from bankrupting itself from market excesses. Adam Smith would have understood the need for this and would not be calling for deregulation as modern Republicans have been doing.

The issue here is that when individual self-interest promotes the healthy working of the market place then the government should stay of the way. However, the government exists to make sure it protects “every member of society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it”. While it may be in the interest of oil companies to “drill baby drill” it may not be in the interest of the environment and therefore, other members of society to let them do it merely to increase their profits. The government’s job is to make sure the market protects other members of society whose self-interest may be damaged by one group’s profit incentive in the market.

Adam Smith even recognized that the ‘free market’ was not a panacea that could solve all social ills. He stated that a primary function of government was to take care of public works and public institutions where the “profit could never repay the expense” of doing the project. It is certainly arguable that health care insurance providers and education could come under this rubric. It is not the profit interest of health care insurance providers to cover certain risky population groups or chronic illnesses. In order to maximize their profits it is in their interest to ‘cherry pick’ their clientele and drop clients that are a drain on the system. It would be hard to believe that anyone could seriously argue that health care insurance providers have not had quite a long history that illustrates this point. Additionally, while a very good private education is certainly feasible, the cost would prohibit many classes of society from being able to obtain an education. Education for a profit certainly works for those that can pay but simply ignoring the others that cannot pay is not in the long term interest of a society. Adam Smith argued that education is a public work when he we wrote:

“The same thing may be said of the gross ignorance and stupidity which, in a civilized society, seem so frequently to benumb the understandings of all the inferior ranks of people. A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature. Though the state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors, and they are therefore more disposed to respect those superiors. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favorable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.”[13]

While this may seem to promote a certain kind of equality, it is really “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain”.

The government is not a cancerous growth of society but just as essential as referees and rules are to games of sport. Getting rid of government is cutting off your nose to spite your face. It ignores the need for a market framework where fairness and protections are ensured. It should restrain monopolies and market bubbles that would cause cost to be “the highest which can be squeezed out of the buyers”. It is also responsible for filling in gaps that self-interest and profit cannot address. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both addressed the inherent exploitation built into an economy. Protecting individuals from economic exploitation is vital for an economy as socialism and Adam Smith understood. Karl Marx went further with trying to embody elements of protections for ‘self-interested’ individuals into an economy. Adam Smith understood the human need for aspiration, the need to dream, and tried to embody this in the economy of capitalism.

What is dreamed must pertain to me and not to an abstraction about the state or egalitarianism. An ‘aspiration of the state’ is too abstract from the self-interested point of view. However, the abstract notion of an ‘aspiration for the state’ is not inconsequential – it is the aim of morality or what Adam Smith termed sympathy[14] (more like what we think of as empathy). Morality aims at egalitarianism in that it places oneself in the place of the other for Adam Smith.

“However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though they derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”[15]

When I refer to morality, I am speaking specifically about the natural empathy that many people have for the suffering of others. There are very few people that proclaim outright that if you do not work just go ahead and starve to death. For most of us, we may think that those who do not work will not eat but few are willing to let children, elderly, handicapped or even lazy people die before our eyes. The same holds true for health care. We do not want to pay for others health care but the idea of just letting people die without it is abhorrent. This is why we are willing to pay more for emergency room health care than to address the issues systemically and at a lower cost. Most of us will not overtly proclaim that if you do not have health insurance go off somewhere and die. Few will proudly state that if you do not have shelter go live on the street (just not my street). While there is a certain chest beating, cathartic youthfulness about these proclamations it offends most people’s sense of responsiveness to these situations. It may help some to think that suffering is the fault of the person suffering (as certainly may be the case for some) but pushing this very far starts to look like ‘protesting too much’ and really serves only to show that the pull of morality is felt only reacted to negatively and defensively.

This feeling of responsibility for the suffering for others is what I mean by morality. From the point of view of ‘my aspirations’, the suffering of the other is irrelevant. From the ideal of pure self-interestedness there is no place for this feeling. If the self is thought as the absolute metaphysic of individualism, the sole property owner, it does not serve the absolute interest of the self to care about the suffering of others; much less do anything about it that will not directly benefit the self. While morality is an abstraction from the point of view of self-interestedness, it is nevertheless a notion that most are not willing to depart with. Our self-interestedness tells us not to pay for anyone other than ourselves but the pull of morality will not let us ignore the suffering of the other. Morality is the ghost of our group involvement. It is the basis for the inevitability and indispensability of the state.

As I have discussed while our metaphysics of individualism compels us towards an aspirational future, our realistic, daily involvements are fundamentally based on language, community and group. The capitalistic goal for moving into the upper class is itself a self-interested aspiration that embodies the notion of class, the group. All this shows us that individualism is perforated with group involvement and community. We are indebted to the other whether we acknowledge it or not. While chest beating individualism may be fun for some, individualism, the sole property owner, is essentially a dream, a drama that gives us meaning in our ‘me-only’ self-centeredness. However, individualism ignores the real ways in which we participate with others and are always already indebted to the other.

Karl Marx went further than leaving the option of morality up to every self-interested individual. Adam Smith as well understood the role of government in achieving the affluence and security of individuals in an economy, protecting them from exploitation and providing public works projects. The communist notion of equalitarianism failed to make everything equal in terms of labor and preventing exploitation. However, socialism attempts legal protections of groups and individuals that aim at fairness, equal opportunity, an equal playing field and protections in an economy. It is important to note that ‘equal’ here is not some absolute ideal of equalitarianism as in communism but should be thought under the rubric of fairness. Marx fleshed out possibilities for how this could work more than Adam Smith but Adam Smith would probably have more in common with the objectives of Karl Marx’ than many of the modern Republican, the neo-conservative, advocates of capitalism.

In any case, we are neither socialists nor capitalist; we are both. The ideal of either is not where we live. This is why there never has been a pure capitalism or a pure socialism. All great economies have essential elements of both. Beating others over the head with these labels may make some feel good but it is only a silly drama that fuels an inflated ego. These kinds of accusations can also be used to manipulate less aware people but it is really only empty rhetoric. The outcome of such practices is a chronic condition called hate and only hurts the hater in the long run. I believe it is better to ‘see’ how we live and try to ‘understand’ our drives and aspirations as they show themselves without metaphysical hermeneutics, pre-cognitive dispositions and assumptions, working below the surface. There is value in letting ourselves see and understand ourselves as we are and not in the service of some head game we play on ourselves. In all great economies, socialism and capitalism are really only two different historical ways of thinking about the same thing – an economy that works.


[11] Capital, Vol. I, Chapter 1, Section 4 (p. 78); Also see

[12] Adam Smith, Wealth Of Nations, ([1776] 1976, 687–88)

[13] Ibid, (WN V.i.f.61: 788)

[14] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Adam Smith,

[15] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith (TMS I.i.1.1)

Philosophy Series 8

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin

Philosophy Series 8


First, a few general comments about the pre-Socratic philosophers, we have no direct writings of many of these philosophers including Thales. We tend to have second and third hand accounts attributed to them. These accounts can span hundreds of years. Generally, earlier accounts are thought as more reliable. Many of these accounts are not given as accurate records of these philosophers but tend to have other motivations at work. For example, Aristotle mentions other philosophers many times as a lead in to discuss his own ideas. Scholars have thought that even Aristotle may not have understood or known anything directly about some of these philosophers but may have learned about them through other philosophers or students of these philosophers.1 Schools like the Sophists, the Stoics, the Latin Neo-Platonists and early Catholic theologians which gave accounts of earlier philosophers were famous for making obvious insertions which reflected their own doxographical positions.2 Many times beliefs and professed discoveries about these philosophers are attributed to other earlier cultures such as the Egyptians and the Babylonians which were known to have already have had similar ideas.3 In any case, much of the philological discussions of these texts are concerned with, so to speak, winnowing out the wheat from the chaff and determining what is more reliable and less reliable as accurate accounts of these philosophers.

Thales lived around 585 BC. He has been thought as the first philosopher, from the Milesian School. Thales was not only known for what we call philosophy today but also astronomy, mathematics and geometry4. As a port city, it is reasonable that Thales was concerned with nautical navigation and meteorological workings. As such his interests could have been shaped by predicting seasons, solstices, times, distances, locations and storms. He also appeared to have been concerned with earthquakes which could feasibly have been associated with extreme tidal waves or freak waves and tsunamis. Certainly there is evidence that Homer was aware of such oceanic phenomena in his epic poetry. Scholars have made the case that Thales could have learned and been influenced from Egyptian and Babylonian sources5 which traded in the port city of Miletus. Some early sources even allude to his having traveled from Egypt.

Thales. . . having practised philosophy in Egypt came to Miletus when he was older. [Aetius i, 3, i]Thales, having first come to Egypt, transferred this study [geometry] to Greece…. [Proclus in Euclidem p. 65 Friedl. (from Eudemus) (DK 1 1 A 1 1)]

Contrary to the implication of these quotes, it is thought that while Thales may have been to Egypt he did not spend a considerable amount of time there or originated from Egypt.6

Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) states that Lobon of Argos said that Thales wrote 200 hexameters.7 Lobon of Argos was a stichometrist, a type of chemist, and a known forger who was not held in high regard. This casts doubt on Diogenes Laertius’ comment that Thales wrote “200 hexameters”. Diogenes Laertius appears to have been influenced by the Peripatetic school of Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius tends to not be highly regarded by scholars with regard to Thales. One case and point is Diogenes Laertius’ depiction of Thales here:

Some think he was the first to study the heavenly bodies and to foretell eclipses of the sun and solstices, as Eudemus says in his history of astronomy; for which reason both Xenophanes and Herodotus express admiration; and both Heraclitus and Democritus bear witness for him.8

Kirk and Raven point out,

Diogenes added that Thales discovered the passage of the sun from solstice to solstice, and the relation of the diameter of sun and moon to their orbits.9Diogenes’ second piece of information is quite anachronistic, for Thales cannot have thought that the heavenly bodies had orbits, since they did not pass under the earth (which was not made free-swinging until Anaximander) ; at the most they had semi-orbits, and the ratio of diameter to celestial path would be twice that given.10

With regard to the actual writings of Thales, the passages which follow is a summary of Kirk and Raven’s view:11

Thales is traditionally the first to have revealed the investigation of nature to the Greeks; he had many predecessors, as also Theophrastus thinks, but so far surpassed them as to blot out all who came before him. He is said to have left nothing in the form of writings except the so- called Nautical star-guide. [Simplicius Phys. p. 23, 29 Diels]

The last sentence concerning the ‘Nautical star-guide’ is thought to be an unsubstantiated opinion of Simplicius.

And according to some he left no book behind; for the Nautical star-guide ascribed to him is said to be by Phokos the Samian. [Diogenes Laertius I, 23]

Diogenes Laertius also reports that Phokos the Samian wrote the “Nautical star-guide”.

Aristotle did not see any books by Thales at least on cosmological matters and was very tenuous ascribing opinions to Thales.

It is possible that the ‘Nautical star-guide’ was a genuine sixth-century work similar to the hexameter Ἀστρολογία [Astrologia or Phaenomena] of Cleostratus of Tenedos (DK ch. 6) or the so-called Hesiodic Ἀστρολογία (DK ch. 4) : so Diels and others have assumed.12

Kirk and Raven conclude that,

The evidence does not allow a certain conclusion, but the probability is that Thales did not write a book; though the ancient holders of this view might have been misled by the absence of a genuine work from the Alexandrian library, and also by the apophthegmatic nature of the wisdom assigned to the Seven Sages in general.

Thales was said to have made observations about the solstices and eclipses. He was mentioned as accurately predicting an eclipse but these predictions may not have been as accurate as purported and may have come from Babylonian records kept by priests.13

Thales was certainly concerned with water and how it changed and shaped the environment. It is reasonable to think that he could have been familiar with evaporation and condensation and its meteorological effects. Anaximander, Thales student only about 14 years younger than Thales, was certainly familiar with these conditions as demonstrated by these passages concerning Anaximander:

Winds occur when the finest vapours of the air are separated off and when they are set in motion by congregation; rain occurs from the exhalation that issues upwards from the things beneath the sun, and lightning whenever wind breaks out and cleaves the clouds. [Hippolytus Ref. I, 6, 7](On thunder, lightning, thunderbolts, whirlwinds and typhoons.) Anaximander says that all these things occur as a result of wind: for whenever it is shut up in a thick cloud and then bursts out forcibly, through its fineness and lightness, then the bursting makes the noise, while the rift against the blackness of the cloud makes the flash. [Aetius III, 3, I-2]Anaximander referred everything to wind: thunder, he said, is the noise of smitten cloud… [Seneca Qu. Nat. II, 18]

Kirk and Raven conclude this with some caveats:

These passages suggest that Anaximander shared in, and perhaps to a large degree originated, a more or less standard Ionian way of accounting for meteorological (in our sense) events. The chief elements of this scheme are wind, the evaporation from the sea, and the condensed masses of vapour which form the clouds. All testimonies on the subject are, of course, based on Theophrastus, whom we may suspect of not always resisting the temptation to supply ‘appropriate’ explanations, where none existed, of certain natural phenomena which he thought interested all Presocratics.14

Aristotle writes of Thales of Miletus as one of the first ones to ask about causes and principles of the natural world. He states:

Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water). Presumably he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle). He derived his assumption, then, from this; and also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature, whereas water is the first principle [archê] of the nature of moist things.( Aristot. Met. 1.983b)Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.(Aristot, de Anima; On the Soul, Book 1)15

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this observation:

Yet there is something in what Aristotle says. In his discussion, Aristotle links Thales’ claim that the world rests on water with the view that water was the archē, or fundamental principle, and he adds that “that from which they come to be is a principle of all things”. He suggests that Thales chose water because of its fundamental role in coming-to-be, nutrition, and growth, and claims that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.16

Thales thought the earth floated on water and that earthquakes occur when the Earth is rocked by waves, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of supernatural processes. This idea is much closer to the modern notion of tectonic plates floating on magma than earlier notions of angry Gods and earthquakes. Thales observed that there must have been some ‘fluid’ aspect which caused earthquakes on solid land.

Aristotle writes of Thales as a hylozoist (those who think matter is alive).17

Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things: for the original source of all existing things, that from which a thing first comes-into-being and into which it is finally destroyed, the substance persisting but changing in its qualities, this they declare is the element and first principle of existing things, and for this reason they consider that there is no absolute coming-to-be or passing away, on the ground that such a nature is always preserved . . .for there must be some natural substance, either one or more than one, from which the other things come-into-being, while it is preserved. Over the number, however, and the form of this kind of principle they do not all agree; but Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says that it is water (and therefore declared that the earth is on water), perhaps taking this supposition from seeing the nurture of all things to be moist, and the warm itself coming-to-be from this and living by this (that from which they come-to-be being the principle of all things) taking the supposition both from this and from the seeds of all things having a moist nature, water being the natural principle of moist things.18Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.19

Writing centuries later, Diogenes Laertius also states that Thales taught “Water constituted (πεστήσατο, ‘stood under’) the principle of all things.” Earlier in that text Diogenes Laertius makes this statement, “His doctrine was that water is the universal primary substance, and that the world is animate and full of divinities [gods].”20 The phrase “universal primary substance” refers to the Greek word ἀρχήν which is an indeclinable adverb referring to the origin or the source, i.e., water is the origin or source. However, this notion of origin may reflect more of the Peripatetic school of Aristotle than a notion Thales would have been familiar with.

Aristotle, probably thinking of Thales, points out that if the earth rests on water like a log, what is underneath the water?

Others say that the earth rests on water. For this is the most ancient account we have received, which they say was given by Thales the Milesian, that it stays in place through floating like a log or some other such thing (for none of these rests by nature on air, but on water] as though the same argument did not apply to the water supporting the earth as to the earth itself.21

Interestingly, Diogenes Laertius made this observation about Thales:

Megiston topos: hapanta gar chorei (Μέγιστον τόπος· άπαντα γαρ χωρεί)Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things22

If Diogenes Laertius is accurate of Thales then we must think what the notion of chorei, translated here as ‘space’, could have meant for Thales. Chorei is also translated as ‘flux’ when Heraclitus’ states ‘All is flux’ (panta chorei). Chorei can also mean make room for another, give way, withdraw.23 Thales would not have had some ready to hand notion of ‘space’ as we do. Cosmology in the time of Thales did not think of space as a vacuum as modernity thinks it.

If Diogenes Laertius statement is accurate of Thales, how would that explain Aristotle’s rather simplistic notion of Thales? If “Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things” does it contain water? If water is the source (archē) how can space contain it? Additionally, Kirk and Raven cast doubt on the ‘simple’ notion that Thales believed ‘all things are water’,

Two things, then, have emerged from the present discussion: (i) ‘all things are water’ is not necessarily a reliable summary of Thales’ cosmological views; and (ii) even if we do accept Aristotle’s account (with some allowance, in any event, for his inevitably altered viewpoint), we have little idea of how things were felt to be essentially related to water.24

Kirk and Raven previously pointed out in this section that Aristotle may not have understood Thales’ notion of cosmology of water and archē. Aristotle seemed to object to the earth resting on water because of the logical postulate, ‘what does the water rest on’? Also, “Thales would almost certainly still accept the popular conception of the earth (or, in this case, its immediate support) stretching downward indefinitely”25

At the time of Thales the prevailing Greek notions of how the cosmos is laid out would have been influenced by Homer and Hesiod. In Homer the earth was a flat circular disc. It was surrounded on all sides, girdled, by a great fresh water river called Okeanos. The sun, moon and stars rose and set in Okeanos (oceanos…ocean). Anaximander is thought to have said, “The heavenly bodies are wheel-like, compressed masses of air filled with fire, which exhale flames from an orifice at one point”.26 According to Homer they bathed in Okeanus.27 The clouds got their moisture by dipping into Okeanos. The earth’s disc was partly covered by the salt water sea which also got its waters from Okeanos. In some accounts Homer suggests that the land of Cimmerians is south-west of Okeanos. Next to that is Erebus, dark night or the shades; Hades. Homer also suggests in other places that Hades is beneath the earth. Hesiod tells us that far below, as far below the earth as the height of heaven is above, Tartaros is below Hades. For Hesiod, Tartaros is a place where the flat disc of the earth meets the descending dome of the sky and the ascending walls of the pit of Tartaros. Sky and Tartarean pit combine to form a surrounding cosmic shell. Tartaros drops as far beneath Haides as the sky rises above the earth.28 Hesiod tells us the Zeus imprisoned the Titans in Tartaros.29 Additionally the ancient world including the orient commonly thought that the four basic elements of the cosmos was earth, water, air, and fire; sometimes there was a fifth element aether.

In view of this prevailing cosmogony, it would not be hard to understand how water would be fundamentally important to Thales. This is not to suggest that the first physicist would have accepted carte blanche the prevailing mythologies but at a minimum they would have lent credence to Thales theories. It is not uncommon even today for physicists to rely on popular paradigms to shape their inquires.

The ‘space’ of Diogenes Laertius’ claim, would not have been abstract extension but air for Thales and air was a form of water,

This was no doubt connected with what Aristotle regards as the principal tenet of Thales, namely, that everything is made out of water, or, as he puts it in his own terminology, that water is the material cause of all things. We have no trustworthy information about the grounds on which this doctrine was based; for, in the absence of any writings by Thales himself, Aristotle can only guess, and his guesses are apparently suggested by the arguments used in support of a similar theory at a later date. We are perhaps justified in interpreting it rather in the light of the doctrines afterwards held by the Milesian school, and especially by Anaximenes; and, if we try to do this, our attention is at once called to the fact that in these days, and for some time after, “air” (ἀήρ) was identified with water in a vaporous state. In fact it was regarded as only a purer and more transparent form of mist, while a still purer form was “aether” (αἰθήρ), which is properly the bright blue of the Mediterranean sky, and is fire rather than air. It was also believed that this fire and that of the heavenly bodies was fed by vapour rising from the sea, a view which, on these presuppositions, is the natural one to take of evaporation. On the other hand, we see that water becomes solid when it freezes, and Anaximenes at least held that earth and stones were water frozen harder still. It may well have seemed to Thales, then, that water was the original thing from which fire on the one hand and earth on the other arose.30

Additionally, the notion of water as the source or primordial was not unique to Thales. Kirk and Raven point out,

The near-eastern origin of part of Thales’ cosmology is indicated by his conception that the earth floats or rests on water. In Egypt the earth was commonly conceived as a flat, rimmed dish resting upon water, which also filled the sky ; the sun sailed each day across the sky in a boat, and also sailed under the earth each night (not round it, as in the Greek legend). In the Babylonian creation-epic Apsu and Tiamat represent the primeval waters, and Apsu remains as the waters under the earth after Marduk has split the body of Tiamat to form sky (with its waters) and earth. In the story of Eridu (seventh century B.C. in its youngest extant version), in the beginning ‘all land was sea’; then Marduk built a raft on the surface of the water, and on the raft a reed-hut which became the earth. An analogous view is implied in the Psalms (where also Leviathan is an analogue of Tiamat), where Jahweh ‘stretched out the earth above the waters’ (136, 6), ‘founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods’ (24, 2). Similarly Tehom is ‘the deep that lieth under’ (Gen. xlix. 25), ‘the deep that coucheth beneath’ (Deut. xxxiii. I3). Against this profusion of parallel material, from the cast and south-cast, for the waters under the earth, there is no comparable Greek material apart from Thalcs. The naive Greek conception of a river Okeanos surrounding the earth is not strictly comparable (for it is clear that there is no Okeanos under the earth), although it was probably a much earlier development, in a different direction, of the widely diffused near-eastern generic concept of the earth rising in the midst of the primeval waters a concept almost certainly not native to the Greek-speaking peoples, whose home before the migrations into the Greek peninsula lay far from the sea. Similarly, although the isolated references in Iliad book 14 (9 and 10) to Okeanos as origin of all things were also probably based upon the same near-eastern concept, from a slightly different aspect, they contain no implication of the special idea that the earth floats on water, and so are unlikely to have been the origin of Thalcs’ assertion of this idea. For any more general contention that the earth came from, or is maintained by, water, Thales would no doubt be encouraged and gratified to have the apparently native Homeric precedents. Thus Thales’ view that the earth floats on water seems to have been most probably based upon direct contact with near-eastern mythological cosmology. We have already seen that he had associations both with Babylonia and with Egypt. The idea that the earth actually floats upon water was more clearly and more widely held in the latter of these countries; and the conjecture might be hazarded that Thales was indebted to Egypt for this element of his world-picture.31

Kirk and Raven also point out that ‘all things are full of gods’ may not really be accurate either of Thales belief, “(ii) Even apparently inanimate things can be ‘alive ‘; the world is full of gods”.32

This presupposition is still sometimes called ‘hylozoism’; but this name implies too strongly that it is something uniform, determinable, and conscious. In fact the term applies to at least three possible and distinct attitudes of mind: (a) the assumption (conscious or not) that all things absolutely are in some way alive ; (b) the belief that the world is interpenetrated by life, that many of its parts which appear inanimate are in fact animate ; (c) the tendency to treat the world is a whole, whatever its detailed constitution, as a single living organism, (a) is an extreme, but in view of the universalizing tendency of Greek thought not an impossible, form of the general presupposition; in a way it might be said to be exemplified by Xenophanes. Thales’ belief, it has been suggested, approaches closer to (b). (c) is implicit in the old genealogical view of the world’s history described in chapter I, which still persisted to a large extent under the new rationalized form of philosophical cosmogony. Aristotle is seen at his most perspicuous in 118, where, perhaps with Thales especially in mind, he shows himself aware of the possibility of this kind of attitude.33

Diogenes Laertius fortifies his argument that the ‘world is full of gods’ suggesting that, “Aristotle and Hippias affirm that, arguing from the magnet and from amber, he [Thales] attributed a soul (psuchê) or life even to inanimate objects (ta apsucha; alpha privative of psuchê)”.34 Aristotle also makes a comment concerning this which is probably the source of Diogenes Laertius’ comment:

Thales, too, to judge from what is recorded about him, seems to have held soul to be a motive force, since he said that the magnet has a soul in it because it moves the iron.35

Jonathon Barnes makes the argument that the soul (psuchê) for early ancient physicists would have been thought in terms of ‘motive force’. Barnes actually translates this word ‘motor’. Certainly, for Aristotle and much of Greek philosophy motion, change, form, idea (as appearance, what shows itself) was a major concern. Inquiry into what lies beneath appearance, that which does not incessantly change was a major concern for these physicists. Barnes states,

What is the sense, and what the cogency, of Thales’ argument? The word psuchê is commonly translated by ‘soul’; and in most contexts this translation is reasonable enough. Here, however, the standard translation masks the charm of the argument, and a heterodox rendering has some justification.To have a psuchê is to be empsuchos. Empsuchos means ‘animate’ or ‘living’: ta empsucha and ta apsucha jointly exhaust the natural world, being the animate and the inanimate portions of creation. The psuchê, then, as Aristotle says, is simply ‘that by which we are alive’ (An 414a12): it is the source or principle of life in animate beings, that part or feature of them (whatever it may be) in virtue of which they are alive. 2 In short , an empsuchon is an animate thing; and its psuchê is its animator. Instead of ‘soul’, then, I propose the term ‘animator’ as a translation of psuchê; and I prefer the comic overtones of ‘animator’ to the theological undertones of ‘soul’.What are the criteria for life? According to Aristotle, ‘things are said to be alive on several accounts, and if just one of these belongs to a thing we say that it is alive— viz. understanding, perception, change and rest in place, and again the change brought on by nourishment, and decay and growth’ (An 413a22– 5). More generally, ‘the animate seems to differ from the inanimate by two things in particular, motion and perception’ ( An 403b25– 7). Aristotle is not putting forward a philosophical thesis here: he is recording, and accepting, a commonplace. Anything that has powers of cognition, of which perception is the most common and the most evident example, is alive; and anything which has the power to alter itself or its environment, of which autonomous locomotion is the most evident example, is likewise alive. If the great marks of animation are the power to perceive and the capacity to locomote or to cause locomotion, then a psuchê or animator will be essentially a source of perception, or a perceptor, and a source of motion, or a motor. Thales’ argument now has a superficial plausibility. His first premiss is a platitude: motors— that is to say, self-starting motors— are, on Aristotle’s own account, and in ordinary thought, animators or psuchai; and anything capable of autonomous locomotion is thereby shown to be animate. His second premiss is a matter of ordinary observation: magnets and pieces of amber are seen to possess the power to cause locomotion in other things and to move themselves. And the conclusion follows: magnets and pieces of amber are animate beings; they may not have the faculty of perception, but for all that they are alive.36

Barnes goes on to suggest that Aristotle would not have thought magnets had souls but he makes the point that the line between animate and inanimate may not be as clear as one normally assumes. Additionally, the soul in ancient Greece was related to aether and the stars so the notion of ‘dead’, inanimate things would not be so clearly defined for the ancient mind as the modern mind.

Yet the conception that the substance of the soul was related to aither, or to the substance of the stars, seems from fifth-century B.C. poetical contexts to have existed for some time already as part of the complex body of popular beliefs, alongside the distinct Homeric concept of a breath-soul.37

One observation I would make at this point is to be careful when you hear things like ‘the ancient philosophers believed that the ultimate realty was water or fire’ and that ‘they were animists or hylozoists’. This is way too simplistic. Try reading Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ written only a few hundred years after Thales to see a level of linguistic and logical sophistication that could not have developed in the short time between Aristotle and Thales. Also, the Phoenician alphabet was thought to have arrived in Greece around the 8th century BCE. It was very similar to ancient Hebrew. The Greeks added vowels to a language made up of what was chiefly consonants. While more primitive types of writing were around long before the Phoenician alphabet came to Greece, the Greeks before this mainly communicated wisdom in the oral tradition of the rhapsodists. This lent itself to the mythological epics of Homer and Hesiod. These epics were sang for many hundreds of years before writing. They would have had the time to be more refined, subtle poetry and drama than some kind of literal religious sense. The early physicists are proof that the fundamentalism of the mythologies had long since waned if indeed they ever were thought along the same lines as fundamentalist religion is thought today. Perhaps Phoenician writing made any such thing as uniquely Greek philosophy to exist. Phoenician writing was only around a few hundred years earlier than Thales. By the same logic concerning the level of sophistication between Thales and Aristotle, we might also speculate that the mythology of Homer and Hesiod were not mere ‘primitive’ stories but actually had a level of genius and artistry that may have escaped many later commentators. Anaximander, considered a student of Thales, was not much younger than Thales. Once again, we have no direct writing of Anaximander but there is more certainty that he wrote. One of the most important fragments comes from three different sources. Simplicius, one of the sources, writes this:

Of those who declared that the first principle is one, moving and indefinite, Anaximander… said that the indefinite was the first principle and element of things that are, and he was the first to call the first principle indefinite [apeiron]. He says that the first principle is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is indefinite, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay the penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time. [Simpl. Phys. 24.13]

The most certain part of this fragment with regard to coming from Anaximander is “according to necessity; for they pay one another recompense and penalty for their injustice”. Both mentor and student were concerned with movement and change with regard to phusis (physics), kinetic (kinesis) and endurance (aei), the problem of one and many which Aristotle is especially concerned with. Anaximander is certainly concerned with the ‘indefinite’ (apeiron – probably the alpha primitive of peras or form therefore, without form) and origin (archē) in a very sophisticated fashion. This would lead one to think that his contemporaneous mentor was not so simple minded about water as well. There is an incredible level of sophistication and artistry in Anaximander, discussed in the next section, which seems to me to defy the ‘progressivists’ view that the ancient Greeks were somehow less astute than moderns and that we have progressed beyond their ancient insights.38

In view of all these discussions of Thales, I would add some of my own observations. First, the much earlier39 creation myths40 of the Babylonians (18th to 12th century BCE) and the Hebrews (15th century BCE) start with Apsû (fresh water)/Tia-mat (salt water) and God (Elohim, Elohiym), respectively.

Enuma Elish (The Babylonian Epic of Creation)1 When the heavens above did not exist,2 And earth beneath had not come into being—3 There was Apsû, the first in order, their begetter,4 And demiurge Tia-mat, who gave birth to them all;5 They had mingled their waters together6 Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to he found —7 When not one of the gods had been formed8 Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,9 The gods were created within them:41Bereshit (Genesis)1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.3 And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.4 And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.6 And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.42

Both myths start with Gods or God. Both myths tell of primal water. In Genesis Elohim is at a minimum coexistent with the waters (“and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”) and probably prior to ‘the waters’. In the Babylonian account it seems ambiguous whether the gods Apsû and Tia-mat were coexistent with the waters or were the waters. They are mentioned as “first in order”, “begetter” and “deimurge”, “who gave birth to them (the gods) all”. They are also mentioned in some way as being “when not one of the gods had been formed”. Some have argued that the Genesis cosmology was a Hebrew answer to polytheistic, pagan religions including the Babylonian creation myth. The Hebrew myth begins with the assumption of an uncreated God. The Torah, Tehillim (Psalms) and Yeshayahu (Isaiah) go to great lengths to make sure the reader knows that God is ‘one God’. Some have argued that the waters of Enuma Elish and the “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep” were the metaphorically equivalent to the chaos of Hesiod. A mechanical translation of Hebrew in Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1, verses 1 and 2 would look like this, in the summit “Elohiym [Powers]” fattened the sky and the land, and the land had existed in confusion and was unfilled and darkness was upon the face of the deep sea and the wind of “Elohiym [Powers]” was much fluttering upon the face of the water.43 In both creation myths, even if the metaphorical argument of initial chaos is accepted, God(s) are at a minimum present with primal waters thought as a type of chaos. There is no clear statement that ‘first, chaos…came-to-be’ as in the Hesiodic myth. These beginnings are not trivial but have implications which ripple through subsequent histories and reflect economic (as measuring, judging and appropriating) existential orientations, the bounds of ontological and transcendent possibilities which make any such thing as Truth possible. These beginnings circumscribe determinations on the face of infinity.

The notion of ‘confusion’, ‘unfilled’ and ‘darkness’ is not the literal notion of chaos in Hesiod. Also, in Enuma Elish the negation, the ‘not’ of heaven and earth isn’t the literal notion of chaos in Hesiod. While the metaphorical argument can be maintained, it is certainly true that, for Hesiod, chaos was not coexistent with God or Gods or earth or waters but unambiguously, first. This emphasis tells us something very important about the ancient Greek orientation. The riddle that begins ancient Greek cosmology, First of all Chaos came-to-be“, which erases itself in the contradiction ‘first’ and ‘came-to-be’ (yένετ’, genet’) only emphasizes ‘chaos’, the yawning gap. Determinations such as God(s), earth, heaven, water, etc. are not indicated as coexistent. Existence and the literal extant is only mentioned in the conundrum of ‘first…chaos’ and ‘came-to-be’. Darkness and negation imply opposites, light and affirmation. As was previously shown in the section on Hesiod, confusion is not what is meant by chaos in the Theogony. Confusion already implies a violation of contradiction, a scheme wherein opposites are simultaneously maintained and disavowed. Confusion implies extant determinations whose states get muddled, forgotten, lost but still operate in these states ‘as’ confused. Perhaps one could suggest that there is a yawning gap between clarity of determinations and confusion of determinations but, as previously discussed in the section on Hesiod and future discussions, regardless of ‘the sense’ of Hesiodic chaos without determinations, the yawning gap (differentiation without determination) is maintained as ‘first’ AND ‘came-to-be’…’but then afterwards’ (disjunction), determinations…Even if a counter argument can be made to this notion of chaos as, for example, Hegel would make, it is still interesting to think what the phenomenological consequences could be if this cosomogonic myth marks the genesis of a history. Could this unresolved genesis, differentiated without determinations, produce a strife, unrest and desire (orexis) which would make the physics, philosophy, artistry and an ancient Greece possible?

Some have suggested that Thales’ notion of water may have been a ‘fundamental role in coming-to-be, nutrition, and growth’. Others point to the emphasis of water in ancient creation myths or the nautical port city of Miletus as reasons for Thales emphasis on water over earth, air and fire. Perhaps the desire for resolution, the concern for an absolute which nonetheless begins in chaos, fuels the fires for the One, the arche, which underlies and holds open the space for truth and eventually, drives philosophy towards being (ontos) and ultimately towards subjectivity and metaphysics. Others simply dismiss Thales as archaic, primitive and irrelevant from a progressivists’ point of view. My interest in Thales is concerned with the question, what kind of world, cosmos, culture, language, historical setting and way of thinking about ‘what is’ would make a figure such as Thales, at the beginning of the inquiry of phusis, circumspectively understand water as some form of arche? What would it mean for that setting to think first about animate and inaminate, alive and dead (or not alive), soul and phusis? Before clear modern lines have been drawn which inform us simply and all too obviously about things, animate and inanimate, we find Thales engaged in a world and a language which may have been prepared and opened by mythos but had to draw initial lines for what could and could not be, what was and what was not. This kind of desire and engagement has a space, chorei, which gives in the gap, the receptacle, the fertile void, the withdrawal of all which made possibilities and actualities for the place of Thales (and the few remaining traces of his site/sight). Standing at the apogee of phusis, Thales’ creativity marks a passage which would have profound and rippling effects to the present day. We would only do harm to ourselves to disregard the conditions that began and worked to produce a cosmos where inanimate and animate had not been settled, psuchê (soul) was not determinate and phusis had not been reduced to mere things awaiting discovery.

The inability of Greek mythos to resolve itself sets up a perpetual strife in the early Greek psuchê. The lack of cosmogonic resolve in its earliest moment reflects a unsettled disruption that fuels the inquiry of phusis, drama, sculpture and poetry by lack, privation (steresis), which cannot find a finality in negation but only in contingent desire (orexis)44and haunts us in metaphysics to this day. In our era of nihilism, as Nietzsche observes, the impetus to long, to desire, has devolved into cynicism, skepticism, sophistry and negativity. It is a retraction from the motion which begins the passion and activity of Truth and its necessary nemesis. Fanaticism as we see in our epoch is only the frenetic gasp of nihilism which does not meet existence with welcoming desire but dissolves it in putrid disdain. This is not what gave us metaphysics but reduces otherness to the drab same, the doldrums of absolute equivocation, and thus ‘end’ is not telos, culmination, completion, fulfillment but whimper and oblivion. Another beginning which thinks deeply about the confluence and clash of our occident and orient, Greek and Jew, the tribes and phusis, and the other which deepens desire in unresolved passion heightened to the infinite will once again take us past the byways of Hesiodic chaos. In this then philosophy, science, art, and religion find their telos.

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander





4 See Kahn’s discussion in Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, Charles H. Kahn, Published 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-11677, Link, page 76 to 77 and note 2 starting on 76. Kahn’s entire discussion in chapter 1, The Milesian Theory of the Natural World, is very interesting. Jonathon Barnes has an interesting discussion on Thales in chapter I, The Springs of Reason, Barnes, Jonathan (2013-01-11). The Presocratic Philosophers. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. Also, here are various links about Thales which seem to be copied from the same source, Link, Link, Link, Link

5 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, First Edition, page 76-77, 80


7 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 34 (henceforth…DL, Lives)

8 DL, Lives, I, 23


10 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 83

11 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, Section “Writings”, page 86-88

12 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS: , Second Edition, Section “Writings”, page 87-88

13 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, First Edition, page 80-81

14 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 138

15 See Link

16 Presocratic Philosophy, First published Sat Mar 10, 2007; substantive revision Mon Nov 5, 2012, See “Section 2 The Milesians”, See Link

17 It is unclear whether the interpretation of hylozoism, that all matter is alive, might have been mistaken for his thinking the properties of nature arise directly from material processes, more consistent with modern ideas of how properties arise as emergent characteristics of complex systems involved in the processes of evolution and developmental change. See Link in the section “Theories”.


19 Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7, See Link; Also, see this Link

20 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 23

21 Aristotle, de caelo, B13, 294a28

22 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 35

23 See Link

24 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 94-95

25 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 90

26 Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, Charles H. Kahn, Published 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-11677, Link, page 86

27 Homer, Iliad. 5,6; 18, 489

28 See Link

29 See Link, Also, Link, Link, Link and Link

30 John Burnet, Greek Philosophy. Part I, Thales to Plato (London: MacMillan, 1920), 21, See Link

31 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 92-93

32 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 94-95

33 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 98

34 See Link

35 On the Soul, By Aristotle, Book 1, Part 2, See Link

36 Barnes, Jonathan (2013-01-11). The Presocratic Philosophers (Arguments of the Philosophers) (pp. 6-7). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


38 This article, quoted in part below, makes some interesting observations about Thales:

Thales, according to Aristotle, asked what was the nature (archê) of the object so that it would behave in its characteristic way. Physis (φύσις) comes from phyein (φύειν), “to grow”, related to our word “be”.[15](G)natura is the way a thing is “born”,[16] again with the stamp of what it is in itself. Physis is not only related to the Indo-European root *bʰuH but also close to prior and contemporaneous notions of Brahman in the Upanishads.

Aristotle[17] characterizes most of the philosophers “at first” (πρτον) as thinking that the “principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things”, where “principle” is arche, “matter” is hyle (“wood” or “matter”, “material”) and “form” is eidos.

Archê is translated as “principle”, but the two words do not have precisely the same meaning. A principle of something is merely prior (related to pro-) to it either chronologically or logically. An archê (from ἄρχειν, “to rule” [Note…this is actually a latter Latin notion of archê]) dominates an object in some way. If the archê is taken to be an origin, then specific causality is implied; that is, B is supposed to be characteristically B just because it comes from A, which dominates it.

The archê that Aristotle had in mind in his well-known passage on the first Greek scientists are not necessarily chronologically prior to their objects, but are constituents of it. For example, in pluralism objects are composed of earth, air, fire and water, but those elements do not disappear with the production of the object. They remain as archê within it, as do the atoms of the atomists.

What Aristotle is really saying is that the first philosophers were trying to define the substance(s) of which all material objects are composed. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what modern scientists are attempting to accomplish in nuclear physics, which is a second reason why Thales is described as the first western scientist.

Aristotle laid out his own thinking about matter and form which may shed some light on the ideas of Thales, in Metaphysics 983 b6 8-11, 17-21 (The passage contains words that were later adopted by science with quite different meanings.)

That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are. …For it is necessary that there be some nature (φύσις), either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being saved… Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water.

In this quote we see Aristotle’s depiction of the problem of change and the definition of substance . He ask if an object changes, is it the same or different? In either case how can there be a change from one to the other? The answer is that the substance “is saved”, but acquires or loses different qualities (πάθη, the things you “experience”).

39 See Link

40 See Link

41 See Link

42 See Link

43 See Link, page 17

44 “It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement” (Aristotle, De Anima iii 10, 433a31-b1); See Link

Philosophy Series 7

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin


Philosophy Series 7


If Eros is anything, he is not rational. Eros does not come in the Form of idea. Eros is between presence and absence, life and death, light and darkness. A later Greek myth portrayed Eros as the son of Aphrodite (the Goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and pro-creation) and Hermes. Hermes (where we get hermeneutics), the god of speech and dialog which, like Eros, was able to go between worlds as a messenger. The question of Eros’ progeny is contradictory in Greek myth:

1) In Hesiod’s account Eros is not born…but then afterwards Broad-breasted earth, a secure dwelling place forever for all [the immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus], and misty Tartara in the depths under the wide-wayed grounds and Eros who, handsomest among the deathless gods a looser of limbs, in all the gods and in all human beings overpowers in their breasts their intelligence and careful planning

2) In Aristophanes account, given by Aristotle, Eros is born…Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Darkness, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Love (Eros) with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest2

3) In Aristotle Eros is the first of all the Gods……Those thinkers, then, who held this view assumed a principle in things which is the cause of beauty, and the sort of cause by which motion is communicated to things. It might be inferred that the first person to consider this question was Hesiod, or indeed anyone else who assumed Love or Desire as a first principle in things; e.g. Parmenides. For he says, where he is describing the creation of the universe, “Love she created first of all the gods . . .” [Parmenides Fr. 13 Diels] And Hesiod says, ” First of all things was Chaos made, and then/Broad-bosomed Earth . . .And Love, the foremost of immortal beings,” thus implying that there must be in the world some cause to move things and combine them.3

4) In the Orphic Hymn 5 Eros is first born…O Mighty first-begotten [Protogonos, first born Eros], hear my pray’r, two-fold, egg-born, and wand’ring thro’ the air,4

5) In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounting parts of Phaedrus’ speech, Eros is born (“notably in his birth”) but has no parents (“parents of love there are none”)…First then, as I said, he told me that the speech of Phaedrus began with points of this sort—that Love was a great god, among men and gods a marvel; and this appeared in many ways, but notably in his birth. “Of the most venerable are the honors of this god, and the proof of it is this: parents of Love there are none, nor are any recorded in either prose or verse. Hesiod says that Chaos came first into being—”and thereafter rose Broad-breasted Earth, sure seat of all for aye, And Love.” Acusilaus also agrees with Hesiod, saying that after Chaos were born these two, Earth and Love. Parmenides says of Birth that she “invented Love before all other gods.” “Thus Love is by various authorities allowed to be of most venerable standing; and as most venerable, he is the cause of all our highest blessings…

Eros is portrayed as unborn, the first and oldest of the Gods, the youngest of the Gods, having parents, not having parents. This kind of thing is perhaps not unusual in Greek mythology but it does underscore both the importance of Eros and a certain erratic, a-rational acceptance of love even in a time of critical examination of phusis and philosophy.

Later in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates asks Diotima, a female philosopher, “What is love”? She replies:

What then is Love?” I asked; “Is he mortal?” “No.” “What then?” “As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.” “What is he, Diotima?” “He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.” “And what,” I said, “is his power?” “He interprets,” she replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love. all the intercourse, and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar.

He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and again alive by reason of his father’s nature. But that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he is never in want and never in wealth; and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge. The truth of the matter is this: No god is a philosopher. or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already; nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom. Neither do the ignorant seek after Wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want.” “But-who then, Diotima,” I said, “are the lovers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the foolish?” “A child may answer that question,” she replied; “they are those who are in a mean between the two; Love is one of them. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher: or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant.5

Diotima says that love is between mortals and immortals (202d). Diotima is not suggesting that love (Eros) is a substance or thing in the middle of two other substances or between the ideas of mortal and immortal as modernity might think it. Diotima thinks of Eros as thematically unresolved, as neither “one or the other” (Hegel), indeterminate AND yet, somehow, differentiated as a ‘mean between’ mortal and immortal. The ‘mean between’ is μεταξύ or in the midst.6 The ‘mean between’ is not a substratum derived from mortal and immortal or mathematical middle but in the midst of mortal and immortal. Diotima is not giving us a principle or an idea or form but an existential of sensation and affect, a simple experience even “a child may answer” of openness to sensation and affect which has not yet congealed into idea and form but interrupts us in the midst of, lived life, mortal and immortal. The congealing of a subject or ego between two intentional objects (as mortal and immortal), has not yet happened in Diotima’s fragile thought.

For Hesiod, Eros has an odd similarity to chaos in that both are differentiated and indeterminate, as not one or the other, and both are without paternity. Yet for Eros, “but then afterwards” indicates a doubling, a between and in the midst of determinate and indeterminate. Eros is unborn but the God of progeny. Eros is differentiation which faces us before factual determinations, the gap or void that is not genetically conjoined to chaos; “but then afterwards’ earth, Tartara and Eros are determinate.

In contrast to the Theogony, Diotima speaks of Eros’ “father’s nature” as neither mortal or immortal, alive and flourishing at one moment and dead at another. The riddle which Diotima speaks is how love is bounded and unbounded, alive as with origin (genitive) and dead as non-being without origin (an-archic) in moments with no apparent causal relation. The ‘between’ is not a polar relation but a ‘in the midst’. The beauty of love is erratic, erotic, always (ἀεί, aei; throughout time) flowing in existence and thus, always flowing out of existence. Note the difference in Hesiod and Diotima: Diotima wants to think love as in the midst as a middle way while Hesiod thinks love in myth and poetry as Eros who is both genitive (γενετ᾽, genet’) and yet unborn, an-archic (without prior geneology).

Eros, himself, is desire which cannot be satisfied, a yearning which is no mere semantic disjunction but a doubling of the disjunction we already found in chaos and origin. Here chaos is not merely a gap, as if a neutral phenomena of the modern notion of physics, but indefinite in its refusal of mere semantics or neutrality. This doubling reminds us that the chaos of Hesiod’s cosmogony should not easily be type cast as non-human, a neutral ‘thing’. Eros as a archê-trace of chaos is not simple need or want. Eros is not a sensation such as hunger which can be satisfied by eating. As desire, Eros is like what Levinas calls “metaphysical desire”,

The other metaphysically desired is not “other” like the bread I eat, the land in which I dwell, the landscape I contemplate, like, sometimes, myself for myself, this “I,” that “other.” I can “feed” on these realities and to a very great extent satisfy myself, as though I had simply been lacking them. Their alterity is thereby reabsorbed into my own identity as a thinker or a possessor. The metaphysical desire tends toward something else entirely, toward the absolutely other. The customary analysis of desire can not explain away its singular pretension. As commonly interpreted need would be at the basis of desire; desire would characterize a being indigent and incomplete or fallen from its past grandeur. It would coincide with the consciousness of what has been lost; it would be essentially a nostalgia, a longing for return. But thus it would not even suspect what the veritably other is. The metaphysical desire does not long to return, for it is desire for a land not of our birth, for a land foreign to every nature, which has not been our fatherland and to which we shall never betake ourselves. The metaphysical desire does not rest upon any prior kinship. It is a desire that can not be satisfied. For we speak lightly of desires satisfied, or of sexual needs, or even of moral and religious needs. Love itself is thus taken to be the satisfaction of a sublime hunger. If this language is possible it is because most of our desires and love too are not pure. The desires one can satisfy resemble metaphysical desire only in the deceptions of satisfaction or in the exasperation of non-satisfaction and desire which constitutes voluptuosity itself. The metaphysical desire has another intention; it desires beyond everything that can simply complete it. It is like goodness—the Desired does not fulfill it, but deepens it.7

Satisfaction of need does not tame Eros. Desire does not lend itself to light (and its darkness), to a goal or horizon. It is not an Idea that calls us in desire. Certainly the erotic is a kind of doubling of desire and need. The caress from the lover both satisfies and interrupts satisfaction. The loving touch from the other increases satisfaction while withdrawing from fulfillment. When sexual intimacy is over we are only left with ourselves not the other desired. The other is not captured by satisfaction but becomes more elusive in the impossibility of final resolution. Eros pops in and out of existence without regard to reason and spatio-temporal limits. The face of the beloved overflows my satisfaction as infinity overflows my idea of it. I cannot over power the beloved and subsume him or her8. I am powerless to dominate and control her or him. The erotic caress of love deepens hunger for the beloved which cannot be satisfied once and for all because this hunger knows not what it longs for. There is no ‘idea’ of Eros. There is touch, interruption, his or her face in proximity but not close, not enclosed, or brought near. When Eros is most near, Eros most recedes. Eros cannot be tamed by idea, rationality or sanity. Eros touches but cannot be touched. In the simple sensation of existence, as opposed to the thought of existence, Eros caresses with interruption, with infinity, which deepens desire for we know not what. The outside and the inside are metaphors which fail the radical encounter with infinity in the simple encounter with the face of the other.

In Eros we can begin to understand that classic Greek thinking is not merely the transition from mythos to logos. The Greeks understood and puzzled deeply over emotion, simple sensations, love, concern, affection, sexual intimacy. When they thought of privation, withdrawal, infinite deeps of Darkness and deep Abyss with dark Chaos they assumed Love or Desire as a first principle in things. The distance with which much of modern scholarship has approached classic antiquity reflects more on the ‘transformation of the interpretation’ than the infinite proximity of the texts which remain and in doing so has denied the excess of proximity to origin, my origin and the chaotic gap, the disruption of origin (which in nowise should be leveled off into mere neutrality, il y a).

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales 


1 Love is a concept that has thoroughly confused philosophers for ages. For philosophers, Hegel is much easier to comprehend than love. The Greeks reflection on love confused us from the beginning by compounding love into loves. The four words for love in ancient Geek were: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē.

Agápe (ἀγάπη) is unconditional love. It has been used to refer to the love of a parent for a child or for a spouse. It was used in Christianity for the ‘love’ of God.

Éros (ἔρως) is passionate love. It is sensual desire or longing. It does not have to be erotic love. According to Plato it can initially be a feeling but it can also see beauty in a person. It can also go beyond that to the appreciation of beauty itself. Éros helps the soul recall the knowledge of beauty. It also helps us understand spiritual truth. Sensually-based love aspires to the non-corporeal, spiritual plane of existence; that is, finding its truth, just like finding any truth, leads to transcendence. Lovers and philosophers seek truth through éros. For Plato éros is the ideal form of youthful beauty. For the Greeks, éros leads to the uncreated, the lack of origin and genealogy.

Philía (φιλία) is friendship. It can also be affection. Aristotle thought philía was dispassionate virtuous love. It demonstrates loyalty.

Storgē (στοργή) means affection. It is the natural affection in family.

2 Aristoph. Birds 695, See Link

3 Aristot. Met. 1.984b, See Link

4 Orphic Hymns 5, V. TO PROTOGONUS, or the FIRST-BORN, See Link

5 Plat. Sym. 204b; See full text Symposium, Plato; Also, this;

6 See Link

7 Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1961, page 33-34

8 Levinas has been criticized by some feminists for his use of the feminine. He has also been defended by other feminists for his use of the term. I understand and abhor the history of violence which thinks binaries of masculine and feminine, domination and submission. This subtle encoding as restricted economy has resulted in violence and silencing of the feminine. My personal view is that these binaries have been totalized as history just as the ‘loving God’ has been the God of vengeance and war. Once history has redefined love as acts of hate or the feminine as opposite active, virility, light and idea, the feminine is relegated to passive, receptacle, silence, utility and both binaries totalize without excess. This is not what Levinas intends. When Levinas writes of reconstituting metaphysics he simultaneously acknowledges the history of totalizing in metaphysics. Levinas wants to awaken the radical alterity of the other not reduce it to the same. In the face of the other we are “the passivity more passive still than any passivity”. We do not face the other in symmetry but in asymmetry, a non-reciprocal interruption not a symmetrical, reciprocal relationship of mediation, of idea. For Levinas the feminine marks this non-reciprocity, this utter passivity in the face of the infinite other which can only interrupt our ‘ontologies’ of the face, our violent efforts to replace the other with simulacrum, facsimile, metaphor and idea. Any attempt to silence this direction in the thought of Levinas regarding the feminine would have to take leave or find an ‘excess’ to Levinas’ thought that would lead to yet another binary, an unintended opposite, in the ‘margin of the text’ which would reaffirm violence and set the stage for any deconstruction of alterity, excess, and infinity. In Levinas’ this act of neutralization would be the incessant buzz of the il y a, the ‘there is’ which is the evitable graveyard of ontology where idea levels off and mediates the other into ghosts, the virility of death as authenticity or absolute idea, and ‘singularity’, ‘alterity’, ‘other’ become merely signs in [infinte] relation to signifiers in a general economy. The face of the other as Levinas intends is merely re-appropriated into the same, the violence of the same, the symmetry of totality. While the notion of the feminine in Levinas has been criticized along these lines, it seems to me that this merely underscores the importance of Decision regarding Ethics. Each has to decide if ‘there is’ dominates or if my freedom finds limits in the radical alterity of the face of the other.