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Thales, the pre-Socratic who is often depicted as the first philosopher, claimed that
water is the fundamental metaphysical constituent. In doing so, he rejects the assumption that
the origin in which phenomenal reality is grounded must itself be divine (water is as common
an element as one can find). In determining that water is the basic constituent of reality,
Thales also rejects any supposition that this scientific knowledge is acquired through
revelation. Instead, he privileges
as the logical source of the conclusion that water is
the fundamental building block of reality. Nevertheless, Thales follows the tradition of
viewing chronological primacy as ontologically foundational. The reason water continues to
serve as an alleged explanation of natural phenomena is because all other phenomena are
considered derivative from it through various transformations such as evaporation, freezing,
and so on. To explain something is still to trace it temporally to its origin.
There is a qualitative change with the appearance of Anaximander, a pre-Socratic
philosopher who follows Thales. Anaximander’s thesis is that the fundamental constituent of
reality cannot be water because it is too determinate or specific a “stuff.” The origin, ground,
and source of all reality must be instead something undifferentiated, itself possessed of no
characteristics or determinate properties. Anaximander calls this source the
, the
boundless. All of phenomenal reality, he claims, originates in the
, made specific and
determinate thanks to processes such as condensation or rarefication. The
is eternal
and therefore inquiries into its origin would constitute a category mistake, but its role is still
to serve as the first (diffuse, amorphous) state of (subsequently more determinate, specified)
matter. To that extent, Anaximander’s logic of explanation remains genealogical, the tracking
back of everything that we now see to its origins. More importantly, the fact that the
has no properties and is undifferentiated makes it abstract and therefore more akin to a logical
principle, an
, than was Thales’ water. The
nevertheless continues to function
as a temporal beginning, since Anaximander explicitly states that one can track the
progressive results of rarefication and condensation on this non-determinate stuff. In
, I submit, we find the laying down of a philosophical approach that
will characterize the subsequent history of western philosophy: a dismissal of the local, the
contextual, the sensible, the here and now. The only parallel with religion is the transition
from local, animistic gods identified with specific trees, mountains, or locales to the abstract
and universal Abrahamic God (who can only be defined through negation, by what it is not).
Insofar as explanation consists in a tracing back to the primordial ground, however,
explanation remains genetic.
The philosophical emphasis on abstraction and acontextuality that begins with
Anaximander will culminate in the foundationalist metaphysics of modern science, but it
reaches an early apex with Socrates and Plato. In the
, the dialogue in which
Socrates asks interlocutors “What is Love?”, Socrates, the last speaker, dismisses the
previous thinkers by objecting that those before him had merely described the
of love
– where it came from – but had failed to provide its
. Earlier speakers before
Socrates had characterized love’s lineage in various ways – as the “oldest of the gods”; by
noting its parents or offspring (love’s parents being such and thus, or love having no parents,
or love being the parent of everything else); and so on. Socrates’ central objection is precisely
that this is not the proper way to offer explanations, that the logic of explanation is not given