Early Speculation: Pluralism

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Early Speculation: Pluralism



Combinations. Attempts were made by the ancient Greeks to save the evidence of the senses and counter the total denial of change. In the 400s, the so-called Pluralists, Empedocles and Anaxagoras, accepted Parmenides’ claim that reality is indeed forever changeless, but then went on to assert that it is also fundamentally plural. The universe is a composite of basic, indivisible substances that each enjoy the characteristics of the Eleatic “what is”—namely, each is eternal and unchanging. Since there are many such permanent and timeless entities, however, the world of the senses can be constructed by bringing them together into different combinations.

Basic Elements. For Empedocles, the “roots” (rhizômata) of reality are the elements earth, air, fire, and water. They are original substances in the sense that they are uncreated and everlasting, just as Parmenides had demanded reality should be. They are also originative, in that they are the constituents out of which everything that exists is made. He answered the question of how the unlimited number and variety of things in nature could be analyzed back into these four simple elements by claiming that they combine in fixed and definite proportions to create each distinct thing in the world. Bone, for example, is compounded from four parts fire, two parts water, two parts earth; blood is a composite of all four elements in equal proportions. He apparently made no effort to demonstrate these claims experimentally. Despite the brilliant idea of proportion, it would be wrong to see in his work a precursor of modern chemistry.

Love and Strife. Empedocles’ system also included two forces that are responsible for the combination and separation of the elements. These are Love and Strife, which work together but in opposite ways to bring everything in the universe into existence. Strife makes each of the elements move apart from the others and gather together. When the power of Strife is supreme, the universe has the shape of four concentric rings of pure earth, water, air, and fire. When Love is dominant, on the contrary, the elements all mingle together to form a homogeneous sphere. The movement from Love to Strife and from Strife back to Love once more is cyclic and eternal, and the world as we experience it comes into being in the periods in between these two extremes of total unity (Love) and total separation (Strife). Over the course of the ages, the world is alternately created, dissolved, and then created all over again.

Anaxagoras. The position taken by Anaxagoras is superficially similar, in that he also regarded reality as plural and composite. Whereas Empedocles analyzed it into the four basic elements, however, Anaxagoras multiplied the number of fundamental entities to include both natural substance—gold, iron, bone, wood, leaf, hair, flesh, and so forth—and such qualities as “hot” and “cold.” Each of these substances, according to Anaxagoras, is basic and elementary, and their presence accounts for the great variety of nature. His most famous claim is that “in everything there is a portion of everything.” That is to say, any given thing—a piece of bread, for instance—contains a share of every other thing in the world. This peculiar theory might well have been an attempt to explain the transformative process of digestion, through which the food we ingest somehow becomes flesh, hair, blood, and bone. Accordingly, tiny particles of bone, for instance, are present in whatever we might eat; when the food is digested, these particles separate out and go to add themselves to the bone that is already in our body.

Mind. As theories go, this is hardly economical, since it assumes a virtually unlimited number of primary substances. It also, of course, duplicates on the infinitesimal level the variety of visible things whose origin the theory is supposed to explain. In keeping with the rationalism of Greek speculation, Anaxagoras attributed the coming-to-be and dissolution of things to the activity of a cosmic “Mind” (nous), which guides all natural processes from within nature itself by making the mixture of infinite primary elements slowly spin and separate out to form all the things of the known world.

Impiety. Anaxagoras is also noteworthy as the first recorded victim of the conflict between science and traditional ideas that had begun with the Milesians some one hundred years earlier. While living in Athens, he is said to have been formally accused of impiety, on the ground that he claimed the sun is a fiery rock somewhat bigger than southern Greece, and not (as a majority of people believed) the great god Helios. Tried and convicted, he was exiled from Athens and spent the years until his death in 428 b.c.e. in a remote corner of the Greek world. While his choice of political associates may have had something to do with the case, his fate also illustrates a genuine tension between subversive new theories and conservative religious belief that was to surface on other occasions in the history of Greek culture.


Democritus of Abdera (circa 460-circa 370 b.c.e.) was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” because of his commentaries on the foibles of man. Only a few fragments of his writings survive.

On sense perception:

Sight takes place by means of a physical impression . . . which does not occur spontaneously in the pupil of the eye. Instead, the air in between the eye and the object is compressed and stamped by both the object and the viewer, since [atoms] are always flowing from everything.

They associated vision with certain images, identical in shape with the object, that constantly streamed from the object and impressed themselves on the eye.

On tastes:

He defines “sweet” as something [made of atoms that are] round and moderately large; “sour,” as what is large, round, polygonal, and linear; whatever is “sharp tasting,” as the name implies, sharp edges, and is angular, crooked, and linear, whatever is “pungent” is round, small, angular, and crooked; “salty” is angular, moderately large and crooked, with sides of equal length; whatever is “bitter” is round, small, crooked, and smooth; and “oily” is fine, round, and smooth.

On knowledge:

There are two kinds of knowledge: one authentic, one illegitimate. ‘The following belong to illegitimate knowledge: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The other [sc. Rationality] is genuine and distinct from this kind…. We must acknowledge that, for this reason, we are separated from reality…. In fact, we know nothing about anything...


Brad Inwood, The Poem of Empedocles (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

Malcolm Schofield, An Essay on Anaxagoras (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

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