The Greek term archē refers to the original stuff from which the world came to be, according to pre-Socratic philosophers. In his Metaphysics Aristotle explains:
Of the first philosophers, the majority thought the sources [archai, plural] of all things were found only in the class of matter. For that of which all existing things consist, and that from which they come to be first and into which they perish last—the substance continuing but changing in its attributes—this, they say, is the element and this the source [archē ] of existing things. Accordingly they do not think anything either comes to be or perishes, inasmuch as that nature is always preserved. … For a certain nature always exists, either one or more than one, from which everything else comes to be while this is preserved. All, however, do not agree on the number and character of this source, but Thales, the originator of this kind of theory, says it is water.…
(Metaphysics 983b 6–21)
Aristotle seems to use the term archē to refer to several different notions that he holds are all part of the pre-Socratics' conception: (1) a primeval chaos in which only one element (or one set of elements) exists; (2) the primeval element that constituted the primitive state, from which all the bodies of the present world were formed; (3) that same fundamental element insofar as it even now constitutes the world; (4) the principle of explanation, or explanatory source (identified with the primeval element), that logically and causally accounts for the phenomena of the world.
According to Aristotle, the pre-Socratic philosophers with cosmological theories agreed in explaining all phenomena as deriving from a single stuff or set of stuffs (sense 4). They disagreed about whether there was only one stuff or several. Those who held that there was only one stuff (monists) disagreed as to what it was: Thales said water; Anaximander said the Boundless; Anaximenes said air; and Heraclitus said fire. Those who held there were several stuffs or elements (pluralists) disagreed among themselves as to what those were: Empedocles said earth, water, air, and fire; Anaxagoras said an unlimited number of homogeneous stuffs including flesh, gold, wood; the atomists said an infinite number of atomic particles of differing shapes.
Aristotle's account, partly through the writings of his colleague Theophrastus on the history of philosophical opinions, dominated ancient and then modern interpretations. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with his account. First, it seems to conflate two different types of theory, that of the alleged monists, and that of the pluralists, which may operate on different principles. Second, it ignores theories that posit a stable cosmology (in which the world does not arise out of a primeval chaos), such as those of Xenophanes and Heraclitus. Third, it seems to project back onto cosmologists of the sixth century BCE the theory of changeless being that Parmenides invented in the early fifth century BCE. Fourth, it assumes a sophisticated theory of matter in which a subject is distinguished from attributes or properties, which seems to arise only in the fourth century BCE. Fifth, it embodies a tendentious interpretation of how the pre-Socratics understood causal explanation.
The term archē itself in the sense of "beginning, starting point" might have been used by early pre-Socratics such as Anaximander, but there are no extant quotations to verify this. In the late fifth century Diogenes of Apollonia used the term to mean something like "starting point," with a possible implication of being an explanatory principle. (fr. 1). But the term only seems to become a philosophically important one when one considers that Plato described an archē as a principle to which nothing is prior (Republic 511b, Phaedrus 245c-d), in effect as supplying a metaphysical ground and a logical axiom. Aristotle himself distinguished six senses of the term, only the last of which is a technical philosophical one, reflecting Plato's use (Metaphysics V.1). Aristotle's account of the archē as a principle of explanation among the pre-Socratics is highly suggestive but should not be accepted uncritically.
Most of the pre-Socratics were interested in explaining how the present world arose out of a primeval chaos, and also in identifying the basic realities from which the world arose. In those two senses, they sought through their studies and writings to elucidate the sources, the archai, of the world. Whether, or in what sense, their basic realities were material, and whether they were changeless, are controversial questions scholars still wrestle with.
Algra, Keimpe. "The Beginnings of Cosmology." In The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, edited by A. A. Long. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Alt, Karin. "Zum Satz des Anaximenes über die Seele: Untersuchung von Aetios Peri archōn." Hermes 101 (1973): 129–164.
Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. Rev. ed. London: Routledge, 1982.
Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 1: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Stokes, Michael C. One and Many in Presocratic Philosophy. Washington: Center for Hellenic Studies, 1971.
Daniel W. Graham (2005)
"Archē." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/arche
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