Diogenes of Apollonia (5th Century BCE)

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(5th Century BCE)

Diogenes of Apollonia was a Greek philosopher belonging to the last generation of the pre-Socratics (fl. around 440430 BCE.) His native town was either Apollonia on Crete or, more probably, Apollonia on the Pontus. Nothing is known for certain about his life. It has been debated whether he wrote only one book called, in English, On Nature or, as Simplicius reported (in On Aristotle's "Physics" 151, 20), four (On Nature, Meteorology, On the Nature of Man, Against the Sophists ). All the existing fragments seem to come from On Nature. His work had an effect in Athenian intellectual life toward the end of the fifth century BCE, and his influence is detectable also in some treatises of the Hippocratic corpus and in the Stoic doctrine of pneuma (literally breath; in Stoic philosophy, the mixture of the two active elements, fire and air, and the sustaining cause of all bodies.)

His philosophy was termed "eclectic" already by Theophrastus, and most modern commentators agree with this assessment. Theophrastus listed Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Anaximenes as the main influences on Diogenes, and to this list we should certainly add Heraclitus. Diogenes' philosophical doctrine has three prominent aspects: his monism, the teleological traits in his cosmology, and his theory of cognition. Most of the pre-Socratic philosophers working after Parmenides adopted a pluralist ontology. Diogenes, on the contrary, returned to the monism of his Ionian predecessors. He argued that if the proper nature of apparently different types of matter were not the same, then these different types of matter could not causally interact with one another, and we could not explain such phenomena as the nutrition and growth of living organisms, in which apparently different types of matter transform into each other. Therefore, the four elements and the other types of matter of our world must have differentiated from the same primordial stuff, must retain their underlying identity, and must ultimately return to what they differentiated from (Diels and Kranz [DK], B2). Apparent things exist for a limited time, whereas the basic stuff is "an eternal and deathless body" (DK, B7). Yet it is not a passive substrate, but is "strong" and determines how things are formed from it and return to it (DK, B8, B7). Because it is active and eternal, it can also be considered a god.

Diogenes continued by arguing that the basic stuff must be intelligent. He wrote, "For without intelligence it could not have been divided up in such a way as to hold the measures of all things, of winter and summer and night and day and rains and winds and nice weather, along with the rest, which, if one is willing to consider them intelligently, one will find disposed in the finest possible way" (DK, B3). Scholars have disagreed how thorough Diogenes' teleology, as expressed in this fragment, is. According to Willy Theiler, Diogenes is a full-blown teleologist and the immediate source of the teleological views that Xenophon ascribed to Socrates in his Memorabilia. Others have doubted that Diogenes' conception is original and that it is genuinely teleological. Diogenes' argument certainly differs from later, explicitly teleological views in that it remains unclear whether the action of the intelligent principle is directed at some well-defined goal or goals. It also differs from classic statements of the argument from design, with which it has sometimes been associated, in that Diogenes did not argue for the existence of an intelligent causal principle, but sought to show that the ultimate causal principle, the existence of which he established on independent grounds, must also be intelligent.

Diogenes identified the bearer of intelligence with air. He argued that because humans and animals live by breathing, air must be what brings life and intelligence to them (DK, B4). If so, the air, which inheres in, and steers, all things, must be the intelligent causal principle at the cosmic level too. Moreover, the qualitative differences of air explain the differences between species and individuals (DK, B5).

Diogenes' most original contribution was a detailed description of the system of veins, which originate in the head and through which blood and air to all parts of the body. Sensation is produced when air from the outside acts on the air in the sense organs which then reaches the head through the veins. The quality of the air and the veins determine the sharpness of perception. Air mixed with blood produces thought, and we feel pleasure when the appropriate mixture of air and blood pervades the whole body.

See also Pneuma; Stoicism.


Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Diels, Hermann, and Walther Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. 7th, rev. ed. Berlin: Weidmann, 1954.

Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and Malcolm Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Laks, André. Diogène d'Apollonie: La dernière cosmologie présocratique. Lille, France: Presses universitaire de Lille, 1983.

Theiler, Willy. Zur Geschichte der teleologischen Naturbetrachtung bis auf Aristoteles. 2nd ed. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965.

Gábor Betegh (2005)

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Diogenes of Apollonia (5th Century BCE)

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