The Ionians’ contribution to philosophy

Praise asked:

What are the main contributions of the Ionians to philosophy?

To ask as the Miletians did, what are things really like and how can we express the process of change, is a substantial departure from the mythology and poetry of Homer and Hesiod and a movement towards what we may call the temperament of science. Critically discuss.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Their main contribution was that they invented it.

But it was natural philosophy, which we call science today. Even so, there is much more behind it. You would surely not believe that Thales said to himself one day: I’m going to create science! Before such a thought can occur to you, it is necessary to have liberty to think, and flexibility in your thinking. In a sense this is real difficulty and greatest contribution the Ionians made. Effectively the Ionian philosophers discovered what it means to think, and then they taught us all what thinking is good for.

The background to this is that the Greeks were just as deeply religious as we Christians were 500 years ago. They believed that gods and spirits were everywhere and that you had to worship them and fear them, because they were so powerful.

How and why the Ionian philosophers began to think about existence and the universe is of course very difficult to explain. There are three possible causes:

1. When they examined the beliefs in gods and spirits, they discovered that most of them had names which reflected what kind of natural force they represent. So there was thunder and the god of thunder, but both had the same name. What happens if we delete the name from the list? Obviously nothing, because thunder will still occur. So the name of a god is maybe superfluous?

2. But to think like this, there needs to be a special condition in society, which is that the thinker must have the freedom under the law to think any way they like. In ancient Greece, many of the tribes had democratic constitutions, which means that freedom of thought was possible.

3. The earliest of these thinkers came from Miletus, which was at the cross-roads of many cultures. So they knew all the superstitions of the Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Lydians etc. When they compared them with their own beliefs, they saw remarkable similarities and started wondering if there were better, more logical reasons to explain the world.

In other words, they asked rational questions how the world works and they have observed the laws of nature and came to the conclusion that the world was a ‘Cosmos’ (in English: A space that seems orderly and organised).

These Ionian pre-Socratics are often referred to as the thinkers of the Ionian Enlightenment. I use the term enlightenment because they discarded superstitions and insisted on reasoning about such matters.

The first and the most important of these Ionian thinkers was Thales of Miletus (640-545 BC). He was already very accomplished in independent thinking. He knew geometry better than the Egyptians, he worked as an engineer for Croesus of Lydia, and he predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BC. While the Greeks were watching to see if he was right, the Lydians and Medes were fighting a battle on the same day, but stopped when the eclipse began and ran away in fright.

He also speculated that the fundamental substance of the world is water. Which means that everything alive has water in it, which is entirely true. His pupil Anaximander (610-547) accepted the idea of a substance, but disputed that it could be water. He said, water has form; but a basic substance must be formless. This he called an ‘apeiron’. So you can see that Thales was setting an agenda for natural philosophy, which got everyone interested and working on it; and in fact we still pursue his agenda today.

Obviously there are other contributions. I’ll mention just two more.

The first is the basic conflict between matter and energy that flared up between Parmenides of Elia and Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 500). Parmenides said the whole world is just one block of rigid matter. Heraclitus opposed him and said the universe is in constant motion or flux (e.g. ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’). This is another issue our physicists are still working on, and they are still trying to reconcile these disparate points of view.

Finally, Democritus of Abdera, who was a contemporary of Plato, devised the atomic theory. This was also an effort at reconciling matter and energy, because the atoms are so small that the difference makes no difference.

I also want to mention that another outcome of rational thinking was a new approach to medicine. The separation of medicine from magic depends on the concept of aetiology, which was first articulated by the Ionians. Here again they contributed to a completely new understanding of health and disease, using reason as their natural ally.

When we read their fragments today, they seem pretty unimportant. But we need to look at this achievement from the point of view that this was the very first step taken by man, to liberate the mind from oppression by superstition, and to look at the world with the eyes of reason.

Answer by Tony Fahey

In the above two questions, Praise brings us right back to the origin of Western Philosophy. Because the two questions are directly related, I have decided to attempt to give something approaching an acceptable answer to both questions in the following response. I say ‘attempt’ because the space afforded in this forum does not allow for the type of critical discussion that such a broad issue deserves.

The Ionian philosophers were a group of Greek philosophers who were active in Miletus, an Ionian colony in Asia Minor, during the sixth century B.C., and some of their successors who lived about one hundred years later. They are considered to be the earliest of the Greek philosophers, and therefore of the Western tradition of philosophy. Whilst the philosophers of the Ionian school included such influential thinkers as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and Diogenes, and many more, given the limitations referred to above, in the attempt to cover both questions, in this response I will deal, primarily, with the three natural philosophers who are credited with starting the whole Western philosophical ball rolling, so to speak. That is, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.

Philosophy, A. R. Lacey’s A Dictionary of Philosophy informs us means ‘Love of wisdom’ 1976, p.176). Chambers Dictionary broadens this definition to include: ‘investigation of the nature of being; [and] knowledge of the causes of things’ (1992, p. 803). These definitions reflect the desire of mankind to make sense of the world in which they live. Before the Presocractics (and many would argue that it is still the case), people found answers to philosophical questions in religious myths which were handed down from generation to generation. Gods were given human forms and attributes, and in order to appease these gods, and to ensure a sense of permanence – that the sun would rise each day, and Spring and Summer would return each year, and so on – sacrifices and homage were paid to these gods. So we can see that even before, what Aristotle would later call, the ‘natural philosophers’, people were concerned with the notion of stability in an ever-changing world.

Sometimes it is possible to look at the natural world and become aware of an unseen energy, a dynamic that animates physical phenomena. Some people see this dynamic as evidence of a divine force; that each phenomenon is created by God for a particular end or purpose, and that this purpose belongs to a greater harmonious system. This view is described as a teleological approach. Others, while they may agree that in the natural world events may appear to occur in regular sequence, are reluctant to ascribe to these events the intervention of divine providence, whilst others again argue that there is no evidence that there is a teleological dimension to natural events.

The early Greeks looked at how this energy or force manifested itself in various natural phenomena and attributed to these manifestations anthropomorphic characterisations. Thus, Zeus, or Jupiter, was seen as the supreme god, whose anger, at what was perceived as wrongful behaviour by the early Greeks, was expressed by the roar of thunder, whilst Poseidon was seen as the god of earthquakes and the sea, and Bacchus as the god of wine and vegetation. In other words, these gods were seen as whimsical or capricious entities that possessed all the virtues and frailties of mortal beings. The myths that evolved from the belief in the power of these gods formed the basis of the early Greeks worldview. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, turned away from this form of belief system and looked to the natural world for evidence of the source or first principal of things.

The Milesian philosophers (the natural philosophers).


Around the beginning of the sixth century BC, the city of Miletus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, became a thriving centre of trade between Greece and the Middle East. Thales (pronounced Thay-leez), a native of that city, travelled extensively and came into contact with many different cultures, especially those of Egypt and Babylon. Being an Ionian Greek by birth, Thales would have been indoctrinated with values of his native place – values, that is, drawn from the myths and legends of the narrow Greek society in which he was reared. However, because of its trade with the world beyond Miletus as well as colonisation, Thales began to question the legitimacy of the worldview that had been handed down to him. Thus, while others were prepared to accept the ‘truth’ as handed down by tradition, Thales began to ask new questions about the causes of things. That is, he began to ask questions about the first principle of things. And by asking about the
nature of the first principle itself, he departed from the tradition and introduced a new form of inquiry – one could say his approach gave birth to philosophical inquiry.

As with the other Milesians (Anaximander and Anaximenes) all we know of Thales is what we learn from a few fragments given by later thinkers who interpreted his ideas in their own way. And it is from these fragments that we are forced to construct some notion of this early thinker’s contribution to philosophy. According to Aristotle, Thales made water the principle of all things, and he believed that just as a log floats on a pond, so too does the earth float on a greater expanse of water (mind you, he also held that since magnets move iron they must have souls – he also said that all things are full of gods; that the mind of the world is god, and that god is intermingled with all things). He also held that earthquakes were caused by subterranean waves rocking the earth – in the same way that a ship may be rocked by the sea. While to our minds these observations seem trite, Thales’ willingness to move away from tradition represents a dramatic and
significant shift in humans would hereafter, look at their world.

As well as being the first thinker to try to account for the nature of the world without appealing to the whims and wills of anthropomorphic, Homerian gods, Thales is also credited with correctly predicting that there would be a solar eclipse in 585 BC during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. As such, Thales qualifies as the first natural scientist and analytical philosopher in Western intellectual history.

Anaximander :

Anaximander was also from Miletus and lived around the same time as Thales (6th c BC). Anaximander also believed that there was a single primal substance, however, unlike Thales’ water, he believed in something called the ‘Indefinite’ or ‘apeiron’: boundless. That is, for Anaximander, the source of all things was not some determinate element, but something that was without limits.

By proposing the Indefinite as the primal substance, Anaximander could account for the emergence of things and the elements which are quite different in character to water, and from each other. He believed that the first principle could not be water, as Thales had proposed, because if it were, it would conquer all others. Aristotle reports him as saying that these known elements are in opposition to one another. Air is cold, water is moist, and fire is hot. ‘And therefore, if any one of these were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time’ (The Presocratics, edited by Philip Wheelwright, 1966. T3, p.55, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York and London). Thus, since the world is constantly changing, the primal substance must be indefinite.

According to Aristotle, Anaximander proposed the Indefinite as the first principle of the universe, and argued that it ‘has neither come into being nor can it pass away’. He says that the Indefinite ‘encompasses all things and governs all things’, and that it is immortal and indestructible. Instead of the anthropomorphic (god with human attributes) figure of Zeus whom Hesiod had said was the ruler of the universe, Anaximander proposed an abstract entity which is given the traditional attributes of the divine. By creating a neuter noun – a noun which is neither masculine nor feminine – from an adjective – a word that would normally describe a quality or modify a noun – Anaximander introduces the notion of a single divine entity that is identified with the Indefinite as first principle. This simple move, at one fell swoop, made possible the subsequent philosophical speculation about the divine.


The third Milesian philosopher was Anaximenes (c 580-500 BC). Anaximenes believed that both Thales and Anaximander were mistaken. The source of all things, he believed, was air – or ‘vapour’. The soul is air; fire is rarefied air; when condensed, air changes into water, and if further condensed it becomes earth, and ultimately stone. Anaximenes held that air was the origin of earth, water, and fire. Like Thales, he also thought that there must be some underlying primal substance that is the source of all change. Like the Indefinite of Anaximander, he thought this primal substance was the divine and all encompassing source of generation for all visible objects in both heaven and earth – even though he had identified it as air, which is an element. In the same way that Thales held that the world floats on water, Anaximenes held that the world rides on a cushion of air. He also held that heavenly bodies were fiery because they evaporated, and that they ride upon air because they are flat. Although Anaximenes was a younger contemporary of Anaximander he appears to be a more primitive thinker.

The first attempts at philosophy, then, were occupied with the only world which men can present clearly to themselves – the world of nature. In general, these attempts take the shape of a search for some unitary principle or primal substance for explaining the world, some one kind of real existence out of which the diversity of the universe has arisen, some underlying permanence in this never ending process of change. The first decisive steps in this search were taken by the Milesian philosophers.

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