Anaximander and his apeiron

Twaha asked:

Explain why Anaximander thought that the basic stuff of the earth is APEIRON.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Not of the earth, but of the cosmos — some difference!

At any rate, his teacher Thales had thrown out a challenge to rational thinking. Surely, he reasoned, there must be some underlying order in the prolixity of existing forms of the objects of the world. Perhaps an underlying substance they all share, or a substance so simple and flexible that it is part of everything (=arche). As you know, he proposed water as a candidate for such a role.

However, Anaximander discerned a logical flaw in this proposition.

Water, he said, is already a formed substance. We can see this when it seeks out cracks in metals and rocks, rather than blending with them. Accordingly it cannot be the underlying, absolutely basic stuff.

Continuing this train of thought led him onto the idea that the only kind of substance that might suit would have to be unformed. This is in fact the meaning of the word ‘apeiron’. Although often rendered as ‘limitless’, this is an ambiguous translation, as it insinuates ‘endless’, whereas its precise meaning comes from the negative of peras=outline (as in our word ‘perimeter’): hence apeiron denotes ‘formless’.

With this term, Anaximander created a problem, rather than solving one. The Apeiron is impossible to visualise. How can something exist that has no form? Isn’t it the same as saying ‘non-existent’?

Well, this is exactly the problem with which most of his successor ‘presocratic’ thinkers struggled with — down to Demokritos’ theory of atoms.

One thought on “Anaximander and his apeiron

  1. Nice answer. I hadn’t spotted that Thales was on top of this one. Anaximander’s problem is easily solved. It is incoherent, as he notes, to suppose that the formless exists. It must transcend the exist/not-exist distinction, as does Tao. Brahman, Nibbana and so forth.

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