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History of Philosophy
Earlier Ionian School
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

The Ionian school includes the Earlier Ionians, -- Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, -- and the Later Ionians, whose proper historical place is after the Eleatic school.


Life. Thales, the first philosopher of Greece, was of Phoenician descent. He was born at Miletus, about the year 620 B.C.[7] He was a contemporary of Croesus and Solon, and was counted among the Seven Wise Men. He is said to have died in the year 546 B.C.
[7] On the manner of computing the date of Thales, cf. Burnet, op. cit., pp. 36 ff.
Sources. Our knowledge of the doctrines of Thales is based entirely on secondary sources, especially on the account given by Aristotle in Met., I, 3, 983. cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 9-11.


According to Aristotle, Thales taught that out of water all things are made. [8] Historical tradition is silent as to the reasons by which Thales was led to this conclusion. It is possible, as Aristotle conjectures, that the founder of the Ionian school was influenced by the consideration of the moisture of nutriment, etc.; he may have based his conclusion on a rationalistic interpretation of the myth of Oceanus, or he may have observed the alluvial deposits of the rivers of his native country, and concluded that, as earth, so all things else come from water. The saying that "The magnet has a soul because it attracts iron" is attributed to Thales on the authority of Aristotle, who, however, speaks conditionally, "if, indeed, he said," etc. We must not attach importance to Cicero's Stoical interpretation of Thales: "Thales Milesius aquam dixit esse initium rerum, Deum, autem, eam mentem quae ex aqua cuncta fingeret." Such a dualism belongs to the time of Anaxagoras. Similarly, the saying that "All things are full of gods" (panta plŕra the˘n) is but the expression, in Aristotle's own phraseology, of the general doctrine of animism, or hylozoism, which is a tenet common to all the Earlier Ionians. They maintained that matter is instinct with life; or, as an Aristotelian would say, they did not distinguish between the material principle and the formal principle of life.
[8] Met., I, 3, 983 b.

Life. Anaximander, who was also a native of Miletus, was born about the year 610 B.C. Theophrastus describes him as a disciple, or associate, of Thales. The date of his death is unknown.

Sources. Primary sources. Anaximander composed a treatise, or rather a poetical prose composition, peri phusi˘s, which was extant when Theophrastus wrote. Of this work two sentences only have come down to us:

1. "All things must in equity again decline into that whence they have their origin, for they must give satisfaction and atonement for injustice, each in order of time." [9]
[9] Theophr., frag. 2, apud Diels, Doxographi, p. 476.
2. The infinite "surrounds all things and directs all things." [10]
[10] Arist., Phys., III, 4, 203 b.
Secondary sources. Our chief secondary sources are Theophrastus (in the work phusik˘n doxai, of which the existing fragments are published by Diels, op. cit., p.476) and Aristotle (especially in Met., XII, 2, 1069 b; Phys.. III, 4 203 b).


From our secondary sources it is evident that, according to Anaximander, the originating principle (archŕ) [11] of all things is the Infinite, or rather the Unlimited (apeiron). The reasons, however, which led to this conclusion are merely a matter of conjecture, as in the case of Thales' generalization. According to Aristotle, Anaximander, supposing that change destroys matter, argued that, unless the substratum of change is limitless, change must sometime cease. Thus, while modern physics holds that matter is indestructible, Anaximander maintained that it is infinite; for there can be no question as to the corporeal nature of the apeiron it is an infinite material substance. Critics, however, do not agree as to how Anaximander would have answered the questions, Is the unlimited an element or a mixture of elements? Is it qualitatively simple or complex? He certainly maintained that the primitive substance is infinite, but did not, so far as we know, concern himself with the question of its qualitative determinations.
[11] "That Anaximander called this something by the name of phusis is clear from the doxographers; the current statement that the word arche, in the sense of a 'first principle,' was introduced by him, is probably due to a mere misunderstanding of what Theophrastos says." Burnet, op. cit., p. 52.
On the meaning of phusis in the writings of the early Greek philosophers, cf. Philosophical Review (July, 1901), Vol. X, pp. 366 ff.
The apeiron has been likened to the modern notion of space and to the mythological concept of chaos. It is described by Anaximander himself as surrounding and directing all things, and by Aristotle it is described as to theion. We must not, however, attach to these expressions a dualistic or pantheistic meaning.

From the Boundless all things came, by a process which the Placita [12] describes as separation (apokrithŕnai). Living things sprang from the original moisture of the earth (through the agency of heat). The first animals were therefore fishes, which after they came on shore threw off their scales and assumed new shapes. Man, too, was generated from other kinds of animals. [13] Anaximander is generally believed to have taught an infinity of worlds.
[12] Cf. Burnet, op. cit., pp. 372 ff.

[13] Plut., Strom., 2, apud Diels, op. cit., p. 579.
Historical Position. Comparing the doctrines of Anaximander with what we know of the teachings of Thales, we find that the former are far richer in their contents and betoken a higher development of speculative thought. They represent a higher grade of abstraction, as is evident in the substitution of the Boundless for the concrete substance, water.


Life. Anaximenes of Miletus, who was an "associate" of Anaximander, composed a treatise the title of which is unknown. He died about 528 B.C.

Sources. Primary sources. The only fragment of the work of Anaximenes which has survived is a sentence quoted in the Placita. "Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the world." [14]
[14] Placita, I, 3, 4, apud Diels, op. cit., p. 278. The Placita, or Placita Philosophorum, is a collection of the "opinions" of philosophers ascribed to Plutarch. Like the Eclogae of Stobaeus, it is based on an earlier collection of opinions called AEtii Placita, as this is in turn based on the Vetusta Placita, of which traces are found in Cicero. (cf. Burnet, op. cit., p. 372.)
Secondary sources. Our principal secondary source is Theophrastus, whom pseudo-Plutarch, Eusebius (Praepratio Evangelica ), Hippolytus (Refutatio Omnium Heresium), etc., follow. cf. Diels, op. cit., p. 476.


According to all our secondary sources, Anaximenes taught that the principle, or ground, of all material existence is air. (aŕr must, however, be taken in the Homeric sense of vapor, or mist.) This substance, to which is ascribed infinite quantity, is endowed with life. From it, by thinning (arai˘sis) and thickening (puke˘sis), were formed fire, winds, clouds, water, and earth. The world is an animal, whose breathing is kept up by masses of air, which it inhales from the infinite space beyond the heavens.

Cicero incorrectly represents Anaximenes as identifying the divinity with the primitive Air. St. Augustine is more correct when he says, "Nec deos negavit aut tacuit, non tamen ab ipsis aerem factum, sed ipsos ex aere ortos credidit." [15]
[15] De Civ. Dei, VIII, 2.
Historical Position. Anaximenes was evidently influenced by his predecessors. From Thales he derived the qualitative determinateness of the primitive substance and from Anaximander its infinity. The doctrine of "thickening" and "thinning" is far more intelligible than the doctrine of "separating" which Anaximander taught.

Retrospect. The Early Ionian philosophers were students of nature (physiologoi) who devoted themselves to the inquiry into the origin of things. They agreed (1) in positing the existence of a single original substance; (2) in regarding this substance as endowed with force and life (hylozoism). They were dynamists. Heraclitus, a Later Ionian, who was in final analysis a dynamist also, marks the transition from the early hylozoism to the mechanism of the Later Ionian school.


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