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Anaxagoras (500–428 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was a major Greek philosopher of the Presocratic period, who worked in the Ionian tradition of inquiry into nature. While his cosmology largely recasts the sixth-century system of Anaximenes, the focus of the surviving fragments is on ontological questions. The often quoted opening of his book – ‘all things were together’ – echoes the Eleatic Parmenides’ characterization of true being, but signals recognition of time, change and plurality. Even so, Anaxagoras is deeply committed to the Eleatic notions that, strictly speaking, there can be no coming into being or going out of existence, nor any separation of one part of reality from any other. His main object is to show how the variety of the world about us is somehow already contained in the primordial mixture, and is explicable only on the assumption that latent within each substance are portions of every other. Whether or not he owed his conception of unlimited smallness to Zeno of Elea, he held that there could be no such thing as a magnitude of least size; and he claimed that there was accordingly no difference in complexity between the large and the small.

Mind, however, is a distinct principle; unlimited, autonomous, free from the admixture of any other substance. Hence Anaxagoras’ decision to make it the first cause of the ordered universe we now inhabit. Mind initiates and controls a vortex, which from small beginnings sucks in an ever-increasing expanse of the surrounding envelope. The vortex brings about an incomplete separation of the ingredients of the original mixture: hot from cold, dry from wet, bright from dark, and so on, with a flat earth compacted at the centre and surrounded by misty air and clearer ether above and below. Contemporaries were scandalized by Anaxagoras’ claim that sun, moon and stars were nothing but incandescent stones caught up in the revolving ether.

Later fifth-century physicists – notably Archelaus and Diogenes of Apollonia – developed revised versions of Anaxagoras’ system, but abandoned his dualism. His conception of mind excited but disappointed Socrates, and exercised a profound influence on Plato’s cosmology and Aristotle’s psychology. Aristotle was also fascinated by the complexities of the remarkable theory of ‘everything in everything’. Anaxagoras’ philosophy was never subsequently revived, but he was remembered as the mentor of the statesman Pericles and the poet Euripides. His reputation as a rationalist critic of religion persisted throughout antiquity.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Anaxagoras (500–428 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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