Ionian School of Philosophy
The Ionian School includes the earliest Greek philosophers, who lived at Miletus,
an Ionian colony in Asia Minor, during the sixth century B.C., and a group of
philosophers who lived about one hundred years later and modified the doctrines
of their predecessors in several respects. It is usual to distinguish, therefore,
the Earlier Ionians and the Later Ionians.
This group includes Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, with whom
the history of philosophy in Greece begins. They are called by Aristotle the first
"physiologists", that is "students of nature". So far as we
know they confined their philosophical enquiry to the problem of the origin and
laws of the physical universe. They taught that the world originated from a primitive
substance, which was at once the matter out of which the world was made and the
force by which the world was formed. Thales said that this primitive substance
was water; Anaximander said that it was "the boundless" (to apeiron);
Anaximenes said that it was air, or atmospheric vapour (aer). They agreed in teaching
that in this primitive substance there is an inherent force, or vital power. Hence
they are said to be Hylozoists and Dynamists. Hylozoism is the doctrine of animated
matter, and Dynamism the doctrine that the original cosmothetic force was not
distinct from, but identical with, the matter out of which the universe was made.
From the scanty materials that have come down to us -- a few fragments of the
writings of the early Ionians, and allusions in Aristotle's writings -- it is
impossible to determine whether these first philosophers were Theists or Pantheists,
although one may perhaps infer from their hylozoistic cosmology that they believed
God to be at once the substance and the formative force in the universe.
This group includes Heraclitus Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, who lived
in the fifth century B.C. These philosophers, like the early Ionians, were deeply
interested in the problem of the origin and nature of the universe. But, unlike
their predecessors, they distinguished the primitive world forming force from
the primitive matter of which the world was made. In Heraclitus, however, and,
to a certain degree, in Empedocles, this mechanism -- the doctrine that force
is distinct from matter -- is expressed hesitatingly and in figurative language.
Anaxagoras is the first Greek philosopher to assert definitely and unhesitatingly
that the world was formed from a primitive substance by the operation of a force
called Intellect. For this reason he is said by Aristotle to be "distinguished
from the crowd of random talkers who preceded him" as the "first sober
man" among the Greeks. Heraclitus was so impressed with the prevalence of
change among physical things that he laid down the principle of panmetabolism:
panta rei, "all things are in a constant flux". Empedocles has the distinction
of having introduced into philosophy the doctrine of four elements, or four "roots",
as he calls them, namely, fire, air, earth, and water, out of which the centripetal
force of love and the centrifugal force of hatred made all things, and are even
now making and unmaking all things. Anaxagoras, as has been said, introduced the
doctrine of nous, or Intellect. He is blamed however, by Socrates and Plato for
having neglected to make the most obvious application of that doctrine to the
interpretation of nature as it now is. Having postulated a world-forming Mind,
he should they pointed out, have proceeded to the principle of teleology, that
the Mind presiding over natural processes does all things for the best. None of
these early philosophers devoted attention to the problems of epistemology and
ethics. Socrates was the first to conduct a systematic inquiry into the conditions
of human knowledge and the principles of human conduct.
William Turner, ed.
Transcribed by: Tomas Hancil
This text is cited July 2004 from The Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent online edition URL below.