North Western Winds

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The One Substance

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Copleston and the Pre-Socratics

I’m enjoying the first volume of Copleston’s A History of Philosophy right now, and am working through the very early Greek philosophers, which can be lumped under the name Pre-Socratic. It’s very interesting to see these men (they are all men) fumbling along. We remember them, not because they got the right answers to their questions, but because they asked good questions. One of the important questions is, ‘Is the world made of one substance or many?’ The solution that wins out is that the world is in fact one substance and this leads to the question, ‘what is the one substance that the world is made of?’ Thales suggested that the one substance was water. We might snicker at that, but he had his reasons. Heraclitus thought that the one substance was fire. Again, this looks silly in the twenty first century, but Heraclitus‘ efforts were an advance on Thales.

Copleston writes that Heraclitus’ contribution is in:

the conception of unity in diversity, difference in unity. In the philosophy of Anaximander… the opposites are seen as encroaching on one another, and then as paying in turn the penalty for this act of injustice. Anaximander regards the war of opposites as something disorderly, something that ought not to be, something that mars the purity of the One. Heraclitus, however, does not adopt this view. For him the conflict of opposites, so far from being a blot on the unity of the One, is essential to the being of the One. In fact, the One exists only in the tension of opposites…

Heraclitus saw this ‘unity of tension’ in fire more than in any other object or element:

Springing up, as it were, from a multitude of objects, [fire] changes them into itself… fire depends on this ‘strife’ and ‘tension’…

Parmenides, a later philosopher, took a very different view, which Copleston outlines here:

[Parmenides’] doctrine in brief is to the effect that Being, the One, IS, and that Becoming, change, is illusion. For if anything comes to be, then it comes either out of being or non-being. If the former, then it already is – in which case it does not come to be; if the latter, then it is nothing, since out of nothing comes nothing. Becoming then, is an illusion.

Copleston rightly points out that these men use different ways of thinking to reach their conclusions. Heraclitus is more trusting of sense experience than Parmenides, who builds his theory very abstractly. That trend continues in philosophy to this day! Later philosophers – Democritus, Plato, Aristotle among them – would build on the work of these two writers, finding many ways of yoking their ideas together. The unifying thread is that they are not describing the same thing. Democritus, a materialist like Parmenides, adopted his ideas about the indestructibility of matter and used them in an atomistic theory of the changes our senses record. Plato took Parmenides’ ideas and said that they applied to ideas and idealism and not to matter. Aristotle used Parmenides and Heraclitus to come up with the idea of the actual and the potential.

It’s interesting that Parmenides is credited with zeroing in on the differences between sense experience and reason, and yet his theory cannot account for reason, as it one of total mechanistic materialism. Copleston points out that despite his materialism, Parmenides is, via Plato, a harbringer of idealism. There is also, in this account, the tension between cold logic and lived, sensory experience, and there is the necessity of being careful in how we apply the conclusions these different methods of thought lead us to. In lived experience there are always tensions and factions that need to be balanced and reconciled instead of coldly dismissed. Lived experience has to take into account Time. Parmenides’ abstract logic has powerful implications – when it is better directed. It would be the Jews who would suggest that one of Parmenides’ premises is wrong – ie. that nothing comes from nothing is universally true. And they have a point. If the One is not a material but the thought of the totalizing ideal person, then the properties of the One are not something we have any direct access to.

0 times 0 equals 0 may not apply in all times and in all spaces if, as St. Therese de Lisieux asserted on her deathbed, everything our time bound senses experience is Grace.

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Written by Curt

July 17, 2005 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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