We now get to the next to the last chapter in Paul Feyerabend’s recently (and obviously posthumously published) Philosophy of Nature. (Here you will find part I; part II; part III; and part IV.) Recall that the point of this rather idiosyncratic book is to provide a broad account of the transitions among three major “forms of life” representing three ways in which humans have made sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. This chapter is about the pre-Socratics until Parmenides, while the last (very long) chapter will cover everything that has happened over the past couple of millennia, up to modern physics. (Yes, I know.)
Feyerabend begins where pretty much everyone does when talking about the pre-Socratics: Thales of Miletus, who proposed that the world is, ultimately, made of water. Though the specific notion obviously strikes us as silly, he was the first Western thinker to decidedly turn away from mythological accounts, and to propose that everything is, at bottom, made of the same stuff. It was the beginning of natural philosophy, or what we today call science.
Anaximander, who was a student of Thales, built on his teacher’s system, and came to regard the gods as symbolic representations of natural phenomena. Moreover, he thought that everything originates from the apeiron, the indefinite, which added a further level of theoretical abstraction to his thinking when compared to that of other pre-Socratics. He also introduced the concept of “orbit” in astronomy, another speculative entity.
This seems to almost bother Feyerabend: “For contemporaries [of Anaximander] a world without gods was not ‘natural.’ Matter rotating in isolation in between Heaven and Earth without the help of gods would have been a terrifying monster and certainly not ‘familiar’. … A smooth materialism was everything but ‘natural’ for Anaximander’s contemporaries — and this for good reasons, for they simply did not experience the world that way.”
Anaximander established a pattern that later became the norm for modern science, and in particular physics: “Just like Anaximander, the father figures of later science — that is, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein — paid little attention to striking discrepancies between observation and theory so long as their positions were coherent, productive, and in harmony with certain not always clearly articulated metaphysical assumptions.” Feyerabend suggested that Anaximander’s move toward the speculative also prepared the way toward the later philosophical distinction between the real world and deceptive perception, again a distinction that marks much of physical, and then later increasingly also biological, science.
Here is a passage that seems to clarify what bothers Feyerabend about the pre-Socratic move: “None of the aforementioned ideas pays much attention to the events described in poetry, which were originally regarded as historical or cosmological facts. The structure of the physical universe or of ‘reality’ has pushed poetry further and further into the realm of entertainment. A new physics would have to reintroduce poetry as a tool to explore reality.” I’m not sure, to be honest, what he may have been thinking about in the latter sentence.
Feyerabend then proceeds to examine the work of Xenophanes, whom he labels a critic of religion and epistemology. “Xenophanes represents the delightful type of thinker who is rarely admired by ‘serious thinkers.’ Aristotle called him ‘somewhat too crude’ (agroikoteroi – Metaphysics 986b27), and modern authors regularly place him alongside Parmenides as the latter’s ‘inferior likeness.'” But, Feyerabend suggests, this is a mistake, as Xenophanes was actually a sophisticated thinker. His aphorisms were often caustic, and he wrote a number of admonitions and critical comments about the works of his contemporaries. “The admonitions reveal arrogance and anticipate the later institutionalized tyranny of intellectuals.” Moreover, “a Greek of the sixth century, [Xenophanes] dared to dismiss myths as an ancient invention.”
Xenophanes criticized naive reliance on empirical evidence, in the process producing the first known theory of epistemology, one that leads to a sophisticated form of empiricism, dominated by abstract theoretical concepts, and leading to “the revolutionary admission that something we see clearly does not, after all, have to be the way we see it.”
Feyerabend summarizes Xenophanes’ move in this fashion: “Here we have for the first time a most interesting phenomenon that today belongs to the basic principles of scientific concept formation. An object is introduced [say, orbits, or the apeiron] because certain rules of the game can be applied to it and because the application yields exciting new results, and not because we encounter it in sense perception or tradition. In Xenophanes the object thus artificially constructed also superseded the empirically observable gods, thereby declaring essential parts of sense perception to be unreliable.” Of course, contra Feyerabend, the gods had actually never been “empirically observable.” Only natural phenomena had, and people had conjured up hypothetical entities called “gods” to account for them. It is baffling that Feyerabend doesn’t see that Xenopahens’ move was less radical in this sense, he simply substituted supernaturalistic with naturalistic unobservable entities.
Feyerabend is probably right, though, when he says that Xenophanes made the concept of God itself into an abstract one, removed from the everyday perception of an animated nature, so to speak. This, in turn, paved the way for the philosophy of Parmenides.
Before turning to Parmenides, though, here are a few sentences that plainly explain Feyerabend’s attitude: “[Xenophanes’] trick would have been acceptable and even commendable if it had resulted in an improvement of the situation. But why should we regard Xenophanes monster as ‘purer and more refined’ than, for example, the Thracians’ blue-eyed, red-haired gods? Does a being become more refined by losing human traits and acquiring inhuman ones? And in what way is the experience of a junk room — for this is, after all, what Xenophanes’ world resembles — superior to that of a world animated with gods? It seems that viewing Xenophanes’ admittedly quite quirky and intelligent step as progress would require the one-sided and very narrow approach of today’s science nuts.” Well, either that, or it would require appreciating that the Thracians’ blue-eyed gods do not, in fact, exist, and that quarks probably do.
And we finally arrive at the last great philosopher discussed in this chapter, Parmenides. One of his crucial contributions to Western thought was to select the most general quality possible — Being — as the basis for his theories.
“Parmenides’ arguments and traditional intuition becomes clear in the corollaries: Being cannot grow out of Being, since that would not constitute growth in the first place; neither can it grow out of nothing, since the latter does not exist. … [which leads him to conclude that] despite all the intuitive diversity and change the world is, after all, an indivisible and unchangeable whole.”
Moreover: “Coming into being and perishing were no longer qualitative changes — this had been ruled out by the principle of conservation of Being — but rather compositions and decompositions of the basic substances.” In other words, Parmenides was the inventor of the first principle of conservation.
According to Feyerabend — and this seems sensible to me — Parmenides’ philosophy led immediately to a love of paradoxes, as we find in Zeno, and then in Gorgias. But this, again, doesn’t make Feyerabend happy: “Note the tendency here that is commonplace in contemporary science: the thinker, that is, in antiquity the philosopher, deals with things that do not occur in intuition and that have paradoxical qualities. These are the things that are ‘real’ for the thinker.”
At this point, the nature of Being can be described by way of the introduction of axioms, a procedure, of course, that immediately becomes characteristics of mathematics, not just natural philosophy.
“From then on, conceptual considerations were at the center of studies on human nature and determined the essence of things surrounding us. This is how Western philosophy of nature started. There were no further major transformations, and we can restrict ourselves to an outline of the development up to the present time.”
Next (and last) installment: Western philosophy of nature from Aristotle to Bohr.